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A Criticism of the Advanced Placement Curriculum in World History

by William McGaughey      

I learned my world history by independent study, nurtured by Toynbee, Spengler, H.G. Wells, and others. To my way of thinking, the subject is inherently interesting. This personal experience colors my view as to how world history should be taught in schools. It should be presented in an interesting way. Students should be led to want to delve into historical topics - to learn more about important persons, to see patterns in comparative civilizations, to understand how their own society emerged. They should have a general picture of events in the world. World history should be looking at the world along a time dimension, expressed in meaningful stories. World history is, in a sense, a creation story, telling how the world of human society came to be.

If college and high-school students take away an abiding interest in history and remember the general features of past experience, that is enough for me. Give students the space to learn in their own way. Trust teachers to find the interesting parts of humanity's past experience to pass along to the young.

That is not quite what it's about today. The emphasis in education is upon testing, and, as teachers and students know, testing drives the curriculum. For reasons good or bad, the public does not trust the school system. Stories are rife of students who have graduated from high school and know little of what they have supposedly studied. And education is becoming so expensive!

Therefore, to assert control, we must test. We must insist that students pass rigorous standardized tests and that schools be closely monitored for their students' test scores. Bad teaching, as demonstrated by poor test results, will incur funding cuts.

Viewed from policymakers' stratospheric perspective, this approach makes sense. Standardized testing does bring control back into the system. However, from what I have learned at academic conferences and elsewhere, it seems that the imperative to test has created a mechanism which turns teachers and students alike into captives to a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is at odds with the possibility of spontaneous, joyful learning.

Competitive pressures turn students into super-athletes able to pass tests. More and more learning is crammed into the courses to increase high test scores. And what is crammed into the courses? It is a set of topics chosen by a committee of teachers who bring their own ideological and political biases to the table. Committee members fight to include what they personally think is important, so that the course as a whole lacks coherence. It becomes an intellectual obstacle course for students to show their skill in mastering the required content.

Such an approach would tend to freeze course content to paradigms prevailing when the curriculum committee made its determination. The test-focused curriculum settles the question of how a subject should be taught. Even if the committee consists entirely of far-sighted geniuses, such a system cannot help but stifle creativity in its field.

I will try to relate this criticism to the Advanced Placement courses developed for world history. A committee of eight college and high-school teachers of world history, appointed by the College Board and chaired by Peter N. Stearns of Carnegie Mellon University, developed guidelines for these courses in 1999-2000. (Professor Stearns published his own world-history textbook a year later, a glitzy work presumably conforming to the committee's guidelines.) The Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, produced tests based upon its recommended curriculum.

The significance of Advanced Placement testing is that 2,900 colleges and universities worldwide grant college credit to high-school students who pass these tests. Students ambitious to advance quickly through the educational process and minimize college expense therefore enroll in the Advanced Placement high-school courses. In other words, the cream of the crop of thousands of high-school students is steered into a framework of course study determined by a committee of eight teachers.

What did the 1999-2000 Development Committee for Advanced Placement in World History decide? Most glaringly, it decided that the study of world history proper began at the year 1000 A.D. The period of history prior to 1000 A.D. the committee labeled "foundations", implying that it was not part of world history's visible structure.

This committee recommended that only 14% of the time allowed for the AP world-history course be devoted to studying events from this period. It recommended that 22% of the course be devoted to studying events that took place in the world between 1000 A.D. and 1450 A.D.; that 22% of the course be devoted to events between 1450 A.D. and 1750 A.D.; that 20% of the course be devoted to events between 1750 A.D. and 1914 A.D.; and that 22% of the course be devoted to events between 1914 A.D. and the present. Test questions would follow the recommended course work and be scored accordingly.

To anyone who thinks the early city-states of Egypt and Mesopotamia are historically important, or that the personal stories of Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed ought to be told in world history, the relegation of pre-1000 A.D events to pre-history or "foundations" is plainly misguided. Events in that period also include the conquests of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, the unification of imperial China, the experience of the magnificent T'ang dynasty of China and Gupta empire of India, the First Persian empire, the Abbasid Islamic empire, and the Hun or Viking invasions. The story of civilization gains many of its formative experiences during that time. World religion, in particular, cannot be properly understood if the period of its founders is slighted.

The reason for starting world history proper at the year 1000 A.D. is stated in a booklet put out by the College Board: "The period around 1000 is generally recognized in the field as a chronological break point centering on the intensification of international contacts among Asia, Europe, Saharan, and sub-Saharan Africa. This era is truly global in its focus."

This passage suggests that the Advanced Placement committee equates world history with global history - in other words, with the emergence and development of a global community. "International contacts" are crucial to this history. And, indeed, many world historians at this time follow the ideological lead of William McNeill, the eminent historian from the University of Chicago who believed that contacts between different civilizations were the primary force in world history. This type of historian emphasizes trade and migration, currency flows, voyages of discovery, religious missionary work, etc. He or she virtually camps out along the Silk Road.

