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WATCH: Historical Themes in World History

World history includes a lot of names, places, dates, events, and all kinds of other stuff. Historians use different tools to organize their narratives and make sense of all the complexity. The AP® World History course uses six themes to help guide students through the 800 years from 1200 to the present. Organizing past events into themes can help group different events together so we can tell what changed, helping us make comparisons and connections between different regions and time periods. This video introduces the six themes and shows students some tricks for decoding AP exam questions. Like what you see? This video is part of a comprehensive social studies curriculum from OER Project, a family of free, online social studies courses. OER Project aims to empower teachers by offering free and fully supported social studies courses for middle- and high-school students. Your account is the key to accessing our standards-aligned courses that are designed with built-in supports like leveled readings, audio recordings of texts, video transcripts, and more. Register today at oerproject.com!

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Video transcript

Humans are storytellers. And all good stories have  themes. Themes are broad ideas that run through a   story and give it meaning beyond the words. Many  of humanity's greatest stories share themes in   common: love, revenge, coming of age, the battle  between good and evil. Storytellers use themes   to make their stories more meaningful to their  audience. Ohhh, I get it. Like how Harry Potter is   about a wizard school! Or, how the Marvel Cinematic  Universe is about superheroes smashing aliens! Well... not really. Harry Potter isn't about wands, wizards,  and dark lords, it's about friendship. And good and   evil. And coming of age. And the Marvel movies  aren't just flashy fight scenes. Black Panther   is about the tension between tradition and change,  and how we sometimes need to challenge authority.  Themes of fatherhood, motherhood, and sacrifice run  through many of the Marvel movies. In a similar way,   themes help historians make sense of the past  so it's not just one darn thing after another.   Themes help historians tie a bunch of different  people and events together into big, historical   narratives that tell us more about the world  than smaller, disconnected narratives ever could. Alright, I get it. So why are we talking  about Harry Potter and superheroes?  Well, the people who made the AP world history  course structured it around six themes, which we're   going to describe in a minute. Some teachers use  these three-letter acronyms to refer to each theme,  but your teacher might use a different  set of words or a mnemonic device like   SPICE-T or PIECES, but they're all talking about  the same six themes. Without a tool like themes,   history kinda looks like just a bunch of different  dates and names. Organizing past events into themes   helps us group different events together so we  can tell what changed and what stayed the same.   That helps us make comparisons and connections  between different regions and time periods. We know   that the AP exam can be stressful, but learning  the themes will make the exam a lot easier.   Lots of AP exam questions reference the themes.  Some questions are obvious about it, but some are   downright sneaky, so you need to learn the themes,  and you need to practice decoding exam questions   to figure out which theme or themes they're asking  about. Think of the themes as six different threads   that run through the course, connecting different  parts of human history. As you read articles   and watch videos in this course, you should keep  pulling on these "threads," uncovering new linkages.   Let's take a tour of the six themes and get  a sense of what they're all about. And once   we're done with that, we promise, we'll get  back to how themes help with exam questions. Let's start with Humans and the Environment. The  environments in which we live have always shaped   how we live, contributing to the great  diversity, and surprising commonalities,  among human groups in different places. For example, natural resources and climate shape human culture. There's a reason why religions like Christianity,  that arose in the Middle East, believe hell is   super hot. Well, the Vikings who came from frosty  Scandinavia, imagined it must be terribly cold. In the Islamic holy book, the Quran, paradise  is described as an oasis, filled with flowing   rivers and verdant greens—a welcome site for the  peoples who lived in the arid lands of the Arabian   Peninsula, where Islam first developed. This theme  is about stuff like our methods of agriculture;   the places that people choose to settle; how  factors like geography and climate impact   society. It also covers topics like migration,  population growth, disease, and natural disasters. But, it's also about how humans have  increasingly transformed our environment.   Culture is what makes us, us. It's the  fabric that ties our societies together   through shared ideas, beliefs, and traditions.  Culture differs dramatically from place to place, but cross-cultural exchange has frequently  produced entirely new cultural practices.   Today we can exchange culture instantaneously over  the internet, but in the 14th century, it took a bit   more effort. Mansa Musa ruled the West African Mali  empire. He was Muslim, but he ruled a diverse people   who worshipped many different gods. In 1324, he  decided to complete the year-long pilgrimage to   the Islamic holy city of Mecca. He traveled with  60,000 servants and an astounding amount of gold.   He spent lavishly and donated generously. Though  he ruled a powerful empire that was rich beyond   measure, he wanted to recruit Muslim scholars  from the Middle East and North Africa to help him   spread Islam across West Africa. In his attempts  to bring Islamic culture back to Mali, he spent   so much gold, that he caused runaway inflation in  Egypt, sending the whole region into a recession. The questions you'll see on this  theme will often relate to religions   and belief systems, but certainly music, art,  architecture, literature, language, and fashion   are all part of cultural  developments and interactions.  Who has the right to rule? Where does political  authority come from? Societies have produced   different answers to these questions as new states  emerged, expanded, and collapsed. Governments have   used a variety of methods to maintain and  justify their power. For example, consider   the mighty Mongol Empire. When we think about the  Mongols, we think about men with swords on horses   riding across the open plains of Eurasia. But, did  you know that the empire was mostly held together   by women? Mongol nobles and rulers married the  daughters of people they conquered, and these women   formed networks of sisters and cousins who formed  alliances with each other. Their alliances helped   stop the fighting between their husbands, and  sometimes, they decided who the next ruler would be.   