THEMES IN HISTORY
1. Geographic Determinism on the course of historical events There are many instances in history when the course of human events is determined by the geography and not merely by human will or action. One good example of this is the Nile River. The manner in which the Nile River flows and slowly floods its banks provided a natural irrigation with rich deposits of nutritious soils that created a well fed culture known as the Egyptians. Without the Nile, there would have been NO Egypt.
2. The Big “C”s ~ Conquest, Commerce, Colonization, & Conversion on the Course of History This theme resonates throughout history and is the manner in which peoples, their cultures and their ideas, spread across the landscape. An obvious perfect example is the discovery of the New World and the subsequent conquest of the western hemispheric peoples, their often-times forced conversion to Christianity, and the purposeful colonization of the New World in order to advance commercial trade and build wealth for the Spanish Empire.
3. Causes and Effects in History ~ “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” This historical theme is the very core of understanding the course of human events. Historical events do not occur in a vacuum ~ one event leads to another, which leads to another and in this manner we see how humans act, and mostly, react, to stimului of their times. Did the invention of the moveable type printing press in 15th century Europe cause a great surge in literacy OR did a desire to become more literate have the effect of finding faster ways to spread the written word? The argument is yours to make.
4. “Shoulda, Woulda, Couldas” ~ alternate histories with alternate endings This is probably one of my favorite themes in history. What would have happened differently in the future course of history IF one important change were made to its past? IF ONLY HITLER HAD BEEN FATALLY WOUNDED IN WWI instead of recovering, OR if he had died from the gassings of the trenches in WWI. Would there have even been a WWII? Would there have been 60+ million lives lost in WWII? Would there have been a Holocaust? When you use this theme, you need to first discuss the actual history and then propose a viable alternate history based on a possible course change in the events. It has to be a plausible alternative.
5. Role of Economics in History ~ “money makes the world go around” or does it? If I have said it once, I have said it a MILLION times = money DRIVES politics ~ it is NOT the other way around. Most actions of human beings, if not all, have an economic desire behind them, whether for food, land, power, security, etc., humans labor and toil to accomplish a goal that is always rooted in a desired end = using scarce resources, which have alternative uses, to achieve profitable results. When the early Islamic Empires conquered the known world, it was more desirable NOT to force Christians and Jews to convert, because as Dhimmi they were taxed at a much higher rate. So, less conversion = more money in taxes, therefore religious tolerance in early Islamic caliphates had an economic return.
6. GREED & POWER ~ Who has it? How do they get it? What do they do with it? Why do we care? Is there anyone ever born in the history of the world who is NOT greedy, at least a little bit? Hunger makes us greedy for food. Poverty makes us greedy for riches. I work to make money so I can afford the things in life I need and enjoy. You all are furthering your education to do that same thing. But when the normal human level of greed multiplies like a cancer and produces a lust for power, the very worst in human behavior occurs. Genghis Khan is a good example = through ruthless behavior he united all the tribes of the steppes and built the largest land empire the world has ever known – but he lusted after China with its rich rice paddies and advances in culture and wealth. He fought his way up from poverty and tribal slavery to being recognized as the punishing flail of God, but he was forever irked that he could not conquer China after many attempts. It would be his grandson, Kublai Khan that succeeded where Genghis did not.
7. Gender and History ~ “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world” ~ oh, really? The role of women is the history of the world is filled with tragedy, abuse, exploitation, and ignorance. Women went from being equals with men in Paleolithic societies and innovators of the Agricultural Revolution, to being bought and sold like pack animals. But women became very adept at learning how to manipulate situations in their favor, or at least the men in those situations, when necessary. Whether driven by mere survival instincts, or motivated by higher yearnings, women of influence, power and action were an aberration in history. Joan of Arc was a simple, possibly delusional French country maiden who convinced armies of men that God had sent her to lead the French in conquest against the British – and indeed she did.