We see that academic ideologies have influenced the selection of materials for the Advanced Placement world history course. Political preferences also play a role. The politics of the post-Civil Rights era have influenced contemporary academic curricula. Thus, the course guidelines for Advanced Placement in world history state that "coverage of European history does not exceed 30% of the total course."

For the period between 1000 A.D. and 1450 A.D. the history of non-Islamic Africa, specifically Great Zimbabwe, is given its own section, presumably of comparable length to another section devoted to Chinese dynasty or to the Islamic world. Great Zimbabwe is known from the ruins of a single stone fortress in the land which today bears its name. Its empire was extended for a brief time over several hundred miles of territory - hardly equal in historical importance to the Islamic or Chinese empires during the same period.

Along with the political histories of all major empires in the period between 1450 A.D. and 1750 A.D., the world-history curriculum prescribes that today's high-school students study "gender and empire (gender systems at the elite level, alliances, women and households in politics)" and "slave systems and slave trade". For the period between 1750 A.D. and 1914 A.D., "changes in social and gender structure" merit a section of study. This topic is again recommended for study of post-1914 world history. Issues of gender and power were and are, of course, of paramount interest to many who hold tenured positions in academic institutions today.


The Advanced Placement curriculum in world history is organized according to "six overarching themes" and "four habits of mind" which the committee felt high-school students ought to develop. The themes are as follows:

"(1) Impact of interaction among major societies (trade, systems of international exchange, war, and diplomacy).

(2) The relationship of change and continuity across the world history periods covered in this course.

(3) Impact of technology and demography on people and the environment (population growth and decline, disease, manufacturing, migrations, agriculture, weaponry).

(4) Systems of social structure and gender structure (comparing major features within and among societies and assessing change).

(5) Cultural and intellectual developments and interactions among and within societies.

(6) Changes in functions and structures of states and in attitudes toward states and political identities (political culture), including the emergence of the nation-state (types of political organization)."

Theme #1 I recognize as a concession to the William McNeill school of world history which holds that interactions between societies are historically more important than organic changes within societies. Theme #4 I recognize as a concession to historians (not all female) who want to make women's history a larger part of world history.

Theme #2 is so abstract that it is incomprehensible. Is the committee talking about periods of time when societies change slowly as opposed to periods when societies change rapidly? Or is this a request for narrations about how societies have changed or stayed the same? In that case, why not simply ask for a straight narration of the society's history?

Theme #3 I recognize as a call for a history of the physical aspect of human societies: population and material technology.

Theme #5 calls for a history of the societies' culture including its science and religion.

Theme #6 calls for a political history, which is history in a traditional sense.

And so we have a rather balkanized set of interests. Thrown together, these will become a world-history course upon which students will be tested.

To my point of view, students learn best through stories which describe how or why something happened. The stories must be fairly specific. They should have recognizable human characters. Under those conditions, high-school students will want to get into the stories more deeply. They will learn history.

The Advanced Placement curriculum committee has prescribed another kind of course. First, this course is incoherent. World history is divided into periods whose logic has not been explained (at least, not in the booklet of intended explanations put out by the College Board.) The six "themes" smack of separate committee members who wanted to make sure that their own pet idea was included. Granting that the themes describe legitimate aspects of historical experience, I think that world history should have a sharper focus to maintain its coherence.

A second problem is abstraction. The same bureaucratic mentality which calls libraries "information centers" or personnel offices "human resources departments" has been at work here in referring to the women's studies component of the course as "systems of social structure and gender structure" or to "the relationship of change and continuity across the world history periods" which I find to be quite mystifying.

A reason that world history is boring to students is that it fails to give a clear sense of where historical events are headed. The periodocity is revealing. To divide world history into ancient, medieval, and modern says nothing unless one knows where and why the turning points are placed. Western-oriented world histories have made the year 476 A.D. the dividing line between ancient and medieval history. Why? Because that is the year when the last Roman emperor in the West was deposed. This tells us that political history is here being used to delineate historical epochs. The chronology of years B.C. or A.D. is based on religion. Both these approaches are coherent if not limited in perspective.

In contrast, contemporary textbooks in world history characterizes historical periods in terms of abstractions which are unclear. Prentice Hall's World Civilizations (third edition), edited by Peter Sterns, Stuart Schwartz, and Adam Gilbert, proposes the following breakdown of periods: (1) the rise of agriculture and agricultural civilizations, (2) the classical period, (3) the post-classical era, (4) the world shrinks, (5) industrialization and western global hegemony, 1750 -1914, and (6) the 20th Century in world history.

What is a "classical" period in world history? Even more baffling, what is a "post-classical" era? How does "20th Century" describe the content of history, other than by naming a time period? This seems to be a hodgepodge of labels lacking in coherence. The world historians did not know how to organize their own material.


