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Research and Teaching

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.

Lexington High School, Massachusetts

This is a new column that plans to provide suggestions on incorporating new research into the world history survey. Monographs, articles and presentations will be considered that provide easy access to new scholarship and that provide the potential for classroom application at the secondary and college level. The hope is that this column will suggest content strategies and not merely be an additional book review. The impetus for suggestions comes in part from the author's world history book club which meets bi-monthly in the Boston Metro area. The book club began following the closing of the Northeastern World History Center as a means for teachers to continue to connect around world history scholarship. For more information, email 1
    As a high school world history teacher, one of the rarest commodities I have is time to keep up with new scholarship given the grading, the numbers, the paperwork and then that whole world beyond the classroom. However, world history is such a new field where there are so many exciting debates that it is professionally negligent to not do so. The Journal of World History and World History Connected both provide great avenues into new research as does attendance at the annual W.H.A. meeting. Additionally, monographs are often published which both present new research as well as synthesize the status of the field. A book by Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (2002) does an excellent job of providing a brief and accessible historiographical overview of recent economic and environmental research on why the west rose.
     The book is valuable as a wonderful synthesis of recent scholarship on Rise of the West literature with an economic and ecological focus. It uses global historical context to address most of the issues addressed in the Modern World History course. The book could be used for teacher background, used selectively for all levels, or in its entirety as a review book at the end of the AP world history course. The book takes on a global scope but especially pays attention to Europe, China, and India from 1400 to 1900. While the topic is dense, the treatment is accessible to strong readers at the high school and college levels. Most intriguing perhaps was the idea to write a sequel which focuses on resistance to the modern world. This would be truly helpful in the field.
     Marks uses the recent scholarship of Andre Gunder Frank and Ken Pomeranz, as well as others, to raise questions such as:
  • How did industrial and European-style countries called nation-states—rather than highly developed agrarian empires like China and India—come to define our world?
  • How has the gap between the rich and poor increased?
  • How and why have European ways of organizing the world come to dominate the globe?
  • Was the Rise of the West a temporary blip?
Consider having your students read over the following quotes from the book. Following that, what observations can they make about how and why the world is changing over time? What global processes can they identify that are instrumental in understanding why these changes are occurring?
"In the space of just 200 years, the world has seen a great reversal of fortune: where once Asians held most of the economic cards, today it is primarily Western countries and Japan." (p. 2) 6
"The Chinese, for example, had a long history of contact with these kinds of people [nomads], and in fact had come to classify them into two groups the "cooked," those willing to accept some of the trappings of Chinese civilization, and the "raw," those who were not." 7
"During those 1100 years [650 – 1750], the Indian Ocean was arguably the single most important crossroads of trade and generator of merchant wealth in the world…" (p. 49) 8
"… some Asian rulers of coastal trading cities responded [to the introduction of European armed trade] by walling their territories and purchasing their own cannons and guns…. In Acheh…the Islamic ruler in the early 1500's built a formidable navy for the dual purpose of running the Portuguese blockade and capturing their ships and arms. Later, in the 1500s, through its contacts with the Ottoman Empire, Acheh imported several large and well-made Ottoman guns, sufficient not just to defend themselves from the Portuguese, but to threaten Portuguese-controlled Malacca. Portuguese armed trading may have altered much in the Indian Ocean, but dar-al-Islam continued to limit what Europeans could and could not do in the world." (p. 63) 9
"Where previously there had been several "worlds" in the world—the Chinese world, the Indian Ocean world, the Mediterranean world, and the Americas, as yet unknown to Europeans, Asians, or Europeans—after 1500 two new links drew the entire globe into a single world for the first time." (p. 67) 10
"By 1700, then, England had a government that, in the words of one British historian, 'was prepared to subordinate all foreign policy to economic ends.'" (p. 88) 11
"In 1775, Asia produced about 80% of everything in the world, probably an increase from 1500. In other words, two-thirds of the world's population—Asians—produced four-fifths of the world's goods. Seen from another perspective, Europeans, at one-fifth of the world's population in 1775, shared production of one-fifth of the world's goods with Africans and Americans. Asia thus had the most productive economies in the three centuries after 1500." (p. 81) 12
"Indeed, India around 1700 was the largest exporter of cotton textiles in the world and supplied textiles not just to meet English demand, but throughout the world as well. Southeast Asia, east and west Africa, the Middle East, and Europe were major export markets, in addition to the large domestic Indian market. No wonder that the demand for Indian cotton in the eighteenth century was 'greater than all the weavers in the country can manufacture' and that India accounted for fully one quarter of the world manufacturing output in 1750." (pp. 96- 97) 13
"It was as if the British had subjugated the Indian peninsula simply in order to use its resources against China." (p. 117) 14
"By 1900, India accounts for barely 2% of world manufacturing output, China about 7%, while Europe alone claims 60% and the United States 20%." (p. 123) 15
"Without opium … there probably would have been no British empire." (p. 130) 16
"Interactions among various parts of the world account for most of the story of the making of the modern world, not the cultural achievements of any one part. Indeed those achievements are not understandable except in a global context. The whole—in this case the world and its modern history—thus is greater than the sum of its parts." (p. 155) 17
"It seems to me that pentimento is an apt metaphor for exploring the patterns of change and continuity in world history. If we think of the pattern of world history being composed of two primary layers, the first is a picture of a world in which Asia shines most brightly, as it did from 1400 to about 1800. That picture, though, was covered up over the past two hundred years by a new one depicting the rise of the west. Now though that second painting is beginning to fade and elements of the first one—the wealth and power of Asia are again beginning to show through, reasserting some of the world's previous patterns, though in new contexts and with important variations." (p. 159) 18
     It is impossible to summarize a book of course with a page of quotes but in using just these statements with my own high school sophomores last spring (in addition to the Stokes article listed below), they were able to make some very interesting conclusions about the rise of the west. This resulted in a fascinating historiographical discussion which dealt with diverse interpretations and points of view. In addition, students brought up topics as varied as the role of Population growth and decline, the Indian Ocean trade, the rise of capitalism, southernization, the spread of Islam, imperial expansion, the Columbian exchange, disease, plantation economies, trans-Atlantic slave trade, Weber's Protestant work ethic, tools of empire, industrialization, and globalization. Marks effectively addresses all of these processes in addition to many more as he provides his narrative of recent world history. 19

If students are interested in further pursuing the Rise of the West in recent scholarship, there are many possibilities.

  • David Landes/ Andre Gunder Frank Debate. Transcript available at
  • David Buck, "Was it Pluck or Luck That Made the West Grow Rich?" Journal of World History (Fall 1999) is a combined review of three "Rise of the West" books including ReOrient (Frank), Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Landes) and China Transformed (R. Bin Wong).
  • Gail Stokes, "The Fates of Human Societies, A Review of Macrohistories," The American Historical Review 106:2 (April 2001).
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence (2000).


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