THEMES IN HISTORY1. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 AntiJewish 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.
Themed Essay General Instructions
Regarding the Themed Essays
The purpose of the 2 Themed Essay assignments is to familiarize you with
a “new” methodology of studying history (“new” because this is my own
creation). In my lifetime of studying the past, I have seen certain
reoccurring “themes” that help us understand the course of human events
in this discipline we call history. I have also provided here the LIST OF
HISTORICAL THEMES. The general objective of your Themed Essay is
to summarize an aspect of history studied during the grading period
THROUGH the lens of a theme found in my list of themes. Example, if you
wanted to write about Alexander the Great, you then choose to summarize
the history of him through a theme, such as Power of Personality, where
you might discuss his military leadership as conqueror of the world. OR you
could talk about him through the theme of Pivot Points in History and talk
about how he ushered in the Hellenistic Era and changed the political and
cultural face of the world. Those are examples. You will choose 3 separate
themes and write about 3 separate episodes from any of the history study
during the grading period through the themes you choose. Look at the
STUDENT SAMPLE and see how they have formatted their 3 sections
of the essay. For each theme you discuss, you need to quote your
textbook OR an outside secondary scholarly source of your choosing once
and ONE primary document found either in your ebook or from an outside
source. (See further details about your sources below). Use a different primary
document for each theme and history you write on. You must include a
properly formatted Works Cited. These assignments will help you learn to
see history in terms of these themes. Some of these themes are quite selfexplanatory and some are not. If you need more clarification, please do not
hesitate to ask. There are 20 historical themes and 2 Themed Essay
assignments you are expected to complete in the semester – therefore
there are NO REPEATS of themes in your essay posts. You will use a total
of 6 different themes in the semester for the 2 Themed Essay Assignments.
For each Themed Essay Assignment, you will write a minimum 750-word
entry (CONTENT ONLY – Works Cited DOES NOT count towards minimum
word count) about 3 historical themes that you can extrapolate from the
subjects we have studied in that grading period in which the Themed Essay
is assigned. EACH ENTRY PARAGRAPH WRITTEN ON A THEME MUST
BE A MINIMUM OF 250 WORDS. So the math here is easy = 3 different
theme discussions of 250 word minimum each yields a total minimum word
count of 750 words AND 3 separate themes X 3 Assignments = 9 historical
themes used in the semester. I expect to see original analysis,
interpretation and rhetorical content.
REGARDING YOUR SOURCES FOR THESE ESSAYS.
You are required to quote your textbook twice AND ONE OTHER outside
scholarly secondary source once in each Essay Assignment to support
your analysis. You are also required to quote TWO of the primary
documents found through the Mindtap site for the textbook AND ONE
OTHER primary source document of your choosing from an outside source
to support your content as well. Each theme paragraph of the essay must
use one secondary source and one primary source properly contextualized
to support your arguments. THESE SOURCES MUST ALL BE PROPERLY
IDENTIFIED AND VETTED IN YOUR ESSAY.
HOW TO FIND PRIMARY DOCUMENTS IN MINDTAP – I have created a
folder at the beginning of every chapter titled “Primary Document
Activities.” When you click on the folder title, the contents of the folder are
shown to you. These activities coincide with the subject material being
studied in that chapter. They are NOT assigned and are labeled as
“practice.” You need to click on the assignments as if you were doing them
to access the links to the primary documents in each activity. I realize this
is cumbersome and I feel it is a WEAK flaw in the overall design of the
course. Every chapter has these Primary Document Review Activities. Any
of these primary documents found in these activities are documents that
you can choose from for your Themed Essays.
Reviewing the assigned Powerpoint “Vetting Your Sources” will help you
perform this properly. PLEASE cite these sources appropriately according
to my instructions. You must also give me a properly formatted Works
A Student Sample Essay has been provided – “NEXT”
below. (This is from a World History Class in a different text so adjust to
meet requirements for this class)
A Grading Rubric for the Themed Essays is also provided
AFTER the Sample Essay.
Student Sample for the Themed
This sample essay below is provided as a template and as an example of
how I want your Themed Essays formatted. Please make note of all the
● Use of 3 different themes and 3 different subjects or topics
● Theme titles with name of theme and corresponding theme
number from the LIST OF THEMES
Vetting of sources within the essay
Proper notation of and use of quoted materials to support content
Proper formatting of citations for all quoted materials
Works Cited with proper sections listing Primary Documents and
Full bibliographic information provided in Works Cited
Name and class information provided
SAMPLE ESSAY – FOR EXAMPLE PURPOSES
Modern World History HIST 101 (provide proper course title for our
Theme #2: The Big “C”s ~ Conquest, Commerce, Colonization, &
Conversion on the Course of History
People, their cultures, and ideas have–and continue to–spread across the
world in many different ways. The discovery of new land in the late 1400s
motivated people to explore and colonize in the new territory. Christopher
Columbus’s discovery of the “New World” led to the colonization of
Europeans across the Atlantic. Spaniards were among the first of the
European nations to colonize in the “New World” and bring along their
culture and ideas. Instead of accepting the natives’ culture and living in
peace when they arrived, the Spaniards saw a clear opportunity to conquer
the Aztec people and convert them to Christianity. The Conquistadors
almost killed off the majority of the Aztec population simply because the
natives refused To give up their own culture and convert to Christianity and
because the Spaniards wanted gold and silver. Historians and university
professors from Pennsylvania State University, William J. Duiker and
Jackson J. Spielvogel noted in their 2016 edition of their World History
textbook that “tensions soon erupted between the Spaniards and the
Aztecs, provoked in part by demands by Cortés that the Aztecs renounce
their native beliefs and accept Christianity” (Duiker & Spielvogel, 398).
