Curriculum History

Decolonizing with Scissors and Tape, Part 2: the Early Modern World

The new AP World History: Modern course virtually ignores the development of capitalism and racial ideology in the early modern world. It does address global exchange, albeit in a Eurocentric frame, and the development of larger empires.

This post continues my analysis of the new AP World History: Modern that I began by cutting apart the new Course and Exam Description (henceforth CED) with my eight year old last month. In addition to being emotionally satisfying, albeit not especially sophisticated, the cutting and pasting revealed a lot about the shifts from the previous to the most recent CED. For instance, the smaller the font used by the College Board, the less significant an idea is in the new course. Global networks and empires remain major topics in the study of the early modern world, while race and capitalism nearly disappear (zoom into the center of the image below to see them). Laying out the content revealed how the new course treats the previous Key Concepts. I have rearranged the topics conceptually, not necessarily in the sequence that I will teach them. The Key Concepts guide student learning.

Early Modern Period, reconstructed

Globalizing Networks of Communication and Exchange

Global networks retain their importance in the new curriculum, but lose pride of place as the first topic to Imperial expansion. Since the two went hand in hand this seems fair, although it does reveal the importance of political forms in comparison to social and economic forms in constructing a master narrative for World History. In my reconstruction I modified some of the topics to reflect continuities in seafaring from the late Medieval period.

I excised the start date of c. 1450 for maritime technology and voyaging, because in my class I emphasize that interregional travel was increasing through the late Medieval. Our textbook, Bentley and Ziegler’s 5th edition of Traditions and Encounters, places da Gama’s and Columbus’s most significant voyages as the culmination of late Medieval expansion. I had not thought of it this way before teaching AP World, but I was persuaded as I learned more about the Indian Ocean network and impressive mariners of the Middle Ages. I will also continue to include Polynesian and Viking ocean travel, despite their removal from the official AP World History: Modern curriculum. Not only is Polynesian wayfinding very impressive, but it belies the notion that maritime technology was the only important factor.

Maritime and navigational technologies did expand the range of European sailors, of course. But, students should be aware that these technologies, such as the compass, had histories from across Afro-Eurasia before c. 1450. I am confident that many AP World History teachers will continue to include these continuities in their discussions of ocean voyages.

I also changed “exploration” to “voyaging” with these continuities in mind. Voyaging is more accurate and includes more events. Consider Vasco da Gama’s signature voyage from Portugal to India during which he probably employed a pilot native to the Indian Ocean basin to guide him to the Malabar coast of India, where the population included some Portuguese. As Bram Hubbell has pointed out, and the 2019 DBQ referenced, the Ottomans and the Portuguese got into the Indian Ocean at the same time.

Bram also has a thoughtful post on global Lisbon that reframes “exploration” as “encounter”. As Bram notes the Age of Exploration was once known as the Age of Discovery, but the subject is sailing and the exchanges that it fostered. These exchanges are why I moved belief systems from Empires to Global Networks, and replaced “Empires” with “People” in the topic. Decentering Europe in the prologue to these exchanges does not diminish the importance of European maritime empires, which were clearly major developments in World History. I am advocating that World History teachers contextualize their origins within maritime networks and technologies from across Afro-Eurasia.

New Forms of Social Organization and Modes of Production

This Key Concept almost completely disappears from the topical organization of AP World History: Modern. Social organization and material bases for societies get short shrift in the early modern period, just as they do in the late medieval. A theme across all units in the new CED is an over emphasis on ideas as the drivers of history, at the expense of looking at ideas as effects of material realities. This is especially clear with capitalism and race, concepts where ideological support developed in the wake of their practice. High school teachers can and should introduce advanced students to these dynamics.

The British and Dutch East Indies Companies predate Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations by more than a century and a half, but the first mention of “capitalism” in the CED is in reference to Smith’s treatise. Even without wading into the debate about whether slave labor systems can be considered “capitalist,” Caribbean and Brazilian sugar production involved substantial capital investment, reinvestment of profit, and labor specialization.

Ox-Driven Sugar Mill in Brazil, woodcut illustration. Page 108 from Willem Piso, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Amsterdam, 1648). This illustration shows one piece of the highly capitalized sugar production process in the seventeenth century. Source: Midwest Arcadia

Slave labor systems did influence the development of racial ideologies, but “racial” does appear until the modern period where it is listed as a cause of imperialism. The word “race” is only used in conjunction with movements for racial equality. I will continue to discuss the origins of capitalism and race with students in their early modern context. Students should understand that these practices have a history and have changed over time.

State Consolidation and Imperial Expansion

The new CED emphasizes imperial expansion more than state consolidation, but generally encourages covering this Key Concept. As noted above I moved beliefs systems out of empires because exchanges affected them. I also cut out, literally, “land-based” from the comparison of Empire. Not only were some Empires, like the Ottomans, land-based and maritime, but comparing Empires that fit more clearly within one of these categories is also interesting.


The last topic in each unit of the new CED is an assessment in which students apply a historical reasoning process. In this case I think analyzing patterns of continuity and change over time would be an excellent culmination to a study of the early modern world. This analysis should include systems of production and social organization along with global networks of exchange and expanding empires.

UPDATE: New post with a lesson plan for covering capitalist developments in the early modern world

UPDATE 2: New post with lesson plan for covering the development of race and racism in the early modern world.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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