"History, I’ve concluded, is at its core the celebration of the Human Condition: the small man will hurry through his brief, uneventful (or all-too-eventful) time in the world in a few decades, but two thousand years later a six-year-old boy may marvel at a plaster copy of his remains. (Full disclosure: that boy was me—that day I fell in love with history.) Personally, I find it hard to conceive of anything more beautiful than this connection through time.”
Throughout the Commonwealth history curriculum, our aim is to inspire your historical imagination.
As you begin to think critically and creatively about how we know what we know about the past, you’ll come to understand the breadth of sources that underpin today’s ideas and institutions. Different civilizations in different eras believe in different “self-evident” truths. In our studies of Western and non-Western societies (including China, Africa, and the Islamic world), we examine both the universal and the particular ways culture and religion have constantly affected politics and daily life.
At Commonwealth, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have access to world-class museums, libraries, university lecture series, and possibilities for research internships that put us in close contact with peoples through time and from across the world.
As a ninth grader, you will learn to describe and analyze a primary source in its historical context
—including its bias. By junior year, you will be writing essays that not only evaluate primary sources and events but also incorporate modern historians’ interpretations of them. A series of progressively more challenging research papers—the choice of topics is yours—teaches you how to use the many primary and secondary sources available in our collections of books and digital subscriptions, the nearby Boston Public Library, and university stacks. Your teachers and our librarian will help you navigate these documents, enabling you to familiarize yourself with background materials before you settle on your research question, which, along the way, you will find yourself refining continually.
You and your classmates will emerge as fully independent historical writers, skilled at constructing rigorous and clear historical arguments.
"At first the huge sourcebook just seemed like a burden for my backpack, but I came to realize it was actually a very heavy zoom lens. With close examination, I could uncover the rhetorical tricks demagogues used to sway crowds, and I could sift through their inflated accounts. The texture and depth of History were revealed to me.”
A shard of pottery inscribed with a drinking song; a creation myth; the Bible; court cases; plays by Euripides—how can historians tell us anything about the past from such insufficient sources?
By making you distrust the certainty with which textbooks lay out “facts,” Ancient History at Commonwealth is an excellent introduction to the study of history. In this course, you’ll use primary sources to explore what we think we might know about four civilizations: Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. Primary sources (including the historical writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy) will introduce you to the nuances of reading between the lines, and will raise complex human questions: Who should rule? What does the good society look like? What is a well-lived life? Does might make right, or are there principles we can point to as universal truths?
Students say...“Instead of accepting the facts as presented in secondary sources, I could see for myself what really went on. Reading primary sources in history was a way to cut through the dry tone of a textbook and focus on how people actually felt and what they saw.”
The medieval world was an interconnected one: Chinese emperors prized ostrich eggs from Africa; African and European kings wore silks from the East. In Medieval World History, we look at how ideas (and diseases) traveled freely on the Silk Road that tied East to West in a time of rich and diverse cultures when East, rather than West, ruled the world.
Primary sources allow us to look at the ways the cultures of China, the Muslim world (including Africa), and Europe viewed one another; how religions developed in response
to other religions as well as political necessity; and how evolving technology and economic systems changed cultures. Though we have a textbook, created specifically for this course by a Commonwealth teacher, our main focus remains close reading and in-depth discussion of primary sources, including such classic works as Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching; Dante, Inferno; Bocaccio, Decameron; the Malian epic Sundiata; and The Incoherence of the Incoherence by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd.
Students say...“Our history curriculum, centered on the close reading of primary sources, made it easy for me to imagine the sorrow of a Greek poet’s lament in ancient history or a layperson’s yearning for nirvana in the Buddhist colophons we read in medieval history.”
AP In U.S. History, you will be able to apply the skills developed in Ancient and Medieval World History to questions that face us today: How should America resolve the tension between individual rights and the community? What roles should government and the free market play in the individual pursuit of happiness? Does the legacy of slavery continue to shape our country? How have the actions of individual women and men brought us closer to (or further from) the noble words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence?
In addition to the focus on primary texts (which range from sermons to court cases to advertisements to short stories to inaugural speeches to songs by Tom Lehrer), students evaluate often-competing scholarly articles to practice inserting themselves in the ongoing debates of how to understand the past—and how to use the past to understand the present.
