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READ: AP Themes and the Course Narrative

Themes can help us to make meaning from the huge amount of information in a world history course, as two pots of porridge demonstrate.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What change over time is suggested by the political knowledge of the two porridge-makers in this article, as described by the Governance/Politics (P) theme?
  2. How would you describe changes in Technology and Innovation (I) over time, as described in this article?
  3. How are the Economic Systems ($) of the two porridge-makers apparently different?
  4. Based on their activities, how can we describe the differences in Cultural Development and Interaction (C) of the porridge-makers?
  5. How can we explain the differences between the porridges cooked in thirteenth-century China and twenty-first-century South Africa using the theme of Humans and the Environment (E)?
  6. How would you describe the differences between the Social Interactions and Organizations (S) of the two porridge-makers?
  7. If you analyzed your own life through the six themes in this article, what might you say about yourself under each theme?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Two Pots of Porridge, 800 Years Apart: A Glimpse into AP Themes and the Course Narrative

By Trevor Getz
Themes can help us to make meaning from the huge amount of information in a world history course, as two pots of porridge demonstrate.
Once upon a time, say, 1200 CE, in a little Chinese village, a woman made porridge for breakfast. About eight centuries later, a man in Johannesburg, South Africa, also made porridge for breakfast. The end.
Sounds like a story of continuity, right? Porridge is a great example of continuity. It’s a thread that connects people from the medieval world to the modern world, and all the periods in between. But is that the end of this story? Not really. Porridge, it turns out, is also a great way to see change over time.
Continuity and change over time—CCOT—you’ll remember, is one of the three reasoning processes in AP® World History: Modern. We can get a better sense of continuity and change if we look closer at these two people and investigate their worlds—and their breakfasts—through the six themes of the AP World History course:
  • Political (P). The woman lives in the most highly organized state of her age, the Song Dynasty. Her emperor is assisted by professional bureaucrats who must pass an exam to become authorities. One of these people manages her district. But she doesn’t know much about the government. The man lives in a democracy. While he cooks, he reads a newspaper article about his country’s president and thinks about the upcoming election.
  • Innovation (I). The woman is fortunate to live in thirteenth-century China, where farming technology is very advanced. Her family shares a big metal plow with some neighbors. She also has simple machines for weaving silk. She cooks over a small coal-burning stove that takes an hour to get hot. She and her husband know how to repair all these things. The man not only has an electric oven that instantly heats up, but also a smartphone in his pocket. He can text 60 words a minute, but he wouldn’t know the first thing about how to repair his phone, should it break.
  • Economy ($). The woman and her family grow the rice for their porridge. She also weaves some silk, which she sells. She uses the money from those sales to buy extra goods. The man goes to a job five days a week and gets paid a wage, with which he buys things such as maize meal—grown 1,000 miles away—from which he makes his porridge. He has never even visited a corn farm.
  • Culture (C). As a Christian, the man is a member of a world-spanning religion. After making breakfast, he will go to church to worship with his community. The woman’s beliefs mix Taoism, Buddhism, and a relationship with local spirits and ancestors. She has already made offerings to them this morning, in her home.
  • Environment (E). The woman cooks rice that is native to Southeast Asia and grows well in the wet, humid environment of south China. The man cooks maize meal—locally known as “pap”—which was first domesticated in the Americas but thrives in the drier climate of southern Africa.
  • Social (S). The man lives with his immediate family and is friendly with dozens of other people. He works with many of his friends and likes to hang out in cafés. Some of his friends he has never met face to face. He games with them online or meets them through social networks. The woman only knows people in her village and the surrounding farms. She spends most of her time with extended family members, who live either in her house or right next door.

