What does one learn in a “World History” course? The rise of ancient civilizations? The birth of the Renaissance? The world wars? Over the course of a 9 to 10 month school year, our education systems claim to teach high schoolers everything they need to know about the development of the modern world. However, this itself is contradictory.
General “Modern World” or “World History” high school classes demonstrate a trend: they view the history of the world through the lens of colonization and leave out many important narratives and perspectives. Why are students expected to come to college with detailed knowledge about the causes, course, and consequences of the French Revolution, but all that they remember about Africa, Asia, and the Americas is that a European nation or the United States colonized them and caused war and death? There are many reasons for this imbalance in perspectives, including the limited amount of class time, the lack of diversity among curriculum designers, and the fact that “history” as we know it has historically been taught and studied at European institutions. It isn’t easy to change this, and schools have only recently started addressing this systemic issue.
So what does this mean for education about Asian history? Well, here’s what we usually learn.
China: Confucianism, Taoism, Silk road, dynasties, Opium Wars, Communism
India: Hinduism and the Caste System, Gandhi and independence/Partition, maybe a short unit about Islam
Japan: ancient feudal times and emperors
Koreas: ancient society and the wars
Vietnam: the wars
While this doesn’t speak for all American high schools, it’s a general summary of what most high school graduates know about Asia. We ignore countless other countries as well as the entire Middle East in our World History courses because our education system teaches only what it deems to be most important for American students to learn, and students have no other opportunity within their mandated curriculums to dive deeper. These topics are all either extremely ancient cultural systems or results of European colonialism, and they are almost always portrayed in a negative light or in comparison to Europe.
Even now, when we discuss Asian countries, we rarely move past major conflicts and acknowledgment of religions, which allows little time for students to learn about and appreciate other aspects of the cultures of these nations. This not only whitewashes and deemphasizes the richness of the cultures, but it also discounts the diversity of Asia as a whole and perpetuates the idea of Asians and people of non-European descent as “others.”
When POC students don’t learn about their history, or history beyond the standard Eurocentric point of view, it reinforces the erasure of their stories and normalizes the idea that “European” history is somehow more important for them to learn. Many schools claim that they value critical thinking and alternative viewpoints. If this is the case, why aren’t they following through when it comes to POC history?
Things have been made worse in recent years. In 2018, the College Board made problematic changes to its AP World History course, announcing that the curriculum would begin in 1450 CE, which effectively cut out an ample portion of material concerning POC (mainly ancient Asian, Middle Eastern, and African civilizations). Changes have since been made, likely due to the widespread backlash of this decision. However, students who took the course in those years missed out on some of the only periods of history in which many cultures are recognized in the classroom, as many of their feudal/monarchical systems were similar to those of Europe. These students did not get to learn about multiple centuries of history that, for once, may not have held a Eurocentric focus.
Some solutions? First of all, schools should reconsider the claim that their international history courses are comprehensive. It’s impossible. There simply isn’t enough time throughout one’s high school career to learn all of it. Yet, this does not give institutions the right to decide what’s “important enough” to teach high schoolers.
Increasing the quantity of content may not be the best route either, as it brings the need for more teachers, courses, and resources. This pokes at a separate issue rooted more deeply in the flaws of American education system. At the very least, educators should think deeply about how they represent POC and other cultures in their classrooms, as well as what a student’s takeaways should be. Namely, they should think critically about different perspectives, including the viewpoint of each given nation, rather than only that of the colonizers. Additionally, when recognizing colonization, educators must stop passing over the more horrific or gruesome parts. High school students, many of whom are students of color and have been dealing with heavy concepts and unfair treatment their entire lives, are capable of handling these ideas. We must stop glossing over the true horrors and consequences of colonization, especially because its effects are present everywhere in our society, particularly in the classroom.
In the end, a student can’t learn all of modern history in 9 to 10 months of school. Once we collectively understand this, we will be better able to make change. And the looming question is evident: how do we determine what American students should learn?