Turning Points in Modern History

Course No. 8032
Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
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Course Overview

Get a unique and rewarding view of world history by immersing yourself in the fascinating story of the discoveries, inventions, upheavals, and ideas that shaped the modern world.

What do the fall of Constantinople, the French Revolution, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the invention of the Internet all have in common? If any one of these turning points had not occurred, or had occurred differently, the trajectory of modern history—and even your life—would have been dramatically altered.

Each event and innovation sparked a profound change in how entire societies viewed the world while signaling the dawn of a new political, economic, or cultural and social reality. Being aware of these turning points is critically important—but it's even more essential to comprehend the complexity of their causes and effects if you want to fully grasp how we arrived in the here and now. Only by understanding how these and other landmark moments and movements transformed our world and continue to impact it today, and by studying the creative ways humankind has found to adapt, can we get at the heart of what it truly means to be "modern."

Turning Points in Modern History takes you on a far-reaching journey around the globe—from China to the Americas to New Zealand—to shed light on how two dozen of the top discoveries, inventions, political upheavals, and ideas since 1400 have shaped the modern world. Taught by award-winning history professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, these 24 thought-provoking lectures tell the amazing story of how life as we know it developed—at times advancing in one brilliant instant and at other times, in painstaking degrees.

Starting in the early 15th century and culminating in the age of social media, you'll encounter astounding threads that weave through the centuries, joining these turning points in ways that may come as a revelation. You'll also witness turning points with repercussions we can only speculate about because they are still very much in the process of turning.

What It Means to Be Modern

So what is meant by "modern"? As opposed to ancient or premodern, modernity involves a mindset that stresses novelty, breaks with the past, and recognizes change.

In exploring these turning points, you'll see as the attributes of modernity and progress recur again and again, including

  • the growth of technology;
  • the autonomy of the individual;
  • reliance on experimentation and science over the dictates of tradition;
  • new concepts of popular sovereignty and equality; and
  • interconnectedness on an increasingly global scale.

Professor Liulevicius doesn't merely recount the greatest events of history, but rather has carefully selected true catalysts in provoking changes in worldview. Whether you're covering a turning point concerning

  • technological change, like the invention of the airplane, motion pictures, or the atomic bomb;
  • political history, such as the establishment of sovereign nation-states; or
  • social transformation, as in the abolitionist movement or the recognition of women's right to vote,

you'll focus on the impact the event had on its contemporaries and their hopes and fears regarding its effects. And you will see, in spite of the shock of the "new," society's remarkable ability to adapt.

A Unique Understanding of Our Shared Past

Some of the events presented in Turning Points in Modern History, including the discovery of the New World and the fall of the Berlin Wall, will immediately resonate as watershed moments. The global significance of other pivotal events may only become apparent through the professor's guidance, such as the publication of the Enlightenment-era Encyclopédie and the Russo-Japanese War—which has been historically overshadowed by the two world wars that followed.

Whether the events are familiar or surprising, you'll encounter a wealth of eye-opening insights throughout.

  • The voyages of Christopher Columbus: Despite what you may have learned in school, almost no educated European thought the world was flat in Columbus's day.
  • The printing press: Gutenberg's machine played a major role in launching the Protestant Reformation. For centuries, calls for reform within the church were slow to gain acceptance or were ignored. The printing press allowed Martin Luther's message to spread and take hold instead of quickly evaporating.
  • The American Revolution: Even by the time of the Boston Tea Party, few colonists were driving for independence. Most wanted the restoration of their rights as Englishmen.
  • The theory of evolution: Many people actually speculated on evolution before Charles Darwin. After he introduced his ideas, the Nazis and others took the concept in directions he would not have endorsed.

While any one of these or the other turning points featured are fascinating enough to warrant an entire course, this unique format allows parallels and links to be made across centuries and continents. You'll see how the building of the Berlin Wall intersects with the space race; trace how the Anglo-Dutch trade wars led to China's subjugation; and consider whether the Westphalian system of territorial sovereignty established in 1648 still applies in cyberspace as the Internet nullifies borders.

Learn What Might Have Been

As you discover how turning points such as the discovery of penicillin and the opening of East Berlin hinged on chance, accident, and, in some cases, sheer luck, you'll realize how easily history might have played out differently.

  • When Enrico Fermi and colleagues attempted to create a nuclear chain reaction in Chicago, no one knew with certainty it wouldn't run out of control. Had it gone awry, would their protection system—a technician with an axe and workers standing by with buckets of cadmium and salt—have been enough to prevent catastrophe?
  • If an "American missile launch" inadvertently detected by a Soviet satellite hadn't been declared a false alarm by a Russian official, how differently might the cold war have ended?
  • If the voyages of "the Chinese Columbus," Admiral Zheng He, had continued and reached the Americas, would we be speaking Mandarin today?

