George Mason’s Hist 100 courses are supposed to cover Western Civilization in one semester. To manage this Sisyphean task, I switched from a chronological to a thematic approach. While this makes sense from an analytic point of view, covering themes seems to alienate some students, because the themes appear in the foreground, not the events and personalities. Moreover, the themes tend to bridge larger periods of time. With “Religion and Society,” for instance, I cover the Investiture Conflict, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Wars of Religion, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And “War and Society” goes from the French Revolution through the Second World War into the Cold War.
The material in my thematic courses has been organized in a more meaningful way than was possible under a broad chronological approach, but it has not held students’ attention. That is why I am thinking about covering a selection of specific episodes the next time around. I could put these up front and use the people, ideas, and issues involved as a vehicle to understand the broader themes that I want them to learn. A possible subtitle for such a course might be “Select Events and Ideas,” which might also make the history feel more manageable to the students.