Teaching the complexity point in AP World

The AP history complexity point, which many teachers call the “unicorn” point, can be frustrating to teach and assess; especially considering AP exam data shows how rarely it is awarded to students. However, teaching it is still possible, adds value to student learning, and can be an opportunity for fun in the classroom.

Throughout the year I have a list of topics that I call “guaranteed complexity points.” The guarantee is, of course, very relative to how well the students use the concept in the context of a DBQ or LEQ. The topics on my list have been selected because they are at least a little bit interesting, encourage synthesis and big picture thinking, roughly align to the key concepts of the CED, and sometimes lend themselves to a bit of humor.

If students earn the complexity point on an in-class DBQ or LEQ, I give them a unicorn eraser as a reward. They come in multiple colors and students are encouraged to collect a set over the course of the year. Non-teachers may laugh, but veteran teachers are very aware of how successful the dumbest and silliest things can be with high schoolers. When combined with other general thinking and writing strategies, the complexity point becomes an achievable goal for many students, a point of pride for a handful of the high achievers, and a good laugh and class builder for all of them.

Now…on to some examples of my guaranteed complexity points. These are not all of them, just two of my favorites that illustrate how opportunities for complexity can be easily integrated into instruction, align to the CED, and are inspired by a general engagement with history beyond the strict confines of the curriculum.

Asabiyyah a.k.a. Social Cohesion

The concept (and word) asabiyyah is originally from 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun. However, I came across the concept some time ago in a fascinating book by Peter Turchin, a scientist turned macro-historian, titled War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. Essentially, he argues that asabiyyah, or social cohesion, is a necessary pre-condition for the rise of empires. Social cohesion is gained through long-term struggle and conflict against a common enemy, the kind that occurs along, what he calls, “meta-ethnic frontiers.” Examples of meta-ethnic frontiers would be the border between agrarian Chinese civilization and nomadic central Asian society or the border between the Roman Empire and the various Germanic tribes. These are not just borders between states, but borders between groups,civilizations, or societies with very different ways of life. Turchin tests his hypothesis throughout the book, using it to explain the rise of most major empires in world history. As a founder in the field of cliodynamics, he also claims to use statistical analysis and mathematical modeling to predict history. He has other books that go deeper in this direction and cover US history as well.

The concept is accessible and easily applied in the context of the AP World course. I usually introduce it during unit 2 when I teach about the Mongols, and return to it frequently in Units 3 and 4 as we compare and contrast land-based and sea-based empires. As a pre-condition of empire, the concept of social cohesion fits easily within the curriculum. It also gives a framework to make insightful and significant comparisons across space and time, one of the goals of World History as a methodology.

I highly recommend Turchin’s book for an insightful example of macro history. He also has a website that offers a preview of his ideas and their applications to both World and US history, linked here. I have even had one enterprising student read the book themselves after the first time I mentioned it. Its easy for students to think of history as a subject in which its easy to get lost in a sea of meaningless details that are seemingly detached from each other. One of the aspects of the AP World course I like is the way it approaches history from above, organizing key concepts, trends, and patterns within which illustrative examples provide the detailed content. Asabiyyah fits into this approach perfectly. Although, I do coach students not to use the word asabiyyah in their writing, preferring the term social cohesion or social solidarity for the benefit of the exam reader.

The “Blue Banana” Theory

I don’t remember where I first came across the “Blue Banana” theory. It was likely in one of the many books on the Dutch Golden Age that I read while working on my Masters. I have used it for some time to help explain the rise of Western Europe in the early-modern era and the significance of urbanization and economic policy to state development.

Here is my oversimplified explanation of it. Northern Italy was one of the first regions of Europe to see significant trends of urbanization near the end of the Middle Ages. This was in part the result of the Crusades and increasing levels of trade which northern Italian city-states were able to monopolize. Urbanization meant greater wealth, greater willingness to challenge social and cultural norms, and increased economic capacity of local governments. These trends helped spark and sustain the Renaissance. However, the Italian city-states failed to unite politically or use their advantage to build larger states.

Eventually, the commercial power associated with urbanization shifted to the Netherlands. The Dutch advantage (of which many historians have written) led to a shift of power away from northern Italy to Northern Europe. The cities of low country united, forming the Dutch Republic, their high levels of urbanization giving the Dutch government one of the highest tax bases in Europe at the time. When combined with their financial innovations, the Netherlands was able to punch above their weight in wars with England and France and establish a significant sea-based trading empire. There is also value in mentioning the connection or urbanization to democratization; that cities lead to the breakdown of class distinctions between noble and commoner that dominated other areas of Europe. When England got a Dutch king in 1689, the English state was apply to take many of the Dutch advantages, applying them better and at a larger scale thanks to the greater population, greater amount of resources, and burgeoning American colonial empire.

The significance of urbanization, state centralization, and the role of financial innovation and the transition from mercantilism to capitalism can be applied later in AP World, through units 5 and 6. A particularly clever student might also find a way to make connections to globalization in unit 9. Regardless, it exposes students to macro-history and helps show how details can be connected into larger theories that help explain long-term development that is applicable to contemporary times.

Further Reading

Showing complex thinking is more than just throwing a cool idea into a DBQ or LEQ conclusion; The argument itself needs to show depth of understanding. There are a range of guideposts and frameworks I like to use to help students get to this point in their thinking and writing. Many of these can be found in poster form on my resources page. Quite a few have been adapted from The Big Six by Peter Seixas.

I also think it is valuable for history teachers to read history. I enjoy bringing ideas and content into the course that I discovered through my own interests in history. If nothing else, it models an inquiry mindset and general passion for learning. Below is a short list of books that I have both enjoyed reading and have found their way into my teaching. These are in no particular order. Some of have been recent reads over the last couple years and some have survived as part of my teaching since I finished my Masters.

The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World by Linda Colley

The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders by Jacob Needleman

Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age by Harold Cook

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World by Thomas F. Madden

Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 by J.R. McNeill

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