What an experience!

Editor's Introduction -- Glencoe's high-school textbook World History: The Human Experience has been fashioned from the remains of an earlier book that is now defunct. World History: The Human Experience isn't all bad, but it carries a heavy load of misconceptions, misinformation and guesswork: Even Glencoe's "quotation" from America's Declaration of Independence is a guess, and the guess is wrong. Our reviewer remarks that "it is unforgivable for a publisher to produce a history text without having the book's content checked by persons who really know history."
from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1995

Reviewing a high-school book in world history

World History: The Human Experience
1994. 1036 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-822756-5. Glencoe Division,
Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company, 936 Eastwind Drive,
Westerville, Ohio 43081. (This company is a division of McGraw-Hill, Inc.)

What Process Could Generate
a Book as Sorry as This One?

Charles B. Paul

Much of Glencoe's World History: The Human Experience has been made from the remains of a defunct Merrill textbook that was called The Human Experience: A World History. When I reviewed the 1990 version of that Merrill text, I found it to contain many substantive errors and misconceptions, and I suggested that teachers would have to handle it with care [see note 1, below].

My advice concerning this new Glencoe book is that teachers should not handle it at all.

A cursory comparison of the two books shows that World History: The Human Experience is longer than its predecessor by more than 200 pages. A close look, though, shows that this difference is misleading. If all of the photographs, special features, sidebars, summaries, reviews, question lists, and appendices were eliminated from both the new book and the old one, then the new book would be longer than the old by only 70 pages or so. According to my count, the Glencoe book has about 400 pages of historical narrative, while the Merrill book had about 330. In other words, most of the additional pages in the Glencoe book are given to pictures, special features, pedagogic devices and other auxiliary items, rather than to the recounting of history. Indeed, some 120 pages of Glencoe's book are devoted to "Chapter Review," "Unit Synopsis" and "Unit Review" sections.

What about the arrangement of material into chapters? The old book began with a short section titled "Introducing the Past," which included four pages about prehistoric times, and then presented 28 chapters of text. The new book gives all of its first chapter to prehistoric times [note 2], and it contains 36 chapters altogether. Nearly all the chapters have been renamed, and some material has been shifted or recombined. (In the older book, for example, the early history of India and China commanded a full chapter. In the new book, it's combined with material about ancient Egypt.) In certain cases, a section has been transformed into a whole chapter. (An account of the French Revolution, for example, was a part of chapter 14 in the old book, but it fills all of chapter 21 in the new.) Sometimes, the number of chapters given to a topic has expanded from one to two (as with ancient Greece or medieval Europe). In other instances, material that occupied two chapters has been shrunk so that it fits into one. (Where the older book had chapters titled "Twentieth-Century Culture" and "Global Interdependence," the newer book has one chapter about "A Changing World.") Overall, the percentage of space devoted to the history of the West (meaning Europe, European Russia, Asian Russia, Canada, and the United States) has decreased slightly.

The new book sometimes is more sinewy in its phrasing, as is shown by a comparison of two passages about Muhammad. The Merrill book said: Muhammad proved to be a wise political and religious leader. In A.D. 624, in an agreement known as the Medina Compact, he formed a community based on clearly defined rules. In this community, not the tribe, Muhammad was the lawgiver and military leader, and he was to settle community disputes [page 142]. The Glencoe book says: Muhammad proved that he was a skilled political and religious leader. In the Madinah [sic] Compact of A.D. 624, Muhammad decreed that all Muslims were to place loyalty to the Islamic community above loyalty to their tribe. . . . Disputes were to be settled by Muhammad, who was declared the community's lawgiver and commander-in-chief [page 238].

Other improvements in the new book include good criteria for distinguishing a civilization from a culture, some better descriptions (such as the descriptions of Kant's philosophy, the Three Chinese Ways of Life, and Chinese society), a very good explanation of the causes of l9th-century imperialism, and a fine sketch of Impressionism. Glencoe's book has also retained, from its predecessor, excellent chapters about the Industrial Revolution and about World War 1.

