The Gen-Ed World History Survey; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Course

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 11:10 AM
Williford C (Hilton Chicago)
David Eaton, Grand Valley State University
General education programs often add mandatory skills and learning objectives to the already heavy burden of teaching a world history survey. The union of world history and general education could be described as a “troubled marriage.” However, the ground has shifted beneath this debate. While convincing students that what we do is relevant and worthy of study can be difficult, and history departments have struggled to retain majors, nevertheless the long-maligned world history surveys have become a crucial opportunity to expose students to historical study and to recruit majors. Ensuring these courses resonate with undergraduate students is more important than ever and has become a mission for a new generation of professors. Embracing GenEd learning objectives suggests a way forward. Rather than proscribe content, they require instructors to focus on nebulous goals like teaching students how to ask “important evaluative and philosophical questions” or to obtain the knowledge necessary to participate in global discourses. History departments often presume that upper level courses convey these skills implicitly, but by foregrounding these goals, general education programs give instructors license to ask big questions of global significance. There is a thirst for world history courses that address these questions, but universities provide few offerings of comparable breadth. The university catalogue is filled with courses from a generation ago with narrower topics in response to concerns about Western Civilization’s canon and student desire for content on neglected topics. Today an analogous (but opposite) transformation could be in progress. As information becomes infinite, students seem more interested in making sense of broader patterns and becoming skilled global citizens than filling knowledge gaps. General education surveys thus offer an opportunity to show curious students how the discipline helps answer questions of crucial contemporary importance.
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