Global Perspectives in U.S. History Education and the Limits of a National Narrative

Click here to see/read Dr. King's Nobel Prize Speech

Click here to see/read Dr. King’s Nobel Prize Speech

This past Monday, the United States observed a federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. A 2011 monument to King was erected along the Washington D.C. Tidal Basin. The placing of King’s statue is in line with the Jefferson and Lincoln monument symbolically linking the narrative of freedom and civil rights across three centuries of U.S. historical narrative.  But King’s legacy goes beyond national borders. That’s right, people, other nations pay tribute to MLK. In fact the organization the Overseas Vote Foundation has identified a collection of tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. outside U.S. borders (the list includes Italy, Germany, France, and Australia). There is a school named after Dr. King in Ghana and a garden memorial in India linking King and Gandhi.

Hiroshima, Japan celebrates MLK’s birthday with nearly the same fervor as the U.S. Former mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, right, is credited with holding a special banquet at the mayor's office in honor of King each year to honor his commitment to human rights.  (Photo: Kyodo /Landov)

Hiroshima, Japan celebrates MLK’s birthday with nearly the same fervor as the U.S. Former mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, right, is credited with holding a special banquet at the mayor’s office in honor of King each year to honor his commitment to human rights. (Photo: Kyodo /Landov)

We shouldn’t be surprised by King’s global appeal.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 where he recognized that his work in the U.S. had global connections: “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.”   King frequently broadened the context of work effectively framing the U.S. civil rights movement as a case study in global human rights. A few years later  during his 1967 “Christmas Sermon on Peace”, he reinforced his global gaze stating:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

Wow, that is powerful and is a clear inroad to how teachers can globalize the U.S. History survey. So, MLK  the figure, the idea, the historical phenomenon isn’t “owned” by the U.S.  (Let us also not forget the resistance that many U.S. citizens had, [and still have?] to the holiday. Arizona, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were all resistant to the federal holiday). In fact it is a difficult argument to make that any idea, place, event, or group can fully,  and legitimately claimed by a nation as the sole possessor.

Engaging with historical narratives as constructs to be analyzed not memorized is key to effective, relevant  teaching of history (I argue it is the most important).      “Project Narrative” of  Ohio State describe  narrative as a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change….”  Stanford’s “Beyond the Bubble” project identifies Narrative as one of their 4 Historical knowledge categories which  encompass various ways of knowing about the past.” Check out their video:

So, what happens when we combine historical narrative with global education? Why make the move to broadening national narratives? What are the benefits of globalizing national narratives?  Below is a list of resources/manifestos that argue for or have made the move to globalizing the U.S. history narrative and address the questions above.

  •  La Pietra Report: The 21st century opened with the OAH’s call  to rethink the teaching of U.S. history. “While this approach seeks to contextualize United States on a global scale in so far as such a scale is pertinent to the questions at hand, it does not propose to subsume United States history under the umbrella of world or global history. We would not have United States history thus erased; rather the aim is to deepen its contextualization and to extend the transnational relations of American history.”
  • The Choices Program: Brown University’s respected curriculum released the “The U.S. Role in a Changing World ” module in 2009. Although not really global approach to the historical narrative, the module does embrace a global context a situates the U.S. nation in it.  The “possible futures” section engages students in “four distinct alternatives that frame the current debate on the role of the United States in the world.”
  • NCSS: The organization published  “Social Studies and the World: Teaching Global Perspectives” in 2005.   The text is a great complement to their online summary which urges “Global education and international education are complementary approaches with different emphases. The integration of both perspectives is imperative to develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed for responsible participation in a democratic society and in a global community in the twenty-first century.” The text includes a chart the address criticisms of global education including claims that it teaches moral relativism, divides the world between oppressed and oppressors, is unpatriotic, and is hostile to capitalism.  NCSS disagrees with all of those claims.
  • The History Channel:  “The History Channel recently sponsored a global teach-in to address the tendency of textbooks to avoid a global approach to American history—a perspective that often leads students to conclude that America’s story is largely separate from the broader history of humanity. The Statue of Liberty, one of the most popular heritage sites in the United States, is a quintessential vista in American textbooks and yet its story is a global one—mingling with the stories of millions of immigrants greeted by the statue as they entered New York harbor. Links like these demonstrate that American history does not begin or end in the United States, and approaching these global strands through heritage sites is one way to broach comparative history with K–12 students. ”  The live teach in is below.

Globalizing national history narratives won’t eliminate nationalism or collective national identity.  Think about it, most people have a superficial understanding of U.S. history and are still “good citizens.”  There are other societal events, rituals, and symbols (holidays, sports, life experiences, media) that occur frequently with a wider appeal which bind U.S. citizens.  National narratives were created to assimilate immigrants and indoctrinate national identities. National history education responded to that late 19th early 20th century need.  However, with today’s emphasis on globalization, global systems, and world power players other than the nation-state,  history education should prepares students with global competencies to think and act intelligently and successfully in contemporary society.  Simply put, teaching a traditional national U.S. narrative to students short changes them.

Oh and if you didn’t know, the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington D.C. was created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yikin. And guess what, that is OK  because Dr. King’s legacy is not owned or dictated by the United States.


One thought on “Global Perspectives in U.S. History Education and the Limits of a National Narrative

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *