Building a Better History Course … Part One: Defining the Problem

What should a world history course teach? This is the question I’ve been grappling with for much of this year, as I think about revising my world history course. There are two ways of answering this question. One is to think very generally about what history teaches, in which case the answer is something like: “History teaches us about how our world came to be the way it is.” That is a concise way to say that because everything has a past, because every field of thought, every social trend, every structure of our lives, and every belief or practice has a history, we can best understand our world by investigating the history of its politics, cultures, religions, economics, international relations, genders, militaries, ecologies, classes, technologies, ethnicities, bureaucracies, and so on. In the same way, each of us—every student and every professor—has a past too, a story that extends well back into the time before our births. And so for all of us, the study of history reveals our own identities—national, cultural, family, religious, and personal identities.
The practical problem that history teachers face, as Colorado professor Jonathan Rees has pointed out here and here, is that we are faced with an ever-expanding amount of content—simply put, more and more things happen in the world (and at a faster and faster rate), while teachers of history have a fixed amount of time (the history course) in which to teach about that expanding past. This is particularly problematic if you teach modern history, with its open-ended conclusion.

I would add two other factors that have even more dramatically “expanded” modern history. First, the information explosion of the twentieth century has created much, much more data for historians to “process” (to use sterile technospeak), in order to make meaning of the past. To offer just one example, over the past few years, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has added to its archive about 150 million digital images of documentation on 17.5 million victims of Nazism. This collection, the International Tracing Service, augments the 42 million pages of records already stored in the USHMM archive. Since the arrival of the typewriter, duplication machines, audio and video recording devices, and computing technology, the amount of data historians have had to cope with has multiplied exponentially. And all of that historical data matters, unlike in the sciences, where new findings soon render older information obsolete.

Second, there has been a radical increase in the number of the spheres of life historians study. We now consider everything from gender to environment to sport to architecture and design to childhood to science and technology to medicine and public health to sexual identity to memory and memorialization to media studies to … well, the list could go on for quite some time. The days of politics, diplomacy, and a little social and economic history are long gone.

This expansion of the past poses a great problem and also a great opportunity for teachers of history. The problem is that when we design and build courses in modern world history, Canadian history, or even period surveys like nineteenth-century Europe, we have many hard decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

So what are the most important people, ideas, or events to cover in a first-year course on world history since 1500?
Let’s start with some traditional topics: First World War, Second World War, French Revolution, Protestant Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Age of Exploration, Cold War, Congress System of diplomacy,religious and dynastic wars of the 1600 and 1700s, absolutism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism and communism, and imperialism. These are fifteen big topics, almost all of which are largely political in nature.

But what if we move beyond politics? How about book printing and the impact of literacy, the Columbian Exchange (i.e. spread of plants, animals, products, disease through exploration), mercantilism, the rise of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, Keynesian economics, inflation and economic depression in the 1930s, the social impact of mass production, consumerism, slavery, migration, electricity, popular music, film, transportation and its social impact, the computer, the expansion of government, bureaucracy, public health, the idea of race, post-colonialism, the rise of sports, the Internet, fashion, marriage, theology, Christian missions, Judaism and Islam, China, Russia, Africa, Latin America, food, newspapers, women, childhood, aging, tourism and leisure, urban planning, architecture, terrorism, propaganda, agriculture? Here are over forty more topics, many of which have far more relevance to contemporary life than the political history that has so commonly shaped our history courses over the past fifty or more years.

And we haven’t even broached the subject of people yet. Whose stories should we tell? Martin Luther, Catherine the Great, Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Osama bin Ladin, Otto von Bismarck, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Florence Nightingale, Rene Descartes, Catherine de Medici, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Pele, Kwame Nkrumah, etc. (why are so many of these names Western?!).

All of this content is supposed to fit within about twenty-five class sessions of seventy-five minutes each, and that’s not including time spent introducing the course, taking a midterm exam, or teaching any of the skills of history—asking questions, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, writing, or editing. So where does that leave us?

If the problem of the expanding past is the impossibility of coverage—the idea that we can construct a single, coherent narrative about the important people, ideas, and events of the past—then the opportunity is that we get to rethink the way we teach history. And this is why it’s time to abandon the traditional textbook, because the textbook (1000+ pages) is designed and organized around coverage, and using the textbook means subjecting both students and professor to a relentless drive to cover ground … five hundred years of China in today’s class, and one thousand years of Africa next day, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars the class after that. And all of this focus on delivering content takes place in a world of notebook, tablet, and smartphone computers, ubiquitous wireless Internet access, and a Wikipedia of content containing over four million encyclopedia articles.

Finding content is not the issue. Making meaning of content is the issue. That means the history course has to revolve around themes and teachers of history have to lead their students into asking and answering really good “how,” “why,” and “so what” questions that facilitate a conversation between the past and the present, teaching students to think historically, and making history relevant in today’s world.

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