Unhappily, World History: The Human Experience has retained many of the earlier book's defects too, including its thin treatment of social and cultural history: Social history is represented chiefly by interesting bits that are relegated to special features or sidebars, rather than being amplified and incorporated into the narrative flow. Glencoe's book also has kept many of the old book's wrong and misleading statements, and it shows many new errors of its own -- especially in its history of science and the arts. Let me rectify some of Glencoe's more glaring mistakes and misconceptions:

Wrong Statements     The second temple in Jerusalem had not been built "only a few years before" 70 A.D. (It was built during the five-year period that ended in 515 B.C.) Charlemagne's reign was not brief, by any measure; he ruled from 771 to 814. Flanders (where I was born) is not in the northeastern part of France and Belgium; it lies in northwestern France and in northern and western Belgium. Europe in 1545 was not roughly divided into a Protestant north and a Catholic south, because eastern Europe was mostly Islamic or Eastern Orthodox. Magellan was killed on the Philippine island of Cebu, not "near Guam." The American Declaration of Independence doesn't begin with "We hold these Truths to be self-evident." (That celebrated phrase is in the second paragraph. The Declaration's opening statement begins with "When in the Course of human Events . . . .") In the United States, a president's nominees for federal judgeships must be approved by a majority of the Senate, not by the Congress as a whole.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was never a French constitution, though it was somewhat analogous to the American Bill of Rights. Varennes is not west of Paris but 150 miles east of it. In Great Britain, labor unions began "steadily growing and gaining political strength" in the mid-1800s, not in the mid-1700s. The French had two national elections in 1848: In April they chose delegates to the National Assembly; in December they voted for a president (and voted overwhelmingly for Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte). The 1870-1871 Commune was not run by Socialists; it was run largely by radical republicans, anarchists and Communards (supporters of the medieval idea of a semi-independent Commune of Paris). Even if all French males between the ages of 18 and 32 had gone to the front in World War 1 -- which was far from the case -- it could not have been possible for half of the members of that age group to be "killed in the fighting," as Glencoe's writers claim on page 729. (The graph on page 712 is more accurate. It shows that about three French soldiers were wounded for each one who was killed.) And the "more than 10 million workers" who migrated to Germany after World War 2 came from Turkey as well as "from the rest of Europe."

Misleading Presentations     Mayan cities were not unique to Guatemala, since there were Mayan cities in southeastern Mexico as well. Calvin's doctrine of predestination was not just the idea that "God determines the fate of every person." (Glencoe's writers should have kept the better description given in the older book, which told of Calvin's belief that "From the beginning of time, God decided who would be saved and who would be condemned for eternity.") The African slave trade was not devised by Europeans and did not start in the 1600s. (Glencoe's book devotes nearly all of page 405 to the trade that provided slaves to "the colonies in the Americas," but it totally ignores the trade that, for hundreds of years, had provided East African and West African slaves to Islamic countries in the Middle East. See "How Textbooks Obscure and Distort the History of Slavery" in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1992.) A need for money was only one of the reasons why Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. The principal reason was Napoleon's opinion that France could not hold on to any colonies in the New World.

Misinformation About Science     It is absolutely false to say that "Lacking scientific equipment, the Greek scientists made most of their discoveries by observation and thought." (As I explained when I reviewed the old Merrill book, which made a similar assertion, equipment is not a substitute for observation. Neither is equipment a substitute for thought. All scientists, at all times, have depended on observation and thought, no matter what equipment they did or did not have.) Similarly, it is false to say that [Aristotle's] technique for analyzing information was so useful that scientists still follow his methods today." (Some elements of Aristotle's approach are still important, but scientists have discarded his overall "technique," which revolved around the view that nature was ruled by purpose and could be apprehended by a combination of observation and syllogism.) It is also false to assert that science is based on the inductive approach that was advocated by Francis Bacon. (As C.C. Gillispie has pointed out, "No discovery has ever been made by following Bacon's method.") Furthermore, science does not rely on a single "scientific method," science does not consist solely of performing experiments, and no set of experiments can test a hypothesis "under all possible conditions and in every possible way."

Copernicus's idea that Earth moved around the Sun was no more consistent with contemporary "observations" than was the opposite view. (Contemporary astronomers had devised ingenious, complicated models which reconciled astronomical observations with the belief that the Sun and the various planets were travelling around a stationary Earth.) It is absurd to say that Copernicus thought Earth "rotated on its axis around the sun, which stayed still." (The writers are confusing two different modes of motion. Earth rotates on its axis, but this has nothing to do with the Sun. Earth revolves about the Sun, but this motion is independent of rotation.)

