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The Teaching of World History Around the Globe

Two major accounts of world history courses reveal common problems and unique components of 20th and 21st century high school history curricula around the globe. The books are The Patchwork of World History in Texas High Schools (2022), by Stephen Jackson, a historian of imperialism and education, and World History Teaching in Asia (2019), edited by world historian Shingo Minamizuka of Japan.

Jackson selected Texas to demonstrate a “patchwork of competing groups and ideas,” including progressive education, multiculturalism, conservatism, and professional world history. From 1920 to today, this patchwork reveals shifts in the framework of course objectives, along with specific historical content of courses in ancient and modern history. Jackson emphasizes the themes of Europe and European empires, the rise of nations, and the role of “presentism” or contemporary concerns.

Shingo Minamizuka, founding president of the Asian Association of World Historians, held conferences of the teacher-scholar chapter authors in the Philippines and Japan. His resulting book presents curricula in clear tables that enable comparison over time and among countries. There are chapters on China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and India. (Together, these countries make up 40 percent of today’s global population.)

In comparing the two books, I found a long-term pattern shared by Asia and Texas: world history courses and textbooks were led by social studies educators who were employed by government agencies. In Texas, it was the state department of education (or education agency) that informed curricula frameworks with outlooks now known as Eurocentric, focused on European nations and empires as the key influences in global change. Over time in both Asia and Texas, courses were also influenced by changing global patterns, business groups, political parties, and professional historians.

Key Periods in the Evolution of World History Curricula

My review of both books also revealed five succeeding periods in the development of world history curricula.

1920–1945: the high point of colonialism. Imperial colonial rule dominated almost half of the world in the early 20th century. In Patchwork, Jackson begins with Texas from 1920 to 1945, showing the creation of history courses intended to convey a sense of global change and American leadership, though acknowledging concern for human misfortune in the era of the Depression. Minamizuka’s book begins in 1945 but reminds readers that Asia was previously dominated by the imperial powers of Britain, France, Netherlands, the U.S., Japan, and China. They emphasized empire in their few schools (along with national history in Japan and China).

1945–1965: decolonization. The devastation of World War II shifted the world order. As national governments took control of education from empires, world history courses were created in expanding high schools. Japan underwent U.S. occupation, and China experienced a revolution. The U.S., while it had no such regime change, also had a postwar expansion in world history courses.

Content of the courses in Asia, as shown by Minamizuka, began with European history and European empires (as before the war), yet emphasized decolonization and new nations. For Texas, Jackson conveys how Eurocentric postwar education highlighted decolonization but gave more attention to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War confrontation. Both volumes show the expanding coverage of postwar world histories to more countries around the world.

1965–1980: multiculturalism. An expanding trend of multiculturalism took hold from the 1960s, challenging discriminatory labeling of peoples and seeking to remove claims of white superiority. Here are two notable instances of multiculturalism: (1) The discourse in Canada among English, French, and indigenous populations helped to enshrine multiculturalism in law by 1988. (2) UNESCO recognized the first of many World Heritage Sites in 1978. New editions of world history texts acknowledged such shifts, mentioning new nations and their ancestry. These texts also removed some language referring to colonial peoples as inferior or unchanging, though they often remained centered on Europe.

1980–2000: diverging changes under globalization. This period’s changes in world history were far more complex and divergent. Historical knowledge was expanding, especially because of research in Area Studies programs, but the political priorities in different nations applied this new knowledge in contrasting ways. In Texas, the Reagan years brought educational as well as political conservatism. Subsequently, the State Board of Education shaped a curriculum that highlighted patriotism and capitalism.

On the other side of the world, the Philippines’ move to conservatism led to the deregulation of textbook publication. In Indonesia, world history courses took the unique form of beginning with national history and moving on to document its interaction with world history. After unification in 1975, Vietnam’s world history curriculum underwent a major revision. And in a different transformation, South Korea’s education system began to reflect the democratization of the nation in the 1980s.

1995–2020: adding professional world history. During this period, world history curriculum continued its slow evolution in multiculturalism. In addition, professional historians and educators combined to launch some important initiatives, of which I describe four.

Texas, along with South Korea and China, shows the rise of an open debate on “Eurocentrism.” In the 1990s, educators and curricula began to challenge the continuing overemphasis of Europe as the center of world-historical advance. For instance, world historians complained that textbooks treated European empire as a “wake-up call” that spread progress to the world, but neglected the negative effects of wars of conquest, the absence of civil rights of colonized populations, and local innovations in many regions. Jackson not only traces the debates of the 1990s, but also the Eurocentrism in textbook histories of the Ottoman Empire and modern Japan. He shows that, while pejorative language gradually disappeared, covert Eurocentrism continued after 2000, asserting that Ottoman and Japanese culture were responsible for perceived national weaknesses.

The most outstanding single world history course was created and taught in Shanghai from 2000 to 2006. Educators gained permission to set aside the Chinese national curriculum and created a deeply global course that linked humanity and civilization to explore the human past and present. Project activist Yang Biao, in his description of the experience, showed its coherence and advances. Yet the course was terminated after a critical review by university historians. It remains an extraordinary experiment.

Also at the start of the new century, the Advanced Placement World History course, coordinated by the nonprofit College Board, arose in the United States. Designed by professional world historians, the course relied on a high-stakes test at the end. It limited the proportion of European content and began with a unit on ancient history. (In 2019 the course was changed and restricted to the world since 1200.) In an important result, the course demonstrated that students of age 15, when in well-taught courses, have the skills to perform at a top level. But only a small portion of Texas students took the AP course, so Jackson argues that it did more to reinforce elitism than equality in education.

Minamizuka concludes his book with an appendix comparing the global crisis of the Opium War (1840–42), as portrayed in Asian texts on world history. This fascinating conclusion shows the continuing centrality of national perspectives in world history. The war confirmed British military and imperial supremacy and launched an era of aggressive imperial intervention in Asia and around the world. The appendix shows that texts in China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines interpreted the war from quite different perspectives, while other national texts ignored the war.

The Impact of World History Courses

Teachers and curriculum writers of world history would do well to read and reflect on Jackson’s The Patchwork of World History in Texas High Schools and Minamizuka’s World History Teaching in Asia. Overall, the two books show that world history has experienced persistent educational tensions, so that state officials, curriculum writers, teachers, and students have encountered difficulties at many levels. Unfortunately, it was not possible for Jackson or Minamizuka to focus on the teachers of high school world history, because teachers were little documented in the sources for these books. However, teachers’ stories will be told in further work.

Overall, world history courses have also brought some benefits. As early as the 1920s, they have taken steps toward identifying principal global changes and interactions—and eventually enabled millions of high school students to explore global identities. These courses convey a complex mix of knowledge about the past; they propose social values for participating in affairs of global society; and they allow debate among differing perspectives. Inevitably, misunderstanding, disagreement, incompleteness, and error are also part of world history. But it seems worthwhile to carry on the debate, the expansion of knowledge, and the challenge of presenting it appropriately.

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