8. “Them versus Us” Scenarios ~ How Differences in Race, Ethnicity, Language, Class affect History We don’t often think in terms of racism in history until the onslaught of Black African slavery, which began in the 7th and 8th centuries by Islamic merchants. But certainly history is full of “them versus us” scenarios of one culture, or nation maintaining their superiority of being over another. The Romans were a great example of a culture seeing themselves superior to all other societies, whom they regarded as barbarians. If you were not Roman, then you were born inferior and you deserved to be conquered and ruled by a superior people. This thinking has driven Imperialism since Sargon the Great, the first empire builder in the 3rd millennium BCE.
9. Religion and History ~ “My God is better than your god” This theme kind of goes hand in hand with “them versus us” scenarios, only this is MY GOD is better than your god = meaning my GOD is the most powerful and your god is not. Religion was NOT a concept of belief in the ancient world as it is in the modern world, something you chose to accept or not – in the ancient world it was your complete way of life and thought and the motivation of all action. Humans created myths and legends of gods and creation stories to help them understand their world and their place in it, and in so doing it helped them justify why one people can dominate another. The history of the Hebrews-Israelites-Jews demonstrates a people who created a religious ideal of ONE GOD who demanded their separation from the rest of the world, and in so doing projected a religious identity unique in world history, only to see it adopted and changed by Christianity first, and then by Islam.
10. Role of Family in History ~ as a social, a defensive, an economic, and/or a spiritual construct Family units are the very core of how human beings have organized themselves from their very beginnings. Parents, children, grandparents evolved into generations of extended families that grew into tribes and then into larger societies. But what happened to the role of the parents? of children? How did civilization impact the family unit? An interesting study is the Spartans, who had institutionalized segregation of the sexes and dissolution of the family unit in favor of a male-dominated society of warriors who began their training from the time they are born and raised from the time of 8 years old in a completely male environment. The entire aim of Spartan society was to produce elite Spartan warriors, for women to give birth to them and for men to raise them.
11. The Effects of Education on History ~ “I know something you don’t know . . .” Education is one of the five hallmark institutions of society, along with political institutions, economic institutions, family institutions, and religious institutions. Indeed, education is experienced from the time you are born and you learn language and other cultural skills from your family. The development of a writing system is one of the hallmarks of civilization, which enables a society to record and preserve their thoughts, beliefs, ideas, inventions, innovations, etc. and pass them forward in time. Education also allows for concepts and ideas to pass from culture to culture, via trade, or migrations, or even conversions. When the European Crusaders journeyed through the Byzantine Empire of their way to the Holy Land, they picked up new ideas, new skills, new thoughts and concepts, which eventually lead to the intellectual rebirth of Europe called the Renaissance ~ an era in which backwater Europe would propel itself within 100 years to the top of the global food chain of civilizations.
12. Individualism vs. Communalism ~ “the need of the one” or the “need of the many”? Human beings need each other, it is that simple. Men hunted wild game in packs and women birthed and nurtured their families in packs. We are communal creatures – so when and why did the concept of individuality begin? We were for centuries defined by our gender, or our class, or our professions, or our utility to a society – but seldom were we defined by our unique qualities, unless we were the few and the fearless who aspired to greatness above the masses. And here is where the occasional person or people emerge who place more value on the unique ability of the individual, then on the herding instinct of the masses. Art became a way for the one to differentiate themselves from the many, as it expressed a part of them in a public setting. For example, the communalism of an army was always led by the individuality of a general and his art of military tactics. Athens is a good example of a society that stressed the power of the individual with the creation of Athenian Democracy that granted all citizens, males over 18, a voice in the politics of the city-state.
13. WAR ~ “What was it good for?” War is the most constant theme in history ~ it has been occurring and reoccurring in every age of human existence and while it is easy to recount the horrible effects of war there is also a case to be made for the positive outcomes of war. An obvious positive outcome of war is the independence won in the American Revolution and the eventual creation of the unique Democratic Republican government outlined in our U.S. Constitution.
14. Pivot Points in History ~ “when in the course of human events . . .” ~ the course abruptly changes There are incredible moments in history when the path that human existence is following dramatically changes and heads off in another direction. Sometimes these changes occur because of major geologic events, such as the volcanic eruption that buried the Roman City of Pompeii or they occur from human actions, such as the discovery of vaccines that globally improved human health. So with this theme you will look at one pivotal event and discuss how it changed the direction human life was taking.
