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A Brief History of the World

A Brief History of the World

Professor Peter N. Stearns Ph.D.
George Mason University
Course No.  8080
Course No.  8080
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Think of the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, or the development of democratic rule in ancient Greece. Recall the innovations of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment—the remarkable flowering of drama and the arts, and revolutionary breakthroughs in science and philosophy. These are intriguing and important episodes, familiar to students of history. But haven't you also wondered: What else was going on in the world?

Consider the enthralling tales of Venetian trader Marco Polo. He introduced the Western world to mysterious and exotic Asian cultures never before imagined. Those alien civilizations he visited had existed for centuries, even millennia. What do we know about that part of the story?

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Think of the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, or the development of democratic rule in ancient Greece. Recall the innovations of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment—the remarkable flowering of drama and the arts, and revolutionary breakthroughs in science and philosophy. These are intriguing and important episodes, familiar to students of history. But haven't you also wondered: What else was going on in the world?

Consider the enthralling tales of Venetian trader Marco Polo. He introduced the Western world to mysterious and exotic Asian cultures never before imagined. Those alien civilizations he visited had existed for centuries, even millennia. What do we know about that part of the story?

We know of the glories of ancient Rome, the commanding empire that ruled the known world—but what about the lands that were not "known"? What, for example, of the Han dynasty in China? It existed alongside the Roman Empire but developed a more enduring legacy than that of the emperors of the Eternal City. How does that imperial saga relate to the more familiar story of Roman domination?

And in the Dark Ages that came after the fall of the Roman Empire, we know that the era following Rome's glory days brought great political and social turmoil to the peoples of Europe. But at that time the Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa were experiencing remarkable cultural flourishing that produced innovations in art, medicine, philosophy, and technology—a true golden age for the civilization.

If you have wondered about these other histories—of China and Japan, of Russia, India, and the remote territories of Sub-Saharan Africa and South America—you can now discover how these stories fit in with commonly known accounts of Western traditions.

Learn the Rest of the Story

In A Brief History of the World, you'll survey the expanse of human development and civilization across the globe. Over the course of 36 riveting lectures, you'll apprehend "the big picture" of world history from the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era to the urbanized, technologically sophisticated world of the 21st century.

It's a compelling overview of the human experience presented by a pioneering scholar and multi-award-winning teacher in world history, Professor Peter N. Stearns. You'll examine and compare the peoples, cultures, and nations of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas to understand how, throughout history, peoples all over the world have connected and interacted, traded goods and technology, and conquered and learned from each other.

The course begins with humanity in prehistory and explores, in a meaningful framework, how races organized to form the civilizations of the Classical world (1000 B.C–A.D. 500). Next, you'll examine the Postclassical world (500–1450) and the rise of world religions, the expansion of economy through international trade, and the discoveries and achievements of the early modern period (1450–1750). The course closes with examinations of the first industrial period, also known as the Long 19th Century (1750–1914), and contemporary times.

You'll compare forms of social and political organizations, from the caste system of Classical India to the Communist regime of 20th-century China, and trace the development of the idea of the "nation-state" as it arose in modern society.

This survey casts light on the ruling classes and those on the lowest rungs of society—slaves and serfs—from China to Europe to the New World. You'll learn how views on subjugation have evolved, from Aristotle's view that slave labor was necessary to support the wise rule by upper classes, to humanitarian views that developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and led to widespread abolition of slavery.

The realm of religion provides another lens to examine and compare how faiths have evolved over centuries, influenced day-to-day life and large-scale historical events, and inspired ingenious works of art and literature.

Fresh Insights into the Human Experience

As you travel around the world and through time with Professor Stearns, you'll also learn about the unique characteristics of each society you visit.

