Reflecting On Thematic World History
I’ve just finished up with my third “round” of teaching World History from a thematic perspective (as opposed to sequential), and I’m really pleased with how this is working. I suspected that exploring world history from a series of big questions would be appealing to students, and help them see some of the big issues that humans have faced over time. I was right, but appreciation for this mode of teaching history seems to go deeper. Here is my completely unscientific take on this.
Thematic history allows students to connect the past to the present. Each unit begins with a current event, and most end with a situation that is also fairly current. For example, when we ask the question, “why do humans fight,” we start with the situation in Ukraine, and we end with the Arab Spring protests from 2011-12. Students can more easily see how fighting is something that humans have always done. The locations and motivations change, as do the methods, but fighting seems to be a human thing.
Thematic history gives us time to engage in lesser known areas or the world, or in topics that never get attention in traditional, sequential, history. When we look at how gender has been viewed across history, we get to investigate the first woman to speak to the Roman Senate, how Queen Elizabeth II was portrayed in art, and how Queen Ana Nzinga refused to let the Portuguese speak down to her. We also have time to look at how non-binary or gender non-conforming people have been treated in history - from the Bugis in South Sulawesi who recognize 5 distinct genders, to North America’s Public Universal Friend.
Thematic history helps students see themselves in what I think of as the ribbon of history. Many students look around the world and are distressed at what they see. We end the second semester with the question of “how have humans worked to bring about political and social change?” Whether we consider the Protestant Reformation, the work of Rigoberta Menchu Tum in fighting for basic human rights in Guatemala, or the modern Black Lives Matter movement, students can see that people of conscience have always worked to fight for what they believe is right.
All of this comes together, I believe, to help students answer the “so what” in history. I know I’m connecting with students because they tell me so. Nothing makes me happier than to have a student or parent tell me that they have never enjoyed history until taking this class, or that they look forward to doing the reading each week, or that a student enjoys talking to their adult after every class about what we covered.
History is not about memorizing a list of names, or dates, or battles. History is the study of humans - the good and the bad. I’m looking forward to another year of walking through all of the big questions with students starting in September. Details are available on Outschool.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum, during a visit to Rome. © Rino Bianchi. From www.nobelprize.org.