World History Social Studies Project: Teaching Pre-Modern World History

By Burke, Edmund | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

World History Social Studies Project: Teaching Pre-Modern World History


Burke, Edmund, Social Studies Review


Pre-modern World History (ca. 300 CE. to 1 800 CE.) is a daunting topic for teachers to cover. Most opt for the civilizations model, in which students are encouraged to climb up and down chronological ladders as they navigate from one civilization to the next. The material gets covered (or not, since its scale is immense), at the cost of intellectual coherence. Result: students and teachers have little on which to hang the blizzard of names and dates required by the framework. Comprehension all too often comes in second to memorization.

Yet now more than ever it is vitally important that students acquire some basic tools for understanding the world they live in. It is precisely here that the civilizations model, while time-tested, falls down badly. An alternative model of world history exists, keyed to the major processes in world history.

The "integrative" model of world history has a double research base: in the most recent scholarship on world history and on the cognitive issues of how children learn history. Strongly based in the New World History and recent scholarship on history pedagogy, this model offers the best chance for students to acquire a coherent, research-based understanding of the main patterns and processes that have shaped the human past.

The purpose of this essay is to guide the reader through the main phases of Pre-Modern world history. Instead of successively following the careers of each civilization, it considers the history of the pre-modern world as a whole. World history in this approach is a dynamic process, not (as in the civilizational model) the playing out of cultural destinies. The approach adopted here has three main elements.

First, it follows the steadily deepening connections among societies over the period, rather than assuming that civilizations existed in splendid isolation from one another. Change in this approach is dynamic and interactive, rather than springing from each civilization's cultural DNA. Indeed, mere is abundant evidence that Afroeurasian societies continually interacted with one another. We also know that the civilizations of the Americas were in sustained contact with one another (even if they weren't in touch with Afroeurasia).

Second, the interactive model identifies common patterns of change among world societies over the Pre-Modern period and traces the diffusion of innovations (cultural, political, economic, technological) from one society to another. For example, such important innovations as printing, algebra and the compass, once invented diffused throughout the Afroeurasian interactive zone. Rather than being the property of any one society, they are human achievements. Students learn to appreciate the interconnections of societies in history.

Third, the integrative approach focuses upon the ecohistorical context of world societies in this period. It recognizes that all societies encountered significant ecological limits on growth and change, and that these were consequential in shaping the paths they followed. Despite the brilliance of individual societies, all were constrained in important ways by the limitations imposed by the solar energy regime.

Let's start with some essential periodization. We can begin by noting that our period is part of the much longer Agrarian Age (5000 B.CE. to 1800 CE.) encompassing human history between the Paleolithic and Modern Times. It was divided into two distinct phases. In its long first phase (to 300 CE.) agricultural societies emerged both in Afroeurasia as well as in the Americas. They in mm gave rise to cities and early empires and set human societies on their historic path.

During the first part of Pre-Modem History (300 CE. to 1450 CE.), things remained set in the previous Agrarian Age pattern. Agrarian empires became increasingly dominant and Eurasia more tightly integrated, with key developments in any one region soon diffusing to the others. Despite notable declines, states and empires became ever larger, culminating with the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

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