A Brief History of the World
A Brief History of the World
Professor Peter N. Stearns
THE TEACHING COMPANY ®
Peter N. Stearns, Ph.D.
Provost and Professor of History, George Mason University
Peter N. Stearns is Provost and Professor of History at George Mason
University, where he annually teaches a world history course for
undergraduates. He previously taught at the University of Chicago, Rutgers, and
Carnegie Mellon and was trained at Harvard University. While at Carnegie
Mellon, Professor Stearns won the Smith award for teaching in the College of
Humanities and Social Sciences and the Spencer award for excellence in
university teaching. He has worked extensively for the Advanced Placement
program and chaired the committee that devised and implemented the AP world
history course (1996–2006). Professor Stearns was Vice President of the
American Historical Association, heading its Teaching Division from 1995 to
1998. He also founded and still edits the Journal of Social History.
Trained in European social history, Professor Stearns has authored a wide array
of books and articles (on both Europe and the United States) on such subjects as
emotions, childrearing, dieting and obesity, old age, and work. He has also
written widely in world history, authoring two textbooks that have gone through
multiple editions. He edited the sixth edition of the Encyclopedia of World
History and is currently editing an Encyclopedia of Modern World History. He
has written several thematic studies in world history, including The Industrial
Revolution in World History (2nd ed., Westview, 1998), Gender in World
History (2nd ed., Routledge, 2006), Consumerism in World History (2nd ed.,
Routledge, 2006), Western Civilization in World History (Routledge, 2003), and
Childhood in World History (Routledge, 2005). His book Global Outrage: The
Evolution and Impact of World Opinion (OneWorld) appeared in 2005, and his
current interest in using history to understand contemporary patterns of behavior
is illustrated in American Fear (Routledge, 2006).
Professor Stearns was “converted” to world history more than two decades ago
and has taught it annually since then, first at Carnegie Mellon and currently at
George Mason. He believes that the framework of world history allows him to
learn a great deal about the world without degenerating into random detail and
helps his students to better understand the past and the present.
©2007 The Teaching Company. i
Table of Contents
A Brief History of the World
Lecture One What and Why Is World History?............................3
Lecture Two The Neolithic Revolution..........................................8
Lecture Three What Is a Civilization?............................................12
Lecture Four The Classical Period in World History...................18
Lecture Five Cultural Change in the Classical Period..................24
Lecture Six Social Inequalities in Classical Societies................29
Lecture Seven The Roman Empire and Han China........................34
Lecture Eight The Silk Road; Classical Period Contacts ..............38
Lecture Nine The Decline of the Classical Civilizations..............43
Lecture Ten The Postclassical Period, 500–1450 .......................48
Lecture Eleven World Religions and Their Consequences..............53
Lecture Twelve The Impact of Islam................................................58
Biographical Notes.....................................................................................Part II
ii ©2007 The Teaching Company.
A Brief History of the World
This course presents some of the highlights of the world historical approach to
the past, suggesting major changes in the framework of the human experience,
from the rise of agriculture to the present day. The lectures cover the emergence
of distinct major societies as they deal with common problems but generate
quite different institutional and cultural approaches. The course also discusses
key changes in belief systems—the emergence and spread of the great world
religions, for example—as well as alterations in trading patterns and basic shifts
in technology, exploring why some societies reacted differently to technological
change than others.
Throughout the course, we will look at many parts of the world, including those
clustered into shared civilizations. East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and
the Mediterranean loom large from the start. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the
human species originated, has also played a great role in world history, as
ultimately has northern Europe, including Russia. The Americas offer an
important variant until their incorporation in global patterns from 1492 onward.
Central Asia maintained a distinct position in world history until the 16th
World history divides into a limited number of time periods, defined in terms of
dominant themes. The rise of agriculture requires a discussion of pre-
agricultural patterns. Following agriculture came, in several places, the advent
of civilization as a form of human organization. The classical period in world
history draws attention to China, India, Persia, and the Mediterranean, when the
expansion and integration of these large societies dominated over a millennium
of human history. The collapse of the classical empires ushered in a vital
postclassical period, when emphasis shifted to religion but also to more
ambitious patterns of interregional trade. It was in this postclassical period
(500–1500 CE) that the emphasis of major societies shifted from separate
development to greater interaction and even deliberate imitation. The early
modern period highlights a renewed capacity for empire, the inclusion of the
Americas in global systems, and—though this must be handled with a bit of
care—the rise of Western Europe. What some historians call the “Long 19th
Century”—1750 or so to 1914—was dominated by Western industrialization
and its economic, military, and cultural impact on, literally, the entire world.
