Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 297-299
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What should students know about world history, and what are the most effective ways for them to learn it? These are the basic questions addressed by National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present. The document is the work of the National History Standards Project, created in 1992 through joint funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. The result of more than two years of intensive effort on the part of hundreds of gifted classroom teachers, academic historians, and school officials across the country, it is a splendid achievement and should be widely disseminated.
A guide of this kind has long been needed. Although more than three-quarters (78 percent) of high school students in the United States take some sort of course in world history, there is no national consensus on how such a course should be shaped, conceptually and chronologically, or how content might be integrated with thinking skills to promote genuine understanding. National Standards provides a sensible scheme of periodization for all of world history, from the beginnings to the present; specifies a set of understandings that students should strive to attain for each period; and suggests a variety of stimulating academic exercises in which students at grade levels five and six, seven and eight, and nine through twelve may engage to achieve such understandings.
The organizational framework divides all of world history into [End Page 297] eight broad chronological eras. The title for each era encapsulates one or more overarching themes, giving coherence to the period and fostering a genuinely global view. Paradoxically, the one era that does not have such a title is Era 8, dealing with our own chaotic century. Instead, the title used is "The Twentieth Century," which imparts no sense of its character. While each of the other eras is introduced by a thoughtful discussion setting developments in global context, the discussion for Era 8 argues that "the multifarious trends of the past century...are for the most part still working themselves out." This is true enough, but an insufficient reason to avoid a broad conceptualization. For example, the twentieth century has increasingly become an Age of Interdependence, at once a major "path to the present" and a road to the future. Replacing the finiteness of "The Twentieth Century" with the notion of evolving interdependence would have helped maintain the sense of historical continuity.
In looking at world history through a global lens, National Standards brings into focus those other civilizations that at particular times of history have been more prominent than Western civilization. A good example is Era 5, which covers the period 1000-1500 C.E. In many world history courses this period is taught as the Middle Ages and Renaissance, terms that impose an ill-fitting Eurocentric format on the world outside Europe. National Standards breaks from this mold with the title "Intensified Hemispheric Interactions," which more accurately describes the worldwide pattern of developments within this half-millennium. The focus is on five "big stories" that "give shape to the entire era": the maturing of an interregional system of communication, trade, and cultural exchange across the Eastern Hemisphere; the remarkable growth of China and Europe; the continuing spread of Islam into new areas of Eurasia and Africa; the Mongol creation of the world's largest land empire; and the building of unprecedented empires in the Americas by the Aztecs and Incas.
Adopting this global perspective does not diminish the significance of Western civilization, but it does place it in broader context. Indeed, when Western civilization begins to attain world prominence in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, National Standards focuses more heavily on the West. Altogether, some 40 percent of National Standards emphasizes European and...