"The West and the Rest": A Fundamental Misunderstanding of World History in Curriculum Legislature

Now that this high quality website has gone live I suppose we ought to start filling the blog posts with some opinions on current affairs, so here's something I've had on my mind over the weekend.


On Friday I received a few email responses from the British Government petition mailing list for a few petitions I had signed in an earlier month. The petitions I had signed were similar in nature, including "Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history" and "Teach Britain's colonial past as part of the UK's compulsory curriculum". The responses were standard boilerplate, bare minimum anti-racist noncommittal buck-passing by the way, so no surprises there. But my interest lies not in the content, but in the nature of the responses. They go a long way to demonstrate the continual failures on behalf of the education curriculum and its legislators to properly implement world history into our schools, and I think it would make for a nice article here to explore how they demonstrate it, and I may write a follow-up article exploring why it is I think the misunderstanding exists, and what we can do about it.

But first, a quick definition of world history, just so we're all on the same page. Popularised in the late 20th century by historians such as Arnold J Toynbee, world history, whilst an intentionally vague title, is in essence the study of global history. The field focuses on the integration of or difference in themes amongst various cultures and civilisations, almost in an anthropological sense. The significant difference between the field of world history and others is that world history attempts to circumvent the shortcomings of other fields, mainly: 1) the deep rooted eurocentric assumptions and the adherence to the Western tradition 2) using the modern international structure of the nation-state to set boundaries and assume intentions of those in the past

By avoiding these two shortcomings, world historians believe they are better able to study and present history as it occurred, history as it was felt, and history as it was understood by those living contemporaneously to the periods being studied.

Along with the growth in popularity of the field, it has enabled (or, at the very least, assisted in) the development or legitimising of histories from below - BAME histories, post-colonial studies, feminist histories and even LGBT histories, and has probably been a factor in the reduction in popularity of the Rankean school of history, of only focusing on nations, how they interacted, and the (pretty much always) men who ran them. World history has grown so popular as a field that it has even been adopted by many education curriculums in the West. Kind of. The British school curriculum certainly gives the outward impression that it follows the field when constructing the history curriculum in particular, and it's for this reason that I refuse to accept the response of "British schools will teach British history, I don't know why this surprises you Liam". The curriculum aims to give a world history education, so I'm holding it to that standard.

Now that we're all on the same page, I'll make a quick case for why I personally think world history is such an essential field. First of all, it's more fun that just focusing on the Western tradition, because let's be real here, do we really need more historians studying the collapse of the Roman Empire? Do we need any more historians working on the European theatres of war in the Second World War? There's so much incredible history from all over the globe but, unsurprisingly, the West focuses on the West, and somehow, laughably, makes the Western tradition into a linear progression of civilisation. Secondly, it's more inclusive, and it's almost a kindness to know of those who came before. We all want to be remembered to some extent, and it doesn't matter where on the globe a culture or civilisation existed, they all have a right to be studied, understood, remembered and respected for what they were.

Thirdly, it offers a better understanding of the human experience in general. Being one of many humans, I like to have an understanding of how other humans lived their lives, how other humans thought, felt, and what they experienced.

There are, of course, numerous academic benefits to the field, such as the fact that world history offers a much larger scope than more traditional fields. I'm certain that the real scholars can be far more academic and convincing, but these three reasons are just why I like it as a field.


Okay. Now we know what world history entails and I've flawlessly convinced you of its merit, we can get onto the responses from the government.

Firstly, an excerpt from the response to the petition: Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history.

"The flexibility within the history curriculum means that there is the opportunity for teachers to teach about Black, Asian and minority ethnic history across the spectrum of themes and eras set out in the curriculum."

Incredible. Nothing new here of course, just the typical "blame the teachers because we've done all we can, and definitely can't just make teachers teach BAME history regardless" response. Next, an excerpt from the response to the petition: Teach Britain's colonial past as part of the UK's compulsory curriculum.

"Within the history curriculum there is already a statutory theme at Key Stage 3 titled “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901”, as such we do not believe there is a need to take this action as the option to teach this topic exists within this compulsory theme. The history curriculum gives teachers and schools the freedom and flexibility to use specific examples from history to teach pupils about the history of Britain and the wider world at all stages. It is for schools and teachers themselves to determine which examples, topics and resources to use to stimulate and challenge pupils and reflect key points in history."

Alright, so more teacher blaming, but something else. Both of the responses point out areas in the curriculum in which there are opportunities for teachers to divert from Western (but mostly just British) history, but the one I'll focus in the next paragraph is the one mentioned in the second response, the Key Stage 3 statutory theme "ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901". This is where we find the failure of the implementation of world history, and it's through the popular albeit definitely-a-cop-out approach to world history of the West and the Rest.

The West and the Rest approach is generally defined by the acceptance of the field of world history but studying the West first and foremost, and studying the Rest as an afterthought, and even more commonly through the lens of the West. Yes, I understand that individual teachers have the opportunity to teach a depth study of one of the first civilisations in Key Stage 2, and this is a valid and incredibly interesting field, but once that's done the teachers must choose between a selection of non-European societies that they can contrast with British history. I personally studied the Aztecs at this point, but we spent more time pretending to sacrifice each other than anything else. Bringing it back to the topic mentioned in the excerpt, the Key Stage 3 topic of "ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901". Empire makes up a fraction of the content in this, and how much of the imperial aspect focuses on the cultures or histories of the colonial possessions, separate from the British empire? I'd wager next to none. This isn't a study of world history, and let's be realistic here, it's barely a study of the true colonial past. I didn't learn about British concentration camps in Kenya for example, I had to rely on myself to teach myself that. That's not just a failure of world history, it's a failure to teach the actual history. But that's for another time.

"Black, Asian and minority ethnic history can also be taught across many of the themes of the history curriculum by reflecting the contribution of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people across the ages in the UK and more widely."

Even this quote demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding with the implementation of world history; "across the ages in the UK and more widely". It's an afterthought. The intent here isn't to teach world history or BAME histories in particular relation to this quote. The intent is to teach British history mainly, and maybe by proxy mention the century before the establishment of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, maybe something about the Fenians in Ireland, and most likely the decolonial efforts in the Raj and Kenya - but only when the British were getting there, colonising, and leaving. Nothing much before or after.

The issue here is that Gove's ideas of 'history of these islands' or, Jesus wept, 'history as celebration' are so deeply ingrained within the curriculum, that it leaves the education of other periods as comparative histories with the West, permanently cementing the histories of non-Western tradition as nothing more than a comparison against the 'superior' Western model. This isn't world history, but the government acts like it is because it makes them sound more inclusive, more diverse and less nationalist. The government would catch flak for failing to teach a diverse global history so they do the bare minimum and assume that's enough. It's not. Again, the counter argument of "British history should be taught in British schools" isn't adequate because it's missing the point. My issue isn't that British history is being prioritised in British schools, my issue is that the curriculum presents itself as taking a global scope through the field of world history, and yet so clearly does not do this in practice.

If the curriculum were truly adhering to the field of world history that it purports to, that it clearly wants the public to believe it is, then these kinds of responses that they gave to the petitions wouldn't pass, because they're so clearly Britain-centric. Unfortunately, for the time being, it looks like the British history curriculum is going to continue to let students down.

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