Dear Mr. Packer,
The emerging conversation about the recent proposals for revising the AP World History curriculum have focused substantially on the perception that those changes may, albeit unintentionally, convey a Euro-centric point of view. But an equally important issue lies in the loss of the grand sweep of time, of a panoramic “big picture” understanding of the human experience, of the perspective that derives from much longer time-scales.
And this remains true whether the starting point for a revised course is 1450, or 1200, or 600 C.E. In none of these formulations will our students get a sense of the Paleolithic era, which constitutes over 95% of the time humans have occupied the planet. In none of them will they learn about the relatively recent breakthrough to agriculture and its revolutionary outcomes. In none of them, will they get a sense of the distinctiveness of those city and state-based societies that we call civilizations, which appeared initially only some 5000 years ago. How can we teach about the gender and class hierarchies that everywhere accompanied civilizations without some sense of what preceded them in earlier social formations? Finally, the truncated time-scales suggested in the proposals provide no occasion to ponder the place of humankind in the geological and biological history of the planet or in the larger evolution of the cosmos.
These are enormous losses, for it is precisely these alternative time-scales, these larger contexts, these global, planetary, or even cosmic perspectives that World History excels in generating. In doing so, they provide the raw material for the construction of meaning or significance in human life and in the lives of our students. And it does not take much time or space in a course to convey something of these larger contexts, which establish in broad contours a frame of reference for all that follows.
And yet the breadth of the AP World History course and the burden it places on teachers and students alike may well invite some reconsideration of the course design. But rather than truncate the course temporally, might we do better by limiting the number of distinct themes, topics, and examples that we include and the degree of specificity with which we teach them?
Whatever date is chosen as the starting point for a more detailed treatment, might we gather together selected concepts, processes and examples of what precedes that date into a new Period 1, articulated no doubt at a more general and conceptual level and with fewer examples? Here students could receive a brief exposure to “Big History” perspectives, to the Paleolithic era, to the profound impact of the Agricultural Revolution, and to the emergence of civilizations as a novel form of human society, all of which provides a rich and necessary context for all that follows. A new Period 1 would hopefully be an official part of the new course design and included in the AP Exam. Such an approach, together with some pruning and consolidation in subsequent periods, might well alleviate the problem of coverage without sacrificing or diminishing the framing or contextualizing function of World History over much longer periods of time. That contextualizing function represents one of the major contributions of World History to the education of our students at every level.