For Teachers: Lessons

Rethinking the rise of the West: The Great Divergence Debate

Konstantin Georgidis, Canterbury School, Ft. Myers, Florida



This unit focuses on historiography. It traces the ways in which historians view the rise of the west during the period from 1450 to 1850. In the past, historians have explained Europe's rise-as expressed in European global dominance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - by focusing on maritime achievements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This interpretation has also generally viewed Europe's rise as a result of unique European cultural factors.

More recent interpretations, however, have been critical of Western dominance and have attempted to place that dominance in a global historical context. In the 1970s, for example, world systems theory sought to view European dominance as a product of the expansionary nature of capitalism. In the last decade, scholars with opposing views about when, how, and why the West rose have hotly debated new interpretations. Even more recently, new comparative scholarship has sought to locate Europe's rise within a global trade network long dominated by China. Taken as a whole, this recent work within the field of world history has revised the interpretation and meaning of the rise of the West.

Grades and Time Required

Grades: 10 -12 Time required: three fifty minute periods.


Students develop:
  1. An awareness of the importance of systems of international exchange as factors contributing to the rise of the west.
  2. An understanding of the logic of the method of historical inquiry by means of a comparison and assessment of the different ways in which historians in the last two centuries have interpreted the dominance of the West in global affairs.
  3. An appreciation of the issues examined in the debate amongst contemporary scholars who have offered explanations of the great divergence in the development paths of the West and the East

Instructional Objectives

  1. Identify the different ways historians have tried to explain the rise of the West.
  2. Explain what is meant by the term "world systems theory" and how world systems operate.
  3. Compare the basic issues in the debate on the great divergence between East and West which have become the focus of the historical research of the following scholars: David Landes, Andre Gunder Frank, Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Peer Vries and Philip C. C. Huang.
  4. Identify and explain the kinds of evidence and arguments which are being used by opposing sides in this debate.
  5. Trace how historians’ changing views of the rise of the West in the last 25 years illustrate the dynamic nature of the discipline of history.


  1. Bridging World History (Annenberg/CPB Media), Unit #18
  2. China and the West, 1500-2000: What is Modern?(Asia for Educators)


  1. Announce that the class will embark upon a program of investigation of the reasons which explain the dominance of the West in global affairs in the 19th and twentieth centuries.
  2. Divide the class into pairs. Each pair undertakes to become familiar with the views of one of the following scholars:
    1. Immanuel Wallerstein
    2. David Landes
    3. Andre Gunder Frank
    4. Bin Wong
    5. Kenneth Pomeranz
    6. Peer Vries
    7. Philip C. C. Huang