Upper School History

Menlo School History teacher Matthew Nelson leads a class. Photo by Pete Zivkov.

Exploring the past to impact the future.

The History Department seeks to give students a sense of the importance of the past, the present, and the future, and their connection and responsibility to all three. By the time of graduation, students are prepared to understand and appreciate past peoples, ideas, and events, as well as to maintain an informed understanding of current events for the rest of his or her life. It is our hope that our students will become critical, active participants in the community, nation, and world.

Course Catalog

  • Modern World History (9th Grade)

    The course begins with a look at how global trade led to an explosion of wealth and cultural production in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, Qing China, and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. We then examine how the 19th-century world was shaped by topics such as Enlightenment ideals, nationalism, industrialization, imperialism, and reactions against these developments. The second semester focuses on the 20th century and the continuing tension between integration in a global, mostly Western-dominated system and the preservation of local traditions. The two world wars, decolonization, and the challenges facing the world in the 21st century are also major topics. Emphasis is placed on developing students’ skills in discussion, analytical writing, and conducting research.

  • US History

    This course examines the factors that led to America’s transformation from a relatively weak, divided, and isolated collection of colonies into the dominant nation of the twentieth century. In this course we will study the foundations of the United States; The Civil War and Reconstruction; Industrialization and Immigration at the turn of the 20th century; U.S. Imperialism; the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression; the impact of both World Wars on America’s government, economy, and society; the Cold War; and the Civil Rights Movement. Readings and class activities are structured to provide students with an opportunity to hear a variety of voices, explore differing and often opposing interpretations of history, and develop the tools necessary to define and support their own point of view. Special emphasis is placed on historical thinking and reading skills, media literacy, and the careful analysis of primary and secondary sources, as well as historical writing. Course requirements include several analytical essays and an independent research project.

    Honors option available.

  • AP European History

    When comedian Eddie Izzard is asked about her background, she says “I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from.” Take this class if you want to step up for some in-depth (and fun) analysis of the politics, ideas, conflicts, societies, and cultures of Europe since the Renaissance. This course has a lot to offer the history lover. The AP syllabus we cover is laden with rich, challenging topics. It demands patience for rigorous skill exercise in reading and evaluating sources, attending to the narrative details of 600 years of Europe’s history, conducting research and frequent analytical writing assignments. Students will be expected to commit to energetic class participation. The course is designed to prepare you for an AP exam next May, but the ultimate purpose of the class is larger than your exam results. We will engage critically with people and ideas of the past so as to be able to enhance the future, as informed individuals and as members of ever wider global communities.

    Instructor: Mrs. Hanson

    Juniors need to have earned at least an A- in RUSH, or a B+ in APUSH.

  • Contemporary American Issues (2S)

    Our country may never be the same after January 6, 2021. On that fateful day, we learned that the health of our republic may be more in doubt than at any point since the Civil War. This course allows you to study carefully and thoughtfully the significant issues facing our country. We will search for an American identity. We will ask the painful questions about our national character and virtue. We will doggedly pursue rank American injustice and breaches of our Constitutional trust. We will find hope in each other, those we interview, and that which we research “in order to form a more perfect union.” We will call ourselves to account for our obligations as citizens in this pluralistic democracy of ours to be better neighbors, scholars, and citizens. Get ready for a wild ride through: the American exceptionalism debate; the Black Lives Matter movement; queer politics; the immigration debate, affirmative action, free speech on college campuses; gentrification and displacement in urban centers; the “gig” economy and economic inequality; and on and on. You will learn that there are no easy answers when studying different conflicts within the United States, but in examining these issues you are participating in a critical study of contemporary American society. This class may be taken for honors credit.

    Instructor: Mr. Nelson

    Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Ethnic Studies I: An Introduction to the Study of Minority Groups in the United States (1S)

    Are you interested in learning from your peers’ personal experiences? Do you enjoy frequent discussion and debate in a safe classroom environment? Ethnic Studies operates from the consideration that race and racism have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society. This first semester will focus on key issues such as prejudice and discrimination, assimilation and group membership, Americanization, class, racial and ethnic identity, and gender roles that have shaped relations in American society. We will investigate the origins of white identity and white privilege and the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, and Native Americans. We will base our work on the concrete situations of people of color and use a methodological framing that emphasizes both the structural dimensions of race and racism and the associated cultural dimensions. The purpose of this course is to educate students to be politically, socially, and economically conscious about their personal connections to local and national history. We will focus on themes of social justice, social responsibility, and social change. The course spans from past to present, from politics to social reform, allowing students to identify similar social patterns and universal qualities present in other societies, including their own. Former students have said this course helped them develop as writers, researchers, and presenters while helping them to both challenge and clarify their personal beliefs surrounding identity, citizenship, and belonging in American society. An honors option is available.

    Instructor: Ms. Borbon

    Honors option available to juniors and seniors. 

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors, juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Ethnic Studies II: Challenges for the Present and Future (2S)

    Are you interested in learning from your peers’ personal experiences? Do you enjoy frequent discussion and debate in a safe classroom environment? Ethnic Studies operates from the consideration that race and racism have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society. This second semester will focus on key issues such as immigration, citizenship, the patriarchy, and what it means to be an American. We will investigate the challenges faced by new immigrants from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, the push for LGBTQIA acceptance and inclusion, the importance of intersectionality, and the battle for gender parity. The purpose of this course is to educate students to be politically, socially, and economically conscious about their personal connections to local and national history. We will focus on themes of social justice, social responsibility, and social change. The course spans from past to present, from politics to social reform, allowing students to identify similar social patterns and universal qualities present in other societies, including their own. Former students have said this course helped them develop as writers, researchers, and presenters while helping them to both challenge and clarify their personal beliefs surrounding identity, citizenship, and belonging in American society. An honors option is available.

    Instructor: Ms. Borbon

    Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors, juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Global Issues for Global Citizens (1S)

    From global poverty to human trafficking, from climate refugees to animal poaching, from war crimes to child marriage – the problems on this planet are many. But, there are ways you and I can work with other like minded cosmopolitans and humanitarians to solve them. This course seeks to empower you to understand global issues in all their complexity and to take action. You will study the role of global governance institutions (e.g., the United Nations with its Sustainable Development Goals), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), terrorism and security, global public health, environmental policy, international trade, foreign aid and development play on the global stage. Our class activities, along with guest speakers, will help us understand that there is no “one size fits all” to the vexing issues that face our planet and us. But, this course is as much experiential as it is academic! You will participate in the Youth Philanthropy Project (YPP) - a unique opportunity to advocate for a cause you are passionate about in collaboration with an NGO of your choosing. Over the past five years of the Global Issues class, students have won over $25,000 for their NGOs from the generosity of the HAND Foundation. For more information about the YPP, see the project page on the Menlo School website under, “Global Learning at Menlo.” Join our class so you too can be part of the good we are doing for the world! This class may be taken for honors credit.

    Instructor: Mr. Nelson

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Gender & Queer Studies 2S

    In this course we will undertake historical, cultural, and theoretical inquiries into gender and sexuality in the modern era. Drawing from feminist, queer, and postcolonial methodologies we will seek to understand how gender and sexuality operate in society and our everyday lives. Students’ critical thinking will be honed through the examination of how power, wealth, visibility, freedom, and voice have historically mapped onto norms of gender and sexuality. Accordingly, students will learn how resistance has been waged to trouble these norms, and how to deploy gender and queer theory for emancipatory action and hopeful futures. Through close readings, fun activities, insightful guest speakers, and film, we will pursue the following units: History of women and queer liberation in the United States; Social construction of gender, sexuality, and body concepts; Gender in culture and politics; and Queer theory. This class may be taken for honors credit.