15. The Power of Personality ~ Celebrities who change history This is similar to Pivot Points in History, but instead of a pivotal event you have a pivotal personality ~ someone who impacts history politically, culturally, religiously, economically, etc. Not all pivotal personalities in history were conquerors, such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Some influential personalities who changed history would be John Locke and his theories of liberty and freedom that were foundational to the rhetoric of the U.S. Declaration of Independence; Martin Luther King and his activism for racial equality in America that inspired the Civil Rights movement of the 60s; Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that exposed the horrors of American southern slavery to northerners and contributing to the start of the Civil War.
16. “One man’s VIRTUE is another man’s EVIL” ~ Extreme human acts and responses in history These acts are the most disturbing aspects of our historical past, and even our present. Either through individuals or groups, horrifically classified acts such as genocides, tortures, or suicides have been perpetrated for reasons that to some are revered as heroic or religious acts and to others they are seen as evil. The attacks of 911, the Holocaust of Euorpe’s Jews, the Armenian Genocide of WWI – these and many more are acts in history of shock and awe that result in responses that affect history. So you need to not just write up the the details of the extreme event, but the responses to it that changed history.
17. “Ruling the Roost” ~ methods and styles of administration of government over the populace From the earliest origins of human societies, communities of human beings had to establish some kind of concession of rules they would follow in order to live in harmony and cooperation. These evolved into institutions of governments usually formed by one small aristocratic rank of society ruling over a large majority and variety of non-aristocratic peoples. These systems each held unique features of governing peculiar to the unique needs and/or demands of their particular societies. A perfect example of this can be seen in the militaristic state of the Spartans in ancient Greek history. An elite group of retired Spartan soldiers, who had lived long enough and survived the wars of their youth, ruled Sparta as an oligarchy that held life and death decisions over the fate of their citizens from the time they were born. They ruled over a gender-segregated Spartan world completely dedicated to the training and maintenance of a militarized citizenry that then ruled over a much larger slave society in their midst called the Helots, who did ALL other labors and duties necessary for sustaining the life and well-being of Spartans citizens who contributed nothing else to Sparta except their military prowess.
18. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall . . .” ~ paradoxes in history ~ “heads and tails,” i.e. flip sides (ex: good and bad) of the same event, person, or place. This is a theme that requires a higher level of critical thinking and reasoning. It is important to understand that there is NO historical event, person, era, place, etc. that is monothematic = meaning there is only one way to view it. A good example of a historical person with many facets of interpretation is Martin Luther. He is credited with one of the bravest and selfless acts in history by challenging the corruption of the Catholic Church and becoming the driving force of the Reformation. But there is another side to Martin Luther that few know about because history prefers to focus on the positive side of him = I am talking about his raging Anti-Jewish attitudes. He advocated some of the most heinous anti-Semitic acts of his time, irrationally hating the Jews. One cannot truly say they know about Martin Luther unless they are willing to examine BOTH sides of his personality.
19. “For want of a nail . . .” ~ how technology has affected history This is a favorite theme in history for students – how new inventions and innovations can change history. The Cotton Gin that I mentioned above would be a good example. The moveable type printing press used by Johann Gutenberg to mass print the Bible propelled an explosion in printed material that incited desires in people to become literate so they could read all the materials being circulated.
20. History and the Environment ~ exploiting Mother Nature and its consequences. This in kind of the opposite of Geographic Determinism, in that it is how humans have impacted the earth, rather than how the earth has impacted humans. A good example is the Dust Bowl in American modern history. For thousands of years, the Great Plains of North America had been natural grazing lands for migratory herds. The deep rooted prairie grasses withstood droughts, storms, winds, and fires. But once humans started cultivating the Great Plains in the 1800s by plowing up all the prairie grasses and replacing them with temporary, short rooted crops, this directly resulted in the black blizzards of the 1930s. Droughts and winds carried all the top soil off the plains and carried it into the atmosphere, leaving the once rich farm lands a desert wasteland.
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