Having lived, studied, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Dr. Liulevicius is uniquely qualified to draw unexpected connections between events and figures. In Turning Points in Modern History, you'll experience humanity's last 600 years as a sweeping narrative. By the final lecture, you'll see the big picture come into crystal-clear focus and possess an understanding of where we are, where we've been, and where we're headed like never before.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    1433—The Great Voyages of Admiral Zheng He
    Explore the idea of modernity and define “turning point.” Then, consider why Chinese admiral Zheng He’s voyages promoting the power of China’s authority did not continue as part of a larger campaign of discovery—and what the consequences might have been had he reached the Americas. x
  • 2
    1453—The Fall of Constantinople
    Although many educated people think they know about the fall of the Roman Empire, Professor Liulevicius says the end actually happened 1,000 years later with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. Delve deeper into this event and learn the trauma the loss created for Europeans. x
  • 3
    1455—Gutenberg’s Print Revolution
    Trace how Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of a press with movable type sparked a print revolution, becoming a key factor in the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the standardization of vernacular languages. x
  • 4
    1492—The Columbian Exchange
    Without intending to, Christopher Columbus’s search for Asia initiated an event that has been called the most important historical turning point of modern times. Investigate how Columbus’s encounter with the Americas brought distant peoples together politically, culturally, and environmentally in ways that were simultaneously productive and deeply destructive. x
  • 5
    1600—The British East India Company
    The English and Dutch East India companies coexisted in the Spice Islands as they worked to outflank the Portuguese, but their rivalry soon escalated into war. Examine the founding and meteoric growth of the East India Company and the violence that ultimately led Britain to establish an empire on which the sun never set. x
  • 6
    1648—The Treaty of Westphalia
    The Thirty Years War involved some million soldiers and mass civilian casualties. Explore the significance of the Peace of Westphalia, the settlement that ended the war in 1648—a vital turning point that still shapes how international politics are handled. x
  • 7
    1676—Van Leeuwenhoek’s Microscope
    Trace how Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s striking discovery fit into the larger Scientific Revolution and shifted intellectual authority from classic texts to that which is observable and measurable. x
  • 8
    1751—Diderot’s Enlightenment Encyclopedia
    The Encyclopédie was the most ambitious reference work and publishing project of its time. Discover how the editors made knowledge accessible to a mass audience and championed the Enlightenment’s progressive, secular message, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. x
  • 9
    1787—The American Experiment
    Learn how America’s founders established a model of a republic through debate, compromise, separation of powers, and a flexible Constitution. x
  • 10
    1789—The French Revolution
    How did France’s fight for liberation from royal authority lead to Napoleon’s rise and even greater despotism? Contrast events in America with those in France to see how attempts at creating modern republics radically diverged. x
  • 11
    1838—The British Slavery Abolition Act
    Confront the harsh realities of the African slave trade and consider the role social mobilization played in eradicating the institution across the British Empire. x
  • 12
    1839—The Opium War in China
    Delve into the causes, conflicts, and consequences of the Opium Wars, in which China was psychologically devastated and subjugated by British imperialism. x
  • 13
    1859—Darwin and the Origin of Species
    Discover how a simple observation inspired Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, and why his Origin of Species was eagerly accepted by much of Victorian society. Then, look at how the Nazis and others distorted Darwin’s ideas. x
  • 14
    1869—Binding Continents
    In 1869, two events connected the world through modern technology, giving science vast significance as a source of authority. Learn how the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States and the Suez Canal in Egypt revolutionized the way people perceived space and time. x
  • 15
    1893—First Women Voters in New Zealand
    Follow the fight for women’s suffrage in New Zealand and America, as two global trends—the demand for women’s political voice and the growth of settler societies—intersected. x
  • 16
    1896—The Invention of Motion Pictures
    Motion pictures revolutionized people’s view of the world. Survey early movie culture, along with the contributions of Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès, and others, then see how the medium became “weaponized” by Bolsheviks in Russia and Nazis in Germany. x
  • 17
    1903—Kitty Hawk and Powered Flight
    Witness the dawning of the air age and meet the Montgolfier brothers, the Wright brothers, and others who brought humanity’s dream of flying to fruition. Then, explore how aviation shaped the experience of modernity, from the relative ease of travel to the stark reality of “total warfare.” x
  • 18
    1904—The Russo-Japanese War
    To the world’s surprise, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Learn how this conflict fought with industrialized weapons reconfigured world politics by igniting the process of global decolonization, establishing Japan as a great power, and setting the stage for two world wars. x
  • 19
    1928—The Discovery of Penicillin
    The advance of antibiotics occurred amid the larger context of the development of germ theory. Trace how scientists’ understanding of the mechanisms of infection and disease evolved during the 19th century—and see how Alexander Fleming stumbled upon his life-saving discovery. x
  • 20
    1942—The Dawn of the Atom
    When German physicists split the atom, Albert Einstein warned President Roosevelt of the potential for “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” Chart the course of the nuclear bomb from this letter through the first nuclear chain reaction led by physicist Enrico Fermi, the Manhattan Project, and devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. x
  • 21
    1969—Walking on the Moon
    The moon landing expanded humanity’s sense of the possible. Learn how the space program grew out of advances in rocketry during World War II and advanced rapidly due to cold war paranoia exacerbated by the launch of Sputnik. x
  • 22
    1972—China Enters the World Balance
    Nixon’s meeting with Mao shifted the cold war’s balance and returned China to the world stage. Learn the reasons for Nixon’s trip, the consequences of which still reverberate, and plot the rise of Mao and communism in China. Then, see how Deng Xiaoping’s promotion of private enterprise began a trajectory of growth that continues. x
  • 23
    1989—The Fall of the Berlin Wall
    How did a bureaucratic blunder by a Politburo member lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Find out as you examine the surprisingly peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. x
  • 24
    2004—The Rise of Social Media
    Are the Web and social media making us more globally connected or locking us into niche societies and creating an epidemic of loneliness? Probe both the power and the perils of the Internet—from aiding popular uprisings to rewiring our brains. x