- Bible as History, Bible as Bible
- Black and White in America
- Empires and Nationalism
- Modern East Asia
- Modern European History
- Rise and Fall of Communism
- The World Since 1945
Back in the era of the great empires of the Iron Age, an Egyptian bureaucrat complained to his supervisor about bandits—habiru—who lived outside of the imperial system in the foothills of Canaan. Millennia later, historians have begun wondering whether those habiru might have been the Hebrews of the Bible—and what that identification might mean to the religion they developed.
This course asks you to use your skills as a reader of primary documents to uncover the competing social and religious concerns revealed by a complex text whose date of completion is in question. You will also use your skills as a responder to language to consider the changing conceptions of God and the problem of suffering, especially as the Israelites were influenced by the Babylonian exile and the Greek ideas of the Hellenistic period.
The last third of the course examines the Jesus movement and its Jewish and Greek roots, focusing not only on the Christian Bible but also on the Gnostic texts that were excluded from the canon in the second century. Most of the writing of the course will be in the form of biweekly response papers, but the major final project will be an examination—or creation!—of some literary, musical, or artistic interpretation of a Biblical story.
Students say...“You dive into the bible, and you read historical facts, and maybe arrive at a few answers. But more than anything, you find more questions.”
Fifty years after the March on Washington, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 238 years after radical rebels in Philadelphia signed their names to a document declaring that all men are created equal, America is widely seen as a country divided by race. Is it? In what ways? And how can we measure this perception against the emerging view today that class, not race, has become the major barrier to opportunity in America?
Combining sociology and history, we examine the changing questions different groups of Americans have asked about race, class, and culture since the 1940s—including the thorny issue of how, in succeeding decades, our society has attempted to define and treat the social construct of race. Although we focus on race primarily from the perspective of black Americans, spring semester also looks at how questions of race have been further complicated by changes in American demography since the 1960s.
Readings are likely to include Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940), If He Hollers Let Him Go (Chester Himes, 1945), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1952), The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin, 1963), poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks from the ’70s and ’80s, and more contemporary texts. At the same time, we read works of sociological research, including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010). Films we see will likely include Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013). The course, reading-heavy, writing-light, depends in a major way on your class participation.
Students say...“In college I look forward to taking classes that stress the interrelation of subjects. Learning the connections between history and sociology, for example, gives me a better understanding of each topic.”
The world of the twentieth century emerged from the ruins of empires. In this class we seek to understand how imperial rule and its collapse shaped later national and sectarian conflict, including instances of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
We begin with a theoretical unit, drawing on such scholars as Ernst Renan, Ernest Gellner, and Benedict Anderson to construct the concepts we will use throughout the year. We then examine in depth four cases: the end of the Ottoman empire and the Armenian genocide of 1915; Bosnia’s history from the Ottoman period through the post- Yugoslav wars; the end of the British Raj and the trauma of Partition; and Iraq under Ottoman, British, and American rule (focusing on Sunni-Shia relations).
Each case illuminates the next as we seek to understand how and why neighbors become enemies. Conflicts of this sort often attract simplistic historical thinking, as when journalists and politicians explained the wars in former Yugoslavia as the result of “ancient ethnic hatreds.” Through our readings and discussions, you will reach a more sophisticated understanding of how the past shapes the present.
Students say...“I had always been told that interpretation meant finding the right answer—the only answer. In my commonwealth history courses, however, i had to learn to welcome ambiguity and paradox.”
How can we account for the emergence of India today as a cultural and economic force in the world? The answer to this question lies in the complex, fascinating history of the Indian subcontinent from mythological origins to the present. We start by asking, “What are the influences of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism on the social structure and art of India in antiquity and the Middle Ages? What interactions did medieval India maintain with the civilizations of Persia and Central Asia?” You will meet the charismatic emperor Ashoka, who devoted himself to Buddhist pacifism after a career of bloody conquest, as well as the Mughal emperor Akbar, who brought scholars of all world religions to his court to investigate “What is Truth?”