Using the themes

These two people, cooking very similar meals, live very differently. We can understand the contours of their lives—and the differences between them—by looking at each of them and their respective societies through the six themes. Each theme acts as a different view into how they got to breakfast, how their breakfast got to them, and where they will go next.
The six themes also help us understand change over time. The two people’s lives and experiences vary not only because they live in different places, but also different times. Arguably, the experiences of a Chinese office worker today are much more like that of her South African contemporary than those of her ancestor—the porridge maker—800 years ago.
In the following paragraphs, I’m going to give you one history of the world—a very brief one—that highlights big trends and turning points over the last 800 years. Try to notice, sentence by sentence, how much of this brief history can be tied to one or more of the themes used by AP® World History: Modern. If your teacher uses a slightly different set of themes, don’t worry—rice is different from corn, but they both make good porridge. As you go through these paragraphs, see how many times you can spot the themes. Hint: it’s a lot!

Unit 1: The global tapestry, c. 1200 to c. 1450

If you could travel back in time to 1200, you would find a world much less interconnected than ours today. Travel was difficult and expensive, and some parts of the world were not in contact with each other at all. As a result, there was great diversity in the way people organized themselves. In Unit 1, you’ll see this diversity, mostly through the themes of culture and governance. You’ll explore how in each region, particular factors, histories, and ideas shaped how societies came to govern themselves. We’ll also investigate the deeply entwined relationship of government and culture.

Unit 2: Networks of exchange, c. 1200 to c. 1450

Despite barriers to communication and travel, societies across the world still traded goods and exchanged ideas with each other in the period from 1200 to 1450. For example, these societies often shared or exchanged religion and culture, as well as technologies and goods. In Eurasia, the vast Mongol Empire connected many regions and helped spread ideas and tools across different regions. Similarly, trade routes connecting societies on both sides of the Sahara Desert in Africa and around the Indian Ocean helped spread culture and technology. These networks transformed humanity’s relationship with our environment, often in unexpected ways. We can particularly see this in the unintentional spread of the Black Death plague along the same routes that carried trade in the mid-fourteenth century.

Unit 3: Land-based empires, c. 1450 to c. 1750

It took most of the fifteenth century for many parts of Eurasia and North Africa to recover from the Black Death. As trade expanded once again, some states became quite large. New, land-based empires formed around the globe, from China to south and central Asia and into the Mediterranean. The largest of these states—the Mughal, Russian, Ottoman, Safavid, and Ming Dynasty empires—all owed some of their ideas and technologies to the legacy of the Mongols. In the Americas as well, states that reached empire proportions such as the Inca and Aztec controlled vast areas of land. In this unit, you’ll explore how and why these empires came into being. You’ll compare how they were governed, and you’ll find many similarities among them. You’ll also see the significant role played by belief systems as they changed to support, or in some cases, challenge, the rule of empires.

Unit 4: Transoceanic interconnections, c. 1450 to c. 1750

The spread of technologies across Afro-Eurasia described in Unit 2 helped to set the scene for a rapid expansion in trade and exploration across the world’s oceans in the fifteenth century. One result of this trend was the permanent connection of Afro-Eurasia and the Americas—a number of routes that have been called the Columbian Exchange. These connections led to the movement of food and goods—including American corn reaching Africa—that changed environments around the world. They also led to the development of maritime empires, mostly headquartered in Europe. These empires developed complicated social hierarchies, in which race played an important role. Their economies made use of large numbers of enslaved people. However, they also brought people together in port cities from Africa to Asia, the Americas, and Europe, resulting in rapid cultural mixing and change. All these trends transformed how the world worked and how people in different areas understood it.

Unit 5: Revolutions, c. 1750 to c. 1900

The rapid cultural exchange, technological change, and extreme social inequality described in Unit 4 provided the foundation for a series of linked revolutions in the years that followed. Some of the most enduring changes occurred through technological change, especially in terms of energy production and use. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain, but as it spread, it would have major implications for the global economy, social organization, and the environment. It was this revolution that sent people such as our friend in Johannesburg to work a shift in a factory or office every day, and that’s why his porridge came from a store and not his fields. These are just two of the effects of industrialization we still live with today.
Political revolutions of this era also had long-lasting implications. Perhaps the most complete of these revolutions was the overthrow of the slave regime in Haiti by its enslaved people. The Haitian Revolution had elements in common with other revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic—in the Americas, Europe, and even Africa. New ideas drove these revolutions, including the rise of capitalism as an economic system and the philosophical and political ideals known as the Enlightenment. These changes called for a reordering of the social system—the way that gender, class, age, and race determined who had power and how people related to each other. Some of these changes were rapid, others were slow.

