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UNIT 17: Ideas Shape the World



Ideas by themselves are intellectual abstractions. However, when ideas inspire people to action, they become powerful agents of change in the material world. We often identify individuals with the discovery or creation of particular ideas — such as Isaac Newton and gravity — but those ideas only have an impact through the cumulative and collective actions of others.

All ideas are products of particular times and places, of specific historical and cultural contexts. At the same time, ideas are not limited by these historical and cultural boundaries. Instead, ideas are frequently transmitted widely over time and space, where they take on new meanings in new settings.

The people who transmit ideas are those who use them as tools for analysis or for action. Frequently, these are people who move between cultural boundaries themselves, including scholars, rebels, travelers, sailors, pilgrims, and journalists. Those who promote new ideas may not accept ideas in their entirety, but rather tend to selectively adapt or reject certain aspects that fit their own political, social, or cultural circumstances. In this way, ideas of all kinds are refracted through the lenses of specific cultures. However, these altered and adapted ideas can still be powerful agents of change, whether they advocate the creation of a new world or urge a revival of past ideals.

This unit explores the creation, transmission, and adaptation of ideas-as well as the actions they inspired-in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This period was especially abundant in the transmission of ideas because an increasingly global economy facilitated the transportation of peoples and ideas across oceans and continents. As a result of this global economy, ideas as diverse as the philosophies of the European Enlightenment and the doctrines of a new reform-minded Islam inspired social and political rebellions in many parts of the world.

Indeed, economic and social links within both the Atlantic world and the dar al-Islam provided avenues for the easy exchange of ideas across all parts of each region. These regions were so diverse, however, that ideas were rarely transplanted unchanged into new cultural contexts. Even so, when opportunities presented themselves, individuals with access to new ideas strove to put them into action in a wide variety of places. Yet, because of the process of adaptation and the diverse range of situations where ideas were applied, the results of such action proved to be quite different across both time and space.


Time Period: 1700-1900

In the Atlantic World, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a time of rapid political, economic, and social change. Revolution in North America in 1775 helped spur the French Revolution in 1789, which itself fueled later revolutions in Haiti and South America. Beginning in 1780, industrialization also resulted in social and economic change. Elsewhere in the world, China under the Qing dynasty (est. 1644) enjoyed a period of stability, prosperity, and demographic growth. The same was true for much of the rest of East Asia. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, Western interventions in both China and Japan inaugurated a new period of instability and change. In the Islamic world, the three great Islamic empires declined. The Safavid Empire collapsed completely in 1722; the Mughal Empire lost power to the British in India by 1763; and the Ottoman Empire-although it continued to exist-was increasingly subject to the whims of European powers.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economics and politics by focusing on the connections between Atlantic revolutions in North America, France, Haiti, and South America.
  • Explores change and continuity by looking at the changes revolutionary movements set in motion as well as the ways that revolutionary ideals were incorporated into existing cultures.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments by exploring the ideas and impulses that inspired people to work for-and fight for-social and political change.
  • Focuses on the changing functions of states, because the Atlantic revolutions led to the emergence of new types of states, encouraging the growth of modern nationalism.


  • Question 1: How do ideas affect human actions in ways that can change the world?
  • Question 2: What happens to ideas when people from diverse areas interpret them differently, according to their own cultural settings?
  • Question 3: What were the historical conditions that made it easy for ideas to spread widely and so quickly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
  • Question 4: What is the relationship between the spread of ideas and charismatic individuals? In other words, is it the message or the messenger that gives ideas their power to effect change?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Ideas can integrate people by inspiring them to work toward a common goal, whether the goal is independence, religious purity, or equality. Ideas can also connect people across cultures, the way Simon Bolivar connected with Enlightenment thinkers during his travels in Europe.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Ideas can also be a source of difference, because they can encourage people to draw distinctions between themselves and others who have different ideas.

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