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Outline- World History text




The study of World History has only recently reentered college curriculum in any meaningful way. Although for decades now, the history programs of American colleges have been trying to reverse the traditional Eurocentricism of the curriculum by offering a broader range of non-European history courses, it has only been in the last decade that the notion of trying to understand the history of the world in any sort of wholistic form has taken hold again. One problem with World History as a topic is, as always has been, the shear size of the subject. No one can be an expert on all the peoples, cultures and civilizations potentially to be studied, nor can anyone hope to master the all the languages necessary to do real historical research based on primary sources. Moreover, no year-long survey can possibly do justice to all the various peoples, cultures or civilizations that have inhabited the earth over the last five thousand year. Thus any world history survey has to be approached with the following caveats: 1) no professor who offers a world history survey can claim to be an “expert” on all aspects of the course, and thus will be stronger on some aspects of the course than on others; and 2) every world history survey will necessarily leave out a lot of possible topics, and will give only relatively superficial coverage to those it does contain. Given these limitations, why then has there been a rebirth in the study of world history? What could courses with such serious limitations offer students?

The simple answer to the latter question is “perspective.” Since World War II , the study of history in the United States had come increasingly to focus on narrower and narrower topics, particularly as one moved further into the modern period. As the amount of available data increased with the growth of printing, the building of libraries, the spread of literacy, the evolution of record-keeping bureaucracies, and the eventual development of other kinds of storage media, historians were increasingly becoming experts not on broad periods, such as the Renaissance, or even the nineteenth century, but on “Vienna from 1880-1890” and other such narrow specialties. This kind of immersion in the minutia of smaller places in limited time frames fed the criticisms of historical study, especially that which questions the relevance of studying history. The problem with emphasizing “micro-history” to the exclusion of  larger scale, or macro-history, is that students learn only fragmented bits of often highly specific information which they are unable to place in any larger frame of reference. History in such a form often seems to consist of disconnected facts and minutae of questionable relevance to anyone’s life. This issue grows even larger as our history curriculum has expanded to include much more non-traditional areas of study. If the study of ancient Greece, or late nineteenth century Vienna seems irrelevant to modern American students, how are they to feel about studying Tokugawa Japan or modern Africa? Our survey courses then, particularly World History, provide a framework in which we can connect the histories of the peoples of the world through time and space. This function is becoming increasingly important as our world is becoming increasingly connected. It is becoming more and more necessary that we have some understanding, not only of our own history, but of that of other peoples.

History is also the best academic way to encounter the cultures of the world. Through World History we can obtain rudimentary acquaintance with the cultural diversity of the world, and with some of the basic cultural characteristics of many of the major cultural traditions of the world. While no one can leave a survey class claiming to understand fully another culture, such a survey can make significant contributions to learning about other cultures. Of course, the other side of that coin is the issue of globalization.

While deep cultural differences still differentiate various parts of the world from one another, talk of a global culture is heard more frequently now than ever before. The business, government, finance, and manufacturing sectors of cities around the world look surprisingly similar. Technologies are similarly shared from one side of the world to the other. A second task of the world history survey is to outline the development and basic characteristics of this global culture.

This text then has three main objectives. We want to provide a kind of thematic unity that will provide a way to link the histories of Europe, Africa and Asia from 1500 A.D to the present. At the same time we will try to provide sufficient discussion of these separate histories to highlight the unique cultures of some of the world’s great civilizations in this period. Finally, this text has been constructed with the goal in mind of supplying the historical narrative needed to facilitate reading the primary sources required in this class.


For the first objective we are going to work with themes a preeminent world historian,  Leften Stavrianos. Stavrianos wrote to examine the question of how and why western civilization came to dominate much of the world by the early twentieth century. While this topic is not new, in many ways it is still a problem we struggle with. As recently as 1997 this same question was revisited by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.  His concern with this question is expressed in quasi-racial terms: Why had the white man come to own all the cargo? Diamond went to great lengths to dispel ethnic or racial explanations for the success of western Europeans and their culture. Instead, Diamond saw geographic circumstances as largely determining the “fates of human societies.” On the other hand, the issues of cultural conflict around the world- take for instance the current “culture wars” expressed in the jihad against the west by radical Islamicists, are in effect expressions of resistance to the real or perceived dominance of the West and its culture around the world. Thus this question is still very much alive. Stavrianos’s schema of cultural evolution in world history will be the backbone of the course. According to Stavrianos, human societies evolved from kinship groups (mostly hunters and gatherers) to tributary societies (Mostly monarchies ruling over societies dominated by a small elite. This was the dominant form of human social organization from circa 3000 B.C. to after 1500 A.D). The third stage in this social evolution was the development of capitalist society. This new social form evolved in Western Europe after 1500 A.D. Europe’s head-start with this new, powerful type of society, combined with capitalism’s uniquely potent capacity for both creativity and destruction propelled Europe to dominance over the rest of the world by the twentieth century. 

