Human nature is revealed and defined by humanity’s past deeds; a knowledge of these deeds is indispensable to a person’s understanding of his or her own nature and potential.


History is a mirror in which students can examine their lives. We believe self-knowledge is the prerequisite of wisdom and that only the examined life is worth living. We hope that the study of history here will be a source of wisdom and worth in our students’ lives, now and in the future. Roxbury Latin boys study history in order to know themselves as moral persons, as participants in the human story, and as members of the human family. If they are to know themselves, young people need to come to terms with the convergence of their individual stories and the great epic of humankind. They need to understand that the institutional and material world (which they perhaps take for granted) is the product of the thought, toil, and sacrifice of people who have gone before them. Similarly, because human nature is revealed and defined by humanity’s past deeds, a knowledge of these deeds is indispensable to a person’s understanding of his or her own nature and potential. Finally, knowledge of the variety of human experiences and conditions should awaken students’ awareness of the duties which their privileges impose upon them. In these ways, history defines paths by which students may find meaning and purpose for their lives. 

The study of history allows students to see the greatness and fragility of human nature. On the one hand, the past is a record of aspiration and achievement. On the other hand, history records an almost unbroken sequence of crimes and calamities. Familiarity with humanity’s high and low moments and its noble and wicked individuals is essential to a realistic understanding of oneself and a balanced perspective on the world. To recognize that individuals can make a difference, that “success” is ephemeral while justice, compassion, and beauty endure, is to be both humbled and liberated. If students are led thereby to examine their own lives and enabled to live them more consciously, uprightly, and responsibly, our program has achieved its principal purpose. 

Roxbury Latin seeks to prepare its students for full citizenship in the human community. The deliberate and committed participation that such citizenship entails is possible today only with a broad and deep awareness of the variety and complexity of cultures and institutions past and present. This awareness requires, first, a knowledge of the traditions and values of the particular community, society, and culture in which all of us live—a microcosm of humanity. Second, it requires some understanding of other communities, societies, and cultures which constitute the human enterprise. Third, it demands an analytical understanding of the political and economic systems which establish the conditions of much of contemporary human activity. We believe that historical consciousness thus understood is essential for the creative engagement with their world which we hope all our students will seek and achieve. 

The history curriculum seeks to fulfill these purposes through a sequence of required courses plus a limited assortment of electives for upperclassmen. The content of these courses comes from a number of historical fields and from several of the other social sciences allied with history. History courses employ a variety of materials in addition to traditional textbooks: primary source documents, fiction, works of art, and monographs. While most history courses examine material in chronological order, none deals with all topics relevant to its subject. Rather than attempt to cover as much ground as possible, teachers select topics they judge to be most important or instructive. In general, our students study a limited amount of material thoroughly, although we are, to some extent, guided by College Entrance Examination Board prescriptions in AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Economics, and we intentionally expose our youngest students to the sweep of human history in Class VI to lay a foundation for their future learning, both in the classroom and beyond.

History Courses

  • Boston’s Place in Human History

    Boston’s Place in Human History, informally called “Roots & Shoots,” is required of all boys in Class VI. Students develop a global perspective on Boston’s historical roots by examining how events of world history have shaped who we are and how we live. Students also explore the shoots that have sprouted from Boston’s history to have an impact beyond the city limits—sometimes even globally. By emphasizing the interactions of geography, technology, and religion in influencing various human systems (political, economic, and social), students have an opportunity to examine the movement of people and their ways through time toward better understanding Boston’s place in human history. Emphasis is placed on developing the skills of the historian, an understanding of the evolution of governance in historic Boston, and an appreciation for Boston as a cosmopolitan city in a land of immigrants. 

  • Class V Civics Unit

    During the month of May, a unit on Civics for Class V expands upon the foundation in governance laid in the Class VI history curriculum. This unit is designed to strengthen students’ understanding of how government works and to explore ways in which individuals can, and do, make a difference through participating in, and interacting with, government. Emphasis is placed on the electoral process, jury duty, military service, being informed, and the path to citizenship. This course is team-taught and benefits from presentations by guest experts.

  • Western Civilization: A Critical Inquiry

    Western Civilization: A Critical Inquiry, required of all boys in Class IV, is an intentionally classical and interdisciplinary course that seeks to provide students with an awareness of humanity’s recurring problems, a perspective on our own time, and an appreciation of consequential historical figures: the complex dilemmas they faced, the decisions they made, and the impact of those decisions. The course also explores how science is reshaping our understanding of the medieval period globally, and raises the sights of boys in terms of arts appreciation by complementing, reinforcing, and supplementing the arts curriculum in other areas of the overall Roxbury Latin experience. In addition to skills development for analytical essays, documented papers and oral presentations, students research, produce and orally defend a model or reproduction of a building (or group of buildings), historical scene, work of art, or artifact from anywhere in the world, making deep and explicit connections to historical themes or ideas from the course, analyzing artistic elements, and applying rhetorical skills.

  • Modern European History

    Modern European History is an elective for members of Class III. Through the study of European history from 1450 (the High Renaissance) to the present, this course traces major developments in political and diplomatic history against a backdrop of social and economic change, creating the context for better understanding contemporary institutions and modern intellectual and cultural forces that fundamentally shape our world today. Emphasis will be placed on analysis of both historical evidence and historical interpretation through class discussion and expression of historical understanding in writing. Because the narrative of European history necessarily involves engagement with the global economic force of imperialism and global conflicts (WWI & WWII), this course seeks to lay a sure foundation for the study of U.S. History and other history department electives.

