Among most historians, the traditional approach to studying the history of the world is through the lenses of major figures, political movements, wars, documents, and sometimes religions. Other historians propose using other strategies in order to gain a more complete understanding of our past and therefore understanding of our present. “Examining what history has been taught and what needs to be taught,” is how Brian Holstrom, a teacher at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona captures the shift that needs to take place.
As part of his professional development, he proposed attending the 2019 convention of the World Historical Association in Salt Lake City to Salpointe’s school administration. “The WHA proposes an annual theme. That year it was “Sustainability and Preservation in World History.” So Holstrom wrote a paper entitled The Case for Ecology and the Environment in World History Instruction and submitted it. It was accepted. Others proposed papers about the necessity of archives, preserving historical sites, and environmental history, but Holstrom’s paper offered something unique, insisting that widespread instruction in environmental perspectives to global history was required to address cultural apathy towards environmental degradation and climate change. “While most history courses remained obsessed with humanity, human interrelations, and state-building, students were not being given adequate historical context for humanity’s complex relationships with the environment. Unfortunately, that year’s conference was canceled due to Covid,” explained Holstrom. “However, the journal of the association, World History Connected, picked up my paper and wanted to print it.”
They also wanted a guest editor for a particular issue of the journal to gather and publish some of the other relevant work from the conference. As a result of his paper, Brian was asked to be the guest editor of the journal. He sent out an invitation for other historians to make submissions and eight people responded, submitting relevant new scholarship. Those papers, along with Brian’s, then underwent a double-blind peer review by leading scholars in Environmental History. “I was really shocked by the support and excitement to help with our work. Suddenly, I was exchanging emails and feedback with John R. McNeill from Georgetown University, Richard Tucker from the University of Michigan, and several other scholars that are among the best in the field.”
In July 2021, the journal issue was distributed and published online. The authors of the other articles and Holstrom presented their works at the annual conference—held online— with Holstrom coordinating the digital participants. His paper as well as his introduction to that issue of World History Connected were discussed.
As a brand new history teacher at Salpointe in 2006, Brian was deeply influenced by his fellow World History teacher and mentor, Carmelite Foster Hanley. Fr. Foster had been teaching World History at Salpointe Catholic High School for many years and his first advice to Brian, to “teach for three years and you will know if this is the career for you,” was the encouragement Holstrom needed. He has been teaching history at the school for 17 years. He loves teaching and believes he has found his life’s work in the classroom.
As part of his research in evaluating world history instruction, Brian noted major changes from the way Fr. Foster used to move his students through their study of World History. “I even got a hold of a notebook from a former student from one of Foster’s classes at Salpointe in the early 1990s,” says Holstrom with a smile. “Fr. Foster was an inspiring storyteller and a teacher that I still emulate, but I felt students needed history that was more global, modern, and ecological. Like many traditional courses, Foster spent a lot of the fall semester on the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. But there is only so much time. You have to make critical choices for content. We still study the Roman empire, but our course emphasizes modernity and has an increasing focus on ecology, rather than the deeds of each Roman emperor.”
And it is a choice of the lens with which we look at those events in World History.
That brings up Holstrom’s second major influence on the content he presents in the classroom: Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. In that document, Pope Francis critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming. The encyclical is a call to people of all faiths to take “swift and unified global action.”
As a traditional communications tool used by the popes to clarify, amplify, or promote one or more issues, this encyclical encourages people to discussion and dialogue on the “care for our common home,” the document’s subtitle. Pope Francis did not see it so much as an environmental document as an awakening to the developed world’s indifference to the destruction of the planet in exchange for short-term economic gains. The result has been a throwaway culture—unwanted items and unwanted people, such as the unborn, the elderly, and the poor, are discarded as waste.
For Holstrom, it became another lens through which to understand how cultures have arrived to the present day. “I read the pope’s document and I thought something is culturally off. Why are we so apathetic to environmental degradation? I think its because many of us don’t receive ecological perspectives of the history of our world,” said Holstrom. “We have mass production and consumption, but we are blinded, or at least distracted, from how the environment is affected. In our historical narratives, nature is typically only recognized as an obstacle or a commodity. As a history teacher, I want to share narratives that keep students mindful of ecology and the environment.”
“The gift of Laudato Si’ for me was feeling a shift in how to look at the study of history,” said Holstrom. “The typical high school curriculum has only the traditional narrative—names and dates of major events taught in a chronological order. It is all people, people, people. It does not view history through the perspective of the environment. Environmental degradation and climate change have certainly accelerated with industrialization, but we have always had a complex, impactful relationship with the environment. My paper examines why there often exists a cultural aversion to environmental history, why course curricula often avoid the subject, and how world history can be utilized for the positive change in culture that Pope Francis suggests in Laudato si’.”
As a result of his efforts, in addition to his work with the 2021 annual conference and journal of the World Historical Association, Holstrom has been awarded a scholarship named for William McNeill, a pioneer in global history, to participate in the 31st Annual Conference of the World History Association on June 23-25, 2022 in Bilbao, Spain. The theme of the conference is “Distance, Mobility, and Migration.”
Holstrom’s article and the rest of the forum he coordinated can be found in World History Connected vol. 18 no. 2, which is digitally available online. Brian continues to teach world history courses at Salpointe Catholic in Tucson. He can be reached at email@example.com.