All worthwhile courses try at some level to explain why things are the way they are. What’s distinctive about history is that the answer takes the form of a story: Once things were a certain way, and then certain things happened, and then in response certain people made certain choices, until eventually people were living differently than before. Even historical determinists, who are inclined to think of historical acts and events as caused rather than chosen, are obliged to support their theories by showing how their alleged causes match up with the chronologies we know—the stories we tell about the past.
The close identification of history with story is actually embedded in the etymologies of the two words, which share the same roots in both Greek and Latin. In Middle English, “history” and “story” were two words for the same thing, and modern French l’histoire can be translated as either “story” or “history.”
This narrative paradigm for history is so natural that we can easily overlook how significantly it differs from other disciplines. History classes move along a timeline, from the oldest events to the most recent events. But math teachers don’t teach first with Roman numerals before switching to the Arabic. Zero, a late addition to math, is nonetheless an early element of the curriculum. In my logic classes, I feel no obligation to teach the oldest concepts in logic first and end the year with the latest philosophical treatments. Language teachers do not build vocabulary starting with the oldest words, nor do literature teachers always teach Tolstoy before Tolkien. No biology or chemistry teacher thinks he is constrained to organize his course according to the order in which the pertinent discoveries were made. Only in history do we feel the need to stick to the chronological narrative.
But what happens when the story gets too long? This is not just a matter of how many years the history is supposed to cover. In the history of ancient Israel, the exodus story alone covers many centuries, but it can be told very compactly. It is actually modern history that is the hardest to wrestle into shape. If you wanted to tell the story of the last hundred years or so—“the American century,” let’s call it—in such a way as to explain to high-school students “why things are the way they are today,” how would you do it?
That’s the question we faced in 2020 when The Heights introduced a new course in modern world history. The key decision in our course design was to depart from a strictly chronological approach. Our judgment at the time was that “things are the way they are today” for a variety of reasons that overlap in many places without quite converging. If the American century were a mini-series, there would be several different plotlines developing concurrently. Conflating them into a single chronology would make them ponderous at best, and more likely an incomprehensible jumble. So in order to teach the most important narratives well, rather than a single narrative ponderously, we decided to try to tease those different stories apart and tell them one at a time. Four semesters later, it seems fair to say we made the right call.
The 1876 Problem
On the first day of class, I explain this approach to students by asking them to name something that happened in 1876. It’s an unfair question, because many things happened in 1876. But this is the nation’s capital, so someone figures out pretty quickly that there must have been a presidential election that year. Someone else might know that it was the disputed election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. And then a light bulb goes on somewhere else in the room: Hey, isn’t that when Reconstruction ended? Indeed it is. “Was that an important event in American history?” I ask. They know it was; the failure of Reconstruction continues to cast a very long shadow over American society, and the discord of recent years has made it seem more important rather than less.
“What else happened in 1876?” I then ask. And this is even more unfair, because I have in mind something that most people can’t place in a particular year: the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. “Was that an important event in American history?” Yes. “Has it affected society as profoundly as the failure of Reconstruction?” Arguably, yes; arguably, more. “Do these two events have anything to do with each other?” No. Virtually nothing.
We are now ready to appreciate “the 1876 problem.” In a strictly chronological course, we could start in 1865 and march through the decades, and our unit on the 1870s (or “the Gilded Age,” or whatever unit of time we chose) could mention both the end of Reconstruction and the invention of the telephone—and the Great Depression of 1873, and the Whiskey Ring scandal, and more—but we would no longer be telling a coherent story. We would be asking students to know names and dates and memorized lists without reliably sparking interest or promoting insight. This, I suspect, is what makes some students think of history as boring. If it’s done right, history can’t be boring because life isn’t boring.
Addressing the Problem
So how do we do it differently? We recognize that the end of Reconstruction is a hugely important milestone on our nation’s twisted path toward racial equality—a narrative that we are still right in the middle of. The telephone isn’t really part of that narrative, and we don’t want to interrupt the equality narrative to mention the telephone, so we resolve to tell that story separately—as part of the narrative on the globalization of peaceful exchange: the movement of people, goods, and information across national borders with increasing speed and decreasing cost. Instead of trying to keep all of the events on a single timeline that loses the thread of the important stories, we treat each story as important in its own right.
This requires us to cover “the American century” five or six times in a single year in order to get the job done. We teach the struggle for racial equality from 1865 all the way to the present, so we see how that story has shaped our modern world. And then we start over, teaching the story of industrialization from the “Gilded Age” all the way to today, so we see how that story has shaped our modern world. And then we tell the story of socialism and communism, from the nineteenth century through today. And progressivism, all the way to today. And the globalization of both peaceful exchange and total war. And so on. We still teach Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the unit on racial equality, because that’s still the best way to tell that story. But we teach Brown v. Board of Education before we teach the Russian Revolution or John D. Rockefeller’s creation of Standard Oil or Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, because those events are best understood not as “things that happened before Brown v. Board of Education,” but rather as things that happened in entirely different stories.
The primary principle of organization, in other words, is not chronological, but thematic. We first divide the story into a manageable number of dominant themes, and only then do we embrace the obvious, natural orderliness of chronological presentation. We depart from narrative orthodoxy only to produce much stronger narratives. And, one hopes, a cohort of young adults with much greater historical understanding about the choices that have shaped their world.