Ross Dunn grew up in rural western New York State and attended the State University of New York at Albany. He was especially active in the international relations club, and he took part in several intercollegiate model United Nations conferences. Following his junior year, he spent the summer living with a family in France and traveling in western Europe. After completing a bachelor’s degree in history and French, he entered the graduate program in comparative world history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
He specialized in African and Islamic history, though the program, under the direction of Philip D. Curtin, required comparative and interregional studies that cut across conventional civilizations and regions. Following field work in France and North Africa, he wrote a dissertation that evolved into his first book, Resistance in the Desert: Moroccan Responses to French Imperialism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1977).
In 1968 Dunn joined the history department at San Diego State University, where he initially taught courses in African history, Western civilization, and historical method. Drawing on his world historical studies at Wisconsin, he and several faculty collaborators at SDSU introduced a set of two lower division world history classes in 1974. These courses remain today foundational component of the SDSU general education program. In the 1990s Dunn led the creation of two upper division courses in world history designed especially for prospective middle and high school teachers. The department also expanded its graduate offerings in comparative, interregional, and global history.
Mainly as a result of his world history teaching and Arabic studies at Wisconsin, Dunn undertook a major project in the late 1970s to write a narrative about the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, setting his extraordinary exploits in the context of the Afroeurasian world in the 1300s. Titled The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century, the book appeared in 1987 (University of California Press). It is now in its third edition and has been translated into several languages.
In the early 1980s, Dunn joined with a diverse group of college and K-12 teachers to found the World History Association. He became its first elected president and remains an active member. Later in the decade, he served as senior author of a textbook for high school students titled World History: Links across Time and Place, a book that advanced interregional and global approaches to the human past (McDougal, Littell, 1988).
In 1992 he joined a team of educators to write national standards for history, a project initiated during the presidency of George H. W. Bush and funded by the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Under the supervision of UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) and its directors Gary B. Nash and Charlotte Crabtree, Dunn served as coordinating editor of the National Standards for World History, a project involving dozens of teachers and public interest groups. Educators around the country received the new guidelines, published in fall 1994, with enthusiasm. An assortment of media personalities, pundits, and politicians on the political right, however, attacked the standards as the product of a left-wing, anti-patriotic faction of university professors. Dunn joined a large group of educators in a defense of the standards in public forums and the press. Subsequently, Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn wrote History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), a study of the standards debate and a narrative of public controversy over history education in the United States since the revolutionary war. Dunn has remained an associate director of the NCHS.
In that position and in collaboration with San Diego State University, he initiated a project in 2001 to develop World History for Us All, a web-based model curriculum for world history in middle and high schools. Funded initially with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by a team of teachers, academics, and technology specialists, World History for Us All has reached many thousands of teachers. The project continues to be expanded and improved (http://worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu).
Dunn retired from SDSU in 2008 but has continued his career as a writer and educational consultant. In 2000 he edited The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion, a volume of more than fifty essays, most of them previously published, on problems of conceptualizing and teaching world history (Bedford St. Martin’s). In 2016 the University of California Press will publish a new collection titled The New World History: A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers. This volume, inspired by the 2000 work, is an editing collaboration of Dunn, Laura J. Mitchell (UC Irvine), and Kerry Ward (Rice University).
Also in 2000, Dunn partnered with Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, a historian at SDSU, to write a new college-level world history textbook that aimed to push the field further than most textbooks had done toward a single, coherent narrative of the human past. Cobbs Hoffman eventually went on to other projects, but Laura Mitchell joined Dunn in 2010 to complete the project. McGraw-Hill Education published Panorama: A World History in 2015. This textbook aims to enrich college and university world history programs, as well as Advanced Placement World History, a College Board course that shares Panorama’s approach to the human venture.
Dunn and his wife Jeanne moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 2012. He continues to lead world history activities at the NCHS and is working on a project that explores the idea of “Indo-Mediterranea,” a region extending from the Mediterranean Sea basin to South Asia, as a single field of intense human interaction since ancient times.