A New Edition of Western History

The “West”—as the term is commonly used by historians, though there are many definitions of what it includes—is the geographic and cultural region that has been the center of most of world history. It has been the origin of major scientific breakthroughs and inventions, such as the steam engine and antibiotics. It has also been the source of major political movements, such as religious toleration and women’s suffrage. During the Age of Discovery and again in the 19th century during the Great Divergence, Western culture spread to other parts of the globe.

European society in the early modern period was shaped by a series of revolutionary changes: trade expanded; towns grew; printing came into use; and feudal power structures gave way to centralized monarchies. A distinct and rigorous way of looking at the world, called science, emerged. The combination of these developments enabled unparalleled technological advance and economic growth.

These changes also created a sense that “western civilization” was distinct from, and better than, other branches of civilization. It was a notion that would be reinforced during the heated era of imperialism in the 20th century.

In the modern era, western history has continued to be driven by technology and international politics. It has been shaped by major scientific discoveries, such as the theory of evolution and the discovery of nuclear fission, which have had profound implications for the future. It has also been shaped by social revolutions, such as the sexual revolution caused by the legalization of the contraceptive pill and Roe v. Wade and the growing influence of liberal views on premarital sex.

This new edition has introduced much material on the Middle East and gender history, stepping away from the traditional high-level political history approach to the volumes. The emphasis on gender and women’s history has required a shift from the overall political-history framework, but it also reflects the fact that these topics are not simply of secondary importance to the story of Western history.

Historians today are grappling with the question of how best to teach world history. One answer is to abandon the traditional narrative that emphasized the rise of the West (sometimes referred to as the “Occident,” from the Greek word for “east”). The new edition does not dismiss the genuine breakthroughs, accomplishments, and forms of progress that have occurred in the West—but it also abandons the pretense that all of human history has been a story of progress. The world is complex, and while some areas of it have improved their standard of living and understanding of the natural environment, others have remained mired in despotism and ignorance. This textbook tells the story of that complexity.

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