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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1995

Reviewing a high-school book in world history

Human Heritage: A World History
1995. 696 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-823187-2.
Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing
Company, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(This company is a division of McGraw-Hill, Inc.)

A Misnamed, Outdated Book,
Preoccupied with Westerners

William Weber

Human Heritage: A World History is an attractive, approachable textbook, advertised for use in grades 6 through 12. It provides a smooth, chronological account of history, written in a way that is suitable for middle-school students or for high-school students whose reading abilities are limited. This book, however, does not deserve to carry the subtitle A World History, because it follows a traditional path and pays little attention to anything but the history of the West. In this respect, it differs considerably from most of the other texts that have been published in recent years.

Human Heritage also shuns most of the pedagogic innovations that have been introduced into the teaching of history during the last decade, such as activities aimed at helping students to develop their intellectual skills. By furnishing only a meager selection of skill-building activities, Human Heritage harks back to the history books that were common twenty or thirty years ago.

Scope and Perspective

As a whole, Human Heritage offers desperately little discussion of regions other than Europe, North America, and the colonial outposts of European or North American nation-states. The opening chapters take the usual route from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Greece, but we find only ten pages about peoples of the "Eastern River Valleys" (the valleys of the Indus and the Huang Ho), fifteen pages on the early peoples of "Africa and the Americas," fifteen on Islam and the early Islamic states, and thirteen on "The Eastern Slavs." The rest of Human Heritage is strictly a history of Western civilization and the extension of that civilization into other parts of the world.

(Some non-Western peoples -- the Nok, the Zhou, the Guptas and the Maoris, for example -- turn up in twelve "Culture Close-up" sections, but the sections will probably do more to mislead students than to teach them. The "Culture Close-up" pages are given largely to pictures of artifacts (with little text about the humans who brought the artifacts into being), and they seem to be afterthoughts. The things that are depicted or mentioned on these pages are not listed in the book's index, and the book's main text doesn't provide cross-references to the "Culture Close-up" material.)

The book's resolutely Western approach is reflected not only in its scope but also in its historical perspective. Even when the writers deal with the modern period (i.e., the past few centuries), they view non-Western societies chiefly as substrates for Western colonialism and imperialism. We learn that such societies were less developed than Western nations were, in economic terms, but we read little else about them. One need not be a militant advocate of "multiculturalism" to regret the writers' nearly complete failure to discuss indigenous peoples in the modern period, or the nearly complete failure to tell how indigenous peoples were wiped out by warfare and disease during their confrontations with Western colonizers.

One virtue of Human Heritage is that its chronology is focused, emphasizing basic social and political matters. The chronological flow does not get lost in masses of details, as can happen when textbook-writers insist on plodding through successions of monarchs and dynasties. In Human Heritage the discussion of European feudalism, for example, gives a vivid picture of the feudal way of life. An engaging aspect of social history turns up in a list of rules governing "Renaissance Manners" -- for example, "Do not stick out your tongue, rub hands together, or groan out loud." This material (which seems to have come from the first volume of The History of Manners, by the German sociologist Norbert Elias) is invariably fascinating to students and teachers alike. Unfortunately, Glencoe's writers have failed to exploit its pedagogic potential; they should have asked students and teachers to consider what those rules tell us about how people lived differently in Renaissance times.

As far as historical accuracy is concerned, Human Heritage seems neither better nor worse than other books. Some of the errors are superficial: On page 372, for example, the writers repeat the long-discredited belief that, in medieval Europe, girls from noble families "were often married by the time they were 12 years old"; and on page 439 they invent the strange claim that Venice did not feel the influence of the Renaissance until the late 1500s. Deeper problems stem from the writers' avoidance of theological ideas in their discussions of religion. Medieval Christianity is presented more as a way of life than as a set of beliefs about the supernatural. In the writers' account of the English Civil War (page 505) the Puritans and the Anglicans seem to differ only in moral respects.

Pedagogic Defects

On the pedagogic side, the principal shortcoming of Human Heritage is that it makes little effort to build the student's intellectual skills. Glencoe's writers seem to think that if a book is to be friendly and easy to read, it must also aim low in its pedagogic techniques. Several methods that now are considered basic to the teaching of history and social studies are completely absent: There are no activities in which students can analyze excerpts from primary sources, interpret graphs of quantitative information, play the roles of historical figures, or carry out cooperative-learning projects. Some experienced, adventurous teachers will be able to devise such activities, but young teachers (especially) need a supply of contemporary, imaginative activities that are linked closely to material in the textbook that they are using.

Exercises labeled "Critical Thinking" appear in the review sections in Human Heritage, but they are not very productive. Too many of them seem fanciful or unrealistic. (In chapter 28, for instance, the student reads two sentences about Rabelais: "He believed that humans were not tied down by their past and could do whatever they wished. In his most popular book, The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais's main characters were two comical giants." Then the student is supposed to answer this question: "How do you think people of the time reacted to Rabelais's ideas?") And some of the "Critical Thinking" items are just plain silly. (Example: "What things about your life today would be different if the people of Mesopotamia had not invented the things they had?")

The student who uses Human Heritage is supposed to keep a "journal" of notes, and the introduction to each unit suggests a topic. Most of the topics are so general, however, that the student will need considerable supervision and guidance in note-taking. In the unit on the late Middle Ages, for example, the "Journal Notes" suggestion says: "What was life like during the late Middle Ages? Note details about it as you read." In the next unit: "What changes took place in western Europe between 1300 and 1600? Note details about them as you read." These are not easy undertakings for an unguided 7th-grade student.

Some of the sidebars in Human Heritage are lists, each occupying much or all of a page. There is a list of Roman emperors, a list of Norse gods, a list of recent scientists, and so on. But the lists aren't cast as lessons or used in lessons, and it is hard to see what the teacher might do with them. Again, the Glencoe writers have presented raw material without trying to develop its pedagogic potential.

The book's major pedagogic successes spring from the fact that the writers have taken geography seriously and have tried to show connections between geography and history. Maps are used extensively and are sometimes coupled to skill-building exercises. On page 511, for example, two "American Revolution" maps appear in a lesson called "Reading a Military Map." On page 657, a map of contemporary world population serves as the basis for a lesson on "Reading a Demographic Map." Some of the maps in Human Heritage, however, are hard to read because the colors -- the browns and oranges especially -- are hard to differentiate. (See, for instance, "The Religions of Europe," on page 463.) And the atlas at the back of the book does not have any climate maps or natural-resource maps, though such maps are common in other world-history textbooks.

A Failed Attempt to Mix
Tradition with Faddism

Charles B. Paul

Human Heritage: A World History is the most idiosyncratic of the eight world-history books that I've reviewed for The Textbook Letter. It is only 696 pages long (while the average length of the seven other books was nearly 900 pages), and it is strongly focused on the West. Of the 39 chapters in Human Heritage, 30 deal entirely with Middle Eastern, European, or North American civilizations. Only four chapters are given entirely to civilizations in other parts of the world. The main text is augmented by twelve "Culture Close-up" sections, but these do nothing to relieve the book's heavy Western emphasis. They merely present tidbits about such peoples as the Australian aborigines, the Nok of West Africa, the Khmer of Southeast Asia, or the Maori of New Zealand.

It seems to me that Glencoe's writers have sought to satisfy two contrary criteria. First, they evidently have tried to sustain the traditional view that "world history" means a survey of the political and social history of Western lands; but at the same time, they have tried to comply with current fashion, