An Introduction to Western World History

The purpose of western world history is to introduce students to the history that has shaped the western world. The course also teaches students strategies used by historians in understanding historical periods and events. Students will learn about the early humans in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, the first civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, ancient Greece, Rome, the development of world religions, the medieval period, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution, imperialism and 18th and 19th Century revolutions and the two world wars.

Western world history has meant different things at different times. When the term was invented to rescue the legacy of the West from the implosion of the world wars, it reinforced intellectual dividing lines: there were true civilizations opposed by barbarians, only those born in Europe played a major historical role and that heritage was the only legacy worth preserving.

By the end of the Cold War it had become more common to define the “Western world” as comprising NATO countries and those allied with them, including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. This definition is based on Samuel Huntington’s 1996 “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. It ignores the fact that Latin America is either a sub-civilization within the West or a separate civilization intimately related to it.

It reflects the traditional narrative that starts with Ancient Greece, moves through Roman expansion and dominance, the medieval period of European history, the Age of Discovery and colonization, the growth of European power and its implosion in the two world wars and the gradual dismantling of colonialism. It also carries the pretense that the history of Western Civilization was generally progressive, with the conditions of life and understanding of the natural world of most people improving over time.

This is a balanced account of major developments over approximately the last 10,000 years. We have tried to make it as accurate and balanced as possible given the limitations of the source material available. As an open educational resource we are releasing it with the hope that it can be modified and extended by others. This does not mean that we think it is the only version of western world history that is possible, but rather that this version can serve as a good starting point for discussion and exploration by those interested in doing so. We are aware that many will find this account unsatisfactory. We welcome debate. However, we ask that disagreement be based on evidence and argument. It is important to remember that historians are not neutral observers; they have a responsibility to present the evidence of their findings to the public. In addition to this introduction, the following articles are useful for teaching western world history. The links will take you to external sites, some of which require a subscription or are not freely accessible. In many cases, the articles provide a summary of the key points that are discussed in more detail in the original sources.

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