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Teaching The World Since 1945


Structuring "The World Since 1945": Chronology, Region, or Theme?

Malcolm Purinton


     The World Since 1945 course can be a lot of fun to teach. I have had the pleasure to teach it four times at Northeastern University, and have been working hard at improving my lectures and how I structure the class to best benefit the students. As Heather Streets-Salter indicates, many of the students who take the class are International Affairs majors whose classes typically focus on contemporary topics of the past two decades (though for many historians the last 70 years could be thought of as contemporary). I was a little uncertain about teaching the course at first because my own background is in the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but I have grown to love the class and the topics I choose to cover.

     Given that The World Since 1945 is often one of the first university history courses for my students, and in some cases the only history course they will take, it is important to me that they improve and learn the skills historians find important, especially critical thinking and how to craft and support an argument. Through lectures, discussions, and writing assignments dealing with subjects including the Cold War, decolonization, and globalization I teach these skills while helping students understand the current state of the world in which they live.

     But in order to teach critical thinking and how to craft an argument, one first has to organize the course as a whole in a coherent way. In this essay, I will suggest three possible approaches organized around chronology, region, and theme. Each approach offers advantages and disadvantages that could benefit some teachers and hinder others. I will provide examples within each section to further augment the discussion of these options.


The first time I taught The World Since 1945 I took a chronological approach. Overall, I found it to be a positive experience. Teaching the course chronologically is one of the easiest choices for both the teacher and the students. Following a relatively clear timeline from 1945 to the end point, whether it is 1989, 1992, 2001, or the present, allows the syllabus and lecture list creation to be relatively simple. All that is needed is a list of events to cover: moving forward in the timeline does the rest.

     There are several reasons why this approach is a strong strategy. To begin with, a chronological approach can make it easier for students to remember a sequence of events over time. This provides a strong mental map of events around the world since 1945. While thematic or regional approaches have other strengths, the chronological narrative is familiar to most students and therefore it is easier for them to grasp sequences of events in a linear format. This approach is also beneficial in explaining cause-effect relationships regarding events one may cover. For instance, when discussing the Red Scare in the United States in the 1950s, a chronological approach would ensure that you had already discussed events crucial for understanding the American psyche regarding the spread of communism around the world, including tensions between the United States and the USSR after 1945 as well as the 1949 Chinese Revolution. A chronological approach also makes it easier to explain the popularity of the Domino Theory and Containment as part of US foreign policy in the wake of the Chinese Revolution, and also subsequent United States choices to interfere in Korea and Vietnam.

     In addition, the chronological approach can keep lectures interesting by jumping around between different regions of the world. Once when I taught this class I started with the Cold War in the United States followed by Cold War in the Soviet Union and on to the Korean War and then Guatemala and the Cuban Revolution. With this regional/thematic approach, both you and your students might grow restless with several days or weeks focusing on a single region or dealing with the same theme. A strict chronological approach will avoid this.

     There are, however, several drawbacks to using a chronological approach when teaching The World Since 1945. Presenting a linear version of history may lead students to think that history is only about direct cause and effect relationships, or to assume that what did happen was the only possible outcome. Leading students to think of history as merely a series of cause and effect relationships simplifies the complexity of events and the people involved.

     One example is the outcome of the Cold War. A chronological approach can give the impression that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable, thus reinforcing a triumphalist narrative of capitalism over communism. To avoid such assumptions, one could complicate the timeline through discussions or debates about intense moments such as the Cuban Missile Crisis that show the very real possibilities of nuclear engagement and direct warfare between the US and USSR—which had the potential to lead to a very different 'end' to the Cold War. Another choice is to try a different approach to the course altogether.


Although I began by structuring the course chronologically, I found that sometimes my lecture sequence could be a bit confusing as I moved from one part of the world to another. I began to experiment with adding a regional unit approach, which offers several positive attributes to the course structure. By organizing The World Since 1945 by region instead of chronology, students will understand the defining events of particular regions while learning to make comparisons between different areas of the world and the events that drew them together after WWII. By gaining a strong foundation in different regions of the world in sequence, students will gain a better sense of world geography and of the relationships and connections not only between areas and events within each region but also between regions.

     Let's take an example of a regional approach to Latin America. In that unit, the focus might be on United States intervention during the Cold War. You might begin with the 1954 CIA-supported overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz Guzman in Guatemala, and then move to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, explaining the influence of the former on the latter. Following the successful Cuban Revolution, you can then discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 before examining how Castro's success led to increased fears in the United States about Leftist sentiments in Central and South America. These fears, in turn, provided the justification for interventions in many other Latin American nations from the Kennedy through the Reagan administrations.