Finally, the contemporary period in world history, after World War I, features a
bewildering variety of themes that must be sorted out, with emphasis among
other things on the relative decline of the West, the huge surge in human
population, and the potential for greater globalization.
World history highlights a number of major regions, but it avoids simply
examining one area after another—“if it’s Tuesday, this must be Latin
America”—by making careful comparisons and focusing on interregional
©2007 The Teaching Company. 1
contacts. The discipline emphasizes a number of key time periods (though not
an indefinite number), defined in terms of basic changes in the ways many
societies operated, whether the change was in an economic system—
industrialization, for example—or a cultural system, as seen, for example, in the
emergence of vigorous missionary religions.
World history also embraces two common themes. First, and most obviously, is
the eternal tension between change and continuity—the stuff of history as a
discipline. Particularly once the classical traditions are defined, world history
can be seen in terms of new forces being met and interpreted by established
cultural and institutional systems. Of course, these systems change but never
completely and never in exactly the same ways from one society to the next.
The second theme involves a perpetual interplay between local or regional
identities, on the one hand, and the attraction or simple inevitability of wider
contacts, on the other. Societies began trading at long distances several
millennia ago. They received immigrants and diseases and, sometimes, ideas
from distant places. But they rarely, at least willingly, simply surrendered to
outside influence, and sometimes they battled fiercely against such influence in
the name of established values. Over time, of course, and particularly with
contemporary globalization, the pendulum shifted toward more outside
influence, either willingly embraced or endured of necessity. But the tension has
not ended, and assertions of regional identities can intensify precisely because
the external framework is so intrusive. World history allows us to trace the main
iterations of this tension and to place its current iteration in context—and even,
tentatively, to talk about its future.
2 ©2007 The Teaching Company.
What and Why Is World History?
Scope: World history has been gaining ground rapidly as a teaching field over
the past 20 years, although studies in this discipline also encounter
objections, including questions about feasibility. The field advances
because of the growing need for historical perspective on global
relationships and cultural differences around the world, because of
changing political demands among American students, and because
world history scholarship itself improves, particularly for certain time
periods, highlighting a number of interesting findings and
interpretations. World history also unsettles certain kinds of
assumptions, particularly about the longstanding superiority of Western
values and experiences. The field requires careful choice of focus; even
though it concerns the whole world, it does not encompass everything.
Three overlapping approaches define the real heart of the world history
enterprise: comparison, contact, and global forces. Each of these
approaches reminds us that world history is not just, or primarily, a list
of facts but an invitation to use facts in historical analysis and to ask
and answer key questions about the human experience.
I. The rise of world history has been one of the most important developments
in American history education and scholarship over the past two decades.
II. There are three major approaches to world history—usually applied in
combination—that help scholars decide what topics to focus on.
A. The first approach involves studying major civilizations to determine
how they developed and how they helped define the experience of
many people in societies around the world. This approach brings major
civilizations together to compare what they share and how they differ.
B. The second approach involves paying attention to cases where major
societies, including civilizations, come into contact with each other.
Scholars look at how this contact occurs and how it changes both
parties, using this information as a framework to explore far-reaching
changes in the experience of peoples around the world.
C. The third approach emphasizes the emergence of broader forces that
help define contacts and the experiences of individual civilizations.
Such forces include new trade or migration patterns, new disease
patterns, and new missionary efforts.
D. These three approaches are usually used in combination.
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III. These three approaches help us define key time periods in world history.
A. The time periods, in turn, are often delineated by changes in patterns of
contact or changes in broader forces, such as the diffusion of new
technologies or the emergence of new trade patterns.
B. The time periods we will look at in this course are as follows: classical
(1000 BCE–500 CE), postclassical (500−1450), early modern (1450
CE–1750/1800 CE), Long 19th Century (1750–1914), and
IV. The rise of world history as an academic discipline has been unusual in
A. World history emerged more as a teaching field than as a research
B. World history did not develop initially at the most prestigious
universities in the United States.
C. The field of world history is not evenly developed around the world.
1. A great deal of progress has been made in the United States, and
interesting work has been done in China and Japan.
2. A few European countries, such as the Netherlands, have
developed significant world history programs.
3. But the United Kingdom, although it contributes important
scholarship to world history, has yet to introduce the topic in its
V. Three factors fuel the increasing interest in world history.
A. The first factor involves changes in the composition of the American
student body. A growing number of students in American universities
come from backgrounds that are not American, and there is a demand
for teaching that reflects this diversity.
B. The second factor is the extent to which the United States, since the
1950s, has become engaged with the non-European world. This
engagement logically propels us to look for a historical perspective that
gives us some context for understanding the world at large, rather than
one important but narrow slice of it.
