For Teachers: Lessons

Rethinking the rise of the West: The Great Divergence Debate

Konstantin Georgidis, Canterbury School, Ft. Myers, Florida

CLASS ACTIVITIES: Comparing and Contrasting Points of View

A. The Traditional Story of the Rise of the West

  1. Present to the class the following explanation of the traditional story of the rise of the West:

    "The fifteenth to eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the West. Trade routes developed from east to west, most notably in the Indian Ocean. Europeans desired the spices, tea, porcelains, silks, and colorful cotton textiles produced by Asians. In the late fifteenth century, the Portuguese entered this trade directly by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern end of Africa. By the seventeenth century, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English joined directly in the Indian Ocean economy, but the European merchants had no trade goods the Asians wanted. The Spanish-sponsored voyages of Christopher Columbus accidentally provided the solution: silver in the Americas. The Europeans used the profits from their trade with Asia to promote more voyages around the globe. By the eighteenth century, English entrepreneurs used advances in scientific knowledge and engineering to begin an industrial revolution by applying steam power to the machines that produced textiles. Abundant coal in the British Isles and improved transportation that used the same steam engine to power trains aided the British Industrial Revolution. The rhythm of work, now organized by clocks, changed and made the use of human labor more efficient and productive. The British East India Company established trading relationships with individual Indian rulers to the advantage of the Company. By the mid –nineteenth century, the British used their economic and military powers to dominate much of Asia. The British government then was able to help British cotton textiles outsell Indian calicoes in the world market. The British and other Europeans dominated world trade, and Europeans politically controlled many parts of the globe, including Africa, by the end of the nineteenth century."

           Excerpted from Unit # 18, of the Bridging World History course; see web site.

  2. Pose and discuss the following questions:
    1. Which parts of this explanation are familiar to you?
    2. Is this explanation adequate, objective, sufficient?
    3. What is missing?
  3. Have students watch the first segment of the video Rethinking the Rise of The West, which is part of the Bridging World History course; Click here to view.

    This video segment explains how historians have traditionally viewed the rise of the West. It documents the story of European intervention in established Eurasian trading networks through their maritime ventures. It highlights how European colonization efforts in the Americas and their growing abilities to sail anywhere in the world both helped establish the first truly global trading network.

    Next, it delves into the process of industrialization in Europe, which in the late eighteenth century began to transform Europe's labor systems, productive capacities, and technologies. These changes allowed Europeans to produce ever greater numbers of commodities and-through fossil fuel energy-to create ever more efficient ways of transporting such goods by land and by sea. These abilities, in turn, prompted Europeans to use their goods and technologies to gain strong footholds in global trading networks, and eventually to create their own empires throughout much of the world.

  4. Ask students to discuss the following questions
    1. As world historians and, thinking outside the box, what other information would you need to offer a complete explanation of the rise of the West?
    2. What theories of the evolution of human history and of historical change may be of importance in enriching the explanation of the rise of the West?