In the second semester we consider East-West exchanges of culture. European culture had a huge impact on India from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries; and Indian art and culture permeated the colonial European societies through the British Raj and trade. In our investigation of the Raj, we read the diary of a young British woman who was caught up in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
We conclude with the period of independence and the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s, and read some of Gandhi’s most impassioned speeches. Sources include traditional historical and philosophical texts as well as art, literature (the ancient epic Ramayana, and the twentieth-century novella Untouchable), and film. We watch excerpts from parallel cinema filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and Deepa Mehta and kick back with Bollywood films that, perhaps surprisingly, draw deeply from Indian history and tradition.
Students say...“Wandering around, even sometimes getting lost in unexpected and surprising areas of a foreign country is something worth doing. And you sure can do that in our history electives!”
East Asia has become a central political, economic, and cultural power in the contemporary world. But did you know that even into the mid-nineteenth century such a concept seemed impossible to the West? Building on the introduction to China in Medieval History, we trace the history of the two major powers in East Asia—China and Japan—from 1650 to the present. We first look at Japan’s religious roots in Shinto and Buddhism, as well as the political and cultural structures of the Heian and Samurai periods up to 1650. We read the spicy Pillow Book of the court lady Sei Shonagon, as well as the dramatic samurai epic The Tale of the Heike.
Then we study China and Japan together as they both close off to the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What happened when Western colonial powers pressured them to open up again in the nineteenth century? China and Japan took different approaches, which largely account for their successes and failures through the twentieth century. We read the subtle, introspective literary works of early twentieth-century Japanese writers as well as the fiery early writings of the young Mao Zedong to underscore this contrast. As we move across the twentieth century, we explore the roles recent decades through traditional historical accounts as well as literature and classic films such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Zhang Yimou’s To Live.
Note: In other years, this course may be reconfigured: History of Japan or, alternately, History of Modern China may be offered.
Students say...“Modern east Asia took me on an exhilarating tour through time and place, and gave me an authentic taste of Asian culture. It immersed us in a historical ‘story’ that was new to me, and fascinating.”
AP We examine major themes and events in European history from the late seventeenth century through the 1990s. The questions that drive our study include: What has defined “legitimate” political authority at different points in European history? How have economic and technological developments shaped political and social history? What accounts for the rise and fall of nationalism, fascism, communism, and other “isms”? When and why have European states fought each other, or persecuted groups of their own citizens?
Primary sources provide the basis for class discussion and for most writing assignments. For instance, we use contemporary reactions to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 to see how Enlightenment thinkers understood human suffering, and we draw on sources ranging from dissidents’ writings to secret police reports to analyze the revolutions of 1989. Our readings also include a college-level textbook and a variety of scholarly articles. After this class, you will enter college prepared for advanced-level electives in modern European history.
Students say...“Studying recent history became relevant not only because it helped me make sense of the present, but also because it made me ask who had written what I was reading and how we can come to know what is true and what is not."
Our goal is to understand how communism has functioned as a social and political system. How did one-party regimes claiming Marxist ideals come to power in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia, and North Korea? How did these regimes transform the societies they governed while simultaneously constructing a new hierarchy of privilege? Why did they ultimately lose power in some countries but not in others?
After a brief introduction to Karl Marx and his thought, we explore the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We pay special attention to Yugoslavia, analyzing how the complex interplay of communism and nationalism ultimately led to the state’s collapse. We then survey Maoism in China before turning to the catastrophic history of communist rule in Cambodia and North Korea. Our approach is both top-down (Why did leaders make the choices they did?) and bottom-up (How did ordinary people experience communist rule?).
Throughout the year, we will think and talk not only about each country’s unique experience but also about recurring dynamics (for instance, how regime policies led to mass famine in the USSR, China, and North Korea). We read a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, including memoirs, government documents, and journalists’ writings.
Students say...“In studying communism, I had to acknowledge contradictions instead of placing all the information inside a neat little box. And I had to come to terms with the idea that I couldn’t simplify what I was writing about.”
In this class, students will achieve a deeper understanding of the present by examining forces and events that have shaped the world since 1945, focusing especially on the changing nature of conflicts within societies and between states. We will alternate between broad coverage of major trends (such as decolonization, the collapse of Communism, or conflict in the Middle East) and closer examination of specific events (such as the Rwandan genocide, the reunification of Germany, or the US invasion of Iraq).
While all areas of the world will receive some attention, Europe and the Middle East will have the most prominence. Students will write a weekly response paragraph on an assigned question and will take tests on some units, but there are no exams or longer papers.