The Park School history department considers the ultimate goal of historical study at the secondary level to be the formation of attitudes and skills that enable students to understand the world around them so that they can constructively participate in a democratic society. We encourage young people to recognize the non-objective nature of information and to take time to seek out and compare alternative contentions in arriving logically at personal positions concerning the key issues of their world.

The emphasis in course organization is generally on historical problems. Assignments include a discriminating analysis of both primary sources and secondary interpretations. We employ a variety of readings and teaching techniques to stimulate and develop effective self-expression, both written and oral. Basic historical research skills are taught in required courses, culminating in a major research paper each year.

Three years of history are required for graduation; additionally, most students take at least one elective course in history. 

Independent Studies can be arranged in the history department for semester credit; every year a small number of students — usually juniors and seniors — seek this opportunity to work independently on a subject of their interest.


  • Grade 9: U.S. History to WWI
  • Grade 10: World History to WWI
  • Grade 11: 20th Century History

Full Year Courses

U.S. History to World War I 

Grade: 9 Required

This course provides a general overview of the history of the United States from pre-colonial times through the onset of World War I. Using primary documents and secondary sources, students explore the cultural, political, geographical, economic, and technological changes of America’s past. Major topics include colonization, independence, the Constitution, sectionalism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, immigration, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era. The course involves a good deal of discussion, reading, and writing, including a research paper.

world history to world war i

Grade: 10 Required

Students examine the various forces shaping the history of the modern world. Emphasis is given to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment, revolutionary politics, the development of the modern nation-state, and industrialism. Case studies of colonialism, independence movements, and the conflicts engendered by the new nationalism of the 19th Century are undertaken. A research paper, building on skills learned in 9thgrade, is required.

20th Century History

Grade: 11 Required

Students analyze and explore the competing political philosophies and global trends that defined the turbulent period after WWI: nationalism, liberalism, imperialism, communism, fascism, independence movements, and decolonization. Integrated into this course is a study of 20thcentury United States history.  A research paper is required, building on skills learned in the ninth and tenth grades.

Fall Semester History Electives

art history: Recurring themes

Grades: 10-12

More than ever before, we live in a world of manmade appearance, and whether we are conscious of it or not, what we see affects us. In this course, the ultimate question is this: how does art (from painting and architecture to advertising and fashion) influence our sense of reality and identity and shape our desires? To approach this question in a manageable way, we will examine three or four major themes that recur throughout art history, such as Sacred Space, The Body, Power and Protest, and The Natural World. Students will study a broad range of works, comparing the ways artists from different time periods and cultures have responded to each theme. They will examine, discuss, read, and write about art, and may even make some art, too.

This course can be taken as an art or history credit.


Grades 10-12

In this one-semester Ethics seminar, students will grapple with questions of rights, justice, fairness, what people deserve, and the common good. If approached with care and civility, any topic is up for discussion in this class, including issues of crime and punishment, animal rights, abortion, gossip, reparations for the holocaust and slavery, gender equity, cannibalism, and how to program ideas of right and wrong into our future robot overlords. Students will read short stories, watch films, examine current events, talk about dilemmas here at Park, and explore the ideas of philosophers, both ancient and modern. The books to be covered for this class are Gordon Marino’s Ethics: The Essential Writings, as well as a supplemental reader.

Four Historical Simulations

Grades 10-12

Nothing beats the intensity of role playing when everyone is trying to maximize their position, but this maximizing behavior doesn’t necessarily mean the resolution reached will be optimal. Sometimes a conflict is best solved through negotiation and cooperation, but not conquest. In fact, sometimes the game isn’t zero-sum in nature. Students will research and play out four major historical conflicts in this course, and discover which elements of the historical role playing may have been zero-sum and which probably were not and why. They will also learn about the historical content relevant to the time periods by inhabiting roles in four different areas of the world. Two will be: “India: seeking independence, c. 1945” and “Cuban Missile Crisis: saving face and the world, 1962.” The third and fourth simulations are still to be decided. Assessments will involve four essays with a self-evaluation component.

Modern Africa

Grades 10-12

“The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.” – George Kimble

“Out of Africa, always something new.” – Pliny the Elder.

Imagined by the rest of the world as either a place of exotica and the destination for expensive safari vacations, or as the background to natural disasters and political chaos, the nations of Africa comprise amazing stories of political and cultural dynamism.  In this course, students will explore modern Africa’s history, from independence in the mid-twentieth century to the present. The class will cover some of the seminal literature that has come out of modern Africa and view the cinema of some of Africa’s contemporary filmmakers.  Portions of this class will be in collaboration with students from the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Plagues and Peoples in World History

Grades 10-12

This course explores some of the most notable epidemics in world history, from the Black Death in the Middle Ages to the global AIDS crisis today. Humanity and epidemic disease have shared a long and intimate history. A central goal with these case studies is to understand the links between societal change and disease. Topics include the origins of epidemics; how warfare, commerce, and imperialism have shaped disease and vice versa; and how race, class, religion, and political context have informed the ways societies have dealt with (or not dealt with) disease. Students will also use the materials in this course to reflect critically on how they can explain changes in health over time and across space. 

World Religions

Grades 10-12

This course will explore the diverse histories, beliefs, and practices of our major faiths, with a focus on the early histories of each religion. Students will study Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Primary source readings will include excerpts from the Vedic hymns and Upanishads, Indian Epics, Buddhist Sutras, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran. These studies will be guided by a number of questions, such as: What are the sources of our knowledge of the people and faiths that we are studying? How do these faiths help people organize relationships and communities? How do these faiths shape people’s sense of ethics and justice? Several themes that will carry us through the course of the semester are: Does salvation require “good works” or faith? What is the role of the individual, or “selfhood" in the context of religion? Can meaning be found in suffering?

