A Thematic Approach to World History

One of the chief complaints about history is that there is too much memorization of boring facts and dates. But let me tell you a secret: I graduated from college with a degree in European history without ever purposefully memorizing a single date. In my mind, dates didn’t seem very meaningful, so I just cavalierly ignored them. Along the way, I did inadvertently memorize many dates, but this was simply an unintended consequence of engaging with historical narratives. Yes, I will acknowledge that dates and facts are important, but facts are not history. History is the way in which we connect these facts into a larger story.

The world history curriculum for high school gives teachers the impossible task of covering every region of the world from before the beginning of recorded history to the present. But luckily, the goal of teaching world history is not to have students memorize an endless string of discrete facts and dates about every country in the world. After all, today the internet gives us easy access to all the facts we could ever need. Rather, the goal of a world history course today should be to equip students with knowledge of the essential concepts and themes historians use to explain the past. Once students understand these, they will be able to place any historical fact they are confronted with into a larger narrative. At TCI, we emphasize this sort of thematic approach to world history, and have structured our lessons and Student Text to help students trace the continuity of historical concepts and themes across different times and places.

A thematic approach was especially helpful when fellow TCI developer Nathan Wellborne and I were assigned to create a lesson about the Mexican Revolution for TCI’s new History Alive! World Connections program. The Mexican Revolution was one of those very complicated, drawn-out revolutions, like the French Revolution, that saw the rise and fall of many different leaders over several years. We both realized that few students would be able to remember the long succession of Mexican leaders of this era: Porfirio Díaz, Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Plutarcho Calles, Lazaro Cárdenas. Even if students forcibly crammed this information into their brains, it would not help them to understand the importance of the Mexican Revolution in the broad scope of history. So, we turned to a thematic approach. Throughout the lesson, we highlighted several themes and tensions which recur in Latin American history. One of the key tensions we identified was “dictatorship vs. democracy.” We hoped that even if students forgot all the details they read about, they would still understand that the Mexican Revolution was an important episode in the long story of democracy.

From the start, TCI made the decision to organize its new History Alive! World Connections program around several key themes which the students will be able to follow over the course of the year. This allows students to develop a big-picture view of history, and to see the world as an interconnected whole. After all, it is much more important for students to understand that the Mexican Revolution was part of the spread of democratic ideals throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries than to remember who exactly Plutarcho Calles was.



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