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A Brief History of the World

223 Pages · 2007 · 826 KB · English

  • A Brief History of the World




    A Brief History of the World


    Part I



    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


    Part I



    Professor Biography...........................................................................................i


    Course Scope......................................................................................................1


    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


    Timeline............................................................................................................63


    Glossary............................................................................................................69


    Biographical Notes.....................................................................................Part II


    Bibliography..............................................................................................Part III







    ii ©2007 The Teaching Company.


    A Brief History of the World



    Scope:


    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


    century.


    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.


    Lecture One



    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.



    Outline


    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.



    ©2007 The Teaching Company. 3


    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


    contemporary.


    IV. The rise of world history as an academic discipline has been unusual in


    several respects.


    A. World history emerged more as a teaching field than as a research


    field.


    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


    educational programs.


    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


    history.


    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.


    4 ©2007 The Teaching Company.


    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


    America.


    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


    course.


    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


    framework.


    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


    specific periods.


    1. World historians conventionally end the postclassical period


    around 1450 CE, then pick up the early modern period.


    6 ©2007 The Teaching Company.


    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.



    Further Reading:


    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


    be healed?


    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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