Social studies

The social studies department teaches students to become critical thinkers and learners through an inquiry-based approach to history and the social sciences. The department offers a broad and challenging program that aims to sharpen students’ thinking and decision-making capabilities while enhancing their global perspective.

Each student progresses through a sequence of core courses in history including World Civilizations I, World Civilizations II, and United States History. In these courses, students consider essential questions that examine historical narratives and facilitate deep exploration of the human condition. They also learn, practice and master historical-thinking skills, such as analytical reading, speaking and listening, as well as thesis-driven writing. The social studies department writing program provides students with a scope and sequence of research and writing opportunities that prepare them for university courses and beyond.

A rich electives program allows students to explore additional areas of interest in the discipline, as well as a variety of Advanced Placement courses to challenge students with rigorous college-level coursework. Additionally, the department sponsors and coaches students in other events outside of the classroom, such as debate and public speaking (hosted by the English-Speaking Union) and Model United Nations.

All Grade 9 students enroll in World Civilizations I, and all Grade 10 students enroll in World Civilizations II. 

A graduation requirement of ASL is that all students take either United States History or AP United States History in Grade 11 or 12. Social studies electives may be taken as additional courses within the department.

World Civilizations I

1 credit; full year

World Civilizations I—the first course in a two-year sequence—examines global history from the development of political and religious institutions during the Axial Age to the Age of Exploration in the 18th century. Students develop their historical-thinking skills in reading, writing and research. Reading strategies include synthesizing content, identifying context and claim recognition, and analyzing cause and effect. Writing strategies focus on developing arguments that are supported by reasons and evidence. In terms of content, students explore how distinct societies have evolved on their own terms in regards to geography, religious beliefs, political institutions, cultural expression, social organization and technological achievements. Religion and trade are analyzed as important forces in human interactions. Students develop a global perspective by gaining a better understanding and appreciation of world cultures. The year culminates in a research-based project that challenges students to demonstrate their ability to read and analyze various sources, as well as to create and defend an argument using evidence.

World Civilizations II

1 credit; full year

Using the Social Justice Framework as a basis for study, World Civilizations II pursues an integrated study of non-Western and European societies beginning with the Age of Revolution through the post-Cold War era. Students examine the global impact of the political and industrial revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, and analyze the development of nationalism, imperialism, global conflict and the Cold War through a variety of regional lenses. The course culminates by pulling the themes of the course together as a lens by which to examine the contemporary world. In addition to course content, students continue to develop their mastery of reading, writing and historical research skills through well-planned and more rigorous writing assignments.

United States History

1 credit; full year

This course challenges students to consider multiple narratives about America's past through political, economic, cultural and social-justice lenses. The course also invites students to draw both connections and distinctions between the contents of those narratives and America's contemporary experience. In the process, students conduct historiographical analyses of primary and secondary sources, as well as formulate and defend arguments. Students develop nuanced understandings of America's story through various types of writing, discussion and presentation.

The essential concepts and questions of the course revolve around power, and understanding the rights written in the Constitution. Students consider America's role in the world from domestic and international perspectives, as well as investigate how individual Americans and groups of individuals acquired and used power. In being presented with these concepts, students have agency to develop their own understanding of the issues facing the United States in order to become informed citizens and future voters.

AP United States History

1 credit; full year
Prerequisite: Departmental recommendation

The primary goal of the Advanced Placement United States History course is to inculcate in students a deep interest in the history of the United States by exploring foundational primary documents and important events and by developing historical-thinking skills. The course follows the College Board’s AP curriculum and seeks to prepare students for the end-of-the-year AP exam. In this fast-paced, college-level course, nightly reading assignments are typically lengthy. There are frequent in-class writing assignments, which teach students to formulate and support historical interpretations with primary documents and other types of evidence. Classes revolve around discussions, simulations, debates, and cooperative activities, all of which offer students the opportunity to improve their understanding of the material and to read, think, analyze, and write like advanced historians. By the conclusion of the course, students should not only have a firm understanding of overarching themes in the history of the United States but also have developed the study skills, independent thinking, and analytical inquiry that are ingredients for success in a university-level course.  

AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics

1 credit; full year
Prerequisite: Departmental recommendation

AP economics is designed to give students an opportunity to study economics at college level in preparation for the Advanced Placement examinations in both micro- and macroeconomics. The course cultivates students’ understanding of fundamental economic concepts and theories as well as teaching them to apply these theories to real-world situations. Recognizing the importance of the final AP mark for many of our students, for several weeks prior to the exam, students review both micro- and macroeconomics, looking at the types of multiple-choice items and free-response questions they might encounter on the actual AP exam. Mathematical literacy is essential in this course.

AP European History

1 credit; full year
Prerequisite: Departmental recommendation

This course gives students an opportunity to study major trends in Europe's social, economic, political and intellectual history since 1400. Topics considered include the Renaissance and Reformation, exploration and colonization, the Scientific Revolution, the development of constitutional and absolutist monarchies in early modern Europe, the Industrial and French revolutions, nationalism and unifications in the 19th century, the Russian Revolution, the world wars and their consequences and the movement to European Union. The course demands copious and critical reading, analysis of primary sources, and effective historical argument, especially in the form of document-based essays. Students take the Advanced Placement examination in May.

AP Human Geography

1 credit; full year

This course introduces students to the systematic study of patterns and processes that have shaped human understanding, use and alteration of the Earth's surface. Students learn to employ spatial concepts and landscape analysis to study human social organization and its environmental consequences. They also learn about the methods and tools geographers use in their research and applications. Topics of study include economic geography, population studies, urbanization, migration, industrialization and mapping with geographic information software. Students who enroll in the course sit the AP Human Geography exam in May.

AP Psychology

1 credit; full year

The AP Psychology course is designed to introduce students to the systematic and scientific study of the behavior and mental processes of human beings and other animals. Students are exposed to the psychological facts, principles and phenomena associated with each of the discipline’s major subfields. They also learn about the ethics and methods psychologists use in their science and practice. The course provides students with a secondary school equivalent to an introductory college class in psychology, which prepares students to take the AP Psychology exam in May.

AP Art History

1 social studies credit or 1 art credit; full year
Prerequisite: Departmental recommendation

This university-level course explores major artistic movements chronologically from the prehistoric period to the present. Students study painting, sculpture and architecture from global cultures, with emphasis on how aesthetic and artistic form reflect and/or shape cultural ideals. Students also analyze works using thematic approaches of art as an instrument of power, protest and change-making within and across cultures. Visits to London museums and galleries augment lectures, discussions, student presentations and a scholarly research paper. This course addresses many of the 250 required works of the Advanced Placement curriculum and aids in preparing for the AP exam, but students should expect to undertake independent study in order to fully prepare for the exam. AP Art History counts as an academic course in the determination of course-load requirements. 

Human Rights Seminar

Grades 11-12; 1 social studies credit; full year
Prerequisite: Departmental application approval

Over the course of the academic year, students selected to enroll in this course and become ASL human rights scholars work to organize, schedule and implement a school-wide, one-day symposium targeting a contemporary human rights topic. Human rights scholars are responsible for inviting and coordinating outside speakers for panels as well as other presentations during the symposium including, for example, documentary films, art exhibitions and performances. Students selected to be ASL human rights scholars function as a research cohort to develop in-depth knowledge of a contemporary human rights topic. In order to become truly informed scholars in the field, students approach the focus topic using a number of lenses, concentrating on both academic background—international law, human rights theory and history—as well as recent cases and circumstances. At the same time, students have opportunities to work directly with professionals and organizations engaged in the struggle to secure and ensure respect for human rights around the world. Students complete a substantial research project culminating in the delivery of a paper or creative presentation during the symposium. Research papers and projects will be collected for publication.

Race and Culture

Grades 10-12; ½ credit; semester I

This semester-based course cultivates respect for individual and cultural differences. Participants explore the social notion of ‘race’ as well as tear down the biological assumption that humans can be divided into distinct races. Students understand the difference between prejudice and racism, and recognize the devastating consequences of both. Participants study topics such as white privilege, implicit attitudes, third culture identity, and justice. The course inspires compassion and international awareness of humanity, including public policy considerations, and helps participants develop advocacy skills in order to exert leadership through a set of personal core values. Students demonstrate learning through blogging, presentations, a position paper, a culture project, debates and discussions, and literary analysis.

