By Brian Li (IV)
“What’s even the point of history class? Nothing actually matters now.”
Last year, I took the World History 9 course, a survey of “history from the emergence of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia to the Age of Exploration.” I thought it was a fascinating class, but evidently, at least one other student didn’t share my sentiments. I’ve heard people call it “boring” or “not important” due to the “ancient” part of this ancient history class. Could a change of the time period remedy this issue?
The history curriculum at our school is now undergoing a complete overhaul, which began this school year. The first remake has been for World History 9, which now covers the years 1200-1914. Next year, World History 10 will pick up from the year 1900 and end in 2001. When asked about the reason behind removing ancient history from the curriculum, History Department Chair Dr. Jones said, “more modern history seems to resonate with students more, and we wanted to get students interested in the study of history, while ancient history, especially philosophy, doesn’t have as much resonance with students.”
Ancient history can seem boring or unimportant to some people, as what happened so long ago seems too far away to affect our lives. Written history was scant, leaving historians to search in vain for the next clue to unlock the secrets of an ancient empire. Modern history is much more recent and relevant to the present day because its revolutions and wars have shaped our lives. We can see the effects that specific events have caused, which can cause students to feel that modern history is much more important and pertinent. Students then may be more interested in modern history, increasing the amount of engagement and activity in class.
However, the revised World History 9 and previous World History 10 curriculums overlap significantly this year, with both courses essentially offering the same material as implementing two new courses within the same year is nigh impossible. Ancient history has been removed from the high school history curriculum, leaving students without the foundational knowledge of civilization and how the Western world rose to power.
Modern history is extremely relevant and is crucial to learn, but I believe that we cannot simply push ancient history to the side. The complexity of modern European history is extremely challenging and demands a thorough understanding. Without a foundational knowledge of how the West became the dominant power, students may not fully comprehend Europe’s reign of dominance and the events that occurred during this time.
Another key issue to consider is Eurocentrism, which is a major concern facing both teachers and students. From my experience in the now-defunct World History 9, the class did not overly focus on one specific country or continent; instead, it provided a broad but thorough explanation of early history. Indeed, according to its class description, the course focused on “developments in the Middle East, the ancient Mediterranean, Asia, Africa, pre-Columbian America, and medieval Europe, culminating with the European Renaissance and Reformation and the beginnings of the modern world.” In contrast, my experience in World History 10 so far is one that is primarily centered around Europe or the Western world. The revised World History 9 course now begins with the Mongol civilization, the bridge between the East and West, so freshmen will not be exposed to the many non-European civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, that preceded this era. Therefore, this Eurocentrism, or absence of the history of certain key regions and civilizations, may lead students to believe that Europe was always the dominant continent throughout history.
Fortunately, the History Department is working towards preventing the freshman history course from being too Eurocentric, with an explicit focus on the global aspect of World History.
The revised history curriculum is also beneficial in allowing students to pursue a more specialized education. Speaking on why the ancient history sections were removed, Dr. Jones said, “it’s always a struggle between depth versus breadth; if you cover a ton, can you study anything in-depth? It’s a constant struggle.” By removing ancient history, students will most likely have one more year or semester to take focused courses on specific topics, such as Asian History. This is a tremendous opportunity to learn something in-depth, once again going back to the depth versus breadth conflict. For those of us that truly are passionate about ancient history, an elective course on the topic can be created. This elective would cover the same time period as the old World History 9 course but in much greater detail. Therefore, students that are enthusiastic about this subject will have the chance to learn what they love, further increasing the engagement and involvement in history.
History is a subject that requires active student engagement. Despite my captivation with ancient history, I understand that many other students simply weren’t interested in the old World History 9 course.
Is ancient history necessary? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to put it aside for the benefit of all. Maybe it’s time we focus on the future instead of the past.