An Independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, D.C.

History & Social Sciences

T he overarching purpose of the History Department is to prepare students to become knowledgeable and responsible citizens of their community, state, nation, and world through the study of past and current events. Three years of history, Early Civilizations and Global Contact (9th grade), The Modern World (10th grade), and United States History (11th grade), are required.

To see how a student progresses through history and the social sciences over the four years, please click here.


History COURSE DESCRIPTIONS

Early Civilizations and Global Contact

Early Civilizations and Global Contact is Potomac’s 9th grade required history course. The class is envisioned as a skill focused class with emphasis on the development of analytical and argumentative writing, critical reading and thinking, research skills, public speaking, and geographical competency. The fall semester focuses first on river valley civilizations including Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, followed by the great classical civilizations of Europe, India, and China. The spring semester explores cultural contact through the study of the Rise of Islamic Empires, a comprehensive look at medieval Eurasian contact and exchange, and the resultant expansionary Europe following the scientific revolution and Reformation. The class culminates with a three week long research paper that pulls together the entire skillset of the freshman year.

The Modern World

Modern World History examines global events from 1780 to the present under the umbrella of the essential question, What is modern? Students will analyze from multiple perspectives the various revolutions that shook the Atlantic Basin at the end of the 18th century, industrialization, the growth and contraction of political and colonial empires, and war in the age of global interdependence. Reading over one hundred primary and secondary sources, students will come to understand that history is dependent on one’s point of view and open to continual reinterpretation. Visual art, period music and literature, political cartoons, guest speakers, debates, and simulations add texture and interest. Weekly student-led discussions of current events foster students’ ability to detect the fingerprints of the past on today’s global trends – and maybe predict the future themselves. Frequent short writing assignments aim to increase the concision, precision, and elegance of students' historical prose. A major research paper on a topic of the student's choosing from modern world history will serve a showcase for the research, analysis, and writing skills students have been developing throughout the year.

United States History

The study of United States history provides an opportunity to examine the cultural, political, social, intellectual and economic conflicts that have shaped our past and will continue to shape our future. Students will continuously reflect upon questions of identity and what it means to be an American. With this goal in mind, students will focus on important conflicts and matters of debate, examining the development of American identity and how it has been shaped by power and resistance. Through a survey of American history, students will encounter challenging questions, engage in meaningful conversations and look at our past from a variety of perspectives. Students will also have the opportunity to develop important skills such as critical thinking, persuasive writing, primary and secondary source analysis, academic research and active citizenship.

United States History Advanced Placement

AP U.S. History is designed to steward students toward becoming reflective, concerned, and competent citizens. While the content and themes of the College Board framework serve as the foundation for the course, we place great emphasis on individual growth and the ability to recognize a personal connection to history. Beginning with the 17th century clash of cultures between Native Americans, European immigrants, and African slaves and continuing through present-day political, cultural, economic, and social issues, AP U.S. History examines American history through multiple perspectives. The extensive use of primary sources aids in this approach to history. Students hone their historical thinking skills including cause and effect, contextualization, synthesis, and change over time, while also practice the articulation of ideas in written and spoken formats through a variety of assignments. To augment students' analytical writing skills, the course includes multiple forms of assessments including quizzes, tests, role-playing exercises, debates, research assignments, essays, and the presentation of current events for class discussion. The College Board's document-based essay question is emphasized in order to prepare students for the national AP exam.

ELECTIVES

A number of year- and semester-long elective courses are offered to 11th and 12th grade students. Elective offerings may vary from year to year, but the following represents a sample of the courses likely to be available.

The American Civil Rights Movement

This course examines social, political and cultural movements in the U.S. from the 1890s through the 1990s by focusing on the activism of blacks, women, organized labor, youth, Chicanos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and LGBTQ peoples. Students analyze scholarly articles, screen documentaries, participate in daily discussions, and write papers on a variety of topics. Students further develop critical thinking by dissecting primary sources and placing these documents within compelling narratives that reveal the significance of events and eras. Some of the questions explored in class debates, current events presentations and unit essays include: How have historically marginalized groups affected race, gender and class relations? What role has government played in securing or restricting citizens' rights? In what ways has mass culture (i.e., radio, movies, fashion, popular art) impacted issues of equality in the nation?

Art History

Ancient drawings, deep in caves, startle us with their beauty and sophistication. Deeply human instincts to create and to communicate with symbols are alive in us today. The history of art is the history of expressive responses to great mysteries and great events. By studying art history, students learn to observe mindfully, to see relationships between works from different places and times and to express their thoughts coherently in speech and writing. This course examines art in many forms, with an emphasis on painting, sculpture and architecture in the Western tradition, traced from the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin to Western Europe and America. The journey covers 30,000 years and thousands of miles, yet we recognize the motivations and gestures of earlier artists appearing in the most recent contemporary expressions. In various works, and even in the same work, art may function as an aesthetic expression, a reference to an earlier tradition, a reinforcement of power and a social commentary. Symbols are usually layered and complex. Consideration of artworks takes place through daily examination and discussion of slide images, weekly readings in our text, periodic museum visits and hands-on studio experiences. Assessment takes the form of weekly quizzes, short essays at home and in class and occasional, cumulative tests. This course is not specifically an A.P. course but, with extra preparation, students may elect to take the A.P. Art History Exam. This full-year course is open to seniors (and to juniors with permission of the Art Department). This course can satisfy either a History requirement or an Art requirement.

