21 Essential Concepts for Succeeding in Introductory U.S. History

Recently I was given the idea of developing a set of key terms that are applicable to any given course in its entirety. Below are twenty-one major ideas that intersect with just about every lesson in the two (three for those on the quarter system) freshmen history classes for college students. Please feel free to use and adapt. I’m very interested in seeing similar lists and/or any ideas that should be added to this list. 

1. history- [h]istory, with a little “h,” is anything and everything that has been said, thought, written, created by anyone anywhere from less that a micro-second ago, including actions and influence from weather, animals, plants, etc.

2. History- History, with a capital “H,” is an academic and human endeavor used to try and reconstruct the past and make sense of the world based on evidence, hopes, and/or fears. History, as continually examined and (re)told, is always changing, shifting, and is greatly selective in terms of who and what it remembers and what it tells, minimizes, or emphasizes. In sum, History is NOT what happened, but a story about what happened.

3. primary source- Primary sources (or cultural artifacts, evidence ) give us first-hand information about something — events, thoughts, values, perspectives, etc. Any source can be a primary source in some regard.

4. secondary source- Secondary sources are based on primary sources. Keep in mind, too, that every secondary source is also a primary source in some fashion or another. 

5. historical memory– Historical memory (or a society’s myths) is the way in which people and institutions remember, memorialize, and celebrate or not celebrate the past. Historical memory is similar to History in that it is and can only be a small part of all of history, but it diverges from History in that historical memory refers more specifically to non-academic, non-source-based History. For example, a scholar interested in the historical memory of the American Revolution might look at celebrations of Independence Day over time or various representations of the American Revolution in film and literature. Historical memory, in sum, refers to popular understandings of the past.

6. historiography- Historiography is both the History of History and the study of various approaches, theories, and sources used to understand the writing of, teaching of, and study of the past. When looking at historiography, a student of History might compare and contrast different monographs about the Vietnam War, asking how scholars are similar and different in terms of the sources used, arguments, biases, etc.

7. bottom-up History- Historiographically, historians analyze events from a variety of perspectives, one being bottom-up History. When historians analyze from a bottom-up perspective (or grassroots) they are looking for the ways in which everyday people influence larger societal events. If we wanted to analyze the Civil Rights Revolution from a grassroots perspective, we would look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott and individuals such as Fannie Lou Hamer, for example.

8. top-down History- For much of history, top-down History (or the “great [White] Men” approach) was the primary and frequently exclusive way in which people wrote about the past, at least in the so-called Western World. This approach focuses on change resulting from the action or inaction of politicians, generals, the super-rich, and wars, for example. This approach is still used and is certainly needed to fully understand events. For example, a top-down approach to the Civil Rights Revolution would look at the (important) role the NAACP, Supreme Court, presidents, etc. When any one approach is used, much is excluded and understandings are unnecessarily limited.

9. geopolitical- The term “geopolitical” helps us recognize that geographic boundaries between neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and nations are sociopolitical and geopolitical constructions and regularly change. Two areas, such as the White and Black parts of town, might be geographically close but culturally very far away. Similarly, the border between various nations might have little or no meaning to the actual people who live and work there.


10. government(s)- Since the Civil War and especially since World War II, the government has played an increasingly large role in the everyday life of United Statesians. But regardless of time and place, government(s) have played a significant part in life for everyone. Governments pass laws (laws are always a response to some hope or fear), collect taxes, perpetuate wars, and otherwise organize and divide people into large groups. We must always remember that “the government” is no single, monolithic organism. Frequently, parts of the government (including different political parties) are at odds with each other. When discussing actions of “the government,” we must be as specific as possible. Do we mean the police, a state court, the national legislature, etc?