World War II

Grades 10-12

World War II was the most destructive and widely dispersed conflict in human history. Sixty million people died, including 40 million civilians. The war undermined Europe’s world dominance and ushered in the American-Soviet global rivalry. What began as separate German and Japanese expansionist drives became a true world war in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan attacked the United States. This course will examine all aspects of World War II: military, political, diplomatic, economic, social, cultural, and ideological. Although students will study the causes and aftermath of the war, the focus of the course will be on the war itself, and particularly on the years 1939-1945.

Spring Semester History Electives

American Conservatism From Truman to Trump

Grades 10-12

What is “Conservatism?”  Is it a political ideology that promotes small government and individual responsibility? Do conservatives advocate defense of tradition? Do they believe that government should play no role in the private lives of individuals? Do they believe in essential human dignity? Mankind’s spiritual nature? The answers to all of these questions are, well, complex and confusing. Beginning with the end of the Second World War, this course will explore the development of conservative ideology and politics in the United States. Students will read some of the seminal literature on conservatism, such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, and Garry Wills’ The Convenient State. The objective of the course is not to promote a specific political stance, but instead to approach the terms “liberal” and “conservative” with a more layered and multi-dimensional understanding than is too often the case.

The Holocaust

Grades 10-12

The main subject of this course will be Nazi Germany’s mass murder of six million Jews during the Second World War, certainly one of the defining events of the 20th century. Although the focus will be on the genocide of European Jews, the course will also study the Nazis’ murder of other groups (Roma, homosexuals, political opponents, the disabled, the mentally ill) during this period. Students will examine the Holocaust from the perspectives of the perpetrators, the bystanders, and the victims. How and why did Nazi Germany conduct this genocide?  How did those people who were not either participants or victims of the atrocities, but knew something of what was happening, react and respond to what they saw? And what was the experience of the victims and survivors?  Finally, how have historians and students of history come to understand the Holocaust? Does ‘history’ have a unique responsibility when it comes to the Holocaust, and if so, what is that responsibility? 

Gender and Sexuality in America

Grades 10-12

This course explores the history and literature of gender and sexuality in America. From “two-spirit” Indians to “cisgender” heterosexual men, gender and sexual identities have varied dramatically over time and across space in American history. They have come from a variety of sources. Lived experiences in diverse communities have molded them. Institutions like the church, media and medicine have prescribed them. The law has attempted to legitimate and regulate them. Class, race, and ethnicity have complicated how we express them. The goal in this class is to interrogate this rich history and use it to contextualize our discourse today. Topics include: the “normalization” of binary categories like male/female and gay/straight; the roles of medicine, media, and the law in prescribing and regulating identities; the lived experiences of diverse genders and sexualities; the intersection between gender/sexuality and other social categories like race, class, and ethnicity; legacies of that long history for identity politics today.  

This class may also be taken for an English or history credit.

Islam and Politics

Grades 10-12

This class will cover a broad swath of history beginning with an overview of the foundations of Islam and the early Islamic community, with the goal of gaining an appreciation for the ways in which the politics of the early Islamic community went on to shape the Muslim world. Students will then examine the roles of political leaders in several Muslim empires, growing an understanding of the relationship between religious scholars and the state. Next, they will look at the push for reform in the 19th century Muslim world, tracking the call for reform into the mid 20th century. Examining the case studies of Lebanon, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, students will work to better understand the ways in which sectarian politics, secular reform, and religious leaders have played a part in the formation of some modern Muslim nation-states. Finally, the class will examine groups such as Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, all of which have used the rhetoric and history of Islam in order to gain traction for contemporary political objectives.

Renaissance and Reformation

Grades 10-12

After chipping away for three years at a 17-foot block of marble, Michelangelo Buonarroti finished his famous statue of Biblical King David in 1504. The small but influential city of Florence, Italy had commissioned Michelangelo for it. By then Florence was the acknowledged capital of the Renaissance. Almost exactly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) due north is the small but historically influential town of Wittenberg, Germany. It was here just a few years later that a young Catholic school teacher named Martin Luther posted statements about what he believed should be human beings’ relationship to each other and to God. In the end both these fellows set in motion revolutionary new standards, but the milieu (the socio-political culture) of central ‘Germania’ and ‘Italia’ in which they arose is important to understand. What was at the heart of the Renaissance and Reformation era from which these two drew inspiration, and how consequential were these two movements? Through a selection of primary documents, artwork, two feature length films, and four scholarly essays, this course will seek to penetrate both of these connected contemporaneous movements and measure their worth for us today.

Ways of Knowing

Grades 10-12

In our supposed ‘post-truth’ environment made slippery by ‘alternative facts’ and lies, this philosophy seminar will explore how people know something is true. What do you know for sure, and how do you know it? What kind of faith does science require?  Does language shape what you think? Can you trust your senses? Do you control your own thoughts? Through discussions of film, current events, short stories, philosophy, happenings at Park, this course will examine questions of knowledge and truth. The core of the class will be epistemology – the theory of knowledge – but the edges will not be so strictly drawn.Understanding of the material of the class will be assessed by participation in discussions, short reflective writings, and three papers. 


We believe that an Independent Study, under the guidance of a faculty member, can offer certain students a unique opportunity to pursue academic and/or artistic interests that our program does not specifically satisfy. Such work requires initiative, commitment, focused energy, and a prior engagement and familiarity with the subject. Students who demonstrate these qualities may apply to do an Independent Study.

To apply, a student must find a faculty member willing to sponsor the work and advise the student. Together, they complete the Independent Study application, describing the project, its goals, and the criteria for evaluation. The completed application is submitted for approval to the student’s academic advisor, the appropriate department chair, and, finally, the principal. Students must receive approval as specified prior to the registration date for that semester.