Studying World History Reveals the Exceptional Principles of America
May 6, 2021
It’s becoming more common for young people to think that America is just like any other country. But Ashbrook teachers like Mark Robinson, who teaches World History in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are standing athwart this trend.
Early in his career, Robinson taught American history. Since then, in over two decades at St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he has primarily taught honors and regular-level modern world history. Nevertheless, he eagerly attends Ashbrook’s Teaching American History seminars. “The seminars have been very valuable to me,” Robinson says. “Professional development opportunities for private school teachers of social studies are very, very thin. For me, TAH seminars are an intellectual spa.” During them, participants wrestle with many of the same questions that arise in world history, even though Americans bring a distinctive perspective to these questions.
In fact, world history study helps young Americans grasp “that not everyone accepts the basic premises behind our Constitutional system,” Robinson says.
In Robinson’s freshman-level courses, “we spend a lot of time talking about the concept of natural rights. As Americans, we believe that governments do not give people rights; those rights exist by nature. In possession of those rights, we are all equal. Yet in places like China, the Soviet Union, fascist Italy and fascist Germany, Iran under Khomeini, and South Africa under apartheid, this idea has been rejected.”
Robinson adds that TAH seminars have influenced his teaching methods. “I don’t think the emphasis on primary source material that has developed in my classroom would have happened without Teaching American History.”
Ten years ago, Robinson worked with two colleagues at St. Pius to redesign the content of the world history course. Due to budget deficits, New Mexico had stopped supplying social studies textbooks to private schools. Instead of asking parents to buy textbooks, Robinson and his colleagues saw “an opportunity to try something brand new. If we consciously covered less content, organizing it in a different way, we could incorporate primary sources into the world history course.”
They decided to focus on three themes: liberty, justice, and the strategies used by those attempting to reform or revolutionize oppressive and unjust political systems. In particular, they wanted to explore the question, “When you live in a profoundly unjust society, is violence an appropriate response?” Using primary sources would allow students to explore the motives and rationales of revolutionary leaders, comparing those who used violence to those who used nonviolent civil disobedience.
Robinson and his colleagues begin their course with a survey of Enlightenment political thought. During the fall term, they also cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the industrial revolution, Latin American independence movements, and European imperial expansion. Spring semester covers the world wars and the independence movements in India and Africa that arose in the wake of these wars—as well as the communist revolutionary movements in Russia and Latin America.
Robinson, who studied European and American history at Notre Dame and medieval history while earning an MA in at the University of Toronto, relishes discussions of political theory and practice. He took the lead in locating primary documents for each unit of the course. “By 2014, we had created our own reader,” he said.
Excerpts of Enlightenment political theorists Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Voltaire give students insight into the ideas that laid the groundwork for modern revolutions. Reading the speeches of revolutionaries, students see these theories adapted to national circumstances and political agendas.
“Students see the initial thinkers of the French Revolution speaking of human equality in the sense of equal dignity and equal rights. Later writers speak of equality in terms of equal access to wealth. We ask, how do these ideas differ? Where does justice lie?”
Study of revolution challenges Robinson’s students. Most have grown up in Catholic Hispanic families whose presence in the area predates New Mexico’s entrance into the union. Their families value tradition and distrust those who advocate violence. At the beginning of the year, Robinson asks, “Is it ever okay to use violence to achieve a more just or free society?” Most students say, ‘No.’ “I respond, ‘Jefferson would disagree with you on this point. Lincoln would too.’ Some look quite shocked. They’ve been taught to love Jesus and revere Lincoln, and they don’t know what to do with this information.”
However, “being made to feel uncomfortable can be a profound way to advance learning,” Robinson says. He recalls a student’s response to French Revolutionary leader Robespierre’s speech on political morality. Robespierre defends the use of terror to destroy opponents of the revolution. One student arrived for the class discussion of Robespierre “with a strange look on her face.” Throughout class, her troubled look remained. “I approached her and asked, ‘You seem uneasy. What’s going on?’ She replied, ‘I read that speech last night, I listened to all the discussion, and I know Robespierre is evil. But I’m still pretty sure I would have followed him if I had been alive in France at the time, because he made such a convincing case.’”
Noting that “there are plenty of Robespierres” in today’s political world, Robinson told the student he shared her uneasiness. “But it’s powerful that you can see that about yourself,” he added. The student had discovered the appeal of dangerous but well-argued ideas—and the need to carefully reflect on them.
Robinson recalls that he has had many of his own experiences with discomfort as a student. Teaching American History seminars give him “a chance to dive into what I did in graduate school, to take the primary sources and break them down, look at how they interact with each other, talk about them with other very smart people, have my own ideas challenged, and struggle with new ways to see the world. I know they are supposed to inform my classroom practice, but most of all they send me back to the classroom remembering ‘this is why I got into teaching; this is what I want my students to be able to do.’”
He tries “to replicate these colloquia on a small scale, helping kids interact with big ideas: ‘What does it mean to be a free person? What does it mean to be a just society? To achieve justice and freedom, should one use nonviolent resistance as Gandhi did, or violence as Nelson Mandela did?’ We talk both among ourselves and with the thinkers and leaders who shaped history. As we struggle to understand their opinions, we try to find our own.”
He hopes all students realize and affirm the meaning of natural rights, “that government exists to serve the people, and not the people to serve government.” Beyond that shared principle, “people of goodwill can disagree.” They may disagree about whether justice requires that “everyone share equally in the wealth of society” or that “everyone have equal opportunity.” Still, he tells students, “people you disagree with can help you think clearly.”