A New Narrative of World History

A traditional narrative of world history places a central role on the rise of Western Europe as a dominant global power from the 15th century. During this period of enlightenment and exploration, Europeans built a complex interplay between politics, economics and culture that helped them achieve this status.

But this narrative is flawed and in need of serious revision. It ignores the enormous civilizations and empires shaped by Asia, Africa, Latin America and India, which often lagged behind and were blighted by war, poverty and famine. It also makes no sense of the fact that, in many parts of the world today, large populations are heirs to millennia of cultural development and continue to struggle to preserve their heritage as they fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.

As such, it must be amended to include a more nuanced and realistic view of the world’s history, which will allow students to gain greater insight into its complex relationships, especially as they seek to understand the roots of modern-day problems such as poverty, inequality and conflict. This will require a more expansive definition of the West and an acknowledgment that it never existed in isolation from other cultures.

The new material also includes a much-needed emphasis on gender and women’s history. While this will inevitably mean a step away from the political history framework of these volumes, it is essential to the understanding of the development of modern societies. It is vital to acknowledge that a wide range of political systems and ideologies were promoted by the West—including liberalism, socialism, Marxism, fascism and Nazism—as well as indigenous philosophies and movements such as Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

In addition, the new material rejects the old idea that the history of Western Civilization is a story of progressive progress, with living standards and knowledge of the natural world improving over time for most people (with the exception of the indigenous peoples of the Americas). In fact, European diseases wiped out the prosperous kingdoms and cities shaped by ancient Greece and Rome, and the classical culture that is integral to Western society meant little to most of Asia, Africa or Latin America until recent times.

The new story of world history includes the Christianization of European societies, the reforms triggered by the medieval renaissances and the influence of the Islamic world on Europe through Al-Andalus, Sicily, Baghdad and Al-Fujairah. It also includes the “clash of cultures” between Christendom and the Islamic world, which actually increased trade and cultural transmissions—including Arabic numerals, Greek philosophy and the decimal system—to the benefit of both sides. This rich fusion of influences shows that the history of the West is not just a golden thread but rather a golden tapestry, into which many strands have been woven over the centuries. It is this rich tapestry that will help students to see that, despite the era of the great world wars, the Western self-understanding as the most civilized culture is not in imminent danger of implosion.

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