The “Big Idea” History Syllabus

  1. Whereas 99.9% of the past is forever lost to direct analysis, the past and everything that has ever happened anywhere (history) is different from the study of what has happened (History). Historians aim to assemble and examine stories about the past and Homo sapiens, a past full of complexity and simplicity, a past that shows humans at their strongest and weakest, a past starting a second ago.
  2. Important and relevant stories are embodied in an array of extant primary sources or cultural artifacts — e.g., cookbooks, songs, newspapers, bodies, memories, buildings, trash, and everything else humans have created or touched or that have created or touched them. Nothing is off limits for analysis.
  3. Stories can be found and told from any vantage point—a person, a group, an institution, a period, a city, a state, a region, an ideology, and even the environment, for example. Historians write works focused on the history of pigs, marriage, children, hotels, swimming pools, wars, drinking, genocide, inventions, grandmothers, etc. Everything and everybody has stories to tell about everything—including you. Private life and public life matter.
  4. In creating understandings of these stories, context matters — time and place (including geography) matter. History is not about events but processes. Such contexts and processes help reveal how humans create and live in culturally/socially constructed worlds. You cannot take anything as a given or an absolute.
  5. These stories show how people have answered the big questions of life. They provide rich information about hopes and fears and everyday life. They show what people value. They show what people knew and didn’t know, what they used and didn’t use, what they needed and didn’t need.
  6. Always appreciate how much Homo sapiens have in common. They were all mostly “blank slates” at some point. Generally, they have all needed nourishment, have experienced happiness and sadness, have communicated in some way, and have learned about their culture.
  7. Respect, too, how much Homo sapiens are different. Differences dictated by time and place and differences created by the powerful. Different in what they believe or don’t believe when it comes to higher powers, different in what they need and have access to in terms of nourishment, shelter, and medicine, and different in terms of how they are divided up and identify.
  8. While studying these stories, always look for new perspectives—not truths—and new ways of acknowledging agency (e.g., crip studies is one of the latest examples of how scholars have brought more people into the narrative – in this case those deemed not able-bodied). Being interdisciplinary will best help this be possible.
  9. Eagerly look to analyze the ideas of other historians, change your mind as you learn more about the world, be a public intellectual or critic who sees beyond prevailing mores of your time and place, and acknowledge how History is far more about “the present” than the past.

Inspired by Dr. Michael Wesch’s “Big Idea” syllabus for Anthropology. For more of my thoughts on the Philosophy of History, click here.