Revolutions: A Thematic Approach to the World Civilizations Survey

By Niels Eichhorn

Covering 500 years, six continents, and innumerable events, conflicts, and ideological, social, and cultural changes in one semester is a challenge, and students are frequently lost in the amount of material thrown at them. As a U.S. Civil War historian interested in the transnational histories of revolutionary wars, I am interested in Europe and Latin America’s contribution to global upheaval and civil conflict. When I first taught World Civilizations since 1500, I used five interwoven themes: Exploration, Revolution, Nation-State Formation, Global Warfare, and Decolonization. Despite my enthusiasm, I soon realized that students’ interest and engagement seemed limited. Then, I decided to make a dramatic change, throwing the entire syllabus out and replacing these themes with a topical approach.

Revolutions became the central theme of the class, and a definitional exercise became pivotal. I opted for a political-ideological definition of revolution, leaving aside other forms of revolutionary experiences such as the Scientific Revolution (c1540-c1760), the Military Revolution (c1450-c1800), or the Industrial Revolutions (c1760-c1840 and c1870-c1910). Hence, I relaunched the class with the question of what constitutes a political revolution, how we can define it, and most importantly, what programs revolutionaries have sought to institute. I distinguished between political, national, and social revolutions—concepts that accompany students throughout the semester and which I ask them to contemplate at the end of the course in a final essay.

The course is designed in a modular fashion and each week follows a similar pattern. My school operates on a four-day week, with only two days of instruction each week per class. On Mondays, I usually lecture about the larger historical narrative of a given revolution, explaining its causes, evolution, demands, locus within the political, national, and social context, and its achievements, if any. Lectures often include some music, usually national anthems, which are important microcosms of national imagining and stimulate patriotic feeling during revolutions.

On Wednesdays, we discuss primary sources provided on our online learning platform. These sources include declarations of independence, political statements and manifestos, speeches, and correspondence between revolutionaries. As part of their assignments, students are expected to write a 400-word essay on two of these documents. More than summarizing each document separately, students need to put the two documents in conversation. During the first few weeks, I teach students how to compare certain documents, helping them select materials that are in conversation with each other. We spend the entire class discussing the documents, fostering the ability to interpret different revolutionary views and teasing out the finer details of primary sources. Sometimes I read sections of the documents, nurturing greater awareness about the details on the texts. These discussions create an interactive and more animated learning environment, giving students the opportunity to talk, formulate opinions, and defend their interpretations.

One of the great benefits of the thematic approach to the course is the ability to explore a subject that may otherwise be overlooked in a World History course. For example, I have long wanted to do a Revolutions of 1830 week; however, I have not yet located a sufficient number of primary sources to pull this off. When I first started the class, my revolutions were in chronological order: Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, American Revolution (1765-1783), French Revolution (1789-1799), Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Spanish-American Revolution (1808-1833), Revolutions of 1848, Russian Revolution (1917), Fascism (1880-1945), Decolonization (1950s), 1968, and 1989. The modular format allowed me to make some changes. Thus, I added a lecture that traced Ireland’s revolutionary desire for independence from 1801 until the Easter Uprising (1916) and the ethno-nationalist conflicts in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles (1968-1998). Similarly, I fused the American and Spanish-American Revolutions into one lecture. In future versions, there is possibility to include the Mexican Revolution, Chinese Revolution, and the Arab Spring — as this is a course on World history, adopting such revolutions would further decenter Europe.

As the semester unfolds, students realize that justifications for revolutionary upheaval differed greatly from country to country and time period to time period. By starting with the Dutch Revolt, students are exposed to the religious language justifying Dutch independence. By the French Revolution, religious justifications disappear, signaling a major change in argument. However, the importance of Catholicism helped in overthrowing Poland’s Communist government in 1989. Similarly, the arguments to demand nation-states changed between the events in Spanish-America and the post-World War II decolonization.

Like any class, the success of this course depends on students’ enthusiasm. In weekly discussions, students actively participate on a regular basis and shape the development of the course. In the last module, students’ questions transformed a historical conversation into a vivid dialogue about the larger meaning of revolutionary change, the role of violence in revolutionary contexts, and the contemporary meaning of revolutions in our world. Originally, I expected discussion days to last only two-thirds to three-quarters of the allotted time, but conversations usually overran class time.

Obviously, abandoning familiar chronologies can pose challenges to both instructors and students. However, the uniqueness of this approach helps students develop their critical writing and thinking skills while nurturing other intellectual capacities as they face a world engulfed in political, revolutionary upheavals. In short, focusing on revolutions has dramatically enhanced my teaching of World Civilization since 1500, and has challenged me as a scholar to think more critically about the contemporary contingency of any subject matter historians teach. Revolutions have strongly shaped world history, turning political, national, economic, and social systems upside down. Moreover, since revolutions have consistently challenged national borders and national power structures, a focus on revolutionary change in a world history class bolsters our ability to push students to think about transnational movements and change in “revolutionary” terms.

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. His first book, Liberty and Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. He can be contacted at or on twitter @niels_eichhorn.

Further Reading:

Winks, Robin W., and Thomas E. Kaiser. Europe 1648-1815: From the Old Regime to the Age of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hobsbawm, E. J. The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789-1848. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

DeFronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.

Censer, Jack R. Debating Modern Revolution: The Evolution of Revolutionary Ideas. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

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