Curriculum History Lesson Plans

Teaching Capitalism in Early Modern World History

A one to two period lesson plan that introduces World History students to a sophisticated definition of capitalism.

In my post on the new course’s treatment of the early modern world I noted the absence of capitalism in this period as an example of the dramatic decrease in content that emphasizes social organization and modes of production. To be fair, the previous AP World History course and exam description did not include capitalism until the modern period (c. 1750-c.1900 CE). It did treat joint-stock companies and global trade as important elements of social and economic organization; whereas, the new CED subordinates them to discussions of maritime empire.

This emphasis in the previous AP World History curriculum and the importance of capitalist modes of production to early modern World History led me to develop a one to two period lesson introducing students to a sophisticated definition of capitalism. I use a deck of slides, embedded below. This lesson involves more lecture than the types of lessons I highlight on this site, and it is part of a series of “Theory Thursday” lectures that I do on more complex topics. My students are eleventh graders who have been introduced to capitalism in US History the previous year, mostly in the context of the Cold War. I want them to develop a deeper understanding of what capitalism means. In particular, they should see that capitalist systems entail much more than freely trading goods and services. As activist Bree Newsome Bass noted recently on Twitter, such an understanding would be advanced in comparison to the general public.

This lesson takes an entire sixty-seven minute class period with my advanced placement juniors, and some years the discussion stretches into a second day. This may explain the deemphasis of modes of production in the new AP World History: Modern course. It’s complicated, and probably is not “commonly taught” (see image below) to ninth and tenth grade World History students. But, it is appropriate for a first year college class, which AP World History is supposed to simulate. Advanced high school students can grasp that capitalism means more than free trade.

From the AP World History: Modern Course and Exam Description, highlight added

The Lesson

The lesson begins as a mini-lecture using the second and fourth slides to define capitalism. Students should record this definition to use later and can consult the definition in their textbook.

The third slide came to my attention on Twitter. Ming paper money is one example how the elements of modern capitalism developed in multiple places and in multiple times. A teacher might also talk about the sakk in the Islamic World and bills of exchange in Italian trading firms.

After defining capitalism, I assigns small groups of students one topic each from slide five. The page numbers are for Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters, 5th ed. and the titles are subsection heads in the book, but the topics are common to other textbooks. Groups then read short sections about their topic and discuss which elements of capitalism were present and which were not. Groups share out with the class and I use slides six and seven to discuss the paradoxes of capitalism. Slides eight and nine describe the impact of capitalism, and I often need to go over them the next day.

We revisit all of these concepts in the modern period (c. 1750-c. 1900 CE) with discussions of industrialization and Liberalism, including the free market ideas of Adam Smith. Smith’s work was based on observations of economic activity, some of which could be classified as capitalist and some perhaps not (I realize that where to draw these lines is very debatable). In the big picture of the World History survey students should understand capital accumulation and capital investment as originating prior to industrialization and happening in multiple regions.

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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