A framework for world history

The last couple of blog entries have been about the basic structure of a program of study for national histories. I looked in particular at the UK and US histories.

Today, I want to broaden the view a little, and look at the bigger picture. For me, the idea of studying national histories in isolation doesn’t add up. Students end up with a very narrow view of history, and actually, they will not really have any proper understanding of their own nation’s history at all. British history doesn’t make sense without a sound overview of European history: who were the Romans? Why did they come – and why leave? Who were the Anglo-Saxons…or the Normans? Why was Medieval England constantly at war with France? Surely Henry VIII can not have broken the near-thousand-year link with Rome just because he wanted to divorce his wife? Why did the French ally themselves with the Americans against Britain? Who was Napoleon that we should be so frightened of him? Did we really invent the Industrial Revolution all by ourselves? And so on.

Exactly the same point can by made of US history: why did colonists come from England to settle in North America? Why were they so divided by religious issues? What was this British empire to which the American colonies belonged? Why did the French become involved in the struggle for independence? Why did the Founding Fathers frame the Constitution in the way they did? What were African slaves doing in America? Where did the Industrial Revolution come from? etc.

No country’s history can be studied in isolation (though I’ve no doubt many countries make a good stab at it), and we therefore need to think carefully about how to teach the broader context. I’m not at this stage talking about World History as a whole (though I do still remember that our over-arching themes of these blog entries are timelines and maps of world history). Rather, I’m talking about particular strands of world history, which give meaning and context to the histories of different countries. These strands will of course be different for different countries.

For the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and so on, this means the “Western Tradition”. (Non-Western countries will of course be different. To some extent, being British, I’m a lot less qualified to discuss these. But don’t worry, that won’t stop me – probably because I am British, I have few qualms about talking about things that I’m not really qualified to talk about, so I’ll deal with these later.)

I’m not going to go into any detail today; I’ll leave that for tomorrow. However, I’m going to argue that all Western English-speaking students should know about:

the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians;

Ancient Israel;

The Greeks and the Romans;

Medieval Western Europe – particularly feudalism and the Christian Church;

The Renaissance and the rise of the Scientific method;

The Reformation;

The Expansion of Europe;

The Enlightenment;

The Age of Revolutions: America, France, Napoleon and South America;

19th century Europe and America (towards a global society);

The period of the World Wars;

and the Cold War.

So, 12 topics in all. They all add something unique to the Western narrative. Not all need to be given equal weight, but starting tomorrow I’ll sketch out what I feel to be the minimum amount of knowledge students should have in this respect. Then we can start looking at extensions which will allow them to have a good framework of World History as a whole.


By Peter Britton