Internationalizing (or globalizing) U.S. history is an umbrella term for several methods of broadening the view of U.S. history to include the world beyond its borders. It includes, but is not limited to, use of national comparisons, studying transnational phenomena, and considering larger regional and global contexts for local and national events. It especially focuses on internationalizing aspects of U.S. history that have not traditionally been looked on as international.
The recent movement to internationalize U.S. history dates to meetings that led to the publication of the La Pietra Report in 2000. Since the report, several of the movement’s leaders have written books that show how broadening the survey can be done. Proponents of this approach assert correctly that international contexts have always been important in understanding U.S. history, and still are. A global view is surely part of the future as scholars lead the way. Why should you internationalize? Consider Pauline Maier’s “Three Teaching Commandments” of what not to do in your U.S. history course: (1) Thou shalt not tell the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—it must be multicultural. (2) Thou shalt not make the story move from east to west (Minnesota had French and Indian place names pre-dating English ones.) (3) Thou shalt not make the U.S. have a story unto itself. Using context, comparison, and connection can help you follow Maier’s dictates.
- Context: No country is an island, although they are often pictured that way in maps. All events that happen in a nation occur in the larger context of world history. The American Revolution, although different from other Atlantic Revolutions, also has many similar touchstones like being part of the web of the Enlightenment era.
- Comparison: Placing U.S. history next to others can clarify context and difference. For example, the similarities and differences between U.S. and Russian expansion can help reinforce lessons about the closing of the Western frontier. A comparative approach both challenges and confirms American exceptionalism.
- Connection: Students can see that the U.S. and its inhabitants both influence and are influenced by other countries and peoples. For instance, the connections between South Africa and the U.S. have been clearly shown in two groundbreaking books by George Fredrickson (see Resource List for "Internationalizing" U.S. History). That South African whites and blacks closely observed and at times emulated their American counterparts is interesting and a lesson unto itself. From this example it is clear that what Americans do can have world-changing ramifications, both intended and unintended.
In summary, internationalizing U.S. history gives our students a true sense of international connection and a more global perspective in an increasingly globalized world.
- Borrow: There are several syllabi available in Guarneri and Davis's Teaching American History in a Global Context. EDSITEment has created lists of lessons from their database that are internationalized, (see here and here). Additionally, James Diskant, a high school history teacher, has written about internationalizing the curriculum in World History Connected (see articles starting with Volume 3, Number 3, and running to Volume 5, Number 3, here). Several programs—International Baccalaureate being the most popular—and schools have instituted global knowledge or citizenship programs as one of their components. Borrow some more: Use Dana Lindaman’s and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons: How Textbooks Around the World Portray U.S. History and have students compare accounts of the same events from a U.S. perspective and a foreign perspective. Another way is to use a reader that internationalizes the course. (For examples of readers and other resources mentioned below, see the Resource List for "Internationalizing" U.S. History handout.)
- Create: For each unit choose a lesson or two that you would like to internationalize. Use the Annals of American History and the Timetables of World History and choose one or more events, movements, or people who can be used for context, comparison, or connection to your event.
- Focus on Geography: Use places in the U.S. periodically throughout the course to show the U.S.’s international connections. Salem, MA, and Hawaii are two wonderful examples that allow for study of trade, religion, empire, international business, tourism, the pineapple, and cosmopolitanism. (For relevant texts, see this handout.)
- Focus on Biography: Use individuals who crossed international borders and cultures to infuse a lesson or a lecture with a real example of internationalization. There are many to choose from, including Abdulrahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Carnegie, Emma Goldman, Marcus Garvey, John McCain, Emily Greene Balch, and Robert McNamara. It is also fun for students to roleplay these individuals in writing and in-class activities.
- Focus on Commodities: Use items such as cod, cotton, or the banana to show each commodity’s U.S. connections and international reach.
- Focus on Music: American music was also international from its outset. It continues to incorporate international styles while influencing others.
See the Sample Lessons for Internationalizing History. The first of these one-day lessons uses a close examination of language to uncover the international nature of the Boston Tea Party and the second lesson uses the same to uncover international connections between the early 19th-century eastern seaboard and other countries and cultures.
- Students come away with a broader perspective of the U.S. without sacrificing what they would traditionally learn in class.
- U.S. and world history teachers can work together on this curriculum as a department, building collegiality and coherence between courses.
- Watch out for facile comparisons. Whenever comparing, remember to ask “what’s different here?” as well as “what’s the same?”
- Be careful about assuming that students know locations and geography. You may need to teach or review these when drawing connections between international locations.
For more information
Greene created three Amazon Listmania Lists in conjunction with this guide:
- U.S. History in International Context: This list focuses on survey texts, global or regional histories, commodities, places, and teaching materials.
- U.S. History in International Context Chronologically: This list is limited to texts that focus on fewer than 100 years of history.
- U.S. History in International Context Miscellany: Because two lists cannot contain everything that is useful in the field.
He also created a Spotify (or music) playlist: U.S. History in International Context. This playlist contains over 100 songs that can be used to focus on the concept of internationalizing. Many of the songs were first found on the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music’s Voices Across Time workbook.
Also check out this Delicious Stack—a collection of publicly shared websites.
Lastly, see this YouTube playlist containing applicable videos.