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, AP Economics, AP European History, and AP Art History, 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, focuses on individuals and societies that have contributed significantly to the development of the world in which we live. The course seeks to provide students with an awareness of humanity’s recurring problems, a perspective on their own time, and an appreciation of some seminal individuals whose ideals influence us today. There is considerable emphasis on consequential historical figures: the complex dilemmas they faced, the decisions they made, and the impact of those decisions. The course also seeks to contextualize the visual arts, architecture, and music with the history of particular units to which they are attached, raising the sights of boys in terms of art appreciation, and complementing, reinforcing, and supplementing the arts curriculum in other areas of the overall Roxbury Latin experience. Units of study include Ancient Scriptures: Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic; Ancient Greece: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War & The Last Days of Socrates; Rome’s Civil War: From Republic to Empire; Jesus, Empire, and America’s Identity; Power Dynamics in Iberia: Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Impact; Machiavelli & Luther; The Age of Monarchs, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolutions (French & Haitian); 19th Century Isms & Historical Trends to World War I; The Russian Revolution & Its Aftermath; Nazi Germany & the Holocaust; and Civil Rights. In addition to skills development in précis, essay, and documented paper writing, 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 elements of art and principles of organization inherent in the project, and applying rhetorical skills learned in the course.

  • AP European History

    (Class III elective) 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 a context for better understanding contemporary institutions and modern intellectual and cultural forces that fundamentally shape our world today. The course emphasizes analysis of both historical evidence and historical interpretation through class discussion and expression of historical understanding in writing. Because the narrative of modern 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 department electives. Students are required to take the AP European History Exam in May.

  • World Civilizations

    (Class III elective) The world may not seem like such a big place anymore, but it is bigger than you think it is. And it’s important to have empathy for one’s fellow human beings. World Civilizations seeks to broaden that empathy in two ways. One is to offer an introduction to a number of world religions and philosophies, ranging from Buddhism and Islam to Native American spirituality and Taoism. The other is to study multi-generational stories of families that have lived through some of the defining historical events of recent times in places like South Africa, China, Iraq, and Native North America. When we get granular about how people actually live, the study of history becomes more relatable and observable—Trevor Noah’s upbringing as a mixed-race child in post-Apartheid South Africa; Scott Tong’s quest to uncover his family’s history in modern China; or Thaer Abdallah’s journey from war-torn Baghdad to Boston. Student work produced in this course will include oral histories, research papers, and presentations that preview a next unit of study or make connections across units. 

  • 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 Art History

    AP Art History is a full-year elective open to Classes II and I, offered jointly by the Arts and History Departments. In it students study great works of art and architecture across civilizations and through time. It is not a course in “art appreciation,” though students encounter works of great beauty and come to appreciate the extraordinary creativity behind their making. Instead, AP Art History exposes students to the many forces that can and do shape works of art: politics, religion, trade, war, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, technology, engineering, wealth, gender dynamics, even death. Above all, students learn to analyze artworks both visually and historically, articulating how they look, why they look the way they do, how they were used, what they mean, and why they are worth studying. To prepare for the AP Art History Exam, students learn to identify and contextualize works of art and write effectively about them. At the end of the year, they are asked to present, both orally and in writing, original research about a work of art, artist, or tradition of their own choosing. The course uses primary sources whenever relevant and includes visits to museums whenever possible in order to study art works first-hand. Students are required to take the AP Art History Exam in May. 

  • AP U.S. Government and Politics

    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 challenges to our democratic norms and institutions demonstrate the resilience of our democracy, but also its fragility. The last time Washington was the “enemy” in the way that it is for many Americans today, we had a civil war. January 6, 2021 could have turned out very differently. As a culminating experience in the study of American history at RL, AP U.S. Government and Politics shines a bright light on the concepts, institutions, and behaviors that characterize and animate our constitutional system and political culture. The news of the day feeds our discussions in this course weekly, sometimes daily. A deep appreciation for the constitutional and theoretical foundations of the American political system, the major institutions of government, the electoral process, and the formation of public policy is essential for protecting your future, whether your interest is addressing climate change, reforming criminal justice, or streamlining government programs. In truth, our 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, and the media landscape has changed so profoundly. As part of this course, small groups of students will create their own interest group with a strategic plan for pursuing enactment and implementation of a solution to a domestic policy problem of their choosing. Students are required to take the AP U.S. Government and Politics Exam in May.

  • History of the Civil Rights Movement

    History of the Civil Rights Movement 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 and will be taught by the school’s Smith Scholar for 2021-2022.

    The Civil Rights movement changed the meaning and nature of citizenship in the United States. Legislative and legal milestones ended legal segregation. Leaders and foot soldiers expanded notions of democracy. Debates and divisions exploded social upheavals. The nation changed. Today, we continue to debate this history’s effects and significance. Students will learn about well-known leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, as well as obscure, but equally important figures, such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, and Whitney Young. To build on learning students gain in the AP Politics (Fall) course, this class will study the significance of key Supreme Court decisions (such as Brown v. Board of Education; and Regents of U. of California v. Bakke); pieces of national legislation (Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965); and Presidential administrations (F. Roosevelt through Reagan). Students will also learn about, and debate, social movement tactics and strategies; and liberal, conservative, and moderate approaches to social change. Throughout the class, students will gain deeper understandings of how race has shaped citizenship, equality, and democracy in the nation during the latter-half of the twentieth century.

  • 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.