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Book Review


Kenneth R. Curtis and Jerry H. Bentley, eds., Architects of World History: Researching the Global Past. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. Pp. x + 254. Bibliography and Index. $41.95 (paper).


     In the past generation or so, the field of World History has seen significant change. The establishment of the World History Association in 1982, followed by its flagship Journal of World History, signaled a change in how historians might research and describe the world. The advent of the Advanced Placement course in World History in 2002 reflected an increased interest in the subject, especially as it became the fastest growing exam in AP. This mirrored a rapid rise in the number of other World History courses taught in high school as well as college. Western Civilization has slowly given way to World History in curricula, and even U.S. History, in the wake of work by Thomas Bender, is moving in a global direction.

     This book details the transformations undertaken by some of the key people in the World History movement. Edited by Kenneth Curtis, the first Chief Reader of the World History AP course, and by Jerry Bentley, arguably the best known world historian of our time, Architects of World History is an inside look at the subtle ways that the "New World History" has come about. The editors tell their own stories of discovery of World History, sandwiched around the intellectual autobiographies of seven other practitioners of the field.

     Until very recently, historians were not specifically trained in World History as a field, and truthfully much of the discipline is still wedded to the Area Studies model of research. Thus, all of the historians who tell their tale in this book have come to World History if not by accident then by second thought. The result is a magnificent collection of mini-autobiographies and thumbnail sketches of the major approaches that have created recent world historiography. World historical approaches through the lenses of gender, ecology, religion, and regional specialties such as Africa and East Asia are all well-crafted.

     The chapters are at once personal and theoretical. All of these historians tell of the "eureka" moments and gradual changes that formed them as world historians. In this short space, only a few highlights can be mentioned. David Christian explains his evolution to Big History, and J.R. McNeill spins tales about growing up with an earlier kingpin of World History, William McNeill. The younger McNeill notes that his "route to world history began from a privileged start. . . .I heard (even if I wasn't paying much attention) the gospel from a fervent believer and successful practitioner" (50). The collaboration between father and son produced The Human Web1and set J.R. on the road to World Environmental History. Kenneth Pomeranz, recent president of the American Historical Association, narrates his path to becoming an "accidental world historian" (91), peaking with the publication of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.2 Kerry Ward details the role of comparative history in her search for connections that resulted in Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company.3 With Jonathan Reynolds, Laura Mitchell, Ross Dunn and others, African history has assumed a key role in the world historical narrative. Mary Wiesner-Hanks (another AP Chief Reader) narrates her development as both a gender historian and a World historian, which emerged in response to departmental necessities in her early years. (Note to graduate students: declaring your fitness to teach world history can make the difference in obtaining employment.) Her chapter speaks as much about the rise of gender history overall, as well as the promise of further inclusion in the world history narrative. She notes that while research has been brisk on women's movements, colonialism, and migration in world history, on the other hand "studies of women, gender, and sexuality continue to be very unevenly distributed geographically, with the research on the United States still vastly outweighing that on anyone else" (75).

     For those of us who are involved in the World History Association or are participants in the AP World History Reading, the highlight of this book may well be the closing essay by Jerry Bentley. For readers who are not involved in these organizations, it would be difficult to overstate the impact that Jerry Bentley had on the field and, more importantly, on us as individuals. Jerry's untimely passing in 2012 was a tremendous blow to our field. He had been at work on his chapter for this book when he passed away after a brief illness. Thanks to his widow, Carol Mon Lee, and his friend, Alan Karras, this essay has been published as his final gift to World History. In there the reader will find his final thoughts about moving World History in a direction that brings in more cultural history, as he traces the development of his ideas about religious history from his childhood piety through rejection of organized religion in the university years, to a newfound appreciation of Italian Renaissance figures. The essay was left unfinished, and Karen Louise Jolly kindly authored a sequel in the voice of Jerry to complete the volume.

     The bookshelf that contains works covering recent World historiography is growing, though perhaps slower than the field itself. While there are other worthy treatments of the subject, Architects combines a personal and theoretical approach that is as eminently readable as it is memorable. Graduate students in World History will devour this text, with its personal narratives of the coming of age of World Historians, a process that they themselves participate in. Other scholars and teachers will benefit from these stories, as will upper division undergraduates enrolled in one of the many new seminars appearing in World historiography. But in the end, let us think of this book as an example of what we do best as historians: telling meaningful stories about people who learn to make a difference in the world. For that reason alone, this book is to be commended to a wide readership.

Rick Warner is chair of the History Department at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He has worked with the Advanced Placement World History course since 2003, and serves as President of the World History Association (2016-2017). He can be reached at



1 J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web (New York: Norton, 2003).

2 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

3 Kerry Ward, Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).



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