NATIONAL HISTORY STANDARDS
National history standards originated in the National Education Goals of 1989. The task of writing the standards was assigned to the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) at UCLA. Funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the U.S. Department of Education. The History Standards Project was co-chaired by Charlotte Crabtree (a UCLA education professor) and Gary Nash (a UCLA history professor).
The National Standards for History were published in the fall of 1994, in three sections: U.S. History (grades 5-12), World History (grades 5-12), and National Standards (grades K-4). The standards immediately came under fire from various pundits, including NEH head Lynne Cheney, U.S. Senator Slade Gordon, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, education professor Diane Ravitch, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and teachers union leader Al Shanker. An often-quoted anecdote is the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the history standards in January 1995 by a vote of 99-1.
The standards were criticized for a left-wing revisionist stance and emphasis on negative aspects of Western civilization and America’s past. The writers were portrayed as liberal professors who wanted to press their leftist ideology. The standards were said to suffer from an excess of multiculturalism, politicized history, and descriptions of our nation’s errors and flaws. The increased emphasis on the lives of “ordinary people” (women, minorities, the working class, and the disadvantaged) was said to be excessive, while key people and events were shortchanged. The standards seemed to focus a lot on people who had been victimized or exploited throughout history.
Author Gary Nash (Reflections on the National History Standards) was quick to defend the approach used in the new standards: “To be sure, it is not possible to recover the history of women, African Americans, religious minorities, Native Americans, laboring Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans without addressing issues of conflict, exploitation, and the compromising of the national ideals set forth by the Revolutionary generation. It is similarly impossible to incorporate the history of Africa, Asia, and Latin America into a world history curriculum without diminishing the scope given to Europe. To this extent, the standards counseled a less self-congratulatory history of the United States and a less triumphant Western Civilization orientation toward world history.”
Dr. Nash explored the intellectual foundations of the history standards in his essay, and a number of comments may be made regarding his approach. First, Dr. Nash’s perspective and sense of historical importance is heavily weighted by fashions of historical writing popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For the generation that studied during the 1970s, social history was the preeminent intellectual framework. Nash’s comments in his defense evidence a commitment to the ideas of social history, a preference for the story of common people, organized and examined according to social classes. Over time, the emphasis on social history was combined with that of cultural history, which tries to recover the hidden history of sub-groups within the dominant or hegemonic group. That fashion in historical writing continues today, and has proliferated, with most historical writing attempting to recover the voices of those races, genders, ethnic groups, and cultures that were marginalized or ignored. Social and cultural history is quite evident in the NCHS standards.
Second, there is the culture of the academy, and particularly the tendency of academics (especially recent generations) to substitute the value of consensus for the value of reasonable argument. A significant part of Dr. Nash’s essay catalogs the efforts of his committee to achieve consensus, recruiting social studies teachers from all over the country to participate in the crafting of the standards. However, after mentioning the numbers of teachers involved and the size of the working groups, Nash goes on to dismiss the criticisms of those who disagree with the standards. Instead of arguing for the benefits of studying the lives of the marginalized and victimized, Nash substitutes a claim to superiority, in this case, superior knowledge. This is pernicious, as well as hypocritical. The same man who believes in the supreme value of studying minority voices, especially when silenced by a majority, attempts to do much the same thing. His justification for his behavior is an appeal to authority and consensus: “this is what historians have decided is important.”
Third, conservative complaints regarding the standards (both in the 1990s and now) are of two types, one a criticism of the standards’ content, the other regarding the methods of historical instruction. Dr. Nash obsesses over the first criticism, discussing the merits of history “from below” and challenging traditional narratives.
Regarding the methodology of teaching, the standards follow the modern trend of critical thinking or historical analysis and interpretation. Thus the introduction to the standards states: “History is in its essence a process of reasoning based on evidence from the past. This reasoning must be grounded in the careful gathering, weighing and sifting of factual information.... Standards should be intellectually demanding, reflect the best historical scholarship, and promote active questioning and learning rather than passive absorption of facts, dates, and names.” Every major effort in public education reform in recent memory has championed the goal of critical thinking, but the results of this focus have been disappointing. American public education is wildly inconsistent, and for all the focus on teaching skills apart from content, American students have fallen far behind their peers in other countries who still prioritize the learning of historical facts.
