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International National Curriculum for History

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I note that Niall Ferguson, professor of history at New York University, has a new television series starting on Saturday called Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. There is also a book of the series.


According to one review: "The United States today is an empire - but a peculiar kind of empire", writes Niall Ferguson in Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Despite overwhelming military, economic and cultural dominance, the US has had a difficult time imposing its will on other nations, mostly because the country is uncomfortable with imperialism and thus unable to use this power most effectively and decisively. The origin of this attitude and its persistence is a principal theme of this thought-provoking book, including how domestic politics affects foreign policy, whether it is politicians worried about the next election or citizens who "like Social Security more than national security".

It seems that the right-wing Ferguson has no problem with the term “American Imperialism”. However, he takes the view that American Imperialism is a force of good. He argues: “Many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule” (in the same way that many countries benefited from British rule in the 19th century).

Ferguson has recently been very critical of the History National Curriculum in the UK. He is particularly concerned about the way the subject of the British Empire is taught in schools. He feels that history teachers are far too critical of this period in our history.

A good review of Ferguson’s ideas can be found in George Monbiot’s article “An Empire of Denial”.


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I went to a lecture recently in Bristol, at the empire and commonwealth museum, in which Niall Ferguson spoke. I have never heard some speak more confidently about ideas which are so naive. One of the most memorable comments that he made concerned post colonial Africa. Ferguson argued that the biggest problem for (Anglophone) Africa today was that the British had NOT stayed for long enough!!! He has this notion that 'Empire' is almost entirely benevolent and that we, clearly, should overlook 'minor' issues of exploitation (including post colonial), and racism. One of the books that I read at University was by Walter Rodney, 'How Europe underdeveloped Africa', I wonder if Niall Ferguson has read it?

I thought that the article by George Monbiot was an excellent counter to Ferguson's diatribe.

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The sense of frustration in Maggie Jarvis' remarks about history and the present are interesting. Alas, if she were only correct in the assertion that by studing the present we can do something about it as historians, we might all be happier. For all of us who may be unhappy with the positions of our governments all we can hope to do in the short run is change them at election time, or support them to keep them in power if we think they are correct in what they are doing. We shall see in the case of my country soon enough, when November rolls around. As for the quotes from Santayana and others in this history section I would add one that may too often not be understood. I see real evidence for this one every day! A USAF general being interviewed some years ago said to a friend of mine, the interviewer, "Hugh, when you think you see a conspiracy in the Pentagon, look instead for incompetence!" I do not think there was all that much conspiracy between MI5, MI6, FBI, DIA, CIA, G2, A2, and so forth. I think the general had it just about right! But also keep in mind that stock-piled weapons were not the threat any of them were really worried about, rather it was the persistence of the ability to bring online facilities, materials, and talents with which to make WMD on relatively short notice. Those we have found . . . whether on a scale sufficient to satisfy the public on Saddam's intention, or to satisfy my Congress and your Parliament on that score is perhaps a rather different issue. I think election time here and over your way will be most interesting indeed. James A. Mowbray, Professor of Strategy, Doctrine, and Airpower, Air War College, Maxwell AFB.

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Here's a very specific suggestion about what the European module of such an international curriculum could contain:

At the very end of the First World War there were two phenomena which profoundly affected everyone's lives: the epidemic of Spanish flu and the widespread political agitation resulting in such diverse events as tanks in the streets in Glasgow and bread riots in Stockholm.

I'm not a historian, but we hardly even touched on these when I did 20th century History at school. I'd like an international history curriculum to look at some of these 'hidden' events and encourage pupils to look at the degree to which you can draw parallels between them and the degree to which you can't … and at the way that events which are apparently unrelated to wider political themes may have effects on them (more people died of Spanish flu in Europe than were killed in the war - how did that affect demographics in the 1920s?).

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I agree with much of what John and Hetha suggest. One important thing is to get away from the idea of a model based on 'coverage' of the national past from the year zero. This model produces pupils who end up not really knowing or understanding anything about history or why they might benefit from doing history.

You have to make the amount of content manageable so that pupils can make sense of the history that they do, and picking out 'themes' is one way of doing this. The themes should also be influenced by what would help pupils to make sense of the world they are living in, so John's list is a good starting point although I would not agree with every bit of it or the titles of all the themes.

There should be a balance of different types of history, not just British, European, World/ Political, social, economic, but also some elements of philosophy, sociology, political thought (treated from a historical perspective).

The main thing is that topics are 'opened up', so as to make pupils think about the issues involved as they effect the present and future. 'Overview' studies looking at issues over time are one way of doing this.

