HM - June 2019 - Opinion

Opinion

Bordered Minds: Why “History of the Americas” Should Replace US History in the High School Curriculum

By David J. Ferrero


 
We live in a time when national borders are thinning and traditional definitions of citizenship are giving way to more expansive “supranational,” “post-national,” and “denationalized” ones, trends fueled by mass migrations and a global economy.1 Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, which is in the midst of a profound transformation, not just demographically but politically and culturally as well:
  • The US is home to 1/5 of the world’s migrants, the most of any country in the world;
  • In 2017, 27 percent of people living in the US were immigrants or the children of immigrants;2
  • Roughly half of immigrants living in the US are from Latin America;3
  • The US will be a “majority minority” country by 2045;4
  • 3 of 4 Americans believe that “immigration is a good thing,” and 1 in 4 believes it should be increased;5
  • Only 1 in 5 Americans under age 35 believes that birthplace is important to being “truly American,” and only 1 in 4 views participation in national customs and traditions as important in defining “who is ‘us.’”6
Meanwhile, educated opinion in the US takes a dim view of earlier generations' preoccupation with assimilating immigrants to dominant North Atlantic cultural norms, embracing instead a multiculturalism that celebrates diversity and difference.The move away from the study of high school courses in European history and Western Civilization toward courses in world history, global studies, and human geography reflects this shift.8

In this context, courses in US history should strike us as anachronistically parochial, subtly reinforcing a nationalistic worldview inconsistent with the cosmopolitan perspectives that teachers of history aspire to cultivate in students. Bordered historical narratives yield bordered historical understandings.  It is time to ask ourselves whether “US-centrism” is the new Eurocentrism.

For these reasons I propose replacing the traditional high school US history with the histories of Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  Such a course would better reflect the demographic and cultural trends highlighted above while helping students appreciate the diversity of cultures and variety of historical contexts that define life in 21st century America—North and South. It would also help broaden students’ conception of what counts as “American” by situating students in a more inclusive narrative that encompasses the complexly intertwined modern histories of the Western hemisphere’s diverse cultures and peoples. Even an incremental broadening of identification along these lines could be profound. Consider the European Union. Recent turbulence notwithstanding, the nations of that once conflict-riven continent now enjoy peace, prosperity, and freedom of movement unimaginable a century ago. A new high school course alone will not effect such a change in perspective, of course, but at least it would no longer inhibit it by perpetuating a tacitly nationalist narrative of American exceptionalism.

History of the Americas offers additional advantages. The course would allow more multi-faceted explorations of major topics and themes taught in US history courses, such as colonialism, genocide, independence movements, democracy, slavery, race, gender, industrialization, inequality, and struggles for civil rights by allowing teachers and students to compare how they played out not just between the 49th parallel and the Rio Grande River but across the Western hemisphere as a whole. Comparing the thirteen British colonies’ path to independence with Canada’s and Haiti’s, for example, would not only teach students about those countries’ origins, it would enrich their understanding of the US experience. Inquiry into why Canadian independence from Great Britain was gradual and amicable while the birth of the United States was dramatic and bloody, and how the largely white and aristocratically-led American Revolution differed from the insurrections of enslaved people that led to Haitian independence from France, would de-mythologize the American Revolution and its founders by showing how their fight for independence was one among many in an intercontinental struggle against colonialism.

Because the United States remains a sovereign nation bound by its own laws and customs, students who reside here still need to understand the national context to grow into empowered adults. I would thus leave middle school US history untouched, along with state and local history requirements. I would also add a high school requirement in American government or civics where it does not already exist.    

For teachers of high school US history who want to introduce a more inclusively American approach now I recommend taking a look at the History of the Americas course offered by the International Baccalaureate program. Several course syllabi and course outlines are available on-line, and the IB History of the Americas course book (available for purchase on Amazon) can serve as a resource. Textboxes in current US history textbooks that feature figures such as Toussaint Louverture and Simon Bolivar, and thumbnail histories of phenomena such as the Caribbean slave trade and Spanish treatments of indigenous peoples, offer natural jumping off points for more intercontinental explorations of major historical themes. Much can be mined from current world history textbooks as well.

But this shoehorning can only go so far. What is ultimately needed are new curriculum frameworks and resources, aligned pre- and in-service training for teachers, and new state standards and graduation requirements. This would be heavy lift, to be sure. For all the demographic and attitudinal shifts highlighted above, the nationalist narrative is still hard-wired into our collective consciousness—among educators no less than politicians, policymakers, and public. But the time seems right for a collective conversation about whether the 19th century worldview embodied in national histories is adequate to 21st century realities. That conversation should start here, with those who study history, and those who teach it.
 
Image: "Röszke 2015" by Peter Tkac is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
8. For example, between 2008 and 2018 the number of students sitting for the Advanced Placement European History exam remained flat at approximately 100,000 test-takers. During the same period the number for World History more than doubled from about 125,000 to nearly 305,000 while that for Human Geography surged from roughly 40,000 to 215,000. See https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/research/2018/2018-Exam-Volume-Change.pdf

David J. Ferraro, Ed.D., is affiliated with Alacris Education Consulting, LLC


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