World history survey courses involve content across the entire curriculum, and contribute to students’ education in many ways. In the current educational environment of higher expectations and new possibilities, focusing on issues unique to world history teaching may help us to realize improvement in the way it is taught and learned.
This essay, first presented in the event booklet for CIE’s 1998 Colloquium on World History, describes CIE’s approach to discussing the debate over the purpose, content and definition of world history.
The Council on Islamic Education has convened this Colloquium on World History in a spirit of optimism. Through our work in the field of secondary education over the past few years, we have noted the strong belief among educators, public officials and citizens that history education deserves attention because it has an important role to play in American society. We have tapped into the rich vein of acceptance and fair-mindedness that runs deep in the character of ordinary Americans, and which seems to be even stronger among those who have chosen to work in the field of education. Through our work with scholars of our own and other organizations, we have been privileged to catch a glimpse of the exciting possibilities in bringing history education to our classrooms and beyond.
What is the purpose of teaching about religion in public school classrooms? Is it to propagate religion, and to instruct in its practice? Should teaching be confined to representing the history of that religion which represents the largest demographic group in the country? Or should religions be selected for study based on a judgment of their worth? Is teaching about religion a matter of studying a mere artifact of human development that belongs to a rich and glorious past, but which has been superceded by natural and social sciences? Or is it a matter of politics or social engineering, whose presence in the school is designed to make all groups feel validated? Can public schools support the spiritual and intellectual rights of families and students of different faith traditions?
Turning the question on its head, would learning about US history, world history and world cultures make any sense if study of human religious experience were taken out or made invisible? Would the visual arts, literature, music and architecture of the world appear coherent if only "secular" expression was considered? Would it help American citizens live together more peaceably and constructively if we insisted upon the secular character of culture as a bulwark of the republic and enforced secularism in education? Is it right to present a view of religious experience that reflects a prevailing positive or negative view of one religion or the other? Should an anthropological, sociological or other academic view of the beliefs and practices provide the framework for discussing or explaining different religious beliefs as an aspect of culture, or should classroom study explain how people who practice the faith describe their beliefs and practices? Should faiths be evaluated based on the historical record of their adherents in following its moral and ethical codes, or on the quality of their cultural achievements? How could this be fairly accomplished in assessing the history of all major faiths, and how would such an enterprise serve the academic study of history?