I am in my second year of teaching World History. I started my teaching career with American History, the safe softball curriculum that so many adore, switched schools and was given a section of European History, and now I am in my second year of this new field within the discipline. It’s kind of puzzling to students when I explain to them that the history we are studying is in fact pretty new. William McNeill’s The Rise of the West from 1964 is most commonly cited as the first exploration of world history–that is, bucking the academic trend of going into microscopic elements within history but instead looking at unifying themes, trends, and ideas across the planet and time. Since then, it has definitely found its way onto the academic mainstage, with professors (and cool enough, high school teachers as well!) making some pretty solid contributions to its scholarship.
In teaching the History of the World from 1500 to today, the daunting challenge is all about organization. Any good historian who truly loves their craft will confess that content selection is by far the most difficult and painful part of the process of teaching: what do you cover? What do you cut out? Can you make time for this, or that, or do they both need to go? Every summer I struggle with this question, and last summer I decided that for the first time, I was going to teach history outside of chronology and instead be thematic. And now that I’m sitting her proctoring my exam for the first semester of the class and reflecting on how things have been, I’m proud to say that I think it’s been going pretty well.
But first, it’s worth discussing my first two weeks of class. David Christian, one of the leading historians in the “big history movement” has a tidy little book called This Fleeting World, which incredibly enough sums up (in a pretty coherent way!) the history of the world in under 100 pages. I assigned the 30 pages or so that covered the ‘Modern’ world, that from 1500-today, and as a class we spent the first two weeks establishing an agreed-upon timeline of major events from the last 500 years: the creation of the global economy, the industrial revolution and subsequent political revolutions, the world wars, etc, with basic causes and effects. It was a whirlwind pace, but what it did was create a certain degree of chronological literacy for my students.
After the two weeks, we have been plowing through Seven Key Themes of World History. These themes are not my creation, but instead come from World History For Us All, a truly fantastic project put together by Ross Dunn and San Diego State University. They are, in order, and as I word them:
1. Patterns of Population
2. Economic Networks and Exchanges
3. Uses and Abuses of Power
4. Have’s and Have Not’s
6. Science, Tech, and the Environment
7. Spiritual and Moral Codes
Within each unit we adhere to basic chronology, but we span the entire 500 years. For example, in Unit 2 on Economic Networks and Exchanges, we covered the silver trade of the 1600s, imperialism, and free vs. fair trade of the 20th century, just to name a few.
In general, I think that this approach has gone very well, and it’s a real pleasure for me to see my students make cross-continental and cross-century analogies and references in an informed way. As a teacher with a penchant for story-telling, I feel that a cheap gimmick I used to rely on was to constantly leave me kids with cliff-hangers. Me: “Well kids, if you think that was bad, wait till we get to WWII!” Kids: “Wow, we can’t wait!” etc etc. Now I need to challenge myself away from those tactics, and instead I get to revel in watching kids make the connections themselves.
I was inspired to do some bragging because the in-class essay that they’re writing now is really fun, and I think quite revealing of how a thematic approach allows educational opportunities that would be lost in a traditional chronological curriculum. We have finished our unit on Power, and who better to explore than Machiavelli in such a context. Now typically in a traditional classroom, Machiavelli would be brought up in the context of the Renaissance, and so when introduced teachers would have to pull from relatively obscure Europeans leaders from that time period to serve as examples. They may make reference to contemporary leaders, but you can’t talk much about Stalin, Mao, or Hitler because you haven’t covered that material yet, and don’t want to overwhelm them with information from another unit.
For me, I’m getting essays back that are totally sweet. Kids have to critique Machiavelli: Is he right that one can be a more effective leader by being feared rather than being loved? They have to draw from at least 3 different leaders throughout the past to prove their point, with requirements of course. But I’m hearing about Stalin, FDR, Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK, General Patton, Saddam Hussein, and the list goes on and on. Now that is cool, and that is good historical understanding, and just good critical thinking in general. And so I’m siked. I get to go off to my holiday break with a good feeling in my tummy that the curriculum is going well, that the risk of doing History in a thematic way was well worth it.