A second, but related, point regarding methodology is that Dr. Nash dismisses memorization as a needed skill, especially in a discipline like history. It is almost nonsensical to insist that students think like historians without also requiring them to know who’s important in history, what they did, why they did it, and where they did it. Teaching skills without first building a foundation in historical facts is a poor principle. Students must learn the pertinent facts of history before they engage in intense analytical thinking and debate on issues. Some measure of critical analysis is no doubt merited in high school classes, but the instruction should largely focus on learning basic history.
In light of the controversy over the standards in 1994-1995, the document was revised somewhat and re-published in 1996. A major change was the elimination of “examples of student achievement” (or exemplars), in which much of the criticized material was located. The irony is that even though Dr. Nash championed consensus as an integral part of crafting his standards, he seemed (and still seems) unwilling to find any consensus with conservative critics. In his essay Prof. Nash admits that the revision “responded hardly at all to the arch-conservative attacks on the standards as first published. To have done so would have been to break faith with the rich scholarship in American and world history over the last half-century....” In spite of Nash’s hostility, conservative voices were heard and taken seriously, and in the end genuine improvements were made to the standards. The new version did seem to satisfy many (but not all) critics, and the controversy rather quickly died down.
The 1996 version (National Standards for History) is available from NCHS. A companion volume (Lessons from History) provides insight into the intended content of a history curriculum. Overall the standards do seem to give a rather accurate and objective account of American and world history. To be sure, there is an increased emphasis on the lives of “ordinary people,” but the major events, people, and turning points in history are still there. Both the accomplishments and the shortcomings of our U.S. heritage and Western civilization are enumerated, but overall the result is a generally positive picture of America’s past.
A couple of additional introductory points should be made. First, the standards are generally written with a neutral, objective tone. That is, students are asked to “evaluate,” “explain” or “analyze” the various topics, and the opinion of the writers (if they have one) is generally not apparent. For example, rather than ask students to describe how belief in God and Biblical principles form the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the standards instead ask students to “explain the major ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and their intellectual origins.” Another way to describe the standards is that they paint history in broad sweeps and general trends, rather than in very specific details. Thus a lot of discretion is left to writers of state standards, local school districts, and individual teachers.
Second, there seems to be an assumption in the NCHS standards that the powerful influence of religion and religious thought and action are somehow of less interest or importance to modern students. Religious motives and the ethical demands grounded in religious faith were often decisive in shaping crucial events in world and American history. In some of the standards the influence of religion is properly acknowledged, but in others such coverage is lacking.
We will review the standards for grades 5-12 in both U.S. and World History. U.S. History is divided into ten eras, which we will comment on individually.
Era 1: Three Worlds Meet (Beginnings to 1620)
*This section covers three different cultures that were keys to the origin of the United States: Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. The writing is neutral in tone. For example, one standard calls for students to: “Explain and evaluate the Spanish interactions with such people as Aztecs, Incas, and Pueblos.” There is no mention of exploitation or conquest.
*There are references to “slavery in Western Africa” and to “the destructive consequences of the confrontation of Europeans with the American Indians,” but these are facts of history for which coverage is merited.
Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
*On the positive side, there is considerable emphasis on the religious, political, and economic life of the colonists. This includes content on the Great Awakening (revival) and religious freedom.
*On the other hand, this section does dwell a lot on minorities and other disadvantaged people; 14 out of 38 learning objectives focus in this area. According to the standards, students must “address two of the most tragic aspects of American history: first, the violent conflicts between Europeans and indigenous peoples, the devastating spread of European diseases among Native Americans, and the gradual dispossession of Indian land; second, the traffic in the African slave trade and the development of a slave labor system in many of the colonies.” Students are also asked to explore the lives of indentured servants (“a harsh form of bound labor”) and women in colonial society.
*While Native Americans and African slaves are important topics in this era, we do have concern with the negative tone of the NCHS standards. A subject currently under investigation among professional historians is the degree of control European settlers wielded over American Indians and African slaves. While the idea of complete domination and victimhood between Europeans and other ethnic groups is appealing to some, historical research makes it appear inaccurate. American Indians fought one another and with Europeans against one another, from the Spanish conquest to the last days of the Plains tribes. Likewise, African slaves found their own ways to profit from relationships with colonial masters, to say nothing of the African tribal chiefs who were largely responsible for the intensification in human trafficking. Human suffering and injustice must be acknowledged, and history should not avoid it. But painting a portrait of pure villainy (as currently favored) is no better and is equally distorting as ahistorical triumphalism.
