World History courses should improve coverage of non-European countries

A 2002 National Geographic survey showed only 17% of 18-24 year olds in the U.S. could find Afghanistan on a map. Twenty years later, this ignorance of international issues on the part of young people remains prevalent. Just last year, national security advisor Jake Sullivan considered our lack of knowledge on global affairs a “national security problem.”

The root of this problem is clear — a lack of education about history and cultures outside the U.S. and Western Europe exists even at Paly, a school that prides itself on its liberal values and diverse student backgrounds. 

One place this is clear is in required history courses. In fact, most students typically only receive one semester of world history (Contemporary World History), and the “world” history class students take in 9th grade focuses almost entirely on European history. 

As important as European history is to understanding and contextualizing our current world and U.S. heritage, to call a class focused on a continent containing 10% of the global population a “world” history class is ignorant of the history and cultures of billions of other people. Even within the Contemporary World History class most students take their sophomore year, the curriculum studies foreign history through a European lens, focusing largely on how European imperialism and interventionism affected other countries. 

Even if a Paly student wanted to learn more world history outside of these required classes, they would have an exceptionally hard time doing so. Out of the nine social studies electives listed on the 2022-2023 Paly course catalog, only two of them even attempt to examine non-western history and culture, and both of them still look at the world through an American perspective. U.S. Foreign Policy Honors examines American stances and policy on geopolitical issues, while Ethnic Studies focuses on the history of people of color in America without really taking a closer look at the cultures of their homelands. 

This problem extends outside of the history department, as well. The english department has yet to standardize its curriculumcuricullum to examine literature from outside of the U.S. or England, despite over 57 other countries with English as an official language. Most music classes focus entirely on 17th-18th century European music written by white men, with songs from other cultures left as an afterthought. And many art students never get to learn the techniques and styles traditional to Latin American, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. 

As the world becomes more interconnected, it’s clear this lack of education about cultures outside of Europe and North America is a disservice to Paly students. Beyond that, this eurocentric curriculum pushes a toxic narrative: that non-Euro American cultures and histories are somehow less important, less relevant or less civilized than their European and North American counterparts. It teaches students that people from other countries are unrelatable, that there’s nothing to learn from their rich history and customs. 

The problem has an easy fix, though. Offer AP World History and AP Human Geography like so many other schools as an alternative to AP United States History or as a senior elective. Give students of color a chance to learn more about their own ethnicities through classes on Latin American, Native American, Asian and African history. In terms of source material, more courses should follow suit with Choir, which only had two out of their 14 fall concert selections as pieces sourced from classical 17th/18th century European male composers. Some English courses break away from the norm and offer a wider selection of books, like a translated version of the Russian novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

With these changes to the curriculum, our knowledge of the unique and complex civilizations around the world will be as varied as the diverse Paly student population that represents them.