School board: History to focus on Western Nations

Plan for more emphasis on world cultures draws fire

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

The Juneau School Board has directed a social studies curriculum committee to make Western civilization the focus of a high school world history course.

The issue raised questions of whose history the schools are teaching, and whether schools require enough history of students.

Teaching Western civilization doesn't deny the rest of the world exists, said school board member Alan Schorr. ``But we are simply looking at our historical roots.''

The curriculum proposed that middle schools focus on ancient civilizations and Europe through the Reformation. The high school world history course would extensively review that and focus on the rest of Western history for half the school year. The other half would be spent on China, Japan, Africa, India and the Middle East.

But many school board members at Tuesday's meeting didn't agree.

``I look at this and I think this is way more than I could imagine anyone could teach in one year,'' said Jeff Bush.

The curriculum focuses more on non-Western cultures than he would choose, Bush said. ``It's very difficult to see that's critical for a high school education.''

The board voted to have a full-year course on Western civilization with other regions integrated where appropriate, and to have an elective half-year course on other civilizations.

For example, the teacher could cover a piece of the African tribal period when doing European colonialism, Schorr said.

Assistant Superintendent Drew Alexander called the change a quantum leap backward toward a more ethnocentric view of the world. For high school students not to study areas like Africa and India ``is a travesty,'' he said.

Chuck Cohen, the only board member who dissented, said he didn't want to go back to teaching Western civilization, which focuses on Europe, and forget that Africa and Asia exist.

The school district now requires high school students to take one school year of Western civilization - which has been taught as world history for years - plus one year of American history, a half-year of government and a half-year social studies elective course.

School board members, like the school district's curriculum committee of teachers and administrators, found themselves bumping up against too much history in too little class time. Schorr suggested the board should review high school graduation requirements at some point.

Schorr also was frustrated that the previous curriculum's Western civilization requirement, approved more than 10 years ago, has morphed into world history.

``Since the current curriculum is not being taught, if we adopt this what will be taught?'' he asked.

Some board members weren't happy with the way American history would be broken up among grade levels, either, but they didn't offer a formal directive.

The proposed curriculum would focus on indigenous peoples through the American Revolution in elementary grades, and then review that and focus on 1801 through Reconstruction in middle school. It would then review all of that and focus on 1865 through the present in the required 11th-grade course.

Teachers said the reviews would be extensive, taking up to half the school year, but some board members weren't satisfied.

When most students leave Juneau-Douglas High School, ``they're leaving their education,'' Schorr said. ``It would be nice if they had some sense of what happened in this nation from Day 1 to mid-century.''

Committee member Les Morse said high school students would get full coverage of the full scope of American history, but it would be introduced in elementary grades.

``We're constantly saying students in elementary schools can be more challenged, and this (curriculum) does that,'' said board member Carolyn Spalding.

High school students would remember what they learned in middle school, she said, and what they need in high school are analytical skills.

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