*We also have concern about the lack of coverage of the different modes of settlement by European groups – specifically the Spanish, the French, and the English. Spanish and French efforts quickly turned to what have been termed “extractive industries,” seeing what the resources of the New World could do for the Old. As a result, there was never the level of colonization witnessed in English North America. In the Spanish case, only enough people were sent to meet the goal of obtaining (primarily) gold and silver and getting it back to Spain. The French followed a similar path, focused on such things as furs and skins. By contrast, English settlers came for the precise purpose of re-making the best of their civilization in the newly discovered lands – thus, New England and the farming estate of the transplantation, later shortened to plantation. With this difference came another related distinction: the administration of Spanish and French colonies required much tighter control and government oversight. The English by contrast largely developed their colonies as market-driven enterprises (best exemplified by the use of joint-stock companies and proprietary colonies). This resulted in a vigorous tradition of self-government and a booming population.
Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
*This section properly concerns itself with the origins of the American government and political system, including reasons for declaring independence from England and the Revolutionary War. Lessons From History specifically mentions over twenty historical figures from the era, including several of the key Founders.
*There is a section on the Declaration of Independence, asking students to “explain the major ideas” and “key principles” behind the document. Lessons From History asks: “how did the moral imperatives of Judaism and Christianity, derived from beliefs in the dignity of the individual before God and man and in the brotherhood of all men, justify for most colonists an imperatively persuasive case for independence?” This is an excellent question and a fine focal point for teachers when selecting documents for reading and discussion about this period of history.
*Coverage of this area would be more complete with inclusion of “salutary neglect,” which demanded that the settlers in English colonies learn to develop self-governing traditions which drew upon both scriptural and (Anglo-Scottish) Enlightenment ideals. Before the first shot of the Revolution, the need to fight for their natural rights was already a conviction in the hearts of many Americans. Students need to see what went into that conviction and how it was nurtured.
*The situation of African slaves and women also comes into the picture, but the coverage is not excessive. Students are asked to consider “the fundamental contradictions between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the realities of chattel slavery” and also “new women’s roles and rights.” These are reasonable areas for discussion.
*There is a section on the U.S. Constitution, but it lacks specifics. Students are to study “the fundamental ideas behind the distribution of powers and the system of checks and balances,” but there is no enumeration of specific Constitutional provisions. The only part of the Constitution named directly is the Bill of Rights.
*A principal concern about coverage of the Revolution is that there is no mention of the core principles of America’s founding and their basis in natural law and the Bible. Key founding principles should be listed by name: personal liberty, equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, religious liberty, private property, rule of law, constitutionally limited government, and self-government. References to God in the Declaration of Independence should be listed, and the fact that nearly all of the Founders were committed Christians should be pointed out. While generic references to “religion” are part of the standards, more details are needed. See, for example, Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths for more on this topic.
Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
*Major themes in this era are the territorial expansion of the U.S., economic growth, and industrialization. Coverage of the Second Great Awakening is commendable, as is the role of religion in fostering important reform movements of the day (particularly temperance, women’s suffrage, abolition, commercialization, and universal education).
*This section of the standards also contains more than its share of what are called “ambivalent aspects” of the first half of the 19th century: “the removal of many Indian nations in the Southeast and old Northwest, acquisition of a large part of Mexico through the Mexican-American War, and abrasive encounters with Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese immigrants, and others in the West.” About 37 of the 63 learning objectives deal with the situations of various disadvantaged/exploited groups.
*Slavery (“an exploitive and morally corrupt economic and social system”), plantation life, and abolitionism not surprisingly are major topics in this era. The plight of Native Americans, particularly their “strategies for survival” which included “accommodation, revitalization, and resistance,” is another featured subject. The emergence of the factory system and the rise of the labor movement are highlighted; students are asked to evaluate industrialization “from the perspectives of owners and workers” and analyze how it “affected gender roles and changed the lives of men, women, and children.” Another subject is the “disenfranchisement of free African Americans as well as women.” Students study the “antebellum women’s movement for equality,” including the Seneca Falls Declaration. While these topics are certainly appropriate, one gets the impression that too much space in the Era 4 standards is devoted to these aspects.