Returning to the Advanced Placement guidelines, I would have to say that students are put in the difficult position of having to make precocious judgments based on subjects of which they may know little. They are asked to read a textbook covering all of human history, including a paragraph or two of descriptive material about the Sasanian Persian empire, Great Zimbabwe, or whatever. Pretending that the students are learned in all areas of history, the Advanced Placement tests ask them to compare the situation of women in these societies, or the degree of nationalistic sentiment, or something else that the test writers think might be significant.

In reality, most students are probably wracking their brains to remember anything about the societies. Whatever leaves a distinct memory they will try to incorporate in the answer. The College Board booklet "encourage(s) cross-period questions such as 'To what extent have civilizations maintained their cultural and political distinctiveness over the time periods the course covers'; 'Compare the justification of social inequality in 1000 with that at the end of the twentieth century'; and 'Select four turning points in world history since 1000 and explain why you so designated them.'" I would not know how to begin to answer some of these questions, they are so abstract.

The Advanced Placement curriculum in world history seems designed to kill any interest that a student might have in history. Oblivious to that fact, the committee goes on to suggest that history student sought to acquire "habits of mind" that professional historians have in approaching the various topics. Keep in mind, these are teenagers who may be testing the waters of world history for the first time. Some may be taking the Advanced Placement course in high school so that they can skip the subject in college. And the curriculum committee wants them to develop the "habits of mind" of a professional historian? Who are they kidding?


The four Habits of Mind recommended by the committee are:

"(1) Constructing and evaluating arguments: using evidence to make plausible arguments.

(2) Using documents and other primary data: developing the skills necessary to analyze point of view, context and bias, and to understand and interpret information.

(3) Developing the ability to assess issues of change and continuity over time.

(4) Enhancing the capacity to handle diversity of interpretations through analysis of context, bias, and frame of reference."

Several points jump out at me. First, the curriculum writers are not going to allow the students to enjoy a good story. They are not going to let the students explore random themes and personalities, and let personal interest wander where it may. They are forcing students to become self-conscious about this material and analyze it in teacher-directed ways. They will turn these students into precocious historians whether or not it kills their interest in history.

Second, anyone reasonably attuned to today's political climate recognizes such phrases as "analyze point of view, context and bias" as code words which invite politically correct interpretations of past events. We must be aware of the "bias" of the Europeans who "discovered" a new continent in the Americas. Knowing how people think today or, at least, how today's cultural elite thinks that people should think, students can criticize past attitudes from that perspective and demonstrate "context". In other words, they can get good grades.

I was struck by the contrast between requiring students to analyze historical documents and assuring them that they would not have to know about particular persons. One of the three essay questions - counting for 16% of the grade - requires students to write an intelligent essay on a document (a letter or another piece of writing) which brings general historical understanding to bear on a particular situation. For instance, the first document in the illustration gives an Indian woman's account of Gandhi's nonviolence movement in the 1920s and 1930s, focusing upon the clothing and footwear worn at public events.

The booklet states that "a good response to this question would be to outline the way in which women themselves, who were involved in nationalistic movements, saw the opportunities such movements presented for women, including increased public participation (Saghal), roles in nationalistic party leadership (Gomes), and even military actions (Sung)." Again, I wonder how students who have read a brief textbook description of Gandhi's activities would possibly assemble such detailed, specialized knowledge to answer the test questions about footwear and such things.

A section in the booklet titled "what students are expected to know" assures teachers that knowledge of general trends or institutions is preferred to that of important persons. For the period between 1000 A.D. and 1450 A.D., for instance, students should know about the "Papacy but not particular popes", "manorialism but not the three-field system", "feudalism but not specific feudal monarchs such as Richard I". In later periods, they need to know about the "Siege of Vienna but not the Thirty Years' War", "Reformation but not Anabaptism or Huguenots", "importance of European exploration but not individual explorers", "Jacobins but not Robespierre","artistic modernism but not Dada", "the internationalization of popular culture but not the Beatles."

Intuitively, I believe that young people with any degree of interest in world history are drawn to stories about the Beatles, Columbus, Magellan, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Pope Gregory VII, Robespierre and others whose lives the committee says the students can safely ignore. Without an idea of the Beatles' personalities, for instance, how could the concept of "the internationalization of popular culture" in the 1960s make any sense? This is pseudo-sophistication preferring depersonalized abstractions to real experience which the curriculum committee seems to be pushing on young people.

I also see a motive to force young people to accept the committee members' political point of view. When such values are incorporated in a mechanism that controls students' advancement through formal education, it's possible to view the Advanced Placement course and its approach as a community problem requiring attention.

Student interest in world history should be nurtured and encouraged and given some freedom, not forced through channels which a committee has designed to pass tests. If those courses succeed in smothering and killing off young peoples' interest in world history, it will be quite unfortunate. Academia can conceal that fact for a time by manipulating test scores. But eventually the public will find out; and the result will be a further decline in public regard for education and deepening suspicion - and then, of course, calls for more rigorous testing!

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HOME PAGE | What are 5 civilizations? | communication technology | about religion | entertainment | DIAGRAM
PREDICT THE FUTURE | history of cultural technology | teach history | summarize this theory | Christmas | BOOK