Over the course of these lectures, Professor Stearns provides surprising insights that will overturn many of your assumptions about history. Here are some of the fascinating facts he uncovers:

  • The invention of agriculture set the stage for progress in many ways. It also brought with it a number of drawbacks, including a new inequality between men and women, greater exposure to epidemic diseases, and a more labor-intensive lifestyle than was experienced by hunter-gatherers.
  • Although Mongols are often represented as destructive, bloodthirsty pillagers, as invading rulers they were in fact tolerant and chose to adopt the practices of the subjugated peoples rather than repress them.
  • Africa, which is often overlooked as having "no history," played a key role in trade and the dissemination of technology, and has a history remarkable in its complexity.
  • Although China has been frequently characterized as isolationist, it has for millennia been a leader in technological innovation. It has contributed some substantial inventions, including gunpowder and the printing press, that have been adopted by societies all over the world.

Through these and other fascinating episodes, you'll gain a deep appreciation of the human experience as it was lived throughout the centuries.

A Globalized World—Then and Now

Some say globalization, the ever-intensifying interconnection of societies all over the globe, is a modern phenomenon. Professor Stearns tests that notion by showing how civilizations have always shared complex interactions—bartering goods and resources, absorbing advances in technology and culture, sharing faith through missionary work—and wrestled with the tensions of regional identity versus participation on the world stage.

With Professor Stearns as your guide, you'll travel the Silk Road, the vibrant trade route that stretched from western China through Persia and into the Mediterranean region—a crucial artery of travel, communication, and influence during the Classical period.

You'll see how, even with travel as difficult and arduous as it was, adventurers, traders, and conquerors were nearly always on the move. You'll hear about the 14th-century adventurer Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, a Muslim who traveled more than 75,000 miles in his 65 years.

As you join Professor Stearns in his majestic journey, you'll encounter many examples in which efforts at globalization were welcomed and encouraged, as well as cultures that resisted the forces of globalization, investing in their own independent, political, economic, and cultural development.

What do patterns of globalization show us for the future? Will distinct civilizations blend into new forms of identity, of a globally shared culture? Or will societies resist and try to balance regional and global drives in an eternal tension? These are powerful questions that you'll contemplate in this course.

