Ancient history belongs in schools
It is impossible to teach American students all of world history. We should try anyway.
At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I have to admit that when I was a child I found the United States a very dull subject.
The least interesting thing about her was her government. The idea that, at certain fixed periods, a group of men and women met in a building that was barely older than my family's farmhouse to argue about things with names like "The Deficit" paled in comparison with what I understood — mostly from children's encyclopedias — of the rest of the world.
What fascinated me was whatever seemed most remote, in space, in time, or, better yet, both — the pharaohs of Egypt, for example, who believed in strange, and frequently sinister, gods; who fought endless wars and sang songs in forgotten tongues and built enormous structures brick by brick out of mud that they dragged from a vast river. To think that hundreds of kings had reigned in China before Christ was born or that there were empires on the western coast of Africa in the middle ages ruled by monarchs of unimaginable wealth, whose libraries held more than one million books, filled me with wonder and longing. It is with thoughts like this, with defamiliarizing awe and a certain romanticism, that true education begins. It is also what should sustain it throughout one's life, including in that frequently miserable four-year stretch known as high school.
Which brings me to the College Board. Last month the organization that devises the so-called "Advanced Placement" tests around which the destinies of millions of children unfortunately revolve, announced that it is considering a major change to the teaching of world history. Hitherto this subject has been understood to mean exactly what its name suggests — the history of the world from the earliest extant records to the present day, the history of all people, everywhere, in all ages. From now on, according to the College Board, the "world" begins in about 1450, no doubt on Christopher Columbus' birthday. Anything that might be rumored to have taken place before then is "content" that the AP examination will no longer "assess."
The board claims that it is considering this change largely in response to "feedback" from unnamed — and unquantified — educators who feel that they and their charges are not quite up to the task of doing what has been done in high schools for as long as modern secondary education has existed.
The board's decision, the details of which will be announced in July, shows what a lot of nonsense so much of our talk (and not only in educational circles) about diversity and inclusion amounts to. If we were really committed to taking a broad, expansive, generous view of human life, to attempting to understand what it might have been like to have lived lives very different from our own in places very remote from these shores, we would never dream of pretending that the teaching of history could commence in the middle of the 15th century, much less insist that it was a necessary expedient. We would understand without even having to think about it that many Americans hail from countries where verse and sculpture and architecture were being refined before a single person had drawn a breath nearly anywhere from Kaffeklubben Island to Cape Horn and that at least some of this glorious history was worth imparting to every student.
The proposed changes have not been universally applauded. As Professor Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who was once in charge of the AP world history curriculum herself, told The New York Times last week: "If you start in 1450, the first thing you'll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you'll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things." One could go further. The first thing one might ever hear about China is that Fr. Ricci, a learned Jesuit, entered the Forbidden City during the Ming Dynasty, a fascinating incident but one that comes literally thousands of years too late to give students any sense of the wonder of that great country and her people. So far from being the "Cradle of Civilization" and the home to arguably the greatest city of the middle ages, Mesopotamia and its capital would be reduced to a mere pashalik, a single administrative outpost of the infinitely vast Ottoman Empire. A similar protest could be lodged on behalf of India, or of the Levant, or Greece, or the Italian Peninsula, indeed on behalf of any part of the globe save Antarctica.
The only sensible argument to be made on behalf of the College Board here is the one they make themselves, namely that world history as it is traditionally understood comprises too much material. The idea that one could "cover" the history of the entire world from Babylonia to Baghdad Bob in the span of a single year is ludicrous, even insane. This is entirely true. It is also the best reason to attempt it. The sheer impossibility of the task is the best way of driving home what I take to be the point of teaching history in the first place — namely, imparting the lesson that human life has gone on for a very long time in a great many places, and that for all the things that seem to separate groups of us there are certain things — war, agriculture, hunting, conceptions of the divine, family life — that we all seem to have had in common for as long as any of us have been kicking around on this rock. You'll never be able to teach all of it, of course. One could spend a lifetime poring over what in the very best classroom will be a single footnote to one optional extra-credit reading assignment. With any luck, if children have the privilege of being exposed to any of it, perhaps some of them will.
A picture of the world without Menkare and Neferkere II and their numberless ancestors and successors, without the dōgu of Jōmon-era Japan or the figures of long-horned cattle painted on the walls of the Laas Geel caves or the lunatic negotiations between Pope Leo IX and Michael I Cerularius, would be hideously incomplete. If nothing else, the latest stupidity of the College Board should serve as a reminder — not that we needed one — that our testing mania is the greatest obstacle to education in this country.