The Backwards Survey

Here’s a second concept course, though the idea is neither new nor mine, and maybe it’s not really a concept course if several people have done it. Still, I would really like to try this someday.

The Backwards Survey

Every single event is the offspring not of one, but of all other events prior or contemporaneous … it is an ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements. And this Chaos, boundless as the habitation and duration of man, unfathomable as the soul and destiny of man, is what the historian will depict, and scientifically gauge, we may say, by threading it with single lines of a few ells in length!
–Thomas Carlyle, “On History”

Annette Atkins described this idea in the AHA’s Perspectives several years ago, and Kenneth Hermann has apparently been doing this for some time too: teaching a history survey course backwards. (Kevin Drum blogged about the idea also, mentioning a high school teacher in Nebraska who was expressly prohibited by his school board from teaching this way.)

Here’s how it works. In week one, you start with the present, maybe by discussing some obvious recent event, or by brainstorming with the class a list of contemporary issues and problems that you care about and want to try to explain (I like the way Atkins’ piece describes this initial step.) That first week ends with the question: what do we need to know about the immediate past to understand this present? The students’ homework is to look into the immediate history of the issues and events the class has flagged, and come to their next class prepared to talk about them. In week two, you repeat the process for that recent past. What do we need to know about the deeper past to understand these events? In week three, you go a little further back. And every subsequent week you travel further backwards in time.

This isn’t just a cute trick. As Hermann’s essay points out, it only makes sense for teachers to begin with the known and move to the unknown. Yet history courses violate this principle all the time. Teaching backwards begins with our students, with what they know and care about most. Yes, it is an unabashedly presentist approach, but I’m not sure that’s a terrible crime. And is it any more presentist than turning all history into a narrative that leads inexorably up to us?

Hermann and Atkins both say that their students were not confused by going backwards. On the contrary, they seemed able to grasp more complex patterns and causal relationships than they did in traditional history surveys. You could argue that starting from the present isn’t actually “backwards” at all, it’s natural and instinctive. The deep past is more distant than the recent past. It takes longer to get there.

Atkins and Hermann also reported greater student interest and enthusiasm. Going backwards, each week’s history is a puzzle to piece together. It gets the students asking, “Why did this happen?” and “What happened before?” Which are, I think, more compelling questions, and more intrinsic to the real work of historians than, “What happened next?” It’s not like you can ever generate much suspense on the latter score anyway. (Cue Edna Krabappel as the last bell of the school year rings: “Children, wait! I didn’t tell you how World War II ended!”)

Atkins warns, “the point isn’t to convince the students that they stand at the bottom of a funnel, the inevitable result of all that has gone before, but the reverse.” And this may be what interests me most about this idea. Because the backwards survey course shouldn’t just be a pre-written textbook read back to front. As any event you care to talk about will have a myriad of contributing causes, predecessors, and contexts, you cannot know when the class begins exactly where it will end. The professor’s homework each week is to get out ahead of the students–which is to say, behind–to track upstream in the directions that interested them, the questions raised and the places discussion went in class. Of course the professor has considerable ability to shape and direct discussion, to open or close avenues of inquiry that look more or less fruitful. But part of making this course work would be remaining open to contingency, and shifting some responsibility for direction onto the class itself. The ultimate goal of the backwards survey is not coverage but what Lendol Calder calls “uncoverage“, enlisting students in the undertaking of digging up history, of looking backwards and asking, “why?”


  1. I’ve always been a fan of James Burke’s “Juxtapose” presentation where he’s like “Here’s this very modern thing, the whole reason it’s here is because of those 12th Century monks over here. Allow me to connect the dots here…

    [thirty minutes later]

    …and that’s why you can send a text message to anyone around the world. Thanks monks!”

    Totally the way to link science and history together, totally fun guy.

  2. I love this concept (and Burke’s connections have always been one of my favourites too.)

    Perhaps this could be introduced very early in education, so that people start to understand that what happened in history has a real connection to the way things are now.

  3. An interesting example of this in book form is Philip Longworth The Making of Eastern Europe, an introduction to the region that starts at the time of writing (1990s) and ends a couple thousand years earlier. I found it a very helpful approach when most of what I knew about Eastern Europe was 20th century history.

  4. Geoffery Barraclough’s “Introduction to Contemporary History” is a must read in this context – His definition of “contemporary” in histroy is roughly “how far back do you need to go to find the historical roots of the the world today”

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