The purpose of having history taught as a part of general education is to provide context for the modern world and promote understanding of different cultures. Unfortunately, the way that history education is set up in America, as well as local elementary and high schools, makes it nearly impossible to get a comprehensive look at non-western or non-Eurocentric ideas, especially in the context of modern events.
At my middle school, the only year to focus on non-American history was sixth grade, where we studied the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China. After that, World Studies is the only class in which any part of the non-western world is focused on. Seventh grade focuses on medieval Europe and the early Americas, and eighth grade covers American history. Here at M-A, students learn European history in tenth grade, American history again in eleventh grade, and government and economics, focusing again on America, in twelfth grade. These trends are reflected in high schools across America, with some high schools not even teaching World Studies as a required course.
The general lack of focus on non-Western cultures in history classes is what makes World Studies so important. It is the only class available before college that delves into other cultures. World Studies covers Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and other regions through a historical and modern context. In our current political climate, understanding other cultures is vital to combating misconceptions about different cultures that can lead to xenophobia and racism.
However, this important part of our education at M-A is hindered by teachers having to teach the course in only three-quarters of the time all other history teachers have to teach their material. This is because of the class Life Skills. Life Skills is a graduation requirement worth 2.5 credits and takes 10 weeks to complete. World Studies teachers spend the first quarter of the year teaching this course to freshmen in their class.
There are some upsides to having Life Skills be the first part of a freshman history course. For one, the course deals with global data, which provides good background information for the subjects to be covered. Also, as Luca Signore, a World Studies teacher, puts it, “I think [Life Skills] is a good way for students to get slowly introduced to high school curriculum in terms of … the reading and writing aspects. I do think it has value.”
However, these upsides do not explain the length of the course, or why all of it needs to all be taught in World Studies. Most of Life Skills deals with mental, physical, and emotional health and the strategies necessary to live a well-balanced life. These are obviously extremely important to learn about, however, none of these strategies are related to history, and they only take away from the time World Studies teachers have to properly teach students about all non-western cultures.
Signore explained, “My biggest concern with [Life Skills] is the fact that it does take away from a lot of the other things that lose out because we teach life skills. Doing Latin America in a quarter is challenging, it’s a continent. So is Africa.”
The complete disregard for education on non-western cultures is apparent when an entire 10 weeks of the year is spent on non-history-related subjects. As students, we have only one real opportunity to delve into the complexities of other cultures in a historical and modern context, and that opportunity is being confined to only three-quarters of a year. The Middle East, a region that is vital to understand in today’s international climate, is talked about for only three weeks. The entire continent of Africa gets a quarter of a year. Meanwhile, we spend two entire years to learn about two Western regions, Europe and America.
This isn’t to say that European and American history isn’t important. All history is important to be able to make well-informed judgments on current events and to understand the reason current events are happening. However, we spend a disproportionate amount of time learning only about western civilizations, while all other history is shoved into less than a full year.
There is not a simple solution to this. Life Skills is certainly an important class, and history topics for every year of high school do not vary too much across the United States. Perhaps we can reduce the number of weeks Life Skills lasts, or we could distribute different parts of the class to different subjects freshmen are required to take.
Most importantly, however, we need to be aware of the skewed view of the world we get simply by taking high school classes. Reading books, doing further research, and talking to people from all different cultures is invaluable in today’s world. Recently, building walls and keeping others out of our country has been valued over understanding others and their situations. Education is the only way to fight the ignorance that divides us, rather than strengthens us, based on our different cultures.