Waking up a sleepy world: U.S. Textbook Narratives of Imperialism

Stephen Jackson
University of Sioux Falls

For the past century, the World History course has been one of the most important ways that secondary students in the United States formally learn about imperialism. Fascinatingly, World History thrived in American high schools long before it emerged as an organized subfield at the university level.[1]

In my new book The Patchwork of World History in Texas High Schools: Unpacking Eurocentrism, Imperialism, and Nationalism in the Curriculum 1921-2021, I argue that American students have been exposed to largely triumphalist narratives of empire. While textbooks readily admit that imperialism was difficult for non-Western peoples, they overwhelmingly associate imperialism with the arrival of modernity and progress, a narrative trope reminiscent of J.M. Blaut’s concept of Eurocentric diffusionism.[2] Over time textbooks have become more nuanced, and the criticisms of empire have mounted, but this core idea of imperialism as a catalyst for progress and development remains standard fare in American classrooms today.

To better answer questions about the treatment of imperialism in U.S. history classrooms, my study utilized the state of Texas as a case study. Whereas many states allow local decisions on instructional materials, Texas adopts textbooks at the state level all the way through the secondary grades. Since Texas is one of the largest in the United States, the state has had a tremendous influence on the national textbook marketplace.

The very first World History textbooks recommended in Texas effusively praised imperialism as a civilizing force in the world. Henry Elson, the president of Thiel College in Pennsylvania, wrote Modern Times and the Living Past in 1921, and lauded the “great civilizing force” of the British Empire, which had a colonial policy that was “infinitely superior to that of ancient Rome.”[3] University of Nebraska history professor Hutton Webster’s World History (1921) admitted that British rule entailed autocracy in many contexts, but also insisted that “Great Britain rules them wisely, justly, even benevolently,” and claimed that British rulers were preparing the “more advanced” subjects for self-governance.[4]

By the 1930s and 1940s, Texas World History textbooks began to critique imperialism more regularly, but authors continued claiming that imperialism was necessary to usher in progress and modernity. Edwin Pahlow’s 1938 textbook Man’s Great Adventure nicely illustrates this trend. In India, Pahlow mentioned that the British built railways, telegraphs, schools, and banned widow burning. Nevertheless, native Indians resisted because “they and their forebears had gone along in the same way for thousands of years.”[5] Speaking of China, R.O. Hughes wrote that “the civilized peoples from much younger lands had to come around and wake the Chinese up before they realized how far behind the procession they had dropped. And they were not pleased to be waked up, either!”[6] From this 1930s-‘40s perspective, imperialism was now a necessary evil that jolted non-Western societies awake from their sleepy, static, pre-modern existence.

In the 1950s and early 1960s World History textbooks gradually began to incorporate perspectives from newly independent nations, including content on non-Western nations roughly in step with the process of decolonization. Texas textbooks in these years took a decidedly defensive tone when discussing imperialism, acknowledging serious problems but also stridently defending the net results of imperialism. The book The History of Our World in 1961, for instance, dedicated far more attention to European imperialism in Africa than had previous generations of World History texts. The text pointed out that Europeans all too often used violence, discriminated against Africans, and largely neglected to foster education in their African colonies. As a summary, the textbook quoted American journalist and author John Gunther, who said that imperialism “may have ravaged a continent, but also they opened it up to civilization.”[7] The 1952 text Man’s Achievement Through the Ages similarly claimed that “imperialism, though often harsh and grasping, brought Western ideas of independence and democracy to many parts of the world.”[8]

With decolonization rapidly accelerating by the late 1960s, some World History textbooks in Texas argued that, since nationalism originated in Europe, the strength of anti-colonial nationalism was a credit to imperialism. University of Southern California Professor T. Walter Wallbank, a prolific textbook author who wrote textbooks adopted in Texas from 1951 to 1990, argued in 1969, for instance, that imperialism “transmitted over the earth the powerful ideas of nationalism and democracy and the tangible benefits of science and technology,” which “reawakened” non-Western peoples.[9] But this viewpoint was most fully articulated by pioneering world historian Leften Stavrianos and a group of his Northwestern University colleagues. Their textbook A Global History of Man divided human history from 1500 to the present into sections entitled “Europe Unites the World,” “Europe Dominates the World” and “Europe’s Decline and Triumph.” According to the book, Europe was triumphant in the 20th century because European ideas and institutions spread faster than at any time in the past.[10]