  • Current Affairs and Civil Discourse (2S)

    We are living through history, and they say journalism is the first draft of history writing. So we’ll try to understand the period we are living through – the pandemic, political ferment and polarization, racial reckoning, etc – as first-draft historians. Most of the readings will be from newspapers and periodicals, and we will listen to podcasts and TV news segments. The course will end with a research project of the student’s choosing. The main goals in this class are to:

    • Help make you deeply knowledgeable about the topics we cover in class – and you will have a large say in the topics we cover
    • Get you to engage with different perspectives both in the readings and in discussions
    • Guide you through a major research project.  
    • Help you become a more confident, cogent, and concise writer
    • Offer you a highly relevant learning experience

    Instructor: Mr. Schafer

    Open to juniors and seniors and sophomores with permission of the instructor. Honors option available.

  • Renaissance: a course in the Humanities (1S)

    Why do humans often look to the past as they try to envision a better future, and what role can the arts play in driving social change? There’s a reason Gatsby famously exclaims to Nick, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” and it’s not a fluke that Faulkner claims, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These American authors articulate a truth about being human, and this course will explore the causes and artistic and social consequences of this backward-looking impulse. The French word “Renaissance,” or rebirth, has been used to describe this revival of art forms from older times in order to move society in a better direction. Our course begins with the Italian Renaissance of the 16thC, when artists (like Michelangelo) and thinkers (such as Machiavelli) reached back to the legacy of the Ancient Greco-Roman Classical World to develop a worldview that accommodated the growing powers of people outside the traditional power centers of the Catholic Church or traditional nobility. We will then look at how the concept of a Renaissance, or rebirth, nourished African-American artists and thinkers in the 20thC Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes is one example) and 21stC Afro-Futurism (think Black Panther) movements. The course will conclude with student-driven projects examining the concept of Renaissance in 17thC Mughal India, Ming China, and Tokugawa Japan. This course takes an interdisciplinary, Humanities-focused approach, using primarily artistic primary sources such as visual art, literature, and music, to understand the impulses and effects of this human impulse towards a Renaissance. All students will conduct research about a Renaissance of their choosing. Non-Honors students will produce an Annotated Bibliography. Honors students will create the Annotated Bibliography and write a 6-8 pg. essay. This course will give students credit towards Menlo’s requirement of 3 years of History. It (and its Honors component) are U.C. Approved. (It is also awesome on its own merits.)

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

    Instructor: Ms. Gertmenian

  • Modern Political Rhetoric (1S)

    Have you ever wanted to improve your advocacy for political and social causes that are important to you? This course blends the study of political science and rhetorical criticism to assess the power of political persuasion to make history. By centering two key moments in modern American history – the HIV/AIDS fight of 1981-1996 and the modern environmental movement from 1969 to the present – we study tactics and strategies to bring about change in America. We engage politicians and other political operatives to understand how to become effective change-makers with public language in social media, speeches, social movements, art, and other mediums. From this study, you will become more knowledgeable about how political change is made and how you can become an ambassador for the change you’d like to see in our country. This class may be taken for honors credit.

    Instructor: Mr. Nelson

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • The Pursuit of Happiness (1S)

    According to the United States Declaration of Independence, the right to pursue happiness is self-evident. Yet it is not self-evident that we Americans are generally happy. How can we pursue happiness? How might we lessen stress and discomfort and discover greater ease? In exploring responses to these and related questions, this course surveys philosophies and religious paths that emphasize the practice of happiness rather than its pursuit. These include the classical Greek philosophy of Stoicism, elements of Hinduism, Taoist philosophy, and, in particular, lineages in Buddhist practice and philosophy. We also examine literature from positive psychology as well as elements of indigenous and Western religions. Within the scope of this content there are four primary aims: to understand the development of each tradition within its distinct historical and cultural context; to compare and contrast wisdom teachings and practices; to consider the relevance of traditions in light of contemporary research in psychology, ethics, biology, and related fields; finally, the course encourages students to try out different contemplative trainings and to reflect on their effects. An honors option is available.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

    Instructor: Mr. Brown

  • Leadership Case Studies (2S)

    Bloodthirsty tyrants, foreign invasions, and deadly plagues. You name it, Europe went through it; and the famous European leaders you’ve heard of are famous for a reason. Take this class if you’re interested in leadership tips from the men and women who transformed a chaotic and war-torn landscape into the high-functioning Europe we know today. We will study the daunting challenges that confronted kings, queens, popes, and parliaments as well as the life and death decisions they made. Students will develop skills in close reading of primary sources, advanced analytical writing, and decision analysis. Honors students will choose a leadership text from the era to write about and present in class. They will also conduct more advanced research for class projects and consult more sources than non-honors in our culminating research projects.

