Against World History

I just signed my contract with Teacher’s College Press to write the sequel to my US textbook, Teaching World History Thematically: Document-Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom. They’ve given me 72,000 words, or 272 book pages—that’s 60 pages longer than my US book, but still…how am I going to cover everything that has happened to humans in the past 10,000 years or so?


Clearly, I’m not. It’s impossible. Yet that is what most world history textbooks set out to do: cover every “important” event in a year or two of study. Thus, they are usually quite long, and written by a slate of experts. MacDougal Littell’s World History: Patterns of Interaction, which I used before I switched to teaching thematically, weighs in at 1376 pages and has five eminently qualified co-editors.


We have plenty of massive textbooks purporting to touch on every topic. They are useful references, but I’m trying to do something different: to encourage students to inquire into the connections that can or cannot be made between the worlds they inhabit, and the worlds they encounter in the documents they analyze. My aim is not to produce a comprehensive or totalizing history, but a starting point for students’ exploration of our diverse and interconnected histories.


It will be much better if I have help. If you have taught (or studied) world history and have ideas for what documents to include, please reach out. To make this easier, I’ve created a Teaching History Thematically Facebook page. Some time ago, a teacher (hi, Cullen!) contacted me to ask if there was an online platform for those using my book to connect with each other and share ideas and resources. I hope that this page will provide that, and also allow me a window into classrooms while I am working on this new draft. It is so helpful to know what has worked well and what hasn’t so I can improve the model and respond to questions. If you’re interested, please go to that page and “like” it in order to stay updated.


In the meantime, here are the themes and questions I am considering:

1.     Forms of government: What should be the rights and responsibilities of the rulers and the ruled?

2.     Us versus them: Who is civilized, and who is a barbarian?

3. Conflict: What is worth fighting for?

4. Social hierarchy: Which groups should have most power?

5.     Economics, technology, and the environment: How should people get the resources they need?

6. Gender: What should be the roles of women and men?

7. Resistance, revolution, and reform: How should people bring about political and social change?


I’m still thinking about whether to make religion and belief systems their own unit, or integrate them with other themes. I have some documents already picked out, but others I’m still searching for. I want to include major events in the historical canon (can’t leave out the Renaissance!), but also decenter propertied white European men. I want all students to find mirrors as well as windows in the documents—representations of people they can connect with, as well as those who are unfamiliar.


This is hard work. I wonder if I’m the right person to do it, and I’m not alone—one anonymous reviewer of my proposal suggested two older white male historians who would be better qualified to write my book than I would. But I feel more prepared for this task with the advice of ordinary teachers and students. You are the ones who know what topics and activities spark curiosity and build understanding.


Finally, a side note for anyone who has an idea they believe in, but is facing obstacles in making it a reality: five years ago, I was a part-time middle school teacher with an inspiration to publish my US history curriculum as a textbook. I had a young child at home and another one on the way. I wasn’t surprised that it took Teachers College Press a while to respond to my book proposal, or that they were a bit skeptical when they did. I wasn’t entirely convinced I could write that book, either. But with some encouragement (thanks husband, mom, and best friend J), I kept sending those follow-up emails, even when it seemed ridiculous or self-indulgent to keep pursuing it.


Eventually it all worked out. My US book, while far from perfect (that’s a subject for another blog post!), was greeted with enough enthusiasm that this time around, my editor invited me to submit a proposal for a world history version.


I’m excited to start this work, and I’m lucky to have the time to do it—I’m taking a leave of absence from my job teaching at the University of Missouri this fall. My husband got a research fellowship in Berlin, and I’ll be there with my family. I look forward to writing more blog posts about the process of creating this textbook (and yes, I will write those posts I promised in my US book about the phantom units on religion, expansionism, and checks and balances). In the meantime, thank you for reading, for teaching, and for sharing your knowledge!