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October 1, 2002
Vol. 60
No. 2

Growing Good Citizens with a World-Centered Curriculum

A new world history curriculum should replace comparison of different cultures with questions that lead students to understand the complex, large-scale changes that have shaped our world.

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Following the events of September 11, 2001, some educators in the United States made public statements about the need for a stronger international and multicultural curriculum. Were these commentators suggesting a causal link between the deficiency of such programs and the terrorist assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? Lynne Cheney, the Vice President's wife, interpreted their comments that way. In a speech in October 2001, she asserted that those urging a stronger multicultural curriculum were implying that the events of September 11 were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction. (The White House, 2001)
My reading of educators' comments suggests a different interpretation. I believe that multicultural education advocates were pointing out that the terrorist attacks and their aftermath highlighted the inability of many high school and college students to understand these events in broader geographic, historical, and political contexts. These educators were suggesting that schools must do more to give students the crucial skills and knowledge they need to make sense of international developments amid the daily blizzards of headlines, TV news reports, talk show opinions, and government statements.
Patriotic citizenship in a democratic state demands a social studies curriculum that gives equal weight to national history and international studies, especially world history. How else will young citizens learn to appreciate democratic institutions, to participate actively in civil society, and to challenge their political leaders when official policies—including foreign policies—seem misguided?

Multiculturalism and Citizenship

Most of us probably shudder at the idea of global citizenship if that notion comes anywhere near meaning world government. We imagine the mother of bureaucracies sending out directives from Geneva, personal freedoms curtailed, and obligations to fill out 500-page income tax forms.
Fortunately, world government is not on the horizon. Moreover, few educators who advocate global citizenship wish to abdicate national sovereignty or eliminate the nation-state. Rather, they use the term to describe a citizenry that knows and cares about contemporary affairs in the whole world, not just in its own nation.
These educators envision high school and college graduates who can think, speak, and write about world problems and trends with confidence. They argue that if students are to make sense of international affairs, they must have the conceptual tools that a respectable education in world history, geography, economics, and politics provides. Global citizenship, if it means having these conceptual tools, is perfectly compatible with patriotic national citizenship.
The connection between social studies and the requirements of citizenship has long been a subject of public controversy. In the mid-1990s, a “history war” broke out in the media following publication of the National Standards for History, a project funded by federal agencies and realized by a collaborative of hundreds of teachers and scholars (National Center for History in the Schools, 1996). At the heart of that debate was the issue of how to educate citizens who will value democratic rights, freedoms, and obligations. The controversy, although sometimes rancorous, produced much constructive reflection in schools and colleges. One theme in the debate, and a continuing topic of controversy today, is multiculturalism as an approach to civic education (Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 2000).
When the multiculturalist approach first emerged in the 1970s, its straightforward ideal was to promote a social studies curriculum that embraced the experiences of all citizens, not just certain ethnoracial categories, and world studies that encompassed human beings around the planet, not just peoples of European descent. In the past 20 years, however, multiculturalism has acquired multiple meanings, some of them quite blurry, and the word has become politically and emotionally charged.

Critics of Multiculturalism

The harshest foes of multiculturalism tend to associate the movement indiscriminately with Marxism, pacifism, radical feminism, greenism, extreme cultural relativism, postmodernism, “blame the Westism,” and just about every other ideological position that might be labeled liberal-left. They perceive multiculturalism in the world history curriculum as a project to represent all cultures in the world as equal, thus undermining young enthusiasm for the distinctive Western heritage of liberty. Many critics believe that the curriculum should instead represent Western civilization as a distinct cultural entity that possesses better institutions and values than other cultural entities. Samuel Huntington writes, for example, that “the essential continuing core of Western civilization” includesits Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and rule of law, which made it possible for the West to invent modernity, expand throughout the world, and become the envy of other societies. (Huntington, 1998, p. 311)
Opponents of multiculturalism tend to reify the West as an ontological entity that manifests timeless, inherent values, and then compare it to foreign cultures on whom nature has imposed different values—authoritarianism, theocracy, communalism, corruption, social repression of women, and subjecthood rather than citizenship. They do not see negative characteristics as policies or practices of power groups, which many citizens of the country in question might contest, but rather as the consequence of a culturally genetic essence (Keegan, 2001).

