How does our understanding of human history shape how we approach the world? That is the question at the heart of the debate over the College Board’s recent decision to begin their curriculum for Advanced Placement (AP) World History at the year 1450 CE. The changes are due to be implemented beginning in 2019–2020. For the millions of students who eagerly take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in order to experience college-level classes and earn credits prior to their entering a university, the historical narrative they may soon be taught and tested on will omit millennia of global human history. Together with other AP history courses, these changes may also further support a Eurocentric view of the world within US high schools.
The current iteration of the AP World History course begins at 8000 BCE and stretches from human origins in Africa to the present day. The proposed curriculum change would consequently trim world history by about 9500 years. On the College Board’s website, the anticipated shift is couched as a pedagogical change that will serve to add depth of analysis to the current approach by allowing for more time with each culture studied within the abbreviated chronology. “These changes will help give students more time during the school year to develop understanding through sustained focus on key concepts and practice of essential skills,” they say. But the historical awareness that is lost in the professed quest for such “sustained focus” may cause more harm than good.
History professors and primary school teachers in particular have reacted strongly to the College Board’s recent announcement, and public Q&A debates have been contentious. Italian Renaissance historian Rob Policelli. the current chair of history at Durham Academy in North Carolina has taught AP European History for five years and has been an AP reader for four years. In comments to Hyperallergic, Dr. Policelli — a specialist in Italy during the fifteenth century — noted that this is not the first time that the College Board’s AP standards have been lambasted:
Criticism against AP courses has been building for years. Their content-driven structure just isn’t in line with more innovative high school curriculums that emphasize skill development and intellectual discovery (i.e, students creating new knowledge and figuring out what they really think about broad themes) over content mastery. The trend is to emphasize depth over breadth to hopefully spark student curiosity and give them the time to take a deep dive in topics that interest them.
To Policelli and many others following the debate, neither side is communicating their position particularly well. He says, “One side is talking about pedagogy while the other is fixating on content.” Perhaps the best way to critique starting AP World History at 1450 is then to show that the pedagogy (i.e. the method of teaching) is itself thwarted by the exclusion of premodern global perspectives and primary sources. Many of the historical concepts that students will engage with in the post-1450 world will appear without an origin story that would allow them to contextualize a broad understanding of previous technologies, trade networks, diseases, engagements in slavery, ideologies, religions, and worldviews that far preceded the European “Age of Discovery” in the mid-fifteenth century.
In an open letter from the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) to the College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement and Instruction, Trevor Packer, the association — the largest such for medievalists in the world — urged the College Board to reconsider their decision to leave the teaching and testing of pre-1450 history to local school systems without the allure of AP credit.
Particularly troubling to the MAA and many others are the implications that the decision may have on appropriation of the ancient and medieval world by white supremacists and European nationalists. They write:
It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that “world history” effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations … We have all seen how misappropriation of medieval history leads to the advancement of dangerous, racist narratives. Only education can counter such misuse of history. Teaching the reality rather than the fictionalized fantasy of the Middle Ages has never been more important than it is today.
Policelli echoes these concerns and remarks that while the College Board has tried to add depth of analysis by abbreviating the time period studied in AP World History, there will be a substantial — and no-doubt influential — focus on western history when considered side by side with the College Board’s other non-US history course: AP European History:
What I’m confused about is the fact that there are now two AP history courses with significant overlap in content and chronology: AP World (1450–present) and AP European History (1450–present). Isn’t the whole point of world history to present the past from a non-Western perspective? And now we have two courses in which the West is the global protagonist.
Other academics have similarly sounded the alarm on what the omission of cultures will mean in the long run. Nyasha Junior, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University noted in comments to Hyperallergic that while she doesn’t teach AP courses, there is still great concern about its impact: “The new exam focuses narrowly on the West, and it will mean that even fewer college students will have knowledge of pre-colonial and non-Western cultures.” The false narrative of western triumphalism is positioned to only grow stronger with these curriculum changes.
The study of human origins, the ancient world, Late Antiquity, and the Middle Ages is integral to understanding humanity as a collective ecosystem that extends not only geographically but also chronologically. A global look at the pre-1450 world can then, as the MAA noted, demonstrate that “China, Mali, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Egypt had great achievements, in conditions of relative parity, before the oceanic dominance of a few western powers (Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France).” A truly global pre-modern curriculum is a pedagogical rebuttal to current views espoused by Jeff Sessions, Steve King, and others who continue to evangelize about the dominance of “the West” since antiquity up to today.
The pivotal reason given by the College Board for the omission of pre-1450 global history is the fact that there is just too much of it to teach. Yet those of us (me included) who have taught longue durée approaches to history know that we have always had to address global themes that tied together events over time and space; it has never been possible to teach every salient detail of human history in a semester. For Monica H. Green, a historian who specializes in the global history of health, disease, and Medieval European history, the claim of having “too much” history is a red herring.
In our conversation Prof. Green noted that the story we collectively tell says a lot about what we value:
The essence of the issue is: what story do you want to tell? For the story I want to tell, about humans’ multiple approaches to the question of where food will come from, how we can best communicate with each other, what sources of energy can we use to achieve our other goals, etc., we must go back to pre-1450, even pre-agriculture. The reason I’ve so thoroughly embraced the genetics approach to infectious diseases [for instance] is because the narrative is already built into evolutionary theory. The narrative is life.
Context is imperative to the intentional act of understanding, whether it be the historical context for a Biblical verse or the way disease historically traveled along trade routes such as the Silk Road. Teaching premodern global history is not about preparing high school students to engage in cultured banter at cocktail parties; it is making them into critical thinkers who can recognize the modern abuse of the historical record. It is also about preparing them for the world through the creation of empathy and a connection to humanity on a global scale. To many who value the ancient and medieval worlds, it is difficult to understand how we can begin history with the Renaissance when students will not understand what, exactly, is being “reborn.”