Monday, February 26, 2007

Western Civilization Is Changing

A while back I remember Vicki Davis posting that effective bloggers should come up with good titles for their blog posts to grab the reader's attention. How'd I do?

In this case, Western Civilization refers to a class we teach at my high school. Amanda recently posted this request for help from the blogosphere:
I am thinking of teaching Western Civ (European History from the Greeks to the present) without a textbook next year. I already use many outside sources, but I am thinking of just going with outside sources (subscription services, primary and secondary sources, etc.) entirely next year. I want to do this for two reasons: I don't think that textbooks in their traditional form are going to exist much longer, and I really don't think that they are useful because they necessarily summarize information that otherwise is very interesting.

So, I am thinking of having a web-based class, in the sense that students will be given broad guiding questions and links from my website to other websites that they can explore in preparation for class. They will decide what is ultimately important about the people and times we study. I think that other teachers are probably doing this in some sense, and I'd rather not totally reinvent the wheel, so I would like to hear from other teachers. Which online resources do you use to teach Western Civ? If you would like to see the types of materials that I currently use, here is the link to my Unit I page - click on "Unit I (Greece)"
I think a class like Western Civ is a great one to utilize the resources of the Internet, so we don't limit our students to the "necessarily summarized" information that a textbook can present. By setting a goal of not using the textbook, I think that forces Amanda - or any teacher - to really look at what they are teaching and the resources they are using to see if they make sense. I think too often a textbook can serve as a crutch, a safety-net for the teacher so that they don't have to take a hard look at what they are teaching. And I think we all should be taking a really hard look at what we are teaching.

Amanda has already developed a pretty good list of resources, and will undoubtedly come up with some more before next fall, but if anyone out there has some good suggestions, please head over to her post and comment.


  1. I applaud the idea of moving beyond textbooks. These days, textbooks (or the anthologies we use for English classes) seem to be packaged such that they are "teacher proof" -- prereading guidelines, in-progress reading tips, post-reading questions. They are definitely a crutch. I still think our English anthologies can be useful insofar as they collect primary sources -- the stories and poems and non-fiction pieces themselves -- but it's easy to let the textbook do your thinking for you. In the last couple of years our 9th grade teachers have grown frustrated with the limited excerpts of The Odyssey offered by the textbook and have sought out full texts for the students.

    A friend of my family is the author of a science textbook, and hearing him talk about the changes he's had to make to enable the book to be adopted by certain states or districts emphasizes for me how textbooks cater to the establishment. Not to mention the exorbitant costs. It will be interesting to see what effects Amanda's efforts have on the social studies department budget.

  2. Karl,

    Thanks for the post. I have been waiting for something like this to come through my reader. I would love to be a fly on the wall to see how it goes next year, and I am sure I am not alone.

    Terry brings up a common complaint that textbooks generate, especially when we begin to realize that textbooks are essentially written for three states: California, Texas and Florida.

    His other point, one that I truly believe needs further elaboration, is that of the idea of textbook as crutch. Textbooks tend to be seen as panacea for all teacher ills, especially at the elementary and middle school levels where there is not a steady stream of primary source material that is aimed at that reading-level.

  3. Are you also working on going beyond Western Civ? That's what we studied when I was in school and it wasn't exactly approriate then, either. Today it seems ridiculous. Now we do World Civ but even the Dept Chair limits it to Western Civ. No India, no China, no Africa, no Middle East (I could go on) . . . except in terms of their relation to the western impact upon them. How much sense does that make? Any thoughts about how to handle the limitations of this approach?

  4. artmaven - we have a separate World Civilizations class that students take the year before the Western Civ class.

    Course Description: "This course covers the beginnings of history in North Africa and
    the Near East and includes an historical survey through the 20th
    century for the following regions –The Middle East, Africa,
    South Asia, East Asia and the Americas."

  5. Karl . . .
    I do like that approach very much. I find what we do here to be so limiting. B/c we have a 4 yr religion requirement, there isn't enough room for such an approach in the kids' schedules. There is a European History elective offered but we are still not answering the need for a non-Western perspective in our curriculum. I don't see the point in calling our class World Civ if it focuses on Western Civ. I also think it's unwise to offer 2 courses that focus on Western Civ (4 if you include 2 yrs US history) and none that cover non-Western perspectives. I find it frustrating. Unfortuantely, at my school, I am alone in this POV.
    Thanks very much for taking the time to answer my question. It reads like you have a stellar program. Best wishes for continued success.