Isn’t That Just Ancient History?

Image via Pixabay user foursummers and used under a Creative Commons license.

By Daniel Knorr

Recently, the College Board made news for announcing changes to the scope of Advanced Placement (AP) World History. From now on, the AP exam will cover only the period after 1450 CE. High schools could still choose to offer an additional course covering world history before 1450—making it a two-year sequence—but only material from the later time period will appear on the exam. The main goal, according to the College Board, is to bring the scope of the exam more in line with what can be covered in a single college course.

A large number of educators have criticized the decision, leading the College Board to say that they will reconsider and issue a final decision in July. The main focus of this criticism has been how shifting the timeline of the course will affect teaching about the Americas, Africa, and Asia. With the course starting in 1450, students would learn about many areas only in the context of European colonialism, if at all.

To be fair to the College Board, starting in 1450 is more manageable in terms of chronological coverage and more in line with what would be covered in a single quarter- or semester-long college course. However, college world history courses are organized in sequences that cover a much broader scope of history, so by offering a truncated timeline, the AP course would not be approximating what students learn in college sequences. There’s an argument to be made, too, that starting in 1450 doesn’t skew the entire course towards a narrative of inevitable European domination. In the case of China, a course starting in 1450 should cover the golden ages of the Ming and Qing dynasties, whose power and prosperity more than matched their European counterparts. Looking beyond the height of Euro-American imperial power, the history of East Asia in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries offers many examples of how this domination was contingent and contested. And if we can get this complexity from studying more recent history, then there’s something intuitive about erring on the side of the modern.

Intuitive, but misguided. It’s natural for us to tend toward the familiar and immediate, but studying history should be an antidote to this. In times of crisis when there are pressing problems to address, this can make history seem like a luxury society can ill-afford. However, it is in just such times that the ability to imagine a world that is different than the one we currently inhabit becomes indispensable.

Preparing for teaching next year has forced me to think about the value of ancient history in particular. One of the courses I’m teaching is on the history of China from earliest times to 1500, i.e. the period that is being cut from AP World History. Designing a course covering such a broad range of time requires thinking a lot about what larger themes or narratives should organize the course. One way I could go is to focus on the “seeds” of contemporary China in the premodern period by laying out enduring cultural traditions. This encompasses some pretty obvious and well-trod, yet unavoidable topics, like China’s “Confucian” tradition. If nothing else, convincing students that understanding China’s history, however distant, is tantamount to understanding its present is a tempting vanity project.

Such an approach is, of course, intellectually problematic. The use of the rhetoric of authentic cultural tradition to suppress dissidents and minorities in China and elsewhere also makes recapitulating this narrative politically irresponsible, especially at the present moment. As I prepare to teach on China’s early history, then, I’ve found myself drawn in the opposite direction. Instead of a steady narrative about the development of a unitary tradition that persists to today, I’m aiming to draw students into the complexity and contingency of Chinese history. That means studying political structures, patterns of social relations, and clusters of ideas that have long since changed. Of course, some things persist, especially as people internalize their own history, or at least the stories they tell themselves about it. But this is not going to be a course that traces all of these dynamics up to the present or examines how ideas about the past shape contemporary China, valuable as that would be.

So what use is ancient history if it doesn’t lead right up to the present—or at least the time period I study and find most interesting? It forces us to correct our projection of contemporary ideas and frameworks on the past in order to understand ways of life very different from our own. This isn’t a simple process, especially when teaching high school and college students. We want students to really digest the historical material we’re covering and demonstrate that by expressing its significance in their own terms. But we also want them to learn about the limits of the terms with which they are familiar.

My first quarter as a teaching assistant was in a course on pre-modern world history. Early in the course we were discussing the emergence of writing; trying to review lectures and readings and get discussion going, I asked students how writing had changed human societies. One of the students suggested that it created more jobs. In some sense, this was an excellent answer: a thoughtful synthesis of points we had covered in class. But it also caught me off-guard because it wasn’t a quintessentially “right” answer. The idea of an economy based on jobs (let alone an “economy” at all) would have been a foreign concept to people during the time period we were studying. Moreover, writing helped fundamentally restructure human societies by facilitating greater wealth accumulation and social stratification. Pegging it as a job-creator was a bit of an under-sell.

But the only way to appreciate the scope of that transformation is to understand the constraints of pre-literate societies, which are fundamentally unfamiliar to people living today. Our societies today face plenty of constraints, demands, and benefits of their own. Studying ancient history is a way to learn not to take those for granted and to anticipate how they could change, for better or for worse. Teaching the ancient history of East Asia is a double challenge because it forces students out of both their chronological and geographic comfort zones. But that means that the benefit is likely to be double as well.

Daniel Knorr is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of Chicago. He blogs at “Breaking ABD,” where a version of this post first appeared.