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
*Lessons From History properly views the Civil War as “the pivotal event in American history” and “a national tragedy of epic proportions.” The coverage spans three major topics: the causes of the Civil War, the war itself, and Reconstruction. Overall the standards seem fair and balanced, encompassing the important aspects that should be covered. Continuing difficulties encountered by the freed slaves (e.g., disenfranchisement, racial separation, white intimidation, rural peonage) are highlighted.
Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States
*Major topics in this era are transformation of the economy during the Industrial Revolution, changes in society as a result of industrialization, the modernization of agriculture, and development of the American West.
*This is another section that emphasizes the lives of ordinary and disadvantaged people. About 22 of the 55 learning objectives touch on this general area. Students explore “the challenges, opportunities, and contributions of different immigrant groups.” Students examine “the rising racial conflict in different regions.” They study how employment “is affected by gender, race, ethnicity, and skill”; they analyze the “industrial employment of children”; they consider “the causes and effects of escalating labor conflict.” Students evaluate “the legacy of 19th century federal Indian policy” and compare “survival strategies of different Native American societies.” While these are all legitimate areas for inclusion, one could argue that the coverage is too extensive.
*The student gets an early introduction into the environmental movement by analyzing the “costs of pollution and the depletion of natural resources” during this era.
*The standards pay homage to public education, saying that it “promoted national unity and American values in an era of unprecedented immigration and socioeconomic change.” The role of alternative education (private and home schooling) is slighted.
Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
*Major themes in this period are the rise of Progressivism, World War I, the emergence of the U.S. as a world power, and developments in the 1920s leading up to the Great Depression.
*Progressivism occupies a large portion of this section – 16 of 47 learning objectives. The standards generally offer praise for this movement: “Students can be inspired by how fervently the Progressives applied themselves to the renewal of American democracy.” Also: “As its name implies, it [Progressivism] stood for progress, and that put it squarely in the American belief in the perfectible society.” Whether the Progressive movement was positive or negative is a much debated topic, and the standards focus more the perceived positive aspects.
*It is unfortunate that the standards do not address the religious connections of Progressivism. The movement began in mainline Protestant churches, so it has a theistic base. However, the kind of Christianity that best harmonized with political Progressivism was that which abandoned orthodox tenets. Progressivists saw themselves and their efforts as the means of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. The early 1900s also saw the beginnings of conservative and evangelical politics, which to some extent was a reaction to the non-orthodox Christianity of the Progressives.
*Some troublesome aspects of the Progressive movement are included (e.g., bigger government, expanded Presidential powers, judicial activism, social justice), but with less emphasis. More than just a “renewal of American democracy,” the Progressive mission was a fundamental re-interpretation of what government ought to be and do. The movement pressed for the expansion of national governmental power to meet the “new” evolving conditions of the twentieth century, and it aimed for the utopian dream of a “perfectible society.” Along the way many Progressives embraced such non-traditional viewpoints as social Darwinism, materialism, moral relativism, and revisionist history. Progressives called for governance by “experts” who thought they knew better than average citizens what was best for them.
*The lives of minorities and the disadvantaged play a fairly prominent role in this section. Students study, for example, “the women’s struggle for equality,” “radical labor movements,” “severe retrenchment of open-door immigration policies,” “the perspectives of various African Americans,” and “the changing attitude toward Native American assimilation.”
Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
*This section highlights (a) the causes of the Depression and the ways various people groups and the government dealt with it, and (b) the causes and conduct of World War II. The coverage overall seems well balanced and objective.
*Lessons From History describes the Depression as “the greatest economic crisis in American history” and states that it “is important for students to understand the special severity” of this period. To accomplish this, the effects of the Depression on the lives of various people groups are considered (especially farmers, laborers, and ethnic and racial minorities). This coverage is needed to understand the period.
*Much space is appropriately devoted to President Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership and his New Deal policies which did much to address the economic crisis. The successes and shortcomings of government actions during the 1930s are much debated, and both the pros and cons receive ample coverage in the standards. Particularly troubling to many critics were the “contradictory and wasteful farm programs, the growth of federal bureaucracy, the muddle of the NRA [National Recovery Administration], and the explosion of government spending.”