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, many Texas World History textbooks adopted a cost-benefit or pros-and-cons approach towards imperialism. Textbooks laid out the positive and negative aspects of imperial rule and invited students to decide on the ultimate legacy of empire for themselves. The 1983 text People and Nations: A World History pointed out the infrastructure and Western laws and courts were key benefits, but also the hardships imposed upon the economic and social lives of the colonized.[11] Priya Satia has roundly criticized this approach as ahistorical because it implicitly legitimizes colonialism and lends a false air of objectivity to narratives that marginalize colonial violence.[12] But however much these narratives are unsatisfying to contemporary historians, they nevertheless represent at least an attempt to have students critically interrogate the legacy of empire. Unlike previous generations of World History textbooks in Texas, this approach could lead to the conclusion that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Such balance sheet narratives remain present within the most recent Texas World History textbooks, approved in 2016, while also offering additional nuance in their narratives of empire.[13] Each of the texts mentions resistance to European rule, at least tacitly admits that imperialism was violently imposed on indigenous peoples, and even criticizes the central dichotomy of empire: the hypocrisy of espousing ideas of liberal rule at home while maintaining autocracy abroad. For instance, when referring to the growth of African nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jackson Spielvogel and Jay McTighe’s World History noted that “Westerners had exalted democracy, equality, and political freedom but did not apply these values in the colonies.”[14] This evocative statement represents a rejection of interpretations espoused by previous generations of textbooks, which contended that colonized peoples were “not ready” for self-government.

However, the additional nuance offered by contemporary Texas World History textbooks fails to undermine the central premise that imperialism brought about modernity. Much like Leften Stavrianos’s 1970s interpretation, Spielvogel and McTighe argued that “the foreign powers that conquered and exploited Africa also introduced Western education. In educating Africans, the colonial system gave them visions of a world based on the ideals of liberty and equality.”[15] From this perspective, anti-colonial nationalists were passive agents for the spread of Western ideals, and their opposition to imperialism was rooted in a deep-seated anger at European hypocrisy.

As they have for the past century in U.S. secondary schools, World History textbooks today continue to depict European imperialism as a modernizing force. Despite its brutality, racism, and hypocrisy, imperialism is portrayed as having helped in waking up the sleepy elderly civilizations of the world and propelled them into modernity. This narrative is problematic on numerous fronts. Firstly, the narrative prevents a richer understanding of the global interconnections that brought about the modern world. Secondly, although World History textbooks admit some faults of imperialism, the largely triumphalist narratives frequently marginalize the brutality of colonial violence, especially for the British and American empires. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the narrative minimizes the agency of colonized peoples as vibrant and active agents in the creation of the modern world.

My new book shines a light on how imperial discourses continue to permeate both instructional and curricular materials in one of the largest states in the U.S. My hope is that the book will raise awareness of these issues amongst historians and educators. Of course, decisions over textbook approval and curricular reform are often controversial in Texas, as political figures on the State Board of Education tend to use their platform to fight battles in the American culture wars. Nevertheless, historians and educators also play a prominent role in both textbook authorship and curricular reform. They also make critical decisions within their classrooms on how to approach course content. Knowing how imperial narratives have distorted the teaching of world history for the past century will, I hope, lead to more nuanced and accurate approaches in the future.

[1] World history only emerged in academia in the 1970s, and the World History Association formed in 1982, more than half a century after World History had become a staple course in American secondary schools.

[2] J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993).

[3] Henry W. Elson, Modern Times and the Living Past (New York: American Book Company, 1921) 503.

[4] Hutton Webster, World History (Boston: D.C. Heath & Company, 1921) 492.

[5] Edwin Pahlow, Man’s Great Adventure, Revised Edition (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1938) 585.

[6] R.O. Hughes, The Making of Today’s World (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1935) 637.

[7] John Gunther, Inside Africa (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955). Quoted from Inside Africa by Gunther; quoted from Arthur Boak et al., The History of Our World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961) 573.

[8]William Habberton and Lawrence Roth, Man’s Achievement Through the Ages (Chicago: Laidlaw Brothers, 1952) 515.

[9] T. Walter Wallbank and Arnold Schrier, Living World History (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1969) 508.

[10] Leften Stavrianos et al., A Global History of Man (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1970) 211.

[11] Anatole Mazour, John Peoples, and Theodore Rabb, People and Nations: A World History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) 562.

[12] Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2020) Chapter 6.

[13] The most recent adoption period in Texas occurred in 2016. My analysis extends only to the physically printed textbooks adopted in that year, not to electronic books.

[14] Jackson Spielvogel and Jay McTighe, World History, Teacher Edition (Bothell, WA: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016) 596.

[15] Spielvogel and Mctighe, World History, 689.