Happy Twenty-Fifth Birthday, WHA
As the world emerged from the Great War of 1914-18, historians began to put the years leading up to it into perspective. What they noted was that imperialism and its parallel developments in industrialization, more rapid and effective communication and transportation of goods and ideas, and widespread migration had all contributed to a world in which nation-state boundaries seemed perforated by economic, technological, demographic, and cultural shifts, to say little of the supra-national effects of pathogens, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. The causes of the war itself seemed to call into question the long-term stability of the nation-state. And during the war, European armies were manned by Africans, Indians, Central Asians, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders, British troops battled the Turks in the Middle East, and Japanese sailors navigated the Mediterranean. The increasingly multicultural nature of many countries was brought to the forefront of the world’s consciousness through post-wartime efforts to create lasting peace...by attempting to redraw boundaries according to nationality, or by ignoring nationality when imposing old colonial boundaries through Versailles Treaty exchanges of territory or League of Nations mandates. Anti-colonial efforts were organized and saw some success after the war, such as in India and Ireland. As a consequence of all of these forces, some historians, such as the Englishman Arnold Toynbee and the German Oswald Spengler, began to rethink the way history looked, and to present the idea of a world history that would uncover supra-national patterns of the human experience. Their books, especially those of Toynbee, were widely read in certain intellectual circles in the United States.
Despite the attraction of Toynbee and Spengler for many academics at the university level, very few chose to devise courses that reflected these grand visions of history. Even more so, not many US secondary schools responded to the new approach. Instead, the United States was just beginning to reap the benefits of its new muscular nation-state. At the same time, the US was acknowledging its diversity by imposing the first widespread immigration restrictions, and society emphasized the assimilation of immigrant cultures into an “American melting pot.” School curricula generally assisted by offering a US-first-and-foremost curriculum, which mainly continued the earlier trend of supporting nation-state histories, particularly if they led to important characteristics found in the US. This meant focusing on United States history in several grades, supported by European History (largely the histories of England, France, and Germany) or Western Civilization (Classical Greece and Rome and the Western European nations) in a few other grades. When other societies were studied at all, it was usually to show that they were somehow lacking, or ended up showing that, while different cultures might be exotic or intriguing, they did not really change very much, and so these studies were not usually called “history.”
In the latter half of the 1960s, anti-colonial cultural upheavals in Europe and the US led to the rapid inclusion of the “peoples without history” into area studies (or “global studies” courses in secondary schools). By the late-1970s, most schools had such an approach. For example, US history courses began to look at Native peoples in the Americas prior to European contact, and to consider Native perspectives regarding Europeans. Imperialism became progressively less a study of the various actions of and perspectives held by the colonial powers and increasingly became a field of research that included colonial points of view and the impact of colonization on the colonized. Their active efforts to resist colonialism’s negative pressures were portrayed more frequently as heroic. At the same time, a revitalized study of peoples “on the margins,” including women’s studies, African-American studies, and so on, eventually led to looking at other liminal groups, such as nomads and traders, who frequently inhabit a trans-national world.
For many historians, the logical next step, particularly after area studies researchers had begun to explore and develop regional or area strands of primary evidence, was to figure out how they were connected. In the 70s and 80s, some researchers began looking for ways to reliably compare societies and their evolutions over time. Others began looking for recurring patterns in the human experience across time and place. Still others found that the world’s history might fall into patterns of exchanges of goods and ideas within and among overlapping “systems.” Some found that looking at supra-national themes such as pandemic diseases, animal and flora exchanges, migrations, technological, food, and commodities exchanges, the transit of religions, the exchange of ideas and cultural forms through such processes as imperial expansion and widening communication media, and so on might open up still more ways of looking at the world. Taken together, these various approaches might be called the “new” world history. Many researchers were excited by the new approaches. They began sharing their thoughts and “discoveries” with their students. But the field was still very small, and many professors and institutions resisted it because it did not fit easily into the already established vision of history and its component parts as laid out on college campuses. Further, it called on people to use unfamiliar rules and tools for research and interpretation. Many also complained that world history was so vast as to render it unteachable and so amorphous as to be intellectually untenable. Yet today, roughly 30 years later, some form of world history is mandated for the K-12 history/social studies curriculum in every state in the USA, and it is now what most secondary educators expect to appear in a full history curriculum. In the spring of 2007, the College Board completed its fifth year of offering an AP World History curriculum, at the end of which nearly 100,000 students sat for the exam. Post-secondary institutions, from universities to community colleges, are offering world history in growing numbers, and taking on the challenge of rethinking curricula and restructuring their departments in order to support it. Graduate programs in world history at the MA and even PhD levels are growing rapidly, and the number of professors able to teach world history is increasing yearly. Research into world history continues apace, ever exploring new ways to think about supra-national events and forces.