Multiculturalist Fallacies

Much of the criticism of multicultural education is inconsistent and unconvincing. It's also true, however, that many multiculturalists have too carelessly defined an international curriculum as the study of cultures. This definition has inhibited progress toward the kind of world studies that we will need in the coming century.
Multiculturalism arose in the 1970s partly in response to educators' dissatisfaction with the traditional Western-heritage model of history, which largely equated the history of Europe with the history of the world. Just as all ethnic groups in the United States deserved inclusion in the curriculum, the early multiculturalists argued, so did non-Western civilizations, because they too had inspiring histories and admirable cultural traditions.
This idea was a good starting point for broadening and internationalizing the curriculum. But many multiculturalist leaders have been so intent on demonstrating the respectability of Asian, African, and pre-1500 American civilizations and on giving them their rightful place in the school day that they have assumed the global curriculum to be mostly descriptive investigations of “other cultures” rather than the study of social processes and historical changes in the world. Too frequently, they have accepted the notion that “cultures” exist as internally stable, homogeneous mechanisms. One multiculturalist, for example, has argued that “every culture has its own internal coherence, integrity, and logic” and that “no one culture is inherently better or worse than another” (Adler, cited in Janzen, 1995, pp. 136–137).
The idea of comparing cultures with one another as entities makes about as much sense as proposing that Nebraska is better than Wisconsin or that the Grand Mosque in Mecca is worse than Westminster Abbey in London. When multicultural educators play this essentialist culture game with champions of a curriculum that teaches mainly Western civilization, they seldom hold a strong hand. Often, they end up defensively romanticizing the “great empires” of Africa, Asia, or the Americas, as though the ruling elites of these states lived in paradisiacal harmony with their subjects.

A World-Centered History Curriculum

The educational defect of the culture-centered approach to history and social studies is that it tends to shoehorn classroom inquiry into predetermined, conventionally conceived social and cultural spaces: China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the West. These artificial divisions hobble the thinking of teachers and students.
Rather than trying to juxtapose and compare various cultures, curriculum developers should attempt to frame good, analytical questions that help students understand how the world came to be the way it is. We need a curriculum for our border-crossing, migration-prone, multiple-identity-taking planet, not one that relies on old-fashioned, essentialist, historically lifeless categories that only deter students from tackling the marvelous complexities of current affairs and the human past.
When teachers renounce the premise that world history is mainly the study of “other cultures” and instead approach it as the exploration of large-scale changes in the world, they free themselves and their students to probe the meaning of events more comprehensively, think about human interrelations in fresh ways, introduce information that reveals new patterns, and open fresh lines of comparative or cross-cultural analysis. Students explore the whole wide world, on the lookout for explanations of change, rather than simply describing what Culture A was like long ago or making lists of Culture B's glorious achievements. They no longer devote their time futilely to researching the good or bad things that “other cultures” have done; instead, they strive to understand why, in specific historical conditions and circumstances, human beings behaved in the ways they did.
How might a world-based curriculum approach Muslim history and society? Teachers would not represent it as an ossified culture that was glorious long ago, but then declined. They would not have their students dress up in white sheets and go on pretend pilgrimages to Mecca. Instead, they would undertake lessons and activities that situate the history of Muslim peoples in the history of the world; that explore changing political, economic, and cultural developments over time; and that recognize Muslim groups and individuals as historical actors, not puppets acting out a culturally determined destiny.
For example, school textbooks have traditionally introduced Islam as the story of Muhammad, early religious expansion, and the golden age of Baghdad, a narrative that ends at about 1000 a.d. These books have then associated the subsequent period, 1000–1500 a.d., almost exclusively with the growth of European towns, trade, and civilization, as if Islamic culture were by that time fixed and Muslim history largely static. Between 1000 and 1500, however, Muslim merchants, missionaries, scholars, armies, and migrants moved across Eurasia and Africa. These groups established new states, cities, farming societies, learning centers, and commercial networks, a process that led to a great increase in the number of Muslims in the world. By about 1400, Muslim societies nearly spanned Afro-Eurasia, and Muslims acted as the principal mediators in long-distance exchanges of goods, ideas, and technical innovations. This dynamic and fascinating story, one that history students surely should investigate, cannot be crammed into a “Middle East culture” category nor treated as a sub-theme in the narrative of medieval Europe. It's a hemispheric story that requires a hemispheric frame.
Certainly, citizenship education requires that schools encourage students to read about and discuss the September 11 attacks. I, however, would much rather see students talk about these things in the framework of a broad, solid world history education than grapple fruitlessly to understand terrorists as products of cultures “not like ours.”
Recently, the U.S. Congress allotted tens of millions of dollars for programs to train educators to teach United States history more effectively. I wish they would also budget at least a few million for development of a world history curriculum that draws on the new scholarly research in the field and that helps students understand political, economic, cultural, and environmental changes in the world. I doubt that Congress will do this, however, unless the education community commits itself to a world history curriculum that is useful to young citizens, whose lives, whether they like it or not, will be shaped by world-scale transformations.

Huntington, S. P. (1998). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Touchstone Books.

Janzen, R. (1995, May/June). The social studies conceptual dilemma: Six contemporary approaches. Social Studies, 136–137.

Keegan, J. (2001, October 14). The West will prevail. San Diego Union-Tribune, Insight Section.

Nash, G. B., Crabtree, C., & Dunn, R. E. (2000). History on trial: Culture wars and the teaching of the past. New York: Vintage Books.

National Center for History in the Schools. (1996). National standards for history (Basic edition). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

The White House. (2001). Remarks of Lynne V. Cheney, Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, teaching our children about America. [Online]. Available: www.whitehouse.gov/mrscheney/news/20011005.html

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