Ruth: Downsizing world history exam is foolish

Published June 25 2018
Updated June 28 2018

Incas? We don’t need no stinking Incas.

Aztecs? Who cares? Why bother with them?

As for the Roman Empire, about the only good that came from that was spaghetti.

Plato? Who’s he?

Now that you might be properly offended, or perhaps not, especially if you’re of European ancestry, don’t blame this space. Cast your stink-eye in the general direction of the nonprofit (and perhaps nonthinking) College Board, which owns the rights to the Advanced Placement World History exam.

If it has its way, the College Board plans to make a few minor tweaks and adjustments to the exam by eliminating a mere 10,000 years of world history from the test.

Scheduled to go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year, the A.P. World History exam would only cover material from the year 1450 going forward. That means, for example, students would not be required to be versed on the great ruling dynasties of Africa. But 1450 does mark the approximate early beginnings of the slave trade.

The exam would completely dismiss the Roman Empire, which sort of, kind of, maybe influenced the dynamics of the entire scope of — ahem — world history. Although that Caesar guy did whip up a darn fine salad.

The proposed world history curriculum would take a decidedly Eurocentric turn, focusing on the rise of European power while short-changing the histories of pre-colonial Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Asia. Why get bogged down with stuff like millennia of Chinese dynasties, which we all know contributed nothing to the world’s culture except the creation of bamboo Mai-Tai umbrellas.

Those topics would be consigned to a pre-A.P. World History course that would not be tested — ergo offering not very much incentive to learn anything. Phftt! Schools. This education stuff can be so highly over-rated.

College Board officials told the New York Times the decision to begin world history at 1450 —as if everything that happened before then was a mere chronological bagatelle — was made because there is too much historical ground to cover. And isn’t that the problem with history? It keeps happening.

That prompted Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and president of the World History Association, to snort, "Every course has too much content. There’s so much content in biology, but they’re not saying, ‘There are so many bones in the human body, I think we’ll just cover the waist up!’?"

Properly taught, world history is not a dry recitation of dates and factoids. Having a grasp of the long arc of history provides a better understanding of why we are who we are today, from how the Crusades marked the rise of Christianity and influenced the shape of the Middle East, to the expansion of trade routes that forged the emergence of Asia as an economic power dating back to the Silk Road.

Educators across the nation are furious with the College Board’s effort to downsize the importance of pre-1450 history. And since subjects such as the Roman Empire, or the ancient Incan and Aztec cultures and civilizations, aren’t considered valuable enough to be included on the A.P. World History exam, cash-strapped school districts will be less inclined to teach the subjects.

All human history is inter-related. It is the DNA of the planet. It forges our cultures, our biases, our fears, our triumphs, our languages, our faiths. It explains us.

Yes, it is a long history. But deciding that post-1450 is the only history worth testing is like starting Citizen Kane in the middle, after Orson Welles moves into his massive estate, because all this "Rosebud" business is a distraction.

We hear a great deal of blithering about the importance of education. But an education is much more than math and science and technology. It is also about teaching students how to think, how the past influences the future.

The College Board’s decision could diminish scholarly interest about world history. How can you understand George Santayana’s shopworn caution about those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, if you have never been taught about the past to begin with?

For the educational community, downsizing history is a scandal.

For the rest of society, this self-inflicted illiteracy is a crisis of intellectual curiosity that will only further dumb down the citizenry.

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