View This Comprehensive and Compelling Perspective

"There are many good reasons to be interested in history," says Professor Stearns, "among them, the opportunity to see how the past shapes the present." And Professor Stearns is the perfect host for this epic journey through the history of civilization. Articulate, engaging, and an expert in the field, he provides an epic overview with fascinating facts and memorable anecdotes. With his expert guidance, you'll gain access to profound insights into humanity's long history.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    What and Why Is World History?
    Over the past 20 years, world history has been gaining ground as a way to understand the human experience. In this opening lecture, we review the basic tenets of this discipline and outline its main subjects of inquiry: comparison of civilizations, contacts among societies, and the large-scale forces that shape these interactions. x
  • 2
    The Neolithic Revolution
    The rise of agriculture was one of the great changes in the human experience. This lecture explores the causes and ramifications of this remarkable breakthrough, as well as other forces that influenced the early development of civilization. x
  • 3
    What Is a Civilization?
    After agriculture, the next step in world history involves the emergence of civilization as a form of human organization. This lecture reviews the key technological, cultural, and political innovations that accompanied the development of civilizations in regions as diverse as Central America, Asia, and the Middle East. x
  • 4
    The Classical Period in World History
    The period from 1000 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. saw the development of a few great civilizations located in China, the Med­iterranean region, and India. These cultures expanded on the innovations of earlier River Valley civilizations, but also forged some new elements that would persist throughout world history. x
  • 5
    Cultural Change in the Classical Period
    Creating large and durable cultur­al systems was one of the hallmarks of Classical civilizations. This lecture ex­am­ines some of the most influential and enduring examples, including religious systems—Confucianism, Daoism, Hin­duism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity—as well as philosophy and art in the Mediterranean. x
  • 6
    Social Inequalities in Classical Societies
    Although each of the Classical civilizations developed distinct social systems, what they had in common was a general belief that social inequality in class and gender was not only inevitable, it was desirable and necessary to ensure the stability of society. x
  • 7
    The Roman Empire and Han China
    While the Roman Empire is more familiar to most Western students than Han China, these two societies, for a span of several centuries, were remarkably similar in some basic achievements. Those similarities give us an opportunity to look closely at how Classical societies operated in comparable contexts. x
  • 8
    The Silk Road; Classical Period Contacts
    The classical period is defined not only by regional history but also by patterns of connections among large regions. This lecture examines the two main conduits for contact, the Silk Road trade route to Asia, and the trade nexus centered on India. x
  • 9
    The Decline of the Classical Civilizations
    This lecture explores the contributing factors that led to the fall, within a short time span, of several major Classical societies: the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty in China, and the Gupta Empire in India. x
  • 10
    The Post-Classical Period, 500–1450
    The Postclassical Period has been a subject of debate among scholars of world history. The traditional view of this era as "The Middle Ages" assumes a European focus and ignores the striking vitality of the era. This lecture explores a more useful definition of the period, which focused on the spread of world religions and the emergence of a world network. x
  • 11
    World Religions and Their Consequences
    The Postclassical period saw the crucial geographical expansion of Buddhism and Christianity, as well as the origins and expansion of Islam. This lecture takes a look at the causes for this expansion and its effects, both for world societies and for the various belief systems. x
  • 12
    The Impact of Islam
    While the spread of Islam fits within patterns of expanding world religions, Islam and the Arab society involved with it clearly gained particular importance and a position of power during the Postclassical period. x
  • 13
    Postclassical Trade and Contacts
    The increase of interregional trade in the Postclassical centuries brought many changes, including innovations in shipping technology and mapping, new opportunities for venturesome travelers, the development of missionary activity, and the exchange of new technologies. x
  • 14
    Postclassical Patterns of Imitation
    Japan, Russia, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe offer examples of relatively young societies that copied key aspects of culture, technology, and social structure from neighboring societies. x
  • 15
    Western Civilization in World Context
    This lecture explores the questions raised by traditional concepts of Western civilization. Is there a straight line of influence from the early high civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Western tradition? What are the distinctive features of Western civilization, and when do they appear? x
  • 16
    The Mongol Years
    World history between the early 13th and the mid-14th century was dominated by the conquests of the Mongols. Despite their reputation as bloodthirsty conquerors, world history has rehabilitated the Mongols and brought to light their tolerant—even enlightened—policies of rule. x
  • 17
    Civilizations in the Americas and in Africa
    Because of its isolation, the New World does not fully fit the larger patterns of the period and, because of later cultural devastation, the heritage of these civilizations had limited impact. African kingdoms, on the other hand, were deeply connected to the large world network of the time. x
  • 18
    The World in 1450
    A number of crucial changes, including explorations by European down the African coast, explorations by China, and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, set the stage for the next period in world history. x
  • 19
    The Early Modern Period, 1450–1750
