Philosophy of History/History's Vital Themes and Narratives

Originally Published by the Staff of the Bradley Commission on History in Schools in History Matters! Volume II. Posted with permission from the National Council for History Education

This series of articles appeared between August 1989 and January 1990. The articles expand upon the Vital Themes identified by the Bradley Commissioners in their booklet, Building A History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools.[1] The Commissioners believe these themes should be goals in any history course, regardless of its specific content or time period. All history study aims at these Vital Themes, albeit reached through different means and at varying levels of sophistication in different courses.

The themes have been particularly helpful to curriculum committees in schools because they serve as goals, provide a directional compass, and give guidance when deciding what to leave out or what to put in: does the content or topic under consideration help us illustrate one of the six vital themes, or is it peripheral, non-illustrative, or marginal? In addition, the six themes have been used in the "spiral curriculum development" approach, where a different example of each of the six themes is developed at each grade level, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, resulting in a cumulative history curriculum that does not suffer from the ailment of redundancy for which many past curricula were faulted. Yet, while distinct in their emphasis, the themes reflect the basic integration of the human experience, for example the "Civilizations" in theme #1 will not be fully understood without reference to "geography and technology" in theme #2 and the "values, ideas, and institutions" of theme #3. Each theme is a matter of emphasis and there will always be overlap among the Vital Themes.