Too much scope can be a bad thing

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to teach both specialized, upper-level college courses and introductory survey courses, and I’ve long maintained that doing the latter is much, much more challenging than doing the former.  For one thing, in a survey class you’re going to be covering material that’s outside your comfort zone.  For another, each student in a required general studies course will have his or her own levels of familiarity with history, depending on background, educational experience, and aptitude.

To me, though, the hardest thing about teaching survey courses is the sheer amount of material covered and the speed at which you have to do so.  Your standard World History II course will encompass five centuries.  This semester I’m teaching a section of World History I, which whirls through several millennia, from the origin of man to the Renaissance—all in just a few months.

This approach invariably means that you have to make serious sacrifices in terms of content.  Nobody can responsibly cover everything in the survey textbooks in the short time allowed, and the textbooks themselves often reduce complex issues down to the barest minimum, simply out of sheer necessity. Last semester I taught the second half of World History using the fourth edition of Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, by Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler.  In terms of similar books, I think it holds up pretty well. 

Yet it does what so many textbooks have to do, which is boil things down to the point where there isn’t much left.  The entire American Revolution takes up a mere three pages.  The war itself is wrapped up in two paragraphs:

     It was one thing to declare independence, but a different matter altogether to make independence a reality.  At the beginning of the war for independence, Britain enjoyed many advantages over the rebels: a strong government with clear lines of authority [I wonder if Burgoyne and Howe would agree!], the most powerful navy in the world, a competent army, and a sizable population of loyalists in the colonies.  But to wage a war in a distant land full of opponents, Britain had to ship supplies and reinforcements across a stormy ocean.  Meanwhile, the rebels benefited from the military and economic support of European states that were eager to chip away at British hegemony in the Atlantic Ocean basin: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and several German principalities contributed to the American quest for independence.  Moreover, George Washington (1732-1799) provided strong and imaginative military leadership for the colonial army while local militias employed guerilla tactics effectively against British forces.

     By 1780 all combatants were weary of the conflict.  In the final military confrontation of the war, American and French forces under the command of George Washington surrounded the British forces of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  After a twenty-day siege, the British forces surrendered in October 1781, and major military hostilities ceased from that point forward.  In September 1783 diplomats concluded the Peace of Paris, by which the British government formally recognized American independence.

And there you have it.  On to the French Revolution!

Of course, I’m being more than a little unfair here; I doubt anyone could adequately handle this material in so little space.  And when I set up my lectures, I was able to devote only about half an hour to the American Revolution.  There was simply so much to cover.  That’s why I’ve started to wonder whether the World History survey course is too unwieldy for its own good.

I understand the purpose of replacing Western Civ or American History classes with World History courses.  The world isn’t as big as it used to be, and college graduates can’t afford to be as parochialas their parents and grandparents. 

There comes a point, though, where inclusivity stretches a class so thin that it snaps.  Consider that history is one of the few disciplines that tries to cram an overview of its entire body of knowledge into two semesters.  “World History” pretty much equates to everything that’s ever happened.  It’s equivalent to having “Science I” and “Science II,” instead of breaking first-year science courses up into different sub-disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), which is the standard practice.

There is, of course, a very important role for international history, utilizing a comparative approach to politics, religion, and so forth across various times and places.  But in terms of an introductory survey class, I think aiming for “the world”  is casting the net too wide.  Maybe we should emulate the sciences and pare down our introductory classes into manageable subjects.

This will undoubtedly mean that non-history majors will graduate with a narrower perspective on history than they would by taking a World History course.  I think, though, that the benefits would more than compensate for this loss.  Students taking survey classes so rarely get to do history, to take the time to examine contradictory explanations for things and sort them out, to become comfortable enough in a subject to poke around in the corners and see what’s there.  So many people see history as a set of facts to be learned, rather than a means to arrive at an understanding, and it’s little wonder.  Only history majors get to experience the thrill of learning to think historically and do what historians do.

I’m sure there are many instructors teaching World History surveys who are able to engage students in thinking historically, and who take the time to make the subject come alive; I was lucky to have such instructors.  But I’m also pretty sure that many of them do it by sacrificing the comprehensive approach.  They do in the classroom what we might want to start doing in our course catalogs, sacrificing some breadth for depth.  The guy driving a speedboat covers more territory than the guy wearing fins and a snorkel, but he doesn’t get to see much, except for the waves.  Deciding when and how often to stop the boat will be one of the toughest decisions instructors make this semester, and one of the most important.

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Filed under Teaching History

4 responses to “Too much scope can be a bad thing

  1. Excellent post! I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I haven’t been asked to teach the World History survey course in a number of years, and consider myself lucky. The worst I ever had was teaching World History I in an accelerated program where the class met from 6-9 p.m. once a week for six or eight weeks. It was completely ridiculous to expect anyone to really “learn” anything in that type of a setting.

    On a related note, I’ve recently been pondering the question of at what point do we start to cut off the American History II survey class? American History I covers roughly 1492-1865 (or 1877 at some schools) then American History II picks up and runs, at least in theory, to the present. At some point, we’re going to have to make the decision to cut it off somewhere. Are we at that point now? I think so, personally. I believe American History II should cover 1865-1988 (roughly). Its a good stopping point because with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of Communist USSR, the situation changes drastically. Food for thought.

  2. mlynchhistory

    When I taught World History II I usually tried to get to the end of the Cold War, with a short little “epilogue” on globalization. It seemed to work pretty well, so that might be the best approach for the U.S. surey, too.

    Teaching those one-night-a-week classes is really tough. It’s like an endurance contest for both the instructors and the students. I’m teaching a U.S. survey one day a week right now, but it seems to be going more smoothly than most of the classes I’ve taught in that format.


  3. That makes me wonder if one of these days schools will begin to offer classes called American History III, just because there is going to be so much material to cover.

  4. mlynchhistory

    I think that would be a good idea, especially for the big World History surveys. This week I’m trying to cover a chapter that has everything from ancient Sumer to the fall of the Neo-Babylonians, which is thousands of years!


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