So how did a small but committed group of scholars succeed in moving so purposefully toward the new world history? In spite of all of the social and political changes in the world, and in spite of the new developments in world history research, world history might have failed to thrive if not for the efforts of several individuals and institutions. Methods to facilitate the growth of a new field normally include encouraging research and generating interest in it at the secondary level. The best way to draw new research into secondary classrooms is to find people who create a collaborative bridge between university scholarship and high school students. In this way, high school teachers interested in scholarly research join in the research discussions and in the professional organizations of historians, and interested post-secondary educators participate in collaborations with secondary educators to help keep classroom instruction up-to-date. World history followed this pattern.
In the early post-Vietnam Conflict Era, namely the late 1970s, the Air Force Academy began teaching world history to its cadets. It made sense to the history department chair, Carl Redell, that Academy students, trained to circle the world every few days and to “win the hearts and minds” of the people they encountered, should and would approach the world with a new point of view. He contacted some of the pioneers of the field and invited them to speak at the Academy. In 1982, the Air Force Academy hosted the first of many efforts aimed at establishing collaboration among university researchers in world history and secondary educators, a conference co-sponsored by the American Historical Association. The conference, whose keynote address was delivered by William H. McNeill, was a greater success than expected, and two important outcomes emerged. A group of historians--Kevin Reilly (representing the AHA at the conference), Ross Dunn, Craig Lockard, Marty Yanuck, and Jerry Bentley--founded the World History Association, a professional organization that would become a model of collaboration between post-secondary and secondary educators. Also, area high school teachers Heidi Roupp and Marilyn Hitchens joined Carl Redell in organizing the Rocky Mountain World History Association, which eventually became the first regional affiliate of the WHA, and which would influence the collaborative direction of the WHA as a whole. In fact, the next year saw the WHA approve its constitution, which guaranteed not only that secondary educators could become members of the organization, but that they would hold leadership positions. Over the past quarter century, three high school teachers have held the two-year post of WHA president, including the current president, Michele Forman of Middlebury Union High School in Vermont and the 2001 National Teacher of the Year. This has made the WHA unique among professional historical associations, and demonstrates its commitment to bringing the new world history into secondary school classrooms.
That commitment continues to this day. One of its publications, the World History Association Bulletin, posts the “Teaching Forum,” an extensive section dedicated to offering instructors lesson and unit plans and other teaching aids, and recently it has begun to focus each of its semiannual issues on a special theme, such as “Religion in World History.” The WHA has collaborated with other institutions, such as the College Board, the Woodrow Wilson Institutes, the NEH, the National Center for History in the Schools, and the e-journal World History Connected, to further the development of world history in secondary schools. It also sponsors H-World, a monitored web-based forum in which researchers, teachers, and students alike can posit inquiries and share information and insights.Individual scholars and leaders of the WHA have participated in collaborations for the professional development of secondary educators, and it was largely because of the dedicated work of a fairly significant number of WHA members that the College Board was able to develop and refine its AP World History curriculum and examination. The WHA has also sponsored or cosponsored large numbers of well-attended conferences and training sessions for teachers and researchers alike. In the WHA and its associated websites and journals, teachers and professors alike find broad-based support for teaching world history and sound approaches for organizing their world history courses.
As world history has grown in the secondary schools, the WHA has simultaneously continued to develop its support of research and scholarship in the field. Its quarterly Journal of World History is acknowledged as a leading academic publication, and an important venue for scholars, both new and experienced, in which to display their work. The WHA hosts annual conferences, in the USA and abroad, and occasional research symposia dedicated to exploring new research directions and expanding what is known about world history.
In summary, the WHA provides invaluable support for the study of world history at all levels in the belief that it defines the way we make sense of the world and its past.