Wife-power and sister-power ran the empire.  This theme is one of the easiest to identify,   just keep an eye out for words like, "empire,"  "governments," "politics," "nations," "revolutions,"   "military," "taxes," and "ideology." This theme is all  about how states form, expand, govern, and collapse. Economics is a fancy Greek word used to describe  how we make, distribute, trade, and consume all our   stuff. Take, for example, the agricultural output  of the Aztec Empire. To feed the six million   people living in their empire, the Aztecs  developed an agricultural technology called   Chinampas. These were man-made islands that  floated on the shallow lakes of central Mexico.   The lakes kept the islands moist and Aztec farmers  covered them in mud, vegetable scraps, and night   soil. This method of fertilization allowed  these flotillas of feces to be so productive   that crops could be harvested up to six times a  year from each. This level of food production is   what kept the engine of empire running. This  theme often focuses on who does the labor,   and who makes the profit. To identify evidence  in this theme, keep an eye out for terms like   "money," "resources," "trade," "labor," "industry," and for  economic theories like capitalism and socialism. All societies develop ideas about how  people ought to interact with each other.   These interactions influence political,  social, and cultural dynamics in every society. This theme can help you understand how  these relationships have changed over time, and how communities in different parts  of the world have organized themselves.   For example, I may or may not have had  an 80s workout clothing phase in college,   but... I never got arrested for it. Well, in 17th  century Japan, the stakes were a little higher. You see, the ruling samurai classes were jealous  of how much money merchants made, so the samurai   passed laws that regulated the smallest  details of how fancy a merchant could dress. And they limited how big their house  could be and how rich they could act.   There was even a law that forbade any merchant  from using a silver clasp on their tobacco pouch. Too fancy. One woman was exiled just because  she wore an elaborate dress to court—   all because the samurai didn't want to be out  fancied! This theme is all about how society's   determine how people fit into groups: gender, class,  race, and ethnic hierarchies, as well as how family   and social life are organized in different places,  and how these relationships change over time.  Humans have always been problem solvers. Our  technological innovations have impacted all levels   of society, and these innovations often resulted  from interaction and exchange among societies.  For example, if you're using eyeglasses or contact  lenses to watch this video, you should thank the   ancient Greek astronomer, Ptolemy... Actually, you  should thank the 11th century Arab scholar, Ibn   al-Haytham, who corrected and improved Ptolemy's  ideas and revolutionized the field of optics.  Well... I mean, really you ought to thank the the 12th  century Italian who translated al-Haytham into   Latin... Or maybe the 13th century Catholic friars,  who probably made the first spectacles for reading. Then, maybe give a shout out to Lenscrafters. The point is: technologies change over time,   and innovations in one place, are usually built on  earlier innovations that spread from other places. Phew. Six themes. Nine units. 800 years. That's a  lot to take in. The themes help you to make   sense of all that history, but it's still not a  simple job. But hey, they don't call it Advanced   Placement for nothing. It's not really all that  hard, I bet I can do it in 10 seconds. Watch:   the Industrial Revolution—steam-powered  machines, factories, and the telegraph—that's   obviously about technology and innovation. Boom.  Done with two seconds left over. What's next? John—that's great, but come on. It's not always  so simple. For example, I'm going to describe   something, and you tell me which theme it belongs  to. In the Aztec Empire, a merchant class known as   pochteca, carried trade goods to markets hundreds  of miles away by foot, collecting tribute for the   Aztec emperor and spying on foreign governments.  Do they walk across any of those poop islands? This one's easy—merchants, markets, trade? It's "Economic  Systems"—E-C-N. Not so fast. History is messy and   some things don't fit neatly into just one theme. The Aztec pochteca were important to the economy,   but they also tell us about the environment, technology, governance, and social organization.   Mesoamerican societies didn't have pack animals  like horses or oxen, and there weren't many rivers   you could sail. On on top of that, these societies  never developed sailing technologies. So, pochteca   had to carry everything themselves, on their  backs. Alright, so that's economics, humans and   the environment, and technology and innovation.  Wow, that's a lot of—the pochteca also played   political roles, helping the Aztec emperors collect  tribute—a sort of tax. They also spied on enemy governments. And, pochteca were a class of people who— like those Japanese merchants—made a lot of money. But the nobility made laws to keep them  subservient, and limit how they spent their   wealth, no matter how much money they made. So, when  you see an exam question that asks you to compare   the growth of trade routes, the pochteca can serve  as a useful piece of evidence. But they're also   great for an exam question asking you to explain  how environmental factors shaped economic systems. Or, for a discussion of how different  empires maintained their hold on power.   Wow. You're right, Rachel. History really is like  night soil—it's messy! The themes in this course   are all about perspective, and in that way, they  give you—a historian in training—a lot of power. The six themes will help you interpret the  past, but they also give you some authority to   make choices about how to frame past events using  evidence you encounter in this course. By examining   and comparing many different perspectives across  multiple themes, you'll be better equipped to   support, extend, and challenge the historical  narratives you encounter in this course. And, you'll be better equipped for the AP exam in  May. The key is to practice. As you read articles   in this course, use the Three Close Reads Tool to  take notes about which pieces of evidence relate   to the different themes. Remember, these six themes  are tools to help you make sense of world history, learning them will help you build a usable past, and—yes, John—it will also help you on the exam.