The importance of teaching world history

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The Juneau School Board has directed district staff to delete the study of world history from the required high school curriculum. At the present time, sophomores are taught one semester of western civilization. The second semester is devoted to a survey of world history. Under the board's latest mandate, the study of western civilization would be expanded to two semesters and world history would be relegated to elective status.

The board rejected the recommendations of a curriculum committee composed of teachers and district staff that spent hundreds of hours, many of them voluntary, to develop the curriculum proposal. That committee was guided by the district's mission statement that ``we are all partners in providing each student with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to be a contributing citizen in a changing world.''

As a co-chairwoman of the high school social studies department, I have been directed to respectfully record the unanimous disagreement of my department with the board's decision. Several arguments have been articulated in support of the board's mandate. In our opinion, none of these arguments can withstand close scrutiny:

You can't teach all of world history in one semester; it's better to do a few things well than many things superficially. We can't teach everything there is to know about western civilization in two semesters, either. At the high school level, all courses are necessarily ``survey'' courses, to a greater or lesser extent. Our goal is to provide a coherent body of knowledge about important subject areas, understanding that it will never be ``comprehensive.'' We hope to provide a curriculum that will not only afford students useful knowledge, but will also expose them to (and hopefully interest them in) a broader range of subjects that they may wish to explore through further study. This is the goal of life-long learning to which the district at least nominally subscribes.

We should emphasize western civilization because ``that's who we are.'' This statement certainly isn't true for the 20 percent of our school population that is Native American or that belongs to some other minority group. It is quite possible that this generation of students will live in a United States where western Europeans are in the minority. Exposing students to world history provides essential information for an increasingly interdependent planet. Perhaps of equal importance, it provides a framework for tolerance of diversity in our own society.

We can teach ``world history'' through electives. Quite apart from the value judgment inherent in what we require students to study, as opposed to what is merely ``elective,'' the elective option may be illusory. Electives based on the history of other countries/regions may not attract enough students to be viable. Static or declining school budgets mean teaching more students with fewer resources. The district simply cannot afford to devote scarce teacher time to classrooms that are not full. If and when the student body is split into two high schools, the possibility of offering electives to a smaller student body will prove even more challenging.

Students will pick up world history as they study U.S. history and western civilization. The fact that the British Empire extended to India conveys little useful information about the world's fastest growing nuclear power. The fact that Marco Polo visited China in no way helps us to understand the trade and foreign policies of the country with the world's largest population. The histories of Africa, South America and other Third World countries become hopelessly distorted when viewed solely from the viewpoint of the imperial/colonizing powers.

The choice offered by the curriculum committee's recommendation is not between studying or ignoring western civilization. The curriculum proposal would devote one full semester exclusively to the study of western civilization. The board's mandate, however, would mean that most of the students graduating from our schools would have little or no exposure to the history of any part of the world outside the United States and Western Europe. We recognize that it is the board's role to set policy, including curriculum requirements. In this instance, however, we feel that the board may be making a serious mistake.

The social studies curriculum will return to the board for further consideration at its meeting on June 6. We urge the readers of this column who believe that exposure to world history is important for all students to contact board members and attend that meeting.

Maureen Crosby is the co-chairwoman of the Juneau-Douglas High School Social Studies Department.

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