Date: Thu, 26 Jan 1995 12:08:40 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History <>
Subject: World History Standards
To: Multiple recipients of list H-WORLD <>

From: Pier M. Larson,,
Penn State University

World History Standards

By Pier M. Larson, Penn State University, 26 January 1995

Thanks to Thomas Martin for posting an outline of the National Standards for World History.

I must comment on what I see, although from an altogether different direction than the public brouhaha from conservatives.

Simply: The standards appear not to problematize that central concept of “civilization” which the history profession in this country holds so dear. What is clearly valued in the history standards is the teaching of civilization, its rise, its transformations, its tensions, permutations etc. Thus the suggested historical vision is one which runs from the evolution of humankind, through pastoralism, into agriculture and finally into the “grand” civilizations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley. Then we come to “Classical Traditions and major Religions and Giant Empires” etc.

Besides the fight over emphasis within the overall framework, I see little difference in the historical view of the authors of the standards and their very public detractors. We are to value civilization. History is how civilizations (characterized here, it seems, through high population density, urbanization, agriculture, writing, permanent architecture, and the like) become, change, interact. Thus we are asked to study ancient Egypt and not the nomads of the Sahara. We are to look at ancient Kush and not the people of the African forest. Every continent has its parallels in the standards.

What is new here? The Standards appear to me as another expression of the historical identity which the Western academic profession has fashioned over the last century and a half. The dispute between the authors and their proponents on the one hand, and the conservative detractors, on the other, is simply one of which continent ought receive primary attention and value.

I hear no noise over the organizing paradigm of “civilization” and its continuing implications of superiority in the minds of 99.9% of the American people. AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY, “Civilize. To bring out of a primitive or savage state; educate or enlighten; refine.” Our most “progressive” historians are themselves trapped in this powerful, dangerous, yet silly worldview. What is so compelling about “civilization” that we must reiterate it constantly? Manifest destiny seems very much alive here, and the ugly things attached to it linger there in the background.

For these reasons, I find the standards both unconvincing and pernicious. The Western world view of the late 19th century is repackaged for our youth (and ourselves) in 1995 as an “objective,” “revised,” “thoughtful,” “thorough,” perhaps even “liberal” set of teaching standards. There are other “Western” views, not to mention those from various cardinal directions.

Why not something fresh, inclusive, valuing of all types of human organization and endeavor, and something which does not carry the ugly baggage of an outmoded intellectual paradigm? This one sure dies hard!