Topics in Government and Law

Grades 10-12; ½ credit; semester II
Prerequisite: Completion of World Civilizations II 

This course explores the structure and functions of government, and the relationship between government and the governed within various political systems. The primary focus is the study of the American and the British political and judicial systems. Particular attention is given to political theory, political and constitutional power, civil rights and civil liberties, and public policy. Students explore key Supreme Court decisions that guarantee the rights of citizens and the power of government. Students are expected to keep up with relevant current events and to understand how current events connect to course topics.

Contemporary Global History

Grades 11-12; ½ credit; semester I 

This course explores the major historical trends and developments since the end of the Cold War (1989) through the present. Students engage in readings and discussions on nationalism, globalization, democratization, racial/ethnic conflict, and the post-9/11 world. These studies enhance student understanding of current geopolitical and economic trends and events and enable them to engage more intelligently in world affairs and act as more responsive global citizens. This course can serve as a preparation for Global Issues/Activism in the second semester, but can be taken on its own.

Global Issues

Grades 11-12; ½ credit; semester II

Global Issues examines selected issues challenging the human community. Students explore the concept of global citizenship and discuss how they can achieve it. They research global challenges including: illegal trafficking; poverty, inequality and development; education, disease and health care; global warming and sustainable development; and regional conflict zones. The study of these issues creates a forum for discussion and debate and a new level of activism on the part of students as they research possible solutions.

Introduction to Philosophy

Grades 11-12; ½ credit; semester I

Philosophy has traditionally pursued certain questions in an effort to craft meaningful understanding of lived experiences: Who am I? (identity); What is the essence of being? (ontology); What is the nature of reality? (metaphysics); What is human knowledge and what are its limits? (epistemology); What is truth and how is it communicated reliably? (logic). As an introduction to the discipline, students explore these questions through the writings of classical, modern and contemporary philosophers using contemporary film—Blade Runner, eXistenZ and Minority Report, among others—to provide a common basis for discussion and application. Students are challenged to grapple with these essential questions intellectually and personally through active engagement in Harkness conversations and regular argumentative writing assignments. 

Introduction to Applied EthicsĀ 

Grades 11-12; ½ credit; semester II

Are affirmative action policies an ethical means to address the problem? Is an exclusive relationship with my spouse/partner the only ethical option? Can the use of illegal drugs be ethically permissible? Is it ok to manipulate the genes of your child to have favorable characteristics? Are physician-assisted death and murder ethically equivalent? What is ethical responsibility? Am I ethically responsible? Are right and wrong culturally relative? 

Over the semester of study, students in this course explore these questions extensively, or questions very much like these since the topics being examined are determined by the students in the class. In grappling with topics that confront us on a regular basis, students develop an understanding of themselves as ethical decision makers as well as the significance of ethical considerations—both in theory and practice—as denizens of a contemporary world. The course makes extensive use of vignettes for students to consider. 

Not offered in 2019-20

Government & Political Theory

1 credit; full year
Prerequisite: Successful completion of World Civilizations II

This course explores the structure and functions of government, and the relationship between government and the governed within various political systems. While the primary focus of study is the American and the British political systems, students also engage in comparative analysis by looking at the role of government in other nations. Particular attention is given to political theory, political and constitutional power, the roles of political parties and other non-government actors (interest groups, the media), the structure of government, civil rights and civil liberties, and public policy. Students are expected to keep up with relevant current events and to understand how current events connect to course topics. Students interested in taking the United States Government and Politics AP exam spend time in April preparing and reviewing for the exam.


½ credit; semester I

This course includes an introduction to economic reasoning and utilizes current-events material to illustrate economic issues in the real world. Topics include basic economic theories, the production and distribution of goods and services, and the roles of governments, financial institutions and businesses in the functioning of the global economy.