*While the New Deal programs helped a lot of people, Lessons From History makes the statement that “only World War II restored full employment and allowed the nation to emerge into a new era of prosperity.” This is rather misleading. Yes there was a surge of employment, but over 15 million people were taken out of the labor force to serve in the military. The federal government (a) forced many smaller businesses to merge with larger ones for efficiency, (b) instituted wage and price controls, and (c) shut down some sectors of the economy to meet wartime needs. The Truman administration sought a new “New Deal” after the fighting ceased. It was action by Congress in 1946 that repealed much of the remaining New Deal regulatory authority. Congress’ refusal to go along with Truman was a primary factor leading to the greatest expansion of the American economy ever.
*The content on World War II seems adequate for the most part. The standards include causes of the war, the military campaigns and turning points, and the war efforts and effects on people at home in the U.S. Students are asked to evaluate a couple controversial issues – the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the interment of Japanese Americans during the war.
Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
*This was a period filled with great changes in American society and a marked expansion of America’s influence in the world. It is also an era in which numerous controversial issues were dealt with. The standards cover these important issues in an admirably balanced and neutral manner; e.g., the Cold War, McCarthyism and the threat of communism, the civil rights and women’s movements, the Korean and Vietnam wars, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society, the environmental movement, and the so-called “separation of church and state.” A standard on feminism is typical: “Analyze the factors contributing to modern feminism and compare the ideas, agendas, and strategies of feminist and counter-feminist organizations.” While the standards in these areas are presented objectively, teachers and schools are left with a lot of flexibility in how they choose to deal with the various issues. In other words, whether the controversies are presented fairly or else from a biased viewpoint would seem to depend mainly on the teacher and the textbook.
*We might suggest more emphasis on the growth of the “national security state.” The challenges of the Cold War placed a new emphasis on engagement with and awareness of the wider globe and the requirement for a much larger and more powerful military in peacetime than ever before seen in U.S. history.
Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)
*This section covers a number of important topics – some of them controversial. Political topics include Nixon’s detente policy, the Watergate affair, the Reagan Revolution on federalism, the Iran-Contra affair, the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, and political struggles in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Also highlighted are economic issues such as recessions, the increasing national debt, growth in service industries, a decline in labor unions, technological innovations, and international trade. Social issues continue to receive emphasis in the standards for the modern era; e.g., religious and ethnic diversity, immigration, civil rights, income disparities, influence of media, affirmative action, the gay liberation movement, and group vs. individual rights. Overall these issues are handled in a neutral and objective manner, but (as stated previously) how the topics are taught depends largely on the teachers and textbooks.
*The following curious statement is made: “In politics, students ought to explore how the political balance has tilted away from liberalism since 1968.” Probably the writers are thinking of the Reagan and Bush I years (the standards were written in 1996), but liberalism and Progressivism are of course still quite influential in the 21st century. In many ways – especially in popular culture, education, and government – liberal doctrine continues to hold sway. Perhaps the writers (who are largely liberal-statist academics) wish to consider themselves underdogs in the fight against a supposed conservative resurgence.
*There are some good learning objectives which explore contemporary religion. Students are asked to analyze “the position of major religious groups on political and social issues” and to explain “the growth of the Christian evangelical movement.”
*It should be noted that the standards (published in 1996) and Lessons in History (1992) do not contain learning objectives on important current subjects such as the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations, the great recession of 2008, Islamic terrorism, and the Iran and Afghanistan wars.
World History is divided into nine eras:
Era 1: The Beginnings of Human Society
*This section is perhaps the worst crafted and most controversial of all the NCHS standards. One can make a good argument that this section should be eliminated, since human history really begins with the development of writing and true human civilization. One can debate whether the subject of human origins should have any place in the curriculum, but it certainly should not be taught as a matter of history. If covered at all, human origins should be included as a part of the historical sciences.
*Even in the current age of great technological advance, most of the story regarding human origins remains unknown. We do not benefit students by portraying fragments of bone and rock and describing them with the same certainty that we do with the monuments of Egypt or the clay tablets of the Sumerians. Any treatment of human origins should begin with the admission that we know very little about it, and the scant evidence we have is open to debate.
*The standards assume that humans are the result of biological evolution: “Describe types of evidence and methods of investigation that anthropologists, archaeologists and other scholars have used to reconstruct early human evolution and cultural development.” The standards treat human evolution as a fact, when it really is a hypothesis. The standards make no mention of a second possibility – that humans have a teleological rather than a naturalistic origin. The assumption of naturalistic evolution is neither objective nor neutral with respect to religion.
*The standards imply that human life began in Africa. Lessons in History states that the “study of history should begin with the very origins of human life in Africa and its spread through the world.” African origin is a hypothesis, not established fact. Other evidence suggests that humans first appeared in the Middle East (or “Southwest Asia,” as the standards call this region).
*After the introduction to evolutionary theory, the standards give a reasonable account of early societal development including the Neolithic revolution (farming and the domestication of plants and animals), social class divisions/specialization, and early belief systems.
Era 2: Early Civilizations and the Emergence of Pastoral Peoples, 4000-1000 BCE
*This section covers the development of early civilizations in the Middle East (Mesopotamia – Tigris and Euphrates River valley), Egypt (Nile valley), India (Indus valley), and China (Yellow River valley). Topics include pastoralism (herding animals for food), urbanization, fundamental inventions, trade routes, languages and writing, social organization, bronze technology, and religious/ethical belief systems. The coverage seems to include all the appropriate topics.
Era 3: Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires, 1000 BCE – 300 CE
*This focuses on several important societies – Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Israel, Egypt, and central Asia.
*Lessons in History appropriately pays homage to the great influence of the Hebrew religion: “The singular importance of the ancient Hebrews does not lie, however, in their political achievements which were modest, but in their development of a unified belief system whose sacred writings, ethics, and moral teachings have, from ancient days, been a dominate shaping force in the history of Western civilization.... To understand this tradition, students should be introduced to the central, compelling stories in the Hebrew Bible, recognized by scholars as a major historical source.... Students should understand the basic tenets of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments.”
*Lessons in History also states that students “should understand the central belief in ethical monotheism....” Ethical monotheism is perhaps the single greatest historical contribution of the Ancient Hebrews and one that sets them apart from all other ancient peoples. The Ten Commandments explicitly connect the way we treat all other human beings to how truly we worship and follow God. Other people matter, whether they are in the covenant or not. Even aside from theology and faith, this is what sets the Hebrews apart from all other ancient cultures, and it is the germ for so much of what follows and develops into the conviction of universal human rights and the innate dignity of the human being.
*Considerable attention focuses appropriately on Greece. Lessons in History states: “The study of Greece is essential for its rationalist philosophy and intellectual tradition, its democratic ideals of liberty and equality of citizens before the law lie at the heart of Western tradition.”
*Rome, including its tragic fall, also receives good coverage. Lessons in History says: “To understand the fall of the Roman Empire, students must see how truly complex its problems were including technological stagnation, economic decline, social change, political instability, and outside pressures.”
*The era contains a short section (three learning objectives) on Christianity. Students study Jesus, the apostle Paul, the fundamental teachings, and expansion of the religion. The coverage is rather minimal, and additional learning objectives would be desirable; for example, stories from the Bible, the early church and the apostles, other New Testament characters (such as John the Baptist, Peter, John, and Mary), prophecy fulfilled, and the end times. Lessons in History states: “The historical development of Christianity is of profound importance, not only because it teaches students about the roots of important American religious and ethical traditions, but also because it reveals the historical power of belief and religious institutions.”
Era 4: Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter, 300-1000 CE
*This section is longer than many of the others. It covers a lot of societies in various parts of the world, including a number of cultures that are omitted or mentioned only briefly in many world history texts. Coverage includes the Roman Empire, Han Empire, Gupta Empire (India), Malay people (Southeast Asia), the Abbasid Caliphate (Middle East), the Byzantine state (Constantinople), Tang period (China), Japan, Western Europe, Vikings (Norway), West Africa (Niger River), Oceania (Pacific islands), and Mayan society (Mesoamerica).
*The origin and growth of major religions during this time receives appropriate attention, particularly Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The rise of Christianity in Europe (the Latin Church, monasteries and convents, papal influence, religion and politics) is highlighted. Islam receives the most coverage, including the life of Muhammad, basic teachings, Islamic militarism, the Arab Caliphate (Abbasid dynasty), and Islamic law. One could argue that Islam receives too much attention compared to the other religions, but it is important for students to understand Muslim traditions in view of Islamic activism in today’s world.