Galileo's discoveries did not include the formulation that "an object remains at rest or in straight-line motion unless acted upon by an external force." (A textbook-writer has put into Galileo's mouth one of the famous laws enunciated by Newton.) Yes, Newton "developed calculus," but so did Leibniz -- independently of Newton. (It is also important to recognize that neither man conceived his calculus de novo. Both men built upon foundations that had been laid by numerous 17th-century thinkers.) Lamarck did not say anything new when he "suggested" that living things changed during their lifetimes and "passed the changes on to the next generation." (That idea had been held widely since antiquity. See "The Imaginary Lamarck: A Look at Bogus 'History' in Schoolbooks" in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1994.) It is both anachronistic and misleading to claim that 16th-century or 17th-century Jesuits advanced the study of "archaeology, linguistics, biology, chemistry and genetics." (Those are the modern names for modern scientific fields that did not exist in the 16th or the 17th century.) Optics is not the study of sight -- it is the study of the behavior of light. And Planck's quantum theory helped Einstein in explicating the photon, not in developing the theory of relativity.

Wrong Notions About the Arts     Just as the old Merrill book did, the Glencoe book misguidedly sets up a one-to-one correspondence between the Enlightenment and Classicism. (Hence it ignores the fact that the Enlightenment saw the flourishing of many artistic styles: the Baroque, the Rococo, Roman Neoclassicism, Hellenistic Neoclassicism, and Sensibility.) And just as the old Merrill book did, Glencoe's book mislocates and misrepresents such Neoclassical writers as Racine and Milton and Dryden by putting them into a section of text called "Impact of Enlightenment." (All those men wrote before the rise of the Enlightenment.)

Other cases of confusion or error are easy to find. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim was to tell not "a tale" but four tales -- two on the way to Canterbury, then two on the way back. Romantic composers of the late 1700s and the early 1800s were not doing anything new when they "fused music with imaginative literature" to create operas. (Plenty of earlier composers, such as Handel, Rameau and Mozart, had done the same thing. The history of opera goes back to 1600, when Jacopo Peri's Euridice was given at Florence.) Equestrian statues were not "a Renaissance innovation." (The ancient Romans had produced such works, including the famous equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, which has been shown in innumerable history books and art books.) It gives a wrong impression to say that Rabelais wrote in distinct genres such as "comic tales, satires, and parodies" and that he wrote on discrete subjects such as "law, medicine, politics, theology, botany, and navigation." (All of those genres and subjects are combined in his four-part masterpiece that includes the tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel.) Finally, Hobbes did not contend that people "do not have the right to rebel against their government, no matter how unjust it might be." According to chapter 21 of his Leviathan, people may rebel if their government cannot protect them from bodily harm, or if it requires them to commit suicide, or if it doesn't let them hire substitutes when they are drafted into military service.

Irresponsible and Unforgivable

It is sad to find that World History: The Human Experience contains those obvious errors, as well as many others that I have not listed here. Indeed, I conclude that this book, despite its smoother prose and its somewhat greater attention to non-Western civilizations, is less professional than the Merrill book. The new book has a larger number of elementary mistakes, it gives relatively less space to historical narrative and relatively more to peripheral items and trappings, it shows even less understanding of the arts and sciences, and it is not up-to-date in its historiography of the last half-century. What kind of process could account for the production of so sorry a book? I suspect that a plausible scenario might be this: First, the publisher hires various so-called experts, and these persons compose their respective slices of "history" by making use of outdated secondary sources. Then the company hires a writer (maybe a journalist) to smooth the rough edges and homogenize the prose. This writer, lacking a background in history, introduces more errors, anachronisms and fallacies into the material as he hastily rewrites it, and the results are disastrous -- the more so because the writer also is in a geographic fog, confuses one place with another, and even manages to mistake east for west, or vice versa.

Regardless of whether my scenario is accurate or not, it is unforgivable for a publisher to produce a history text without having the book's content checked by persons who really know history. Such behavior is totally unprofessional and irresponsible.


  1. Editor's note: Two reviews of the Merrill textbook appeared in TTL, May-June 1990, under these headlines: "Parochialism, Eurocentricity and Two Unfulfilled Claims" and "A History Textbook That Is Attractive but Exasperating." [return to text]

  2. The chapter about prehistory is fanciful and factually indefensible. Like the older book's material about prehistory, it leads students to believe that there was a single, global Stone Age which ended some 7,000 years ago. That is quite wrong. There was no global Stone Age, the term "Stone Age" does not denote a unique period of time, and Stone Age cultures still exist today. See William J. Bennetta's review of World Cultures: A Global Mosaic in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1994. [return to text]

Charles Paul, a specialist in cultural history, is a professor of humanities, emeritus, from San Jose State University. He has published scholarly articles on literature and music, and he has written a book, Science and Immortality, about the science and the scientists of 18th-century France.


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