Philip D. Curtin. e World and the West: e European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 294 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-77135-1.
Reviewed by David M. Fahey (Department of History, Miami University)
Published on H-World (December, 2001)
Case Studies in Modern World History: A Method for World History Teaers?
Case Studies in Modern World History: A Method for
World History Teachers?
Now retired from teaching at Johns Hopkins, Philip
D. Curtin continues to contribute to historical scholarship.
He is a respected pioneer in world, comparative
and Atlantic history, as well as the history of Africa and
of ...view middle of the document...
e World and
the West (a highly traditional title) starts like the kind of
book that we have read many times and then begins to
surprise and enlighten us.
When I was commissioned to review Curtin’s book, I
protested that I could claim no relevant research expertise.
I was reassured: my charge was to evaluate the book
for the classroom. is charge I interpret both as what
teachers might borrow from Curtin’s book and how students
at various levels might respond to it as a required
text. Currently it is available only in a relatively inexpensive
hardback. Reading like a series of lectures, its
fourteen chapters correspond approximately to the number
of weeks in a semester. ere is a sixteen-page index,
and a short reading list follows each chapter. ere are
maps, photographs, and charts but, alas, not many.
Curtin organizes his book around case studies, many
of them strikingly imaginative, some of them explicitly
or implicitly comparative. He argues that “theory and
broad generalizations oen conceal so many exceptions
that they are in danger of becoming only vague reflections
of reality.” Case studies, he contends, “can only be
a partial reflection of the broader processes of history, but
they make it possible to stay closer to the empirical data
on which all good history must be based” (p. xi).
Curtin focuses on cultural change since the mid-
1700s: the transformation of “a people’s whole way of
life” (p. xii). Risking a tainted and ambiguous term, some
scholars call this a revolution of modernization. Curtin
divides his book into four parts: the technological basis
of European imperialism and the paerns of European
empire; cultural change among non-European peoples
whom Europeans ruled; cultural change among nonEuropean
peoples not under formal European control;
and, finally, cultural change in the third quarter of the
twentieth century, the time of the “liquidation” of European
overseas empires (p. xiv).
Let me first offer a survey of Curtin’s book from
my own perspective, that of a reasonably typical teacher
of introductory, advanced undergraduate, and graduate
courses in world history. Later I will provide a guess how
students might react to the book.
Most teachers of world history will find the arguments
in the first part of the book familiar, although they
will encounter new examples and details in these three
chapters. Chapter 1, “e Paern of Empire,” distinguishes
between true colonies, most of whose inhabitants
were European, and territorial empire, few of whose in-
habitants were European, and mixed or plural societies.
For true colonies, Curtin emphasizes the importance of
the demographic transition, when a normal sex ratio
among overseas Europeans permied their growth by
natural increase and not by immigration alone. Curtin
also stresses that claims of European sovereignty did not
guarantee an expensive effort to provide governmental