  • World Religions, Philosophies, and Multigenerational Histories

    World Religions, Philosophies, and Multigenerational Histories is an elective for members of Class III. As complex features of history, religions and philosophies deal with life’s big questions and can inform people’s sense of morality in positive ways, but they can also interact with changing social systems and political ideologies with harrowing historical consequences.  In this course, documentary videos provide the 30,000 foot view of the Communist Revolution in China, apartheid in South Africa, the plight of refugees in war-torn Iraq, and the dislocation of indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada. This sets the stage for reading multigenerational, family histories that make the period accessible and observable as different generations of the same family respond to historical change across time. The study of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Native American religion exposes students to the richness of world religions and philosophies as a subject of study, and the family histories of 21st century authors Trevor Noah, Thaer Abdallah, Richard Wagamese, and Scott Tong make the lived experience of their families relatable, and the history itself unforgettable. Methods for exploring one’s own family history receive particular emphasis in this course.

  • U.S. History

    Required of all boys in either Class I or Class II, this course is designed to develop historically literate citizens with an empathetic understanding of the complexity of the American experience as well as a love for the critical study of our nation’s past. The course focuses on three core themes: 1) constancy and change in economic and social realities; 2) watershed changes in American political life and interpretations of government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property; and 3) America’s place in the world. Students conduct research for a major paper, selecting from topics relevant to one of the course units (as determined by the instructor). In the final unit of the course, students undertake an oral history project connected to recent American history. Core readings are supplemented with numerous primary source documents. 

  • AP Economics

    AP Economics, offered to members of Class I, is the study of choices that individuals, firms, and societies must make as they use scarce resources to provide for material well-being. This course presents the tools of micro- and macroeconomic analysis. Macro topics include the market system of economic organization, economic growth, productivity, the role of government, the financial system, inflation, unemployment, short-term economic fluctuations, exchange rate determination, and theoretical controversies. Micro topics include applications of supply and demand analysis, elasticity, production theory, the organization of industry (including monopoly and oligopoly), labor markets, income inequality, externalities, poverty, and trade. Whenever possible, we will consider international dimensions and comparisons. Students are asked to master introductory economic theory, take part in debates, and analyze the issues with some degree of sophistication. Students are also expected to be familiar with current economic events as presented in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or The Economist. A major objective of the course is to introduce basic economic principles and the kinds of questions and techniques used by economists in their analysis. Finally, students will also become familiar with a variety of data sources available on the Internet. Students are required to take the Advanced Placement Microeconomics Exam and the Advanced Placement Macroeconomics Exam in May.

  • AP U.S. Government and Politics (Fall)

    AP U.S. Government and Politics is the first-semester elective in a pairing of electives offered to members of Class I who have taken U.S. History as a prerequisite in Class II.

    Recent and ongoing challenges to our democratic norms and institutions demonstrate the resilience of our democracy, but also its fragility.  Democracy depends on informed and active citizens who can make serious, evidence-based arguments in a world where there is a loss of agreed-upon facts, basic rights are threatened, and the media landscape is profoundly changed. As a culminating experience in the study of American history at Roxbury Latin, AP U.S. Government and Politics concentrates on the concepts, institutions, and behaviors that characterize and animate our constitutional system and political culture. The news of the day also feeds our discussions in this course weekly, sometimes daily. Students are required to take the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics Exam in May.

  • Creating a Common Good (Spring)

    Creating a Common Good is the second-semester elective in a pairing of electives offered to members of Class I who have taken U.S. History as a prerequisite in Class II.

    What do we owe one another? Across time, this question has shaped the ideas of thinkers who have pursued something called a “common good.” How to define and achieve a common good has animated the reform movements, utopian experiments, protest literature, and identity politics that have emerged in response to social and political challenges throughout world history. Through its exploration of fundamental questions about the relationship between the individual, society, and the state, this course builds on the topics and concepts students study in AP U.S. Government and Politics. An intellectual history course at its core, Creating a Common Good offers students deep engagement with texts from global wisdom traditions that have influenced how we think about economic markets and morality, law and society, identity and urban geography, nature and technology, and education and democracy.

  • Global Conflicts

    Global Conflicts, offered to members of Class I who have taken U.S. History as a prerequisite in Class II, will explore the causes, course, and consequences of the major global conflicts of the twentieth century. 

    During the first semester, students will explore the Great War, or the “War to End All Wars.” No previous war had seen industry, science, technology, and the massive populations of Europe, its colonies, and the United States come together in such a disastrous conflict. This semester we will explore the causes of the war on both sides of the Atlantic, its different fronts around the world, the role of race and gender (the war led to the largest single enfranchisement of Americans), and the aftermath that has shaped Europe, the United States, the modern Middle East, and Africa and Asia. Students will focus on reading and analyzing an assortment of primary and secondary sources, and produce several research papers. 

    In the second semester, students will examine the social, political, and economic ramifications of major conflicts in the middle and late Twentieth Century, beginning with the rise of fascism in Italy, Japan, and Germany and the resulting catastrophes surrounding race-based ideologies of purity and cultural homogeneity. From there, students will consider the response of the United States as it went from a period of isolation to becoming a key player in World War II and a central architect of the post-war world. Topics for exploration will include the internment of Japanese-Americans, the impact of women in the workforce, the end to discrimination in the defense industry, and the ban on discrimination in the Armed Forces. Using RL alumnus George Weller’s text First into Nagasaki as a backdrop, the morality of the development and use of atomic weapons will also be explored. Additional topics include the shaping of the Cold War, and the modern development of non-state actors as military threats. Pedagogy will be based on course readings, primary source analysis, research, and historical writing.

    At the conclusion of the course, students should be able to debate effectively how major global crises shaped the twentieth century and America’s role in it.