One of my main sources of dismay when I see trainee teachers teach is when they have not thought to 'open up' the topic and think, 'Why are we making them learn about this stuff, in what way is it relevant to the lives they will lead?'

So sometimes they just teach 'Castles' of the past. Why? No-one has built a castle for about 500 years. But the issue of controlling populations and protecting citizens (which is part of what castles were about) is still a very pertinent issue.

Similarly, they sometimes teach about the factory system, and devleopments in textile machinery, without thinking about how modes of production, supply and demand and technological change will affect the lives of the pupils they teach. Or 'roads and canals in the c17-18', without linking it in any way to transport issues and dilemmas today.

Every time somone teaches a lesson where the pupils haven't got a clue why they are learning about it is a nail driven into the coffin of the subject.

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What is important is to enable pupils to become historians in their own right.

I'm not a historian, but I agree with most of what has been written on the topic so far, and with Helga in particular.

Anyway, I would like to go back to the original theme suggested by John:

What should an International National Curriculum be like?

I think that we should really try to consider historical events from a global, worldwide point of view. As Europeans, after WW2 we have been constantly working not only to rebuild our countries, but with the more or less agreed or shared objective of realizing the UE, which has just been enlarged and will probably be even further enlarged in the future. The context in which we place all current events has changed: we are used to feeling and thinking “globally”, we are fully aware of how the future of each of us is dependent on global history and it will always be like this in the future. The theme suggested by John means that probably now we feel the need to look at past events from a really international perspective as well.

I would suggest enlarging the field of investigation, considering history as a subject to be studied on a worldwide basis and analysing all periods, events, and phenomena from a global point of view which takes into consideration all that happens in the world context on a synchronous axis.

I think the period or event chosen is uninfluential, as long as we teach students to evaluate sources and interpret them. They should always be able to place a single event on the timeline, but the investigation of a single period could provide them with the tools to understand all the others: the concepts of change and continuity, of cause and effect, etc.

Edited by Caterina Gasparini
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I think the most important point I would like to make on this topic, is that I believe we are failing as history teachers. Lately have examined and re-examined my motivation for entering the history classroom. My Grade 12 IB class who are just about to leave for university have categorically told me that my history class was the most interesting and challenging class they took this semester. Yet not one of them is going to study history at university. The vast majority are studying either business or economics. One is going in the army! When I aked why they decided to study these subjects the overwhelming response was "We don't want to be poor, we want to be rich and wealthy."

Does it really matter what is on an history curriculum, when history is only one small part of system that now has too much emphasis on money, league tables, performance related pay, and whole host of external factors to the history class room which erode our best efforts to challenge the preconceived doctrines of the modern world? I don't know.

I believe very strongly now that my history teaching can only be overtly political. Many teachers will disagree and have disagreed with me. The arguements against overt historical political teaching are very intelligent and salient. If, that is, the world was based on freedom of speech and basic principles of democracy. But it is not, and I will not help to contribute to this political apathy which smothering our world and spinning mankind out of control.

I'm sure every person who lived has felt that they are living in the most important era of mankind, however, I strongly feel that we are living through the most important era of mankind, the pivotal period, in which we could very soon find our society in ruins. Evidence would suggest that if we don't stop failing as decent human people we won't have another hundred years worth of history to discuss. I will not listen to any more right wing, Bush/Blair, American, British, imperialistic, colonial rhetoric without doing my bit to make my students very critical of these ideas. Why?

“The aim of the historian, like that of the artist, is to enlarge our picture of the world, to give us a new way of looking at things.” (James Joll)

“The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.” (G. K. Chesterton)

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” (H. G. Wells)

“More history is made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills and proclamations.” (John Barth)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” (Voltaire)

Perhaps it is in our nature to ultimately destroy ourselves through war, greed and power. I do think together we could turn this trend around, but this would mean adopting John Simkin international curriculum and teaching like we mean it.

Either that or few molotov making classes.

Edited by John Kelly
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Nice one John.

