General description/philosophy

The idea of studying the history of the world in 180 class days (about 150 hours of instruction) is, of course, absurd. Teaching such a course requires making choices about what to cover; even if one is working from a textbook, the textbook is generally massive and impossible to get through in 180 days, and so one is still obliged to choose what to cover.

The first decision I made when I had the opportunity to teach this course was not to use the massive textbook. Years ago, after attempting to use standard, state-approved textbooks to teach eighth grade American history, I came to the conclusion that the standard textbooks are obstacles to getting students interested in history. They do make a teacher’s job easier; they have ample materials to keep students busy, plus review questions, chapter summaries, ready-made tests and quizzes, etc. But for the teacher who wants to arouse her students’ curiosity about history, standard textbooks are of little use. (There are several reasons for this problem, but this is not the space for that discussion.)

On the other hand, the idea of teaching the course without any kind of text seemed daunting, and so I went in search of a suitable one-volume history of the world. Fortunately, a number of scholars have attempted to write such books in the past two decades, among them J.M. Roberts, James Davis, David Fromkin, and Geoffrey Blainey. The one that seemed most appropriate for 10th graders was James Davis’s The Human Story, which I have used successfully for several years. (Bibliographical information is at the end of this document.)

The starting point for my philosophy of teaching history is that history is, first and foremost, a branch of literature. History is not “the past”; it is writing about the past. If we are to succeed in gaining students’ interest, we must choose course materials that feature lively and accessible writing. My teaching is traditional in that it focuses primarily on the written and spoken word, but I am working on including more images in my teaching. The main ways I have done that so far are: 1) using the overhead system to show images from the internet; 2) showing videos; and 3) dragging out the big textbook to draw students’ attention to drawings, illustrations, paintings, photographs, and maps. (The big textbook also comes in handy on occasion because it does feature some selections from primary sources—but increasingly I find that it’s easier to access those documents on the internet.)


1) By the end of the course, students will have an improved sense of the chronology of world history. They will not have memorized large numbers of exact dates, but they should have an ability to place important events and eras in time. They should know, for example, that the American Revolution preceded the French Revolution, and that both happened in the latter half of the 18th century. They should know that the period which historians have called the Middle Ages ran from about 500 AD to 1500 AD, and that the “Dark Ages” constitute the first half of that millennium.
2) Students should also know why historians have given different names to different eras. They should know why the Renaissance is called the Renaissance, and how it was different from the Middle Ages. (They should also know that such labels, even as they assist our understanding, can mislead us.)
3) Students will be aware of and able to describe (in general terms) the various revolutionary changes that have occurred in the world in (roughly) the past five centuries in virtually all fields of human endeavor (science, industry, agriculture, transportation, literature, the arts, etc.)


I list here the chapter titles in Davis’s book, along with the main focus of each chapter. (The book is supplemented with other readings, but it provides the basic framework for the course.)

1. “We fill the earth” (early human migrations and early human cultures)
2. “We gather by the rivers” (two of the earliest civilizations: Sumerian and Egyptian)
3. “The wanderers settle down” (the Hebrews)
4. “Two ancient cities follow diverse paths” (Sparta and Athens)
5. “China excels and endures” (China, from its beginnings to the time of the European Enlightenment)
6. “Some attempt to rule us all” (four empires: Persian, Alexandrian, Roman, and Mongolian)
7. “We found the world-wide faiths” (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam)
8. “Europe prepares for its big role” (the Middle Ages)
9. “We find each other” (the Age of Exploration)
10. “The New World Falls to the Old One” (Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, and the Conquest of the Americas)
11. “We suffer famine, war, and plague” (the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, various famines)
12. “We discover who we are and where we live” (the Scientific Revolution)
13. “Here and there, the people rule” (Revolutions: American, French, and Latin American)
14. “We make more and live better” (the Industrial Revolution)
15. “The Richer Countries Grab the Poorer” (the New Imperialism)
16. “We multiply, and shrink the earth” (Population growth, the Transportation Revolution)
17. “We wage a war to end war” (World War I and its aftermath)
18. “A utopia becomes a nightmare” (the Russian Revolution)
19. “A Leader tries to shape a master race” (Hitler and Nazi Germany)
20. “We wage a wider, crueler war” (World War II, the Holocaust)
21. “The Asian giants try to feed their poor” (modern China and India)
22. “Some of us do well” (technological innovation and global trade bring a better life to many, but many are left behind)
23. “We walk along the brink” (the Cold War, the Middle East, global terrorism)
24. “We do the unbelievable” (computers, space exploration, genetics—the explosion of scientific knowledge)
In addition to Davis’s book, I have also used selections from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book written for young people, originally published in German in 1935, later revised, updated, and translated into many languages. (When first published, it was banned by the Nazis for being overly “pacifist.”)

Biography project/research paper

During the second semester, students are asked to choose a biography of a historically significant figure who is not an American. They read the biography, then prepare and deliver an oral presentation about it. Having becoming “experts” about this individual, students then proceed to do further research into a particular aspect of this person’s life that they found intriguing; they then write a brief research paper (four to six pages) about that chosen aspect of the person’s life.


Student performance is evaluated almost entirely through testing. Tests are given at the end of each unit. The emphasis on the tests is on getting students to articulate what they know in a comprehensible fashion. For that reason, the tests consist mostly of essay questions. While multiple choice and true-false tests can indeed tell a teacher something about how well a student understands the course material, they do not give the student the opportunity to articulate what she knows. By relentlessly providing such opportunities on every test, I hope to help the students to become better writers and thinkers.


Davis, James C. The Human Story: Our History, From the Stone Age Today. Harper Perennial, 2004.
Gombrich, E.H. A Little History of the World. Yale University Press, 2005.
Engineering an Empire. History Channel, 2006.
The French Revolution History Channel, 2005.