Putting History in Context
Seventh grade students are exploring world religions to understand their influence on modern world history.
Many seventh grade history classes are survey courses, compressing thousands of years of world history into a single year of study. Fay’s Modern World History class charts a different course, by first laying a contextual foundation with an examination of the world’s five major religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This approach enables the students to dive deeper than a simple memorization of facts and dates as they examine the differences and similarities in belief systems and how those threads have shaped and influenced the course of history.
The course, which was developed by Upper School history teacher Jessica Auer and History Department Chair Bruce Chauncey, comes at a cultural nexus point for seventh graders as they enter Upper School and are joined by boarding students from 19 different countries. Their study of religion in the fall term sets the tone for the year by broadening students’ perspectives and quashing misconceptions. Many of the American students are familiar with Christianity and Judaism, for example, but are surprised to learn that there are many more Hindu people in the world than Jewish people. “Regardless of their background, all of the students are stepping outside their own cultural framework to learn about religions that they haven’t had exposure to before,” says Jessica, “and it’s very important that we learn how to have those conversations with respect.”
The study of the origins and development of world religions sets the foundation for the winter and spring terms, when students explore two major historical conflicts. In the winter term, seventh graders study India in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it served as both the zenith of British imperialism and a flashpoint for its decline. “Religion has had a major influence on political and historical events in India, and it’s important for students to have a foundational understanding of India’s history given its growing importance in the world,” notes Jessica. In the spring term, students explore the roots of the Arab/Israeli conflict in the Middle East. “Our students probably hear a lot about this conflict in the news, but they may not know how it started,” she notes, “so this an important opportunity to clarify for them what it’s all about.”
The themes of Modern World History mirror the diversity of Fay’s student body, and the skills that students develop in this class—the ability to interpret events in context and see situations from multiple perspectives, to name a few—are life skills that will be essential to this next generation of young people growing up in a global community.
As an educator, Jessica is inspired by the challenge of helping students to develop a thoughtful understanding of history and to connect history to today’s world. “This course gives our students an opportunity to participate in conversations that they might otherwise not be able to have until they are in high school or college,” she says, “as well as an awareness that life beyond Southborough, Massachusetts, can be very different.”