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My submission of a letter to Trevor Packer at College Board regarding major changes to Advanced Placement World History course

June 9, 2018

Mr. Trevor Packer
College Board  
250 Vesey St.
New York, NY 10281

Dear Mr. Packer,

It is with much disappointment that I learned of the College Board’s decision to restrict the scope of the AP World History exam to fewer than 600 years of the human past. I write as an academic historian who has worked with AP educators since the inauguration of the program. I contributed an article on world history to the early publication, Teacher’s Guide to AP World History. I have participated in numerous AP-oriented workshops and institutes and served as an exam reader. I taught introductory world history at my university for more than thirty years, and I was one of the founders of the World History Association. I initiated and continue to direct World History for Us All, the online curriculum that many AP teachers mine for lessons and resources. Since the mid-1990s, I have been associate director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA.

I well understand the College Board’s concern that teachers may find the chronological scope of the current course too large to permit suitable classroom time for improving students’ critical proficiencies. The board apparently expects that drastically truncating the time span of the exam, and inevitably the course, will spontaneously expedite greater classroom attention to disciplinary practice and reasoning skills. No doubt, many teachers will respond as the board hopes they will, readjusting the balance of class time devoted to skill proficiencies relative to knowledge accumulation. Please consider the fact, however, that because the existing Key Concept descriptions for Periods 4-6 already set forth many more topics and topical details than can possibly be included in a year-long course, some teachers will doubtless continue to feel swamped by the surfeit of suggested subject matter. It seems to me likely that some instructors will therefore aim to “cover” more topics rather than increase class time devoted to skills development. The board has not made clear, at least not yet, why radically abbreviating the course will by itself ensure more attention to historical thinking skills or raise exam passing rates.

I would like to urge the College Board, rather than implementing the expedient decision to address skill deficiencies by reducing the scope of the course from 10,000 to 569 years, to consider a fresh approach. 

AP teachers habitually describe the current scope of the world history course as presenting a problem of “coverage,” a perfectly understandable complaint. Starting in the 1960s and influenced by the multicultural movement, educators seeking to challenge the Western Civ tradition redesigned their courses under the assumption that world history was fundamentally the study of a variety of peoples, nations, civilizations, and “cultures,” not just Europeans. Moreover, these aggregates were to be studied in sequence, as if each culture or region was a walled cubicle, filled with subject matter for students to “cover.” For many years, scholars and educators have been debating the merits of this multiculturalist approach to world history, though no general consensus has emerged regarding an alternative conceptualization, or even set of them.

Nevertheless, educators long dissatisfied with teaching world history as “one damn civilization after another,” to no apparent purpose other than appreciation of the past achievements of different human groups, owe a large debt to the original designers of the AP World History program. Drawing on ideas circulating in the world history movement at the start of our new century, the APWH founders conceptualized a fundamentally “humanocentric” course in which our species as a single aggregate advanced together through time, thereby asserting that humankind as a whole has a history and opening many new opportunities for study of important large-scale developments that have cut through and around civilizational boxes, that highlight the interconnections of peoples, that situate the histories of particular societies in larger spatial contexts, and that suggest all sorts of comparative investigation. In its most recent iteration, the structure laid out in the Course and Exam Description presents at its highest conceptual level a unilinear narrative organized in six consecutive world-scale periods, rather than a set of multicultural stories. Teachers and students are invited to investigate each period guided by three, or in one case four, Key Concepts, which are loosely thematic. In my view this structuring of introductory world history is the direction in which the teaching field ought to go, taking advantage of the innovative scholarly research of the past three or more decades.

Unfortunately, however, the “big picture” themes that describe each of the nineteen Key Concepts seem to me to recede far too quickly to the back of the classroom.  The short introductions to the Key Concepts are global in scale, but even though they describe major changes in a particular era they do not present large-scale questions or problems that teachers and students might investigate. Furthermore, each Key Concept is elaborated in a usually multipage, two-or-three level outline that confronts teachers with a large buffet of topics, subtopics, and phrases. These menus of subject matter range around the world, but many teachers may perceive them as semi-ordered lists of content to be “covered.” The big developments that should stand out and should provide conceptual anchors for study of the entire period are nowhere to be found. And nowhere in the outlines are teachers offered examples of good historical questions at any scale of investigation. 

TheCourse and Exam Descriptiondoes encourage teachers to pose questions, but they have mainly to do with methodological guidelines and strategies for skills acquisition, especially by reading source documents. This is of course an essential part of history education. But it is not the same as devising questions that probe specific historical developments, including “big” questions that encompass relatively large amounts of time and space. Examples of big questions might include: “How did our species come to be ‘everywhere’ when our nearest primate relatives remained in small ecological niches?”“How would you test the claim that China has been the world’s largest economy most of the time in the past 2,000 years, and when was it not?” “Why did the world’s population begin to accelerate in the eighteenth century at a much faster rate than in the previous 200,000 years and with astounding consequences?”

Bob Bain, the world historian and educational theorist, has remarked that many teachers tend to provide historical answers without asking any questions. In fact, we share the view that the foremosttask in history education is to pose significant historical questions at various scales of time, space, and subject matter, notto pick out topics to be “covered.” Topic selection should be subordinate to good questions, and the study of topics should be mainly the investigation of evidence that supports or challenges those questions. “The Mali empire” is a category of coverage, but it is not a historical question. Nevertheless, developments occurred in medieval West Africa, situated for example in the context of the Sahara basin and its rim lands, that conjure up a substantial list of engaging questions. And remember that in both teaching and research, professional historians regard the formulation of questions, problems, hypotheses, and claims, and the accompanying discovery and evaluation of evidence, as the central mission of the discipline.