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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

About Your Professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford...
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Reviews

Turning Points in Modern History is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A real winner Dr. Liulevicius is one of the Teaching Company’s most effective presenters, and this is as good as any of his courses I have taken. He identifies 24 different events since the 15th Century, which he discusses as “turning points” that have changed the course of history. Scanning the list—which includes the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—before listening to the lectures, it is not obvious why these relatively little-known entities should be included in a “top 24” among hundreds of major world historical events. However, Liulevicius clearly lays out his rationale and goals for the course, makes a compelling case for each entry, and illustrates its importance by relating it to each subsequent discussion. In his usual clear, articulate, and continuously interesting fashion, he makes a compelling case for each selection. This course has a more unitary and transparent design than many, with each lecture clearly tied to its predecessors, with the effect of building a coherent whole that impressed me a great deal. It was interesting, thought-provoking, and illuminating throughout: a real winner.
Date published: 2019-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "Game Changer" Events Professor Liulevicius does a fine job of analyzing watershed episodes of human history since 1400 AD that resulted in major changes on a global or near-global scale. There had, of course, been pivotal events, discoveries, and inventions before (the signing of the Magna Carta, for instance) which amounted to major turning points for particular peoples, followed by somewhat gradual repercussions for human society in general. The professor makes a good case, though, that one reason to identify turning points since the 15th century as being of the “modern” world is because of how broadly and relatively rapidly the effects of those events were able to spread. What Dr. Liulevicius chooses to highlight in his 24 lectures are, convincingly, key “game changers” of world history. I treasure his presentations, and I am disappointed only that his course wasn’t a longer one. I would have also enjoyed lectures included on John Harrison’s marine chronometer, on the harnessing of steam power, and on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example. Some of the best lectures that did “make the cut” gave me new insights about familiar topics, such as the invention of the printing press, powered flight, and the demise of the Berlin Wall. I also benefited from learning about turning points of which I’d been rather ignorant (e.g., Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia, and the Russo-Japanese War). The professor consistently strikes a nice balance between carefully worded instruction and an air of friendly spontaneity, making me feel drawn into what he has to share.
Date published: 2019-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another great course by Prof. Lielevicius! While I disagreed with some of the events Prof. Lielevicius chose as turning points, I found his course very interesting and well presented. The effectiveness of his course was enhanced by the manymaps and visuals that supplemented his narratives. I very much enjoyed his perspectives on the events he picked, most of which I was knowledgeable about.
Date published: 2019-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Highly Informative I am a science teacher who likes history and this series was informative and fun. A series good for the entire family of history buffs. I am glad I purchased the CDs so I can pass them around the family.
Date published: 2019-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I live the great courses! I’m homeschooling with the great courses & it’s awesome!!
Date published: 2019-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from well presented Outstanding presentation - well documented - excellent continuity
Date published: 2019-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Selection of World-Changing Events This is one of three course I purchased this year, and am thoroughly enjoying each one. While generally familiar with the turning point events, I have learned a lot more about how these actually had an impact on civilization and even our modern daily lives.
Date published: 2019-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course Even though I am a student of history, I learned a great deal from this course. Professer has a very good speaking style.
Date published: 2018-09-09
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