    Instructor: Ms. Hanson

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to juniors and seniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Philosophy (1S)

    First Semester Philosophy – The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates) In this course we examine such questions as: What is the meaning of life?  The purpose of life?  Who decides and how do we do so? What is the connection between my mind and body (and soul?)? What does it mean to be an “authentic” person? How do I know whether God exists? Can this be proven? What is the role of belief and faith in examining this issue? What is art? What is good art? What do I know and how can I know it? How does language frame our reality? In what way am I truly free to choose what I do? What factors influence my choices, i.e. advertising, nature & nurture, my DNA, etc.? What is “fairness”?  How can we maintain a just and fair society? What does it mean to behave ethically? In exploring these and other issues the student will learn the approach taken by some of the greatest thinkers throughout history. From a skills perspective, philosophy students should expect to develop the ability to decipher the logical structure of an argument and, in doing so, determine whether an argument is both valid and cogent as well as to understand various logical fallacies and pitfalls.  In addition, students will hone their ability to write clearly and creatively, defending their own position on various abstract “big picture” issues in both written and spoken form.  Lastly, students will learn to read closely and critically in order to decipher the position of a philosophical paper, how it is defended, and what their own position on that issue is (and why).  The Honors Student will have three additional assignments throughout each semester involving taking on three subjects of their choosing. In addition, honor students will be required to write longer papers than other students, including a longer research-based paper at the end of the semester and more activity on an online Discussion Forum.

    Instructor: Mr. Bowen

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to juniors and seniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • Philosophy (2S)

    In this course we examine such questions as: What is the meaning of life? The purpose of life?  Who decides and how do we do so? What is the connection between my mind and body (and soul?)? What does it mean to be an “authentic” person? How do I know whether God exists? Can this be proven? What is the role of belief and faith in examining this issue? What is art? What is good art? What do I know and how can I know it? How does language frame our reality? In what way am I truly free to choose what I do? What factors influence my choices, i.e. advertising, nature & nurture, my DNA, etc.? What is “fairness”?  How can we maintain a just and fair society? What does it mean to behave ethically? From a skills perspective, philosophy students should expect to develop the ability to decipher the logical structure of an argument and, in doing so, determine whether an argument is both valid and cogent as well as to understand various logical fallacies and pitfalls.  In addition, students will hone their ability to write clearly and creatively, defending their own position on various abstract “big picture” issues in both written and spoken form.  Lastly, students will learn to read closely and critically in order to decipher the position of a philosophical paper, how it is defended, and what their own position on that issue is (and why).  The Honors Student will have three additional assignments throughout each semester involving taking on three subjects of their choosing. In addition, honor students will be required to write longer papers than other students, including a longer research-based paper at the end of the semester and more activity on an online Discussion Forum.

    Instructor: Mr. Bowen

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors. Juniors who take this course MUST take the honors option.

    Prerequisites: Open to juniors and seniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.  Students do not have to enroll in Philosophy I in order to take this course.

  • US Foreign Policy (2S)

    What are the historical roots of the current tensions between the U.S. and countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran? How did the conflict in Afghanistan compare to the war in Vietnam? Has the NATO alliance run its course? Take this class if you would like to explore these and other questions in American diplomatic history. You will deepen your understanding of international relations by keeping up with today’s news while also exploring expert opinions about the past. Your reading and writing skills will improve with regular practice, and you will produce a formal research paper complete with endnotes and a bibliography. An honors option is available.

    Instructor: Dr. Hanson

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • US Economic History (1S)

    This class is organized along two parallel tracks. One is a chronological survey of major developments in American economic history from the mid-1700s to the Covid-19 pandemic. The other is a focus on five specific themes: banking and financial bubbles; laissez-faire vs. government regulation; economic growth; free vs. unfree markets; and the role of incentives in economic decision-making. This class will introduce you to skill sets that will prove useful in college and beyond, including basic statistical analysis and economic modeling. Along with economic history itself, you will get an introduction to the intersection of politics and economics called political economy. You will also have the opportunity to hone your reading, writing, speaking, and research skills. An honors option is available.

    Instructor: Dr. Hanson

    Prerequisites: Open to seniors and juniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • War and Peace: the Modern Middle East (1S)

    What is it with the Middle East? The whole region seems to brim with conflict over territory, ethnic strife, and diplomatic conundrums. Some suggest the combustibility of the region is a result of European imperialism (politics), and others point to the centrality of the oil market (economics). Still others identify religious difference (cultural factors) as the culprit. On top of this, the complex combination of forces in play is only half of the problem for anyone trying to understand the Middle East. There is also the problem of how to navigate the different assumptions and biases that have influenced Western understanding (and misunderstanding) of the Middle East over time. This class is designed to face both of these challenges head-on. Students in this course will study the turning points in the region’s history since 1919, and develop a nuanced picture of the forces at work today. You will sharpen your primary source analysis skills, expand your argumentative writing toolkit, and conduct independent research. Honors students in both the fall and spring will become experts in 21st-century trends by reading and presenting selections from an additional text, and will consult substantially more sources than non-honors students in our culminating research projects.

    Instructor: Ms. Hanson

    Note: Honors option available to juniors and seniors.

    Prerequisites: Open to juniors and seniors, and sophomores with instructor permission.

  • AP Economics

    The fall semester looks at microeconomics—how individuals and companies make decisions. Students examine basic market theory and consumer decision-making. The bulk of the semester covers the theory of the firm. Topics include perfect competition, oligopoly, monopolistic competition, and monopoly. The role of government is also considered. The semester ends with a brief overview of the history of American economic history. The second semester is the study of macroeconomics—how the nation’s economy functions. The course looks at how to measure the size of an economy, unemployment, and inflation. Most of the semester is spent on understanding the tools the government has at its disposal to manage the economy. The unit on international economics includes trade and currency exchange rates. Keeping up with current economic events is an on-going part of the course.

    Note: This course does not satisfy Menlo’s three-year History graduation requirement.

    Open to seniors.

  • AP Government & Politics

    This introduction to American and politics is the equivalent of Political Science 101 at many universities and colleges. The course examines the enormous power and control various governments have over their citizens and what affects this has on politics in general. It is designed to help students understand not only the nature and function of government, but also their relationship to it. Students are given an introduction to constitutional theory, analyze the institutions and policies of the United States, and debate the current issues affecting their lives as Americans.

    Note: This course satisfies a requirement for Citizenship & Leadership IP certification. This course does not satisfy Menlo’s three-year History graduation requirement.

    Prerequisites:  A- or higher in the non-honors version of any fall History Department elective, or a B+ or higher in the honors version of any fall History elective. A student who does not automatically qualify for enrollment may be added to a waitlist and admitted on a space-available basis. Open to seniors.

    Instructor: Ms. Okunnugo

Course Sequence

  • All 9th grade students take Modern World History.
  • All 10th grade students take either U.S. or Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History. There is no grade prerequisite for enrollment in AP U.S. History. Rather, the History Department analyzes student performance on multiple writing assessments to gauge readiness for the advanced study of History. Students who do not meet the standards for automatic enrollment in the AP course may be admitted if places become available AND they demonstrate requisite academic growth for the duration of their freshmen year. AP U.S. History is designed to be a college-level course, expectations of students’ ability to work independently and learn from initial setbacks are correspondingly higher.
  • All 11th grade students take two semesters of coursework from the History Department’s wide range of elective offerings. Every elective with exception of Philosophy, AP Economics, and AP U.S. Government satisfies Menlo’s three-year History graduation requirement. Every student must write a lengthy research paper in the elective of their choice during the spring of their junior year.
  • There is no requirement to take a History class in 12th grade. Seniors are given priority in signing up for the electives taken by juniors, and courses are also open to sophomores when space permits. Some electives are divisible at the semester, but others such as AP Micro- and Macro-economics are available only as a two-semester sequence.