On this foundation we will work to fill out the rather sparse picture of cultural and historical development Stavrianos gives us. We will examine broad questions of tradition and change in human societies, as well as questions of how cultures interact with one another. Both this text and the book of primary source readings serve these ends.

European historiography has long seen the Renaissance as a clear indication of the beginnings of the emergence of a new, “modern” European civilization as distinguished from the earlier “Dark Ages” of the medieval period. Convention has often used 1500 A.D. as a convenient date to mark the movement from medieval to early modern Europe. This common convention also serves us in the study of World History in as much as for Stavrianos this new “modern” Europe being born circa 1500 was in fact the new type of human social organization, the capitalist society. Indeed, we will work with the argument that the changes underway in or around 1500 A.D. in Europe portended massive changes in the long established balance between the world’s great civilizations. Although the imbalance in Europe’s favor was not to become obvious everywhere until centuries later, with the gift of hindsight we can observe the process of change that would ultimately affect virtually every society in the world.

However, no one in 1500 could have predicted the kinds of changes that would sweep the world in the next five hundred years. In that year, Europe was still looked upon as something of a cultural backwater. It was, in relative terms, a region of  squabbling, violent, petty states. Its cities were small, dirty, and dangerous compared to the cities of China and the Islamic world, and even compared to some of the great cities of North Africa and the Pre-Columbian Native Americans. Europe was relatively poor, and its manufactures were viewed with disdain in other parts of the world. For the previous thousand years Europe had struggled to return to a level of civilization equivalent to its mighty predecessor, the Roman Empire. It  would be difficult to argue that it had reached that level by 1500 A.D.; certainly, Europe was not viewed by others at that time as possessing a civilization equal in sophistication and depth to the other great civilizations of either the past, or the contemporary worlds. Much of this course will focus on the shift in this relationship. How and why did a relatively poor, weak, and uncivilized region  such as Europe not only evolve to compete with the India, China, and others, but to surpass them in many areas by 1800? Of course, states and civilizations have always be subject to cycles of advance and retreat, rise and fall, flowering and stagnation. What has been different in the last five hundred years has been the ability of the West to dominate the entire world, and the apparent failure of any other civilization to achieve parity on its own terms. Thus when we speak of weaknesses or failures in other civilizations in this course, we are speaking primarily in terms of how these factors affected the civilization’s relationship with the West in the modern period.

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Our text will focus on the great civilizations of the Eurasian continent. China, India, the Islamic world of North Africa and the Middle East, and the civilization of western and central Europe will command most of our attention. Japan will be the only “secondary” civilization to be discussed in any detail. African societies and civilizations will receive cursory  attention throughout the text. While we will briefly survey Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, the subsequent history of the Americas is subsumed under the umbrella of Western civilization and thus will appear in the text only where developments in the “New World” reflect (of affect) the general trends under discussion here. For the sake of space and clarity of theme many parts of the world will not be discussed directly or at all in this work.  Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe can both claim independent cultural heritages, and perhaps even civilizations. However, for our purposes these regions are seen as outliers of the Western European and Chinese (and earlier, Indian) civilizations. The peoples of the South Pacific will not be covered here.  

Part I of the text will survey developments in the world between roughly 1500 and 1800 A.D. Part II will take the discussion up to World War II. The text will conclude with a brief discussion of the world since 1945.


Part I.   The World, 1500-1800 A.D.


The Islamic World, 1500-1800.


Emerging out of Arabia in the seventh century A.D., the religion of Islam swept across North Africa and the Middle East with stunning rapidity carried by victorious Arab armies which overran much of the surviving Eastern Roman empire in North Africa and the Middle East, and which destroyed the Sassanid Empire in Persia. Over the next eight hundred years, Islam not only rooted itself successfully in the lands of the early Arab conquests, but continued to expand west and southwest into North Africa, down the East coast of Africa, as well as east into India, western Asia, southeast Asia and into the East Indies. By the time of the European explorations the Islamic world stretched from the west coast of Africa to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and included the Balkans in southeast Europe. The new Arab and Islamic influences were rapidly grafted onto the existing cultures of the conquered areas. Thus over the next several centuries these new cultural elements melded with the great civilizations the Arabs conquered- the Greco-Roman culture, Persian (both of which included foundation stones from the even more ancient Middle Eastern civilizations which preceded them), and much later Indian civilizations. Even as the Arabs solidified and developed their polit