11. citizenship(s)- Notions of citizenship have always been in great flux in the United States. Who is a citizen? What does it take to become a citizen? We could even look at levels of citizenship. Who can vote? Is citizenship a right or privilege? Being a citizen of a nation always involves being part of a social contract or a reciprocal relationship. What is the government going to do for its citizens? What do citizens do in return? Citizenship also applies to the ways in which we belong or do not belong to a school, church, family, or other social group. 

12. mores- Mores are the core values, expectations, biases, worldviews of a given culture, nation, sub-culture, etc.

13. social construction- By recognizing that everything is a social construction (also called relativism), we can better understand and appreciate the differences between time and place, nations and peoples. In order to most effectively understand the past, it is necessary to look at things from a variety of perspectives and to try and understand how they came to be. In an example focused on point-of-view, there is always a gap between why a government fights a war and why its soldiers do.

14. –ISMs- The suffix -ISMs (e.g., ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, industrialism, social darwinism, nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, postmodernism, Victorianism, modernism capitalism, communism, socialism) includes many powerful, pervasive ideologies. ISMs have societal-wide consequences. Some of these such as liberalism or communism, provide a very specific worldview, set of promises, and “evils” to overcome. (See this post for more info.)

15. racialized- A person is not White or Black, but a person can be racialized as White or Black. The use of racialized or racialization allows us to recognize how and why people are classified in various racialized categories, while remembering the process is a social construction and that people are people first. Racialization is frequently subjective and can vary by time, place, situation, or even clothing, for instance.

16. genderized/sexualized- Very similar to racialized, by using the terminology “genderized” (instead of “gender”) and “sexualized” (instead of “sex”), we can more directly and specifically acknowledge that Male and Female, Man and Woman—are only socially constructions, even as so-called biological concepts. (See Why I changed my Facebook gender and so should you – Hidden Power of Words Series, #9)

17. intersectionality- Intersectionality recognizes the ways in which various form of discrimination and oppression and domination can and frequently do overlap. For instance, a Black Woman can face both sexism and racism. White, heterosexual, Protestant, cis-Men, although not always numerically in a given geopolitical locale, have been the majority group or the group in power in the United States. This group accounts for the status quo. Anyone who is different—by their own choice or the choice of others—in these so-deemed essential ways is likely to face discrimination. bell hook’s concept of the “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” is another great example of perspective of how discrimination and control overlaps.

18. “the other”- One way to analyze relationships in society is to use the binary of majority vs. “the Other.” The person who is “Othered” is seen as an outsider and a society’s mores frequently permit and encourage discrimination that would otherwise be illegal. Similar to intersectionality, the same person can be “Othered” in some relationships but not in others. For example, a White Woman would be “the Other” when looking at relationships between (White) Men and Women, but would not be “Othered” in looking at relationships between White and Black people.

19. institutionalized- When looking at discrimination it is important—especially because an increasingly number of people say racism no longer exists or use one “success” story (such as having a Black President) to say racism is dead—to recognize the ways in which it is not individual so much as systemic or institutionalized. By looking at racism, sexism, etc. from this perspective, we can see how the Constitution, laws, advertising, school curriculums, and every other aspect of society embodies and perpetuates—consciously and unconsciously—the status quo.

20. agency- More and more, historians recognize that every one has agency – even if that agency is just the will to live in the face of extreme violence, physically or psychologically. Agency is a term historians use to refer to the control one has or asserts over their own situation. It is a way for people to resist authority/majority in many cases. For example, enslaved Blacks asserted their agency by forming what sociologists call “fictive kin” networks (families of friends) or by deliberately breaking tools. This approach is similar to looking at bottom-up history in terms of specifically looking at everyday people, but a person looking at agency could look at the agency of all parties.

21. attributions- A slightly different way of looking at agency is by looking at attributions–a psychological concept. Attributions are the whos and whats to which people attribute their actions. These are internal (feelings, traits, abilities, something about the person’s core self) or external/situational (starts on the outside); controllable or not controllable; and either changeable or not changeable.

 See also:

And other articles about teaching here or examples from my history classes here