I have pondered for a while what I should include for an international history curriculum and, whilst not wanting to appear a 'cop out', I don't have any suggestions. The reason is this: As both a history teacher and head of a history department my philosophy has always been about promoting creativity and opportunity for teachers and students. I guess this came from my own desire to explore a completely new and totally different area of historical study when I went to university. At school I had studied 19th century British and European History and the English Civil War. In fact one of the turning points in my life (and I don't use the phrase lightly) came about when I was choosing my degree subject. I was much better at Politics, I was more interested in Politics, but one of my A Level History teachers told me that if you study History you can basically create your own degree - in other words I chose the topics, the periods, the countries that I wanted to study (I would, sadly, be suprised if students had the same freedom today). I applied to study History in the school of African and Asian Studies at Sussex University, and it was fantastic. As a result in my teaching I have always tried to include topics in my teaching that go beyond the 'status quo' of the National Curiculum. I actually believe that in the last 7 years the freedom to create your own curriculum has increased enormously and the Labour government should take credit for that . So I guess I believe that the best teaching comes from the most passionate historians and they teach the topics that they want to learn about themselves.

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After reading all the comments I would now propose the following revised international curriculum for history.


An account of how men and women have attempted to gain political control of their destinies. Case studies would include Ancient Greece, Republican Rome, Iroquois Confederacy, Early Parliaments in Europe, Male and Female Suffrage, Sweden – A Modern Democracy, Citizenship, Local Study: The Struggle for the Vote in Your Area.


A look at the history of inequality. How people became rich and why so many people remained poor. A study of the strategies of how people protected their wealth and how the poor attempted to improve their situation. Case Studies would include Poverty in the Ancient World, Serfdom in the Middle Ages, Managing the Poor in the 16th and 17th Centuries, West Africa in the 19th century, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution, the Welfare State and a Local Study: Poverty in the 19th Century.


A look at the history of conquest and empire. The political and economic advantages of conquest. Strategies used to maintain control over the conquered people. Strategies used by the subjected people to regain control. Case Studies would include the Roman Empire, the Vikings and Normans, Mongol Empire, Incan & Aztec Empires, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Empire, United States: Postwar Superpower, and a Local Study: Invasion of your Region.


A study of the development of our economic system. Case Studies would include Early Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, Trade Unionism, Growth and Depression, Alternative Systems, Globalisation, Environmentalism and a Local Study: Trade and Industry.


A look at the different ideologies that have emerged over the last 200 years. Case Studies would include Mercantilism, Communism in Russia and China, Fascism in Italy, Spain and Germany, Capitalism in the United States, Religious Fundamentalism in the Middle East and a Local Study: Political Ideology in your Region.


A study of conflict over the last 200 years. Case Studies would include the First World War, Spanish Civil War, Second World War, the Cold War, Racial Conflict in South Africa, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Religious Fundamentalism, North-South Divide, United Nations and Conflict Resolution and a Local Study: The Impact of War.

Heath and Welfare

A look at the impact that disease and poor living conditions have had on the development of world history. Case studies would include Measles Epidemic in the Roman Empire, the Black Death, Smallpox in the 16th Century, Cholera, Public Health in the 19th Century, 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic, the Welfare State, AIDS.

I would go along with the views expressed by Heather Wheeler and Caterina Gasparini on how the subject should be studied.

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  • 2 months later...

Being new to this forum and mearly being a high school teacher, I am not saavy in the world of International History curriculum, yet. I will tell you that the trend in my radically conservative state is to teach less world history and emphasise American history, American government/constitution and Kansas history over world history or world culture classes. Now keep in mind that all of the people that I know do not like this new language in our state standards but the people that make the standards continure to get elected.

It seems to me that to me a truely tolerant nation, one that makes good decisions as the worlds sole super power, that we should educate our children appropriately. Without a well rounded knowledge of why people in other regions react the way they do (i.e. reactions based on their collective history) we will continue to be the targets of attacks by other countries.

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Please correct me if I am wrong, but our text books and part of what I teach when teaching about Africa, and the Middle East does cover the British Empire (which of course it has to). I make the point that part of the governing problems that these regions are currently facing are due to the fact that the British ( and to be fair the French, Spanish, Germans, Portuguese) did not teach the people in these areas how to govern themselves. Am I (and our text books) doing an injustice to the colonial powers? To the colonial people?

I went to a lecture recently in Bristol, at the empire and commonwealth museum, in which Niall Ferguson spoke. I have never heard some speak more confidently about ideas which are so naive. One of the most memorable comments that he made concerned post colonial Africa. Ferguson argued that the biggest problem for (Anglophone) Africa today was that the British had NOT stayed for long enough!!! He has this notion that 'Empire' is almost entirely benevolent and that we, clearly, should overlook 'minor' issues of exploitation (including post colonial), and racism. One of the books that I read at University was by Walter Rodney, 'How Europe underdeveloped Africa', I wonder if Niall Ferguson has read it?

I thought that the article by George Monbiot was an excellent counter to Ferguson's diatribe.

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