The Spaniards also exploited the resources and land of the Aztec people in
order to bring profit to Spain. Conquistadors would steal gold and silver to
bring back to Spain and they also imported and exported raw materials
such as tobacco and sugar for economic profit. The colonization of
European countries to the “New World” proved to be tragic for many native
groups, but beneficial to the economies of the European nations. While the
Spaniards gained riches by conquering the Aztecs, the Aztecs lost many of
their people and part of their culture. There are many different cultures and
ideologies which make the world interesting. Unfortunately when people
are not open minded differences in cultures and opinions can lead to
disaster like in the case of the Spaniards and the Aztecs. Bartolome de las
Casas, a Spanish Dominican Friar who became an advocate for the
abused and conquered natives in the New World, reported to the King of
Spain with a missive in 1542 that “the extent of the injustices suffered by
these innocent peoples and the way in which they are being destroyed and
crushed underfoot, unjustly and for no other reason than to satisfy the
greed and ambition of those whose purpose it is to commit such wicked
atrocities” (Bartolome de las Casas, A Short Account of the
Destruction of the Indies, 1542, pg. 7). His reporting of the injustices
suffered by the Aztecs at the hand of Spanish Conquistadors ultimately
influenced the creation of more humane policies of Spanish administration
in its New World colonies. 400 words.
Theme #15. The Power of Personality ~ Celebrities who change
A single person has the ability to change history for better or for
worse. Martin Luther was able to change history by exposing the corruption
of the Catholic Church. Luther was an Augustinian monk in the Catholic
Church and he lectured people about the Bible and interpreted it in his own
way. Martin Luther noticed that the Catholic Church was selling
indulgences which angered him because the church was exploiting its
followers for profits. This led Martin Luther to post his “Ninety-Five Theses”
in 1517 which would expose the wrongdoings of the church. The “NinetyFive Theses” was soon printed and published across Europe. “The Pope
has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those he
has imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law” (Martin Luther,
“Ninety-Five Theses” in Mindtap, 15-1b). The pope does not have
authority to create any new penalties or mandates, which were not listed in
the Bible, for the benefit of the Church. By exposing the corruption within
the church, Luther was able to enlighten common people. His goal was to
give followers direct access to the Bible so they could read it and interpret it
in their own manner. Martin Luther defied the Catholic Church and by doing
so he changed the course of history. By the power of his own convictions,
he challenged Church doctrines and set the stage for the great
Reformation, in which Luther’s religious philosophies “that humans are
saved not through their good works but through faith in the promises of
God” caused a schism in Western religion and became the “primary
doctrine of the Protestant Reformation” (Duiker & Spielvogel, 421). 285
Theme #13. WAR ~ “What was it good for?”
While there are many downsides to war, death being the obvious, history
has proven that some good has come out of war. The Civil Wars in
England (1642-1651) between parliamentary forces and royalists follows
this theme. A stronger Parliament was established as a result of these
conflicts over the form that English government should take. Although
control of England was eventually handed to a new monarchy during the
Glorious Revolution of 1688, a “Bill of Rights” was written by the House of
Commons in 1689 giving rights to both the Parliament and the citizens it
represented. According to the editors of the Britannica Encyclopedia in their
entry posted in their Online database in July 1998, “A number of clauses
sought to eliminate royal interference in parliamentary matters, stressing
that elections must be free and that members must have complete freedom
of speech” (“Bill of Rights – British History,” Encyclopedia Britannica.)
The original scroll of the “Bill of Rights”, which is 7 to 8 feet long and
housed in the Parliamentary Archives of the UK, set the course for
Parliament to be the true authority of England over the next century. This
was beneficial to the citizens of England because they could be politically
active in their government. The opening text of the English “Bill of Rights”
states its intent “for the choosing of such persons to represent them, as
were of right to be sent to parliament, to meet and sit at Westminster upon
the two and twentieth day of January, in this year 1689, in order to such an
establishment as that their religion, laws, and liberties might not again be in
danger of being subverted” (“The Bill of Rights” in Mindtap, 15-4C).
Even though the English Civil War witnessed the first beheading of an
unpopular European monarch, Charles I, in 1649, the establishment of a
Constitutional Monarchy that eventually evolved out of the chaos would lay
the foundation for the American Democracy. 320 words.
De las Casas, Bartolome. “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,
1542.” In A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome de
las Casas. Translated by Nigel Griffin. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books,
Luther, Martin. “Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power of
Indulgences, 1517. ” In Martin Luther, by E. G. Rupp and Benjamin
Drewery. Cengage Mindtap. Web. 12 September 2015.
“The Bill of Rights” by English Parliament, January, 1689. In The Statutes:
Revised Edition (London: Eyre & Spotiswoode, 1871), Vol. 2, pp. 10–12.
Cengage Mindtap. Web. 12 September 2015.
Duiker, William J. and Jackson Spielvogel. World History, Vol. II Since
1500. 8th Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016. Cengage Mindtap.
Web. 12 September 2015.
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Bill of Rights.” Encyclopedia
Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published 3 June 2016. Accessed
9 January 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bill-of-Rights-Britishhistory
(Links to an external site.)
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