C. The world history perspective can be used to gain a better
understanding of crucial historical events and processes.
VI. We also need to look at the debate surrounding the idea of teaching world
A. World history inevitably challenges older teaching approaches,
particularly the tradition of Western civilization. This continues to
generate disputes between world history advocates and traditionalists.
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1. The Western civilization tradition traces a line of historical
development from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece and
Rome, then on to Western Europe, and ultimately, to North
2. This approach asserts that because the United States is part of the
Western tradition, its students should pay particular attention to the
emergence of Western institutions and values.
B. Some world historians approach the teaching of world history as an
exercise in “West-bashing,” but others take a more considered position:
it is more important for American students to learn something about the
world as a whole, including how the West fits into larger world
patterns, than it is to learn about the Western tradition more narrowly.
1. World historians also argue that the opportunity to learn how the
West developed, its distinctive features, and its contributions to the
global experience is not lost in the study of world history as
opposed to Western civilization.
2. The choice of world history in a teaching program involves a
different set of emphases from the Western civilization tradition.
Scholars of world history seek to avoid the “West-and-the-rest”
approach, which focuses on the Western experience with brief
mentions of other societies. The more thoughtful approach looks at
Western civilization as one of a number of major civilizations—
and not always the most important one.
C. A second concern about the teaching of world history, raised
particularly by historians of East Asian civilizations, is that the field
cannot adequately convey the complexities of individual traditions.
Chinese history, for example, is so nuanced and complex that it is
inevitably simplified if taught as only one part of a broader course.
D. The third objection, raised recently as some Europeans have attempted
to insert themselves into a world history framework, is that the field is
somehow yet another product of American imperialism.
1. To some extent, this objection seems to coincide with criticisms of
American foreign policy.
2. It may also reflect an understandable anxiety that American world
historians would slight the European experience, although most
world historians in the United States make an effort to deal
evenhandedly with the experiences of various societies.
VII. In terms of chronology in world history, we need to be aware of three
kinds of emphases.
A. The first is the emphasis on origins. In the world history context, this
approach pays greater attention to the emergence of human societies,
sometimes at the expense of more recent developments.
©2007 The Teaching Company. 5
B. The second approach acknowledges that the greatest contributions of
world history scholarship to our understanding of the past apply
particularly to the postclassical period (roughly 500–1450) and the time
right after the early modern period.
C. The final approach—and the one we will use—views both the early
and middle phases of world history as contributing to an active modern
period and uses the modern period, in turn, to help understand the
world in the present day.
VIII. Let us look at an overall framework and a few final definitions for the
A. World historians, like any analytically sensitive historians, are
interested in the balance and tensions between change and continuity.
1. At times, world history seems to focus particularly on changes, but
we will also pay attention to continuities among human societies.
2. The civilizational approach will help us track continuities and
traditions in juxtaposition with new elements in the global
B. We will also look at the tension between developments and identities
formed in particular localities or regions and the advantages of contact
and exposure to crosscutting forces.
1. We will see that up until about 1,000 years ago, the human
experience probably placed more emphasis on the local and the
regional than on contact and broader forces.
2. For the past 1,000 years up to today, the human experience places
more emphasis on contact and crosscutting forces and less
emphasis on local and regional developments and identities, but
the tension between the two elements is always present.
C. This course will look primarily at seven civilizational/geographic areas:
East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East (and, later, the
Middle East and North Africa), Eastern Europe, Western Europe, sub-
Saharan Africa, and Latin America.
D. We will use BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) as
our main chronological divides.
1. This terminology replaces the traditional use of BC (before Christ)
and AD (anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”) in world history.
2. This convention steers us away from the Christian definitions used
in Western-focused history and reminds us that we are operating in
a global environment.
E. We will see different reasons for the choices of certain dates to mark
1. World historians conventionally end the postclassical period
around 1450 CE, then pick up the early modern period.
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2. The year 1450 CE has some relationship to the Renaissance and
the Reformation, major periods in traditional Western history, but
the year also relates to important developments in the Middle East
and North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, and in the
relationship between the Americas and the rest of the world.
Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past.
David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.
Peter N. Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart Schwartz, and Marc Jason Gilbert, World
Civilizations: The Global Experience, 5th ed.
Gerald Danzer, Atlas of World History.
Questions to Consider:
1. Why does world history seem anti-Western to some? Is this a rift that can
2. One world historian once proclaimed that the field depended on a key
principle: dare to omit. But what criteria can world historians use to decide
what to omit? Are some parts of the world less important than others? Are
some periods of time less vital than others? Can the three basic approaches
to world history help deal with the decisions on what to omit?
©2007 The Teaching Company. 7
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