There's been an excellent discussion in the comments below this post. As part of the larger discussion about changing trends in teaching history (especially in world history), aj wrote:
I'm all for world/global/transnational/comparative history as a
scholarly/research endeavor, or as an advanced course offering, but I
just don't see how you can expect students to get all of that down in
an introductory survey course. How well can you really teach Mali's
"influence on the patterns of economics and politics that shape global
trends" to students who don't yet understand that patterns of economics
and politics shape global trends?
One of the laudable goals of World History was to undo the damage caused by an earlier generation's singular focus on European Civilization. The problem is, of course, that today's students are largely ignorant of that Eurocentrism. I had a kid in my class not long ago who didn't know who Columbus was, but who had heard of Patrice Lumumba! An admittedly extreme example, one I found difficult to believe, but from what I can tell from my students, many local secondary schools in multicultural Los Angeles are bending over backwards to incorporate more and more "world cultures" into their history curriculum. But in doing so, the result seems to be that far too many students are utterly overwhelmed by information. More importantly, students seem to be unable --or unwilling -- to say that some cultures have been more influential than others in shaping our modern world.
At its best, progressive teaching explores previously marginalized and ignored narratives; it is careful not to ignore the stories of the oppressed and the exploited. At its worst, progressive teaching focuses on the marginalized to the absolute exclusion of everything else. The real problem, of course, lies in the refusal to make distinctions. Out of a worthy desire to make everyone feel valued, it is increasingly difficult to teach that some individuals and cultures in history have made more signifcant contributions than others. The idea that some subjects are more worthy of study than others seems to trouble too many of my progressive colleagues, and thus they either overwhelm their students with minutiae or they focus solely on those whom they regard as the most ignored and mistreated.
My leftist brother, Pip, writes:
In academic terms, I run the risk of being labeled a conservative. That
is, I teach Renaissance literature, and I hold that there is such a
thing as literary value. I'm prepared to defend the proposition that
Elizabethan tragedy is *better* than science fiction.
And I am equally prepared to defend the proposition that since English common law had a greater impact upon our contemporary society than legal codes in medieval Mali, they ought to spend more time on the former. Good historians prioritize and rank; good historians draw distinctions, and then engage in vigorous debates with their colleagues about those distinctions.
I would like to see Western Civ continue to be the core history sequence at the community college level. It is possible to teach Western Civ with a balanced perspective that counters the excessses of traditional Eurocentrism. It is important that history departments offer a substantial number of other courses that focus on all major geographical areas of the world, and in those courses, students can be exposed to the unique contributions of African, East Asian, and Latin American cultures. But the desire to "do it all" at once, without much willingness to say that some things are more important than others -- that, I think, has been a disaster for our profession.