Reading Knoxville: Turning Points In Modern History

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Book by Vejas Gabriel, Reviewed by Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“This course shows how the decisive turning points of the last 500 years have, in fact, combined to create the modern world as it is today, shaping the condition of modernity as we know it and live it now,” states Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius in the Introduction to his lively and informative series of video lectures Turning Points in Modern History. These videos are produced by The Great Courses (, a company that specializes in courses taught by distinguished professors. “A turning point marks a decisive moment that shapes later developments” with an emphasis on modernity: “a mindset that stresses novelty and breaks with the past.” In discussing his twenty-four turning points, Professor Liulevicius narrates a breathtaking survey of transformations that have defined our modern world.

Technological and scientific innovations combined with intellectual change define several turning points. Johann Gutenberg’s 1455 invention of the printing press “democratized” texts by creating a large reading public and a demand for the printed word. The microscope, constructed by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676, led to the discovery of bacteria and microorganisms, “things that are buried from our eyes.” The first motion pictures were viewed by audiences in New York in 1896; by 1930, “90 million Americans were watching a movie at least once a week.” Equally innovative were Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the Wright Brothers’ airplane (1903), and the discovery of penicillin (1928).

Past political and military events still significantly influence current events. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks signaled the end of the Roman Empire and drew geopolitical lines between East and West. The American Constitution of 1787 “was remarkable for its time and endures today as the first such document adopted by a large state and the oldest written constitution still in operation in the world.” The French Revolution of 1789, marked by the Reign of Terror and the rise of the emperor Napoleon, “established a recurring tragic pattern of radical revolt leading to anarchy and tyranny.” Britain forced China to open its borders to trade, cede Hong Kong, and buy imported opium in the Opium War of 1839. China’s earlier sense of superiority was replaced by feelings of national humiliation, an undercurrent that still propels Chinese policy towards the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to the unification of Germany, the dismantling of the Soviet empire, and the rise of Vladimir Putin.

Past political and military events still significantly influence current events.

Social transformations have changed everyday life. The British Slavery Abolition Act of 1838 ended slavery in the British Empire and influenced the fight against this injustice in other countries. Women first earned the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893. The suffrage movement only slowed gained the right of women to vote in other countries: United States (1920), France (1940), and Switzerland (1971). Saudi Arabia still does not allow its women this right. Finally, the rise of social media and Facebook in 2004 has created a global community that can easily share ideas.

Professor Liulevicius is a stimulating lecturer as he takes us on his tour of these historical turning points. The format of The Great Courses is to be commended; it makes history accessible to all ages, as listeners can stream lectures or watch on DVD. This study of history is important, as Professor Liulevicius summarizes: “We can better understand ourselves and where we stand in the grand sweep of world history and the human project.”

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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