*Overall in the world history standards, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all receive major coverage – and no particular bias is evident. Lessons in History says the following about this era: “No age illustrates more dramatically the importance of religion in human history, the driving force of the beliefs and values, the ethical commitments, the hopes and fears of individuals and groups.”
Era 5: Intensified Hemispheric Interactions, 1000-1500 CE
*This is another long section. As in Era 4, several diverse societies are covered, including some that receive little if any consideration in typical world history texts. Primary emphasis is on the development and expansion of agrarian societies across the globe. The standards include medieval Europe, China (Mongol Empire, Ming Dynasty), Japan and Southeast Asia, North and West Africa, and Mesoamerica (Incan and Aztec cultures). The learning objectives seem to be balanced and neutral, with no special emphasis on Europe or any other part of the world.
*Appropriate coverage is given to European feudal society (manorialism, serfdom, monarchies, chivalry), the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, development of schools and universities, scientific advancement, and the consequences of the plague pandemic (Black Death). Lessons in History comments: “The theme of religion [Catholic Christianity] is essential because of the pervasive influence of the Church. It dominated the intellectual and cultural life of the West, competed with princes and kings for power, and strove to regulate everyday morality.”
*A deficiency in this section is the lack of any specific coverage of Scholasticism. The Scholastics (Abelard, Buridan, and Aquinas among others) provided the key to the emergence of so much of what has been (by any objective standard) good about the modern world. They took on a gigantic question: did the ancients like Plato and Aristotle, even though they were pagans, have access to Truth? Does their work still retain any value, even relevance, in a Christian culture? The Scholastics held that both sets of truths (those revealed in Scripture and those achieved by human reason) had the same Author (God), and thus were in actuality compatible with one another. Any apparent disagreement between them was exactly that – one of appearance. They were, because of their Author, actually congruent, and they testified to a great Truth when taken together.
*The spread of Islam into Eurasia and Africa is covered in several learning objectives. Lessons in History states: “This age saw the historic rise and spread of Islam, a new faith that united the Middle East and was rapidly disseminated to Africa, southern Europe, and Asia.” The “scientific, artistic, and literary achievements of Islamic civilization” are noted, but in reality these achievements paled in comparison to Christian Europe. In the Islamic world, religious thinkers developed the “doctrine of the two truths.” There is a degree of truth, they said, provided by human reason, and there is also Qur’anic Truth. Qur’anic Truth, of course, trumped everything, and when there was a conflict between these two truths, the Qur’an won. This greatly impeded advancement beyond the work of the ancients, and it essentially hobbled the birth of genuine science and scholarship in the Muslim world.
Era 6: The Emergence of the First Global Age, 1450-1770
*The introduction to this section states: “The most conspicuous characteristic of this era was the great acceleration of change in the way people lived, worked, and thought.” This section focuses a lot on change in Europe, including such topics as maritime exploration, interregional trading, expansionism/colonialism, the rise of mercantile capitalism, innovation in science and technology, achievements in the arts, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Renaissance and Humanism, and the Enlightenment.
*Other parts of the world are certainly not ignored. There are learning objectives on Eurasian empires (Chinese Ming, Ottoman Turk, Moghul/Mongol, and Persian Safavid states), the Americas (particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and English exploits and interaction with Mayans, Incans, and American Indians), Africa, Russia, India, and Southeast Asia. Thus while European history is certainly featured, there is a good balance with other societies as well.
*There is some focus on negative aspects of this era, but this coverage is not excessive. Topics include the decline of Native American societies in the light of European incursion, European religious and civil wars, Ottoman military conquests, and the African slave trade and other forms of social bondage.
Era 7: An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914
*This is a period during which numerous changes occurred across the globe. The writers have chosen to address a few specific trends and to mention a number of societies in different parts of the world.
*The standards focus on three major trends: democratic revolutions, the industrial revolution, and global European dominance. Topics include the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic empire, Latin American independence movements, the agricultural revolution, industrialization, urbanization, labor movements, abolition of slavery, European nationalism, European cultural life, European colonization/imperialism, European economic power, and science and technology (particularly in Europe). The emphasis on Europe during this era is understandable. As the standards point out: “In 1800 Europe controlled about 35 percent of the world’s land surface. By 1914 they dominated over 84 percent. In the long span of human history European world hegemony lasted a short time, but its consequences were profound and continue to be played out today.”