Comparative Government - Advanced Placement

This course is designed to introduce the fundamental concepts and skills utilized by political scientists as they study political intuitions, processes, and outcomes. It examines the diversity of political life and discusses political and economic changes in China, Britain, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria and Russia. Students engage in careful comparison of political systems and gain knowledge about the institutions and policies countries have used to address problems in the 20th and 21st centuries. Students also develop critical thinking and public speaking by analyzing a variety of texts, taking multiple-choice tests, and engaging in debates and current events discussions. They further refine their analytical and writing skills when answering short-answer and conceptual-analysis questions. Examples of questions addressed during practice tests include: What is a function of the head of state in a parliamentary system? Why are some countries stable democracies and not others? Why do many democracies have prime ministers instead of presidents? What is political legitimacy? To meet the objectives of the College Board, we will focus on the following topics of analysis in each country case study: 1) Introduction to Comparative Politics; 2) Sovereignty, Authority, and Power; 3) Political Institutions; 4) Citizens, Society, and the State; 4) Political and Economic Change; and 5) Public Policy

Global Perspectives and Citizenship Program: Introduction to Global Studies

GPAC 10 is divided into four areas of study; Global Economics, Global Politics, Culture and Citizenship and Issues Without Borders. Global Economics addresses the continuing legacy of colonialism, analyzes the practices of global financial markets, and explores our conceptions of nations as “developed” versus “developing.” Global Politics introduces students to the frameworks of global governance institutions such as the United Nations as well as theories of international relations such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Culture and Citizenship examines the clashes that occur within diverse communities, from diasporas of refugees fleeing political violence to immigrants bringing diverse practices and beliefs to different countries. Issues Without Borders looks at global problems that cross political boundaries such as global health, population, urbanization, climate change, and food security.

Students tackle challenging texts across all four units. They research current events in different regions of the world, engage in a debate on genocide in Rwanda, build an advertising and awareness campaign around a global issue of their choice, and write a substantial research paper as well. Sample texts include Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights; June Johnston, ed. Global Issues, Local Arguments (Pearson); Samantha Power, Bystanders to Genocide; selections from Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, J.S. Mill and Immanuel Kant, and multiple essays and articles from Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The National Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and scholarly journals in the field.

Global Perspectives and Citizenship Program: Advanced Topics in Global Studies

In GPAC 11, students spend the semester identifying an area of interest within global studies and creating a problem-driven research project. After an intensive introduction to research methods and writing, students spend the bulk of the fall semester putting together a detailed outline of their global issue and the results of their research. At that point, students may choose either to write a substantial research paper or take their research “off the page” and create a podcast, TED style talk, web page, or other representation designed to raise awareness of their chosen issue.

Microeconomics: Advanced Placement

For students who are prepared for the rigors of a college-level course, this course is a survey in the introductory topics of microeconomic analysis. Students will explore the behavior of firms, households, and governments as they interact to create a modern economy. Topics covered include cost-benefit analysis, marginal analysis, market organization, the theory of the firm, consumer choice, market failures, and input markets. An important goal of the course is to develop the basic skills used in economic decision making. Students will be assessed weekly in quizzes that mirror the format of the Advanced Placement Microeconomics exam. Prerequisites: approval by the History and Social Science and Mathematics departments.

Modern Middle East

Modern Middle East is a senior history elective that focuses primarily on the Middle Eastern world from the post World War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire until present day. Issues in the region have been a predominant concern for Americans and American foreign policy in recent years and are critically important for students to understand. This course will enable students to develop a more in depth understanding of the recent history and culture of this region. Major topics will include responses to European colonialism, consequences of World War I and World War II, the creation of Israel, the rise of Arab nationalism, economics and petroleum, the Islamic revolution, the Gulf War, the war on terror, and the Arab Spring. Students will be challenged to provide nuanced analysis of the issues from a variety of different perspectives, presenting their ideas primarily through formal written work, but also through debates, creative presentations or videos, and research projects.

Principles of Microeconomics

Principles of Microeconomics is an elective course open to juniors and seniors. It is a survey in the introductory topics of microeconomic analysis, and emphasizes the economic way of thinking. Topics covered will include model building, gains from trade, the role of markets, elasticity, price controls, efficiency of markets, costs of taxation, market inefficiencies, and the theory of the firm. Students will be encouraged to apply economic concepts to daily current events discussions with the goal of becoming more informed global citizens. Students will understand how and why consumers and businesses make decisions, and how the relationship between market forces and government interventions in the economy affect people’s well-being. Students will be assessed in a variety of ways including tests, quizzes, reflection papers, and current events presentations.

