History: History Curriculum

The goal of the history curriculum is to cultivate a genuine, informed and critical enthusiasm for the world through history. We want to ensure that students come to an understanding of how cultures have changed over time and learn how to express themselves both in prose and discussion.


These objectives are much easier to state than to achieve, and defining them is also difficult. Culture, for example, is the anthropologist’s word for just about everything human, and that is how we understand it here. It includes technology, art, philosophy, and religion on a more or less equal basis with economy, kinship, and custom. Within the historical profession today, there is a general recognition that each culture item at a given time illuminates all others and that, unless the historian’s own philosophy assigns priorities, a change in any one of them can change all the others.

Living in a postmodern, media-saturated, consumer society our young students can often be unaware of our own shared history and cultural traditions. The History Department has seven course years-fourth through tenth grades-in which to familiarize students with the five millennia of the western tradition and its place in the wider human world. Our objective in fourth grade History and Geography is to nurture our students’ curiosity about the world and our place in it. Using maps, books and other resources students begin to understand some of the dynamic changes that occurred when people from different parts of the world came into contact with one another. The second half of fourth grade history provides a broad introduction to the first Americans, pre-colonial American history and the making of America’s colonies.

The fifth grade course is American history: from the origins of our republic to the end of the millenium. We use a narrative style text as the basis of the course. We emphasize chronological development and cause and effect relationships, and we help students to learn new study habits, especially note taking and the art of organizing an essay-type answer. By the end of this year students should be able to evaluate and record important historical dates from lectures or texts and to analyze the information in a well-organized essay. The course tends to leave the fifth grade student with a sense of some problems and personalities in American history, and an array of interesting and important facts and arguments within a chronological context.

Sixth grade history entails the study of the earliest human societies. We begin by examining the prehistoric transitions of early human hunting and gathering societies to herding and early settled agricultural societies before moving to urban civilizations, which we study in particular detail. We spend most of our time examining the development of culture: the political, social, economic, technological, artistic and religious structures of ancient civilizations. Our study of specific civilizations covers, in varying proportion, Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece and the early Roman Republic. Students write short historical fictions, essays and dialogues, and have enacted documents from Gilgamesh and Inanna to the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aristophanes’ Birds and Plato’s Apology.

Seventh grade history is a topic-driven study of Western civilization that begins with an in-depth study of Rome and ends with the transitional period of the late 15th century. In addition to the textbook, we read numerous primary sources to explore contrasting perspectives on the events covered by our travels: the rise and fall of Rome, the spread of Christianity, the rise of Islam and its spread across Asia and North Africa, and the evolution of feudal Europe. Whenever possible, we draw parallels and make connections between the European and Mediterranean societies and their counterparts in other parts of the world, in particular China, Japan, India, and Persia. We discuss, debate, and act things out to bring the material to life and to connect it to issues today. Above all, the course stresses writing in a variety of forms, from in-class essays and historical fiction to formal analytical papers, in order to strengthen skills and develop the themes at the heart of this course.

In the eighth grade, we move from the European Renaissance to the cusp of the French Revolution, the period historians call Early Modern. Students will study more world history than in seventh grade, but our emphasis remains on the West and the impact of its encounters with other peoples and cultures. The course traces interwoven intellectual, political, economic and even biological themes-from plagues to religious upheavals, the development of print, the modern nation-state, global capitalism from commercial to industrial, the scientific method, political liberalism and reaction, and human rights. Research is a point of emphasis throughout the year, and students are guided through a major project during the second semester.

Ninth grade history expands to be called World History, and is concerned with key cultural processes that historians associate with the making of the modern world. It tells the story of major events, ideas, and movements that have given shape to the modern world community as it exists today. It asks analytical questions of global significance: how did the different regions of the world come into contact so that almost every part of the world today is tied into global political, economic, and social systems, and intellectual, religious, artistic and technological exchanges? Why are some regions of the world more powerful than others, both politically and economically? The course provides a framework to support further, more specific studies in grades ten through twelve.

In the tenth grade, students return to a general survey of American history. Starting with the colonial era, we examine various social, economic, cultural, and political events in order to gain an understanding of the tensions and issues that have shaped the United States in the past four hundred years. The history of the American Republic is our main concern and we examine it, warts and all, including the creation of the republic, the struggles over slavery and federal vs. state power, the rise of the U.S. as an industrial power, the role of the U.S. in world affairs, and the global place of the U.S. in the 20th century. Students use a variety of primary and secondary sources throughout the course.

By their junior year students are prepared for our most rigorous offerings and they are invited to bring these skills to an elective of their choice. The Junior/Senior elective offerings are wide and varied, and, because they reflect the passions and expertise of the faculty, idiosyncratic. In all cases, they challenge students with college-level readings, an emphasis on analyzing primary documents, and opportunities for original research; in addition, students consider the role of historiography in the construction of arguments and narratives. Courses range from sophisticated or thematic reviews of material covered in previous grades (The Ancient State, History of New York) to introductory courses in interdisciplinary topics (History of Disease, Arthurian Legends, Modern Art History). Increasingly, they have included surveys of topics more global and non-western in scope (Cold War in Asia and Modern Middle East).

Following this path of study, students leave Saint Ann’s with a powerful analytical toolbox to be used in the highest forms of critical engagement with history: parsing and interpreting contradictory ideas and evidence; developing and presenting original arguments; identifying gaps in explanations assumed to be definitive; finding ruptures and silences in traditional narratives; giving voice to the non-celebrated and rendering human the old hero-Gods. Armed with these tools, which are honed in the context of historical study, students become empowered as citizens, locally and globally. For we believe in a usable past, which is not to say that we teach the past so that its examples can be understood as easy equivalences to contemporary events, keys to the present. Instead, by learning to recognize patterns and discrepancies in a range of historical contexts, and to understand the push-and-pull of social structures and individuals in the process of social change, students develop the ability to use history not in the service of ideology, but “to think with” – that is, to read between the lines of rhetoric, to illuminate contradictions in policy, to expose the pretenses of power, to make better sense of the world. What they do with this knowledge is, of course, up to them.