Unit 6: Consequences of industrialization, c. 1750 to c. 1900

One of the biggest consequences of these changes, however, was a renewed expansion of empires. The technology of the Industrial Revolution gave industrialized states like France, Britain, the United States, and Japan increased power over others, while the resulting economic growth led them to seek control of resources and markets overseas. The new empires increasingly took territories in Asia and Africa and ruled them as colonies with few rights. This was justified by a new set of ideas known as imperialism. Empires profited from their colonies by extracting resources and selling finished products to captive markets—populations who could only buy goods from their rulers. People moved around a lot within these empires, with many members of the imperialist states settling in the colonies controlled by their nation.

Unit 7: Global conflict, c. 1900 to the present

The expansion of empires was one of the major causes of shifting power, with industrialized states gaining global power while other states such as the Ottoman Empire lost it. Competition over these power shifts was one cause of the First World War, which broke out in 1914. This bloody four-year conflict was the first “total war,” with large numbers of people and whole economies mobilized. Indeed, its outcome was partly decided by the economic strength of the victors, especially Great Britain and the United States. That war was followed by a dramatic economic collapse known as the Great Depression, and then the Second World War. This conflict was in many ways a continuation of the earlier global war, but was fought with new, much deadlier technology, culminating in the dropping of two atomic bombs in 1945. This war, even more than the First World War, saw dramatic atrocities against civilians, perpetrated by people using nationalist and racist ideas as their justification.

Unit 8: Cold War and decolonization, c. 1900 to the present

The end of the Second World War acted as a trigger for two vast and related trends: the Cold War and decolonization. We can understand each of these as political conflicts, in part. The Cold War emerged as a competition between the two largest victors of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, decolonization took place as the people of colonies around the world fought to be liberated from the distant states controlling them. To some degree, these conflicts were ideological fights involving different ideas of freedom and different ways of organizing societies. The fighting was also about who would control the global and local economies. On the surface, the Cold War looks like the bigger conflict. But it’s important to note that events were often driven by decolonization, as the resistance by people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, and Latin America grew too powerful for empires to manage.

Unit 9: Globalization, c. 1900 to the present

As the Cold War ended and the last major colonies won their independence, people began to recognize how interconnected we all are. Many began to talk of these interconnections using the term “globalization.” This term recognized how technologies such as airplanes and the Internet have made it much easier to move around and connect with one another. Our economies are also closely connected through global trade, so that what we buy and own—even our breakfast porridge—often comes from distant parts of the world. It has also meant that to some degree, people everywhere have come to share a kind of global culture. There are even now some institutions, such as the United Nations, that try to make shared decisions about global issues. Finally, we have learned that environmental damage in one part of the world has big implications for the rest of it. These connections, however, have also created new problems. As a result, we have seen many calls for reforms, both in terms of demands for social change, defense of local cultures, and campaigns to protect our shared global environment.
All of this is a big change from the picture of the world in 1200. But the six themes help us see the long history that connects us to that world. They help explain how the experiences of two people making porridge for breakfast were connected by important continuities, even though they were separated by the changes of eight centuries and 7,000 miles. As you go through this course, you’ll find that the themes similarly help you understand the other two AP®World History: Modern reasoning processes—causation and comparison. Together, they allow you to structure the information you acquire in this class into something that is meaningful to you.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is a professor of African and world history at San Francisco State University. He has been the author or editor of 11 books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and has coproduced several prize-winning documentaries. Trevor is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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