A Brief History of the World : The Great Courses: Modern History

  • by The Great Courses
  • Narrated by Professor Peter N. Stearns
  • Series: The Great Courses: Modern History
  • 19 hrs and 1 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

The construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, the development of democracy in ancient Greece, the glories of ancient Rome - these stories are familiar to students of history. But what about the rest of the world? How do the histories of China and Japan, or Russia, India, and the remote territories of Sub-Saharan Africa and South America fit in with commonly known accounts of Western traditions?
Learn the rest of the story with these 36 riveting lectures that survey the expanse of human development and civilization across the globe. From the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era to the urbanized, technologically sophisticated world of the 21st century, you'll apprehend "the big picture" of world history. 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.
As you travel around the world and through time, Professor Stearns provides surprising insights that will overturn many of your assumptions about history. For instance, you'll see how the invention of agriculture brought with it a number of drawbacks, such as a new inequality between men and women and greater exposure to epidemic diseases. Fascinating episodes like these will give you a deep appreciation for the human experience as it was lived throughout the centuries.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful


In the beginning of this course, Peter Stearns goes to great lengths to define what he means by World History, and talks about it as a recent development. But haven't we been studying World History all our lives? Not really, he argues. What we were doing is Western Civilization, treating it as the only part of World History that mattered. What he's doing here is showing the Other Side of the Story, and this particular way of doing World History IS a new thing.

Inevitably, there's some imbalance in the approach. He tries to keep Western Europe and North America in the picture with a lesson here and there, but his main focus is on East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The perspective he brings is truly global: Rome and Western Europe may have been in tatters, he says, but during that same period China and East Asia were thriving, so let's talk about what THEY were up to.

Inevitably, he glosses over some events, even some that would illustrate the issues he's discussing. For example, one of the lessons deals at length with slavery and its abolition. In the course of the lesson, he touches on the North American abolitionist movement and the difficulties faced by freed slaves in the latter part of the 19th century; but he never mentions the American Civil War. This isn't just chauvinism on my part. Nearly a million people died in that war, and the war's chief aim was the destruction of the South's slave-based economy. What could be more relevant to the point at hand?

It should also be noted that this is not a narrative history; it's more of a sociological and economic history. There's a lot of emphasis on trade, and not so much on the Great Men (and Women) who ruled the countries engaged in that trade.

Stearns has blocked out broad periods of time: the great river civilizations, prior to 1000 BCE; the Classsical period, from 1000 BCE to 500 CE; the Post-Classical period, to 1450 CE; the Early Modern period, to 1750 CE; the "long 19th century," up to the beginning of the First World War; and everything else since then. Within each of these periods, his treatment is more often thematic or geographical than chronological. He'll have lessons on Revolution, for example, or Gender Relations, or Globalization; and mixed in with these will be lessons that focus on Latin America or China.

Personally, I would prefer a juicier narrative. But Stearns is well-informed on all the topics he discusses, and he always has a packet of unusual facts, comparisons, or connections up his sleeve. (Who got most of the silver from the New World? If you said Spain, you'd be wrong: it was China. Understanding how that came about is one of the pleasures to be had from the course.)

Stearns has an unusual way of speaking that took some getting used to. Many of his sentences consist of lists - each item in the list ending with a rising inflection, like a question. Eventually I settled into the rhythm. The fact hat his lists are consistently interesting and well-organized helps.
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- Tad Davis

History at 30,000 feet

This is a quite academic and high level lectures on world history which tries to treat all countries equally, but ends up covering everything from such a high level as to separate the history from the humanity. This breaks up history into periods with clear themes and historical theoretical models are proposed and argued. There are virtually no readings from original texts, no quotes of historical figures, and very few specific examples of historical activity to bring the history being discussed to life. There was very little actual analysis of why things happened the way they did. There were tiny references to Germs, Guns and Steel and the like, but so superficial as to be almost funny. I like history a lot, but this kind of history leaves me cold. For me the best history is a thoughtful non-auto biography, the next best is a thoughtful treatment of an event or movement or time of change, less good are chronological histories of a country, this history was of everything (which became largely a history of nothing).

There were a few moments of interest, but far too few. The lecturer makes many references to “quite interesting” stories, people and events, but does not waste any time on these interesting things, instead he must continue to describe the very broad thrusts of history (of course giving equal time to every culture and every country an award for effort). I really like alternative histories and histories from non-western perspectives, but I want history that is rich with ideas and art and action and sweat and blood and greed and passion with quotes and poetry, art and science, examples and quantities.

I find “Uh”, “OK”, and “Alright” thrown in audio books really quite annoying. Each of these ‘OK” and “Alrights” seemed to me to say “there, I have finished that section, not great, but let’s move on.”

This is not really bad, just really not my thing. It reminds me of any average college world history class needed to meet the general-ed requirement. I did finish it, and it did not put me to sleep, but I certainly would not recommend it or listen to it again.
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- Michael

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-08-2013
  • Publisher: The Great Courses