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Globalization and History Education

By Chris Williams

By now, everyone knows that we live in a globalized world. Case in point: a high school classroom in San Jose, California could contain students from Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, France, Brazil, Canada, and South Africa, to name a few, not to mention those born in the United States. Yet in that San Jose classroom, in classrooms across the country and around the world, history is often presented in a very narrow way, usually focusing only on history as it affects a given nation. Global history, in a truly interconnected format, is almost always left out of the curriculum entirely.

Mario Carretero, FSI-Humanities Center International Visitor and Bliss Carnochan Visitor for 2012 at the Stanford Humanities Center, and Sam Wineburg, Director of the Stanford History Education Group, are involved in an ongoing research project on this issue. During Carretero’s residency this winter, they traded ideas about how history education should be changed to reflect our globalized world and new media.

“We have an important challenge to face right now,” Carretero remarked. “Both [national and global] views have weaknesses and strengths. The simple way would be to just modify history education to become more globalized and cosmopolitan. But it’s not so easy. It’s important to consider that national history plays a very important role in identity construction.” In other words, students need to understand their nation’s history to form a concept of themselves as citizens of that nation. On the other hand, students also need to understand how their nation fits in the context of the larger world.

“The educational and psychological question,” Wineburg agreed, “is how do we sufficiently de-center youth, so they can embrace a much more synoptic view of history, while at the same time recognizing that the raison d’être for having history education in the curriculum is to create citizens who share a national story.”

Wineburg continued, “As we see the movement toward global history, we see an interesting irony that many nation-states tell themselves they are engaging in international histories and global histories, while what they are really doing is refracting global historical topics through the prism of a national lens.”

Striking a balance between national and global history will be difficult, particularly when one considers the large immigrant populations in many countries. Trying to create citizens who share a common story, when most of those citizens in fact have completely different stories, almost seems an oxymoron. The result, Carretero concluded, “is that most of the immigrants then have a hard time assimilating into their new culture.” This makes sense. Immigrants, holding with their identities, will find it difficult or even impossible to relate to the wholly different identities taught in school textbooks.

Speaking about how history education can be changed to reflect the new globalized world, Carretero argued, “We need to think about not only which topics we include in our curriculum, but what kind of questions the students should ask and answer.” Students need to think not just about their identity as a citizen of their nation, but also about their identity as a citizen of the world.

For example, many high school students in the United States currently learn about the Vietnam War. They learn primarily from an American vantage point, how the war was received “at home.” Let us imagine the effect this must have on Vietnamese-American students, many of whom are in the United States because of this very war! These are the realities of a global classroom: a place in which national identities and histories are constantly in formation.

If new global history methods work, students will begin to see that any one part of the past does not happen in isolation, but rather in an interconnected and complex web across countries and cultures. Then we will develop not only national identity, but truly global citizens.