I would much prefer that the APWH exam continue to embrace all six historical periods because young people today badly need a mental framework, if only a fragile one, for thinking about and situating themselves within the stream of time, including the very deep past. I would invite the College Board to reflect longer on changes by which APWH can be made a purposeful and coherent experience for students by basing it firmly and systematically on the study of significant and engrossing historical problems at various historical scales. This would presumably mean launching each of the six periodized units by setting forth a limited set of large-scale questions designed to guide study of the entire unit and moving to smaller scales of investigation (burrowing down into historical phenomena, undertaking in-depth study, however one might put it), always letting questions shape the study and always relating it to one or more of the big questions that give shape to the whole unit.

Because this approach, which would continue to suggest a variety of classroom options, would provide clearer criteria for selecting and organizing content, it would also facilitate substantially reduced embellishment of subject matter for each Key Concept, as well as clearer and more obvious interplay between knowledge acquisition and thinking skill proficiency. The College Board would obviously incur substantial costs in redesigning a significant part of the Course and Exam Description. But if the board leaves the six-period Key Concept chronology intact, teachers and schools will be relieved of having to remodel courses they have taught for years, buy new textbooks or underutilize the ones they have, and offer a course that introduces pupils to only a small part of the human venture. 

At the June 5th open forum in Salt Lake and in email discussions both before and after that meeting, many teachers suggested a compromise proposal to drop Periods 1 and 2 from the exam but retain Period 3. These educators made a persuasive case for the idea that many of their students respond more enthusiastically to study of Period 3 than to any other. In my view such keenness is easily explained, and not just because of Mongols and the Black Death. Other teachers have argued that the balance of political, economic, and cultural weight among the world’s peoples was much different in Period 3 than in the centuries after 1450, and especially after 1750 when Western Europe’s two centuries of hegemonic power got underway. The College Board, teachers have contended, has an obligation to introduce world history students to the broad multilateral sway of a number of both Afroeurasian and American societies between 600 and 1450, well as to the interrelations among them.  As teacher Amanda so aptly remarked at the open forum, the history of Africa did not begin with trans-Atlantic slavery.

I believe, however, that there is another reason for retaining Period 3, if not the first two periods. It has to do with the unprecedented and monumental transformations that have occurred on our planet since 1450—the permanent converging of peoples on all continents, the energy revolution, the population explosion, the idea of human rights and popular sovereignty, the expansion of state power, and the dawn of the Anthropocene, among other exceptional phenomena. None of these developments was inevitable or natural; indeed, they were all strange anomalies in the long history of Homo sapiens. The best way for AP students to grasp the significance of these transformations for their own lives is to offer them serious study of at least the previous several centuries, when the agrarian age still prevailed. Why did an agrarian world under “the biological old regime” cruise along for several millennia or so and then quite suddenly be thoroughly shaken and transformed?  If AP world history starts in the mid-fifteenth century CE, teachers will find it harder to engage students with questions of how the world got to be the strange way it is and why the past 500 years of accelerating change is almost certainly “the tip of the iceberg.” Students need a wide and solidcontext for investigating modernity, and they cannot expect to acquire it with a couple of weeks of summary “coverage” of the more distant past. 

I will not comment on “Pre-AP world history” here, except to note that its version of Period 3 rests mainly on time-worn multiculturalist and regionalist conventions, which contradict the global-scale commitments of the AP course. The two exceptions in pre-AP are transregional treatment of the Mongols and the Indian Ocean rim lands. That’s good, but also arbitrary. Why not design the entire course on hemispheric- or world-scale principles, as well as on historical problems rather than on regional coverage?

I strongly encourage you and other board leaders, in collaboration with the APWH chief reader and other key educators, both secondary teachers and academic professors, to give additional thought to the problems the course currently faces, seeking answers in the changing and holistic ways that educators are defining and shaping world history as an intellectual endeavor. This would be a more reflective strategy than simply eradicating three of the course’s six units and leaving the other three unexamined and unrevised. In your June 7 twitter communication, you defend the board’s 1450-present decision by stating that “requiring students to master a ten thousand year span of college-level world history in a single course has made the course a breathless and often superficial race through content.” This seems to imply that there can be no coherent and relatively slender knowledge structure for a long-view course and that content resides in a bowl of historical confetti, whether generalizations or facts, that teachers must dump on the floor and students must sort through. 

I am arguing that a better approach is not simply to make the bowl of bits and pieces smaller but to examine the premises and objectives for selecting, limiting, and organizing content. As I have contended, I would base this reconfiguration on the formulation of historical problems and on selective study of phenomena at variable scales from the global to the local. I will also note that the ingeniously structured and increasingly successful Big History high school program envisioned by Bill Gates and David Christian takes on history from cosmic to earthbound scales in a single academic year. But though the course is challenging, I have heard no teacher complain that it is breathless and superficial.

Today, colleges and universities across the country are axing core history requirements (even whole departments), giving less and less curriculum space to the premodern past, and asking why STEM majors should be bothered with any of the humanities. The College Board should defy such trends. It should not accommodate them by telling students that a modern world history course, lacking a coherent conceptualization, potentially open to creeping Eurocentrism, and perhaps jammed with more fragmented information than ever, is the exciting way to go.


Ross E. Dunn
Professor Emeritus
San Diego State University
Associate Director
National Center for History in the Schools (UCLA)
Project Director
World History for Us All





Earlier Event: May 21
Ibn Battuta's Tryst with Malabar