Our approach to teaching history at The Heights School has always had a strong anti-reductionist thrust, emphasizing that history is best understood from various perspectives (including economic, social, political, religious, cultural, geographical, military, and others), perspectives that can each shed light on understanding the past, while no one perspective is sufficient for a comprehensive understanding.
Our approach to teaching history at The Heights School has always had a strong anti-reductionist thrust, emphasizing that history is best understood from various perspectives (including economic, social, political, religious, cultural, geographical, military, and others), perspectives that can each shed light on understanding the past, while no one perspective is sufficient for a comprehensive understanding. Indeed, a comprehensive approach to history makes use of various perspectives and analytical tools while always keeping in mind that the human story of our common past also must include the drama of humans in a particular cultural context exercising their creative freedom for noble and base ends. A complete approach to teaching history should thus include openness to the great ideas and cultural expressions that have informed Western Civilization.
With these reflections in mind, the administration and some faculty at The Heights began many years ago to form a vision for a senior capstone course in History, which was launched in the 2012 – 2013 school year as the History of Western Thought class (HoWT for short). Much that was previously covered in other courses is revisited in HoWT, and students are challenged to integrate their understanding of philosophy, literature, and history. Previously read literature like Vergil’s Aeneid or Dante’s Inferno are revisited in the context of great intellectual and cultural developments, the perennial dialogue weaving throughout the story of Western Civilization. And students read for the first time works by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas and many moderns, to name just a few. The complete syllabus for the course is available HERE.
The HoWT course was several years in the making. It first emerged as an idea that some faculty were discussing, one of those “wouldn’t it be great if…” dreaming sessions. We sought advice from alumni (who enthusiastically supported doing this) and even from Fr. James Schall from Georgetown University (who advised us not to offer this course). We decided to offer our self-designed HoWT course and shifted from considering this class as a possibility to practically studying how to implement it. There were several challenges, including convincing students and parents that our HoWT course is worth them giving up the option to take an AP History course, as most seniors previously did. In the end we decided on a start date for the course and dedicated the entire previous year to carefully planning out the curriculum for the class. We met regularly and at times argued fiercely about what texts should and should not be included in the readings for the course and how much certain aspects are to be emphasized.
In the spring of the year prior to the launch of the HoWT class we communicated the change to the rising seniors (current juniors) and to their parents, explaining the vision for the new course and the reason for doing it. The parents and students expressed some concern, mostly about how such a course would be viewed by colleges given that we are “taking away an option for an AP course.” We continued to express confidence that we are making the right decision and asked the students and parents to trust us on this. At one point a few members of the rising senior class came into my office and very respectfully asked me to consider a petition that almost the entire class had signed requesting that we offer the HoWT course as an elective option for the first year rather than as a required course. I thanked them for coming to me in such a respectful way but again insisted that they trust us, that we really do know what we are doing. I saved the petition as an important document in the history of the Heights.
As the school year started, I eagerly awaited news about how the HoWT class was being received. Soon small bits of good news began to trickle in: students were fruitfully engaging Plato and Aristotle on perennial human questions; some students admitted that the class was good; and some teachers told about great class discussions. After a few more weeks the positive reception became simply overwhelming. The same students who had signed the petition asking for the class to be made optional were thanking us for offering it. It was the favorite class of many of the students, even though it was demanding. The students claimed that they felt like they were really getting to the heart of the matter for the first time ever. We have made slight adjustments in every year since the initial launching of the HoWT course. And each year it continues to be among the most popular senior courses. It has become a distinctive part of a Heights education, an one that is looked forward to by students and appreciated by parents as well.