    For the first time, international trade encompassed the entire globe, including new contacts with the Americas, Pacific Oceania, and Australia. Results included the emergence of Europe's overseas colonies and the rise of several large "Gunpowder Empires" in Asia. x
  • 20
    The World Economy, 1450–1750
    During this period, world trade in­creased and became literally global as the West took an increasingly dominant role in ex­plo­ration and conquest. This lecture uses sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein's theories of core and peripheral societies to understand these developments. x
  • 21
    Transformations in Western Europe
    This lecture examines pivotal changes that occurred in Western civilization during the postmodern period, and focuses on the features that had the most impact: growing commercialization, the emergence of the nation state, and the rise of new cultural products such as scientific thought and activity. x
  • 22
    The Rise of Russia
    Early modern Russia is a special case in world history. The dilemma of its status—independent civilization or part of ­Europe—is continually debated, and be­cause of its durability and influence in Mid­dle Eastern, Asian, and European societies, it warrants special attention. x
  • 23
    Asian Empires and a Shogunate
    This lecture reviews major changes during the early modern period in Asian societies including the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, and Japan. x
  • 24
    The Long 19th Century
    European domination through growing military and manufacturing power advances the industrial revolution and increased levels of international connection, which might be called the first stage of contemporary globalization. x
  • 25
    Abolition of Slavery and Serfdom
    Formal systems of coercive labor were largely abolished around the world during the Long 19th Century, giving way to new humanitarian thinking. Other factors, including changes in world demography and migration, also affect this global shift. x
  • 26
    Modernization and Nationalisms
    This lecture examines the emergence of two trends that will continue to influence world history: modernization and nationalism. These trends result from growing political and economic rifts among societies. x
  • 27
    Formation of Latin American Civilization
    Crucial developments in Latin America in the 19th century included many nations establishing independence and the political problems that followed, and the blossoming of a distinctly Latin American culture. x
  • 28
    China and Japan—19th-Century Pressures
    China and Japan shared many characteristics, yet their reactions to new Western pressure and the dynamics of the world economy were strikingly different, setting up two separate East Asian models whose impact is still strong today. x
  • 29
    The 20th–21st Centuries as a New Period
    Enormous changes transpire over the 20th century. World wars dilute Western dominance and Pacific Rim nations gain economic power. Political change occurs as well—monarchies topple and are replaced by new forms of rule. x
  • 30
    The World Economy—Change and Continuity
    Many economic themes of earlier per­i­ods continue in the 20th century—in­cluding unequal relationships in world trade—but changes occurred as well, such as the emphasis on high-tech, service, and entertainment products in dominant economies. x
  • 31
    An Age of Revolutions
    The 20th century saw an unprecedented number of political and social revolutions. This lecture reviews this trend for revolution as it occurred in Russia, China, Mexico, Iran, and elsewhere. x
  • 32
    The United States in World History
    Was the 20th century "The American Century," as some pundits claim? Is the United States a civilization all its own—or is it part of Western civilization? This lecture explores issues that arise when the United States is seen in the context of world history. x
  • 33
    Contemporary Democracy
    Traditional political forms—monarchy, empire, colony—decline in the 20th century as democracy spreads from its base in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia. Despite this spread, many societies resist or adapt democratic models of government. x
  • 34
    Contemporary Cultural Change
    The contemporary period has seen sweeping changes in peoples' belief systems with the rise of new ideologies: nationalism, Marxism, consumerism and science. Traditional religions have also gained believers, as seen in spread of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. x
  • 35
    Gender in Contemporary World History
    There have been far-reaching changes in gender relations and conditions for women, with many reforms supported by nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations. There are also, however, many forces eager to maintain traditional gender roles. x
  • 36
    Globalization and World History
    The most exciting development in social science in the 1990s was the concept of globalization, which focuses on the intensification of contacts among societies in the world. This wide-ranging summary of the course places the concept of globalization in a historical context and speculates on the future of this trend. x

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Peter N. Stearns
Ph.D. Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University

Dr. Peter N. Stearns is Provost and Professor of History at George Mason University. He earned his bachelor's degree summa cum laude, master's degree, and doctorate in history from Harvard University. Professor Stearns has written widely on world history, including two popular textbooks. Other books include The Industrial Revolution in World History, Gender in World History, Consumerism in World History, Western Civilization in World History, Childhood in World History, and Global Outrage: The Evolution and Impact of World Opinion. He edited the Encyclopedia of World History, 6th edition. He has also written books and articles on emotions, dieting and obesity, old age, and work. Before coming to George Mason University, Professor Stearns taught at the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, and Carnegie Mellon University. While at Carnegie Mellon, he won the Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the Spencer Award for Distinguished Teaching. From 1996 to 2006 Professor Stearns chaired the committee that devised the Advanced Placement world history course. He served as vice president of the American Historical Association, Teaching Division, from 1995 to 1998. He is also founder and editor of the Journal of Social History.

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