*We might add nationalism as a fourth major trend during this era. The spread of European-Western ideas throughout the world by the end of the nineteenth century planted the idea of nationhood so powerfully that, when non-European peoples sought to make their place in the modern world, they did so largely along the lines of the nationalism born in Western cultures. Indeed, the “triumphant nationalism” mentioned later in Era 9 would seem to require some stage-setting during Eras 7 and 8.
* The concept of democratic revolution might better be understood under the name nineteenth century liberalism (liberalism in the classic sense), for not all of the democratic developments of that century were achieved by means of revolution. The case of Great Britain’s political evolution across the period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the Reform Acts of 1884 and 1911 saw much debate and contentious argument, but virtually no bloodshed, especially compared to the events just across the English Channel through this same period.
*In this era the standards continue the trend of including lesser known developments in different parts of the world; for example, the Ottoman Empire, Russian absolutism, India (British rule), Japan (Meiji Restoration), transformations in the Americas (Mexico, Canada, Latin America), and African developments (Sudan, Zanzibar, South Africa, Saharan countries).
Era 8: A Half-Century of Crisis and Achievement, 1900-1945
*The standards focus on a number of major events and trends in this era: global industrial development, innovations in science and technology (transportation, communications, medicine, understanding of the universe), conflicting ideologies (modern liberalism, social reformism, conservatism, socialism, materialism), World War I (causes, campaigns, turning points), the Russian Revolution (Marx, Lenin, Stalin), efforts at a lasting peace (League of Nations), the Great Depression, World War II (fascism, national socialism, communism, turning points, wartime leaders, the Holocaust), and the rise of American power and global leadership. The standards do a good job of identifying and describing key factors during this era.
*The standards emphasize the growing connectivity of the world’s people during this era: “In the decades that followed [the invention of the airplane] air travel was perfected, and all the physical barriers that had obstructed long-distance communication among human groups virtually disappeared. Oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges no longer mattered much when people living thousands of miles apart were determined to meet, talk, negotiate, or do business.... In some ways peoples of the world became more tightly knit than ever before.... However, in other respects division and conflict multiplied.”
*The standards also record the tragic and unprecedented loss of life during the two world wars: “In the Thirty Years War of the 1600s, one of Europe’s most destructive contests, more than 4 million people may have died. The wars of 1914-1945, by contrast, took 45 million lives.” Also, students are asked to “describe the devastation suffered by Jews and other groups in the Nazi Holocaust.”
Era 9: The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes
*The standards identify four topics of major importance in the modern world. First is the emergence of new sovereign states resulting from the breakup of European colonial empires and the Soviet Union. “Triumphant nationalism, in short, has radically transformed the globe’s political landscape.” Post-war recovery is featured (Marshall Plan, creation of the European Economic Community, establishment of democratic institutions in Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, et al.). Nationalism movements are noted in various parts of the world; for example, India, Israel, South Africa, Egypt, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states.
*The second topic is the Cold War and hopes for genuine world peace. “For forty years recurrent international crises and the doubtful consolations of mutually assured destruction dominated world affairs.” Major Cold War crises are covered (Berlin blockade, Korean War, Suez crisis, Cuban missile crisis, et al.). The Soviet domination of Eastern Europe is noted, as well as the rise of Communism in China. Students are asked to explain “why the Soviet and other communist governments collapsed and the Soviet Union splintered into numerous states.” President Reagan’s successful policy of “peace through strength” should have been noted here – but wasn’t. Credit should also be given to Pope John Paul II, who helped bring down the Iron Curtain with his message that there is another way to live apart from Communist doctrine.
*The third topic is the “bewildering pace and complexity of change in the late 20th century.... As the gales of change blow, people seek communal bonds and identities more urgently than ever.” The standards explore global economic interdependence, world migration, the progress of human and civil rights, women’s movement towards social equality, and the responses of religions to the world’s challenges and uncertainties.
*The fourth topic is the contrast between “progress through science, technology, and rational policy-making” and “skepticism and angst” from the “world population explosion, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, and epidemic disease.” There is some (but not an excessive) emphasis on negative trends; for example, over-population, hunger/famine, economic imbalances, environmental threats, militant religious movements, and global terrorism. More mention of some positive trends would be desirable.
National Civics and Government Standards
National Economics Standards
National Geography Standards
National History Standards
National Social Studies Standards