Religions of the East

Religions of the East is a fall semester senior elective designed to provide students an introduction to the belief systems and sacred literature of selected religious traditions of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. It has been said that in order to understand the heart of a civilization, one must begin with knowledge of its religions. How did religion emerge in Asian civilizations? How did religion shape the way the peoples of India, the Himalayas and China make sense of human experience? What roles do myth, ritual, doctrine, ethics and social custom play in the transfer of religious belief from one generation to another? How and why did these great religions change over time? What role does mysticism play in the quest for an experience of the sacred and how may it lead to personal transformation? Religions of the East explores these questions by examining the history, myths, rituals and belief systems of some of the major religions of the East – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism. Students explore multiple points of view from different faith traditions through readings in both sacred texts and secondary sources. The course also presents concepts of myth and ritual through film. A particular focus is approaching the topic of religion through a comparative framework that allows for the cultivation of skills, knowledge and mindset necessary for an interfaith dialogue between religious traditions. Through the review and discussion of contemporary periodical literature and through guided practice, students will study select methods of meditation and explore some of the current neuropsychological explanations for their power to transform long-term practitioners. Through essays, art projects, and both individual and collaborative class presentations, students have the opportunity to develop their public speaking and research skills, while honing their insight and demonstrate their understanding of the distinctions between and commonalities shared by five of the major religion traditions of the East.

Religions of the West

Taken either in tandem with Religions of the East or independently, Religions of the West is a spring semester senior elective designed to provide students an introduction to the belief systems and sacred literature of selected religious traditions of the West. It has been said that in order to understand the heart of a civilization, one must begin with knowledge of its religions. How did religion emerge in Western civilization? How does religion shape the way we, in the Western world, make sense of human experience? What roles do myth, ritual, doctrine, ethics and social custom play in the transfer of religious belief from one generation to another? How and why do religions change over time? How can religion serve both to elevate the human spirit to accomplish works of incomparable power and beauty -- while at the same time casting competing factions and entire nations into war and acts of the utmost depravity and inhumanity? What is mysticism and how may it lead to the ultimate life experience? Religions of the West explores these questions by examining the history, myths, rituals and belief systems of three of the major religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Throughout, students will explore multiple points of view from different faith traditions through readings in both sacred texts and secondary sources. The course also presents concepts of myth and ritual through film. A particular focus is approaching the topic of religion through a comparative framework that allows for the cultivation of skills, knowledge and mindset necessary for an interfaith dialogue between different religious traditions. Through essays and both individual and collaborative class presentations, students have the opportunity to develop their public speaking and research skills, while honing their insight and demonstrate their understanding of the distinctions between and commonalities shared by three of the world's major religions.

Twentieth-Century Music History

Twentieth-century Music History chronicles the progression of musical style from Debussy’s rejection of classical procedures to the polystylism of Corigliano, Schnittke and Zappa. Representative composers and pieces will be introduced through class discussion, score examination, directed listening and the viewing of video performances. Principal topics include Impressionism, Primitivism, Futurism, Expressionism and Atonality, Neo-Classicism, Neo-Romanticism, New Objectivity, Serialism, popular music (jazz, rock, fusion, Broadway, film music), electronic- and computer-generated music, Aleatorism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism and the New Simplicity. Students will note the changing attitudes to sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, form and texture while gaining a broader understanding of music’s role in contemporary society. Assessments include chapter quizzes and a final research paper on a prominent twentieth-century composer.

US Foreign Policy

This course will provide a focused exploration into the dynamics of and complexities surrounding American foreign policy in the 21st century. The primary goal is for students to better understand what foreign policy is (and isn't), who the major actors are domestically and abroad, what influences policy, and what effects U.S. policy has globally. Careful attention will be paid to analyzing strategic decision making processes, grounded in the historical context of U.S. foreign policy (particularly post-WWII), as well as elucidating the modern challenges presented by contemporary media and political environments. Students will demonstrate understanding through formal analytical writing, debate, creative expressive projects, and the semester culminates with a two-week long foreign policy simulation.

US Government & Politics: Advanced Placement

This course helps students develop an in-depth understanding of government and politics in the United States. Students hone critical thinking and writing by examining readings from political scientists and taking practice tests on multiple-choice and short-answer questions. They also sharpen public speaking and presentation skills by participating in debates and current events discussions. In investigating the framework and institutions of American government, students assess both theory and reality, contrasting how institutions and the political process actually work with how they are supposed to work. Students completing this class will be able to: analyze relevant theories and concepts; interpret data presented in charts, tables and other formats; describe the development of individual rights and liberties; discuss the organization and activities of major political institutions; and explain patterns of political processes and behavior. We will focus on the following units of study to meet the objectives of the College Board: 1) Constitutional Underpinnings of the US Government; 2) Civil Liberties and Civil Rights; 3) Three Branches of Government and the Federal Bureaucracy; 4) Public Opinion, Political Parties, Interest Groups and Voting; and 5) Public Policy.