     By the end of the study of this region, students should have a firm foundation in the geography of Latin America and US foreign policy decisions during the Cold War regarding its hemispheric neighbors. Following this, the stage is set for an easy transition into a regional approach to the Soviet Union and its relationship with its satellite nations behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. After both regions are covered, not only will students have a solid foundation in two geographic regions but they will be able to make comparisons between the experiences of nations and people under the influence of both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

     Possible drawbacks of this approach include difficulties with the sequence of events. By not using a chronological approach that deals with multiple regions as events occur along a clear timeline, students may become confused as the lectures move from one region to another.. A way to avoid this is to begin each regional unit with a review that includes a visual timeline that is updated as the course moves forward. While this takes time, it is important to make sure students are grounded chronologically and understand the sequence of events between regions as well as within them.

     Overall, this approach offers unique opportunities that a linear chronological approach does not. By focusing on different regions in sequence, students are encouraged to think about both the distinctive features of the world's regions as well as the many connections between them. Discussions that specifically prompt students to explore several regions at once will help them make further connections between areas and events. In addition, unlike the constant movement between different regions required by the chronological approach, regional specificity allows students to gain a deeper understanding of each area.


A thematic approach can be difficult to organize, but if executed well can be rewarding for both professor and students. For my own class I borrowed from Dr. Streets-Salter the three themes of Globalization, the Cold War, and Decolonization. There are many other possible themes to employ, including gender, women, trade and commodities, war, and history from below. I have found the three themes I employ useful for providing coherence to my mostly chronological lecture schedule.

     Thematic approaches help force students out of teleological explanations for historical events, and removes them from the simplified linear experience that comes with a chronological approach. By concentrating on specific themes, students can be asked to think more deeply about assigned readings and lectures by exploring how they relate to the themes of the course. Focusing the course on several themes also keeps the course from falling into a routine of sequential events.

     One suggestion for this is to choose the theme of women and gender and then assign novels or memoirs to support it. For instance, when looking at the Partition of India and Pakistan I like to assign Bapsi Sidhwa's book, Cracking India, which is the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl in Lahore before and during the Partition. Through the main character, the students are able to learn about the impacts of the Partition from a female perspective, especially when tied to shorter primary documents. The next assignment could then be Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoire, Persepolis, which follows the events of the Iranian Revolution also through the perspective of a woman growing up during a time of upheaval. Students can then compare and contrast the experiences of women at these two different points in time and relate them to the historical contexts in which their stories occurred.

     Another possibility is the theme of globalization. One approach is to discuss civil rights as a topic within globalization by comparing the Civil Rights movement in the United States to civil rights and decolonization movements in Africa and South East Asia. A useful assignment for this is The Cold War and the Color Line by Thomas Borstelmann, which ties international goals of equality and decolonization to the rights of African Americans and other minorities in the United States.1 Following discussion about the United States the class can then move toward the history of Apartheid in South Africa.

     It must be said that teaching thematically requires significantly more work than a chronological or regional approach, and also requires a strong understanding of the material outside of the timeline of events. Without a linear narrative, it may be difficult for students to understand cause and effect relationships that appear obvious with the chronological approach. Moreover, it is necessary to address the themes consistently in lectures, and to emphasize connections between the themes and specific events.


These three approaches can be used independently, or they can be creatively blended. After trial and error, I like to organize my own class using the overarching themes of Globalization, Cold War, and Decolonization. By relating each of my lectures to those themes, I find that they tie the course together and make it more coherent. This, of course, is only one of the many ways to organize the course. The key is to be clear from the outset what you are trying to achieve with your content, and to organize the course accordingly. When you have done this, you will then be able to focus on teaching students to think critically and to make an argument.

Malcolm Purinton is a PhD Candidate at Northeastern University, where he has been teaching The World Since 1945 since Fall 2012. His dissertation project explores the story of the Pilsner-style lager from its invention in Bohemia to its consumption around the world. His research examines the economic, political, social, and cultural influences affecting the spread of this Continental beer style in the British Empire through the Imperial trade networks of European colonial powers. His previous work has included a history of the India Pale Ale and its relationship with British colonialism as well as work on the history of British and French colonial alcohol policies in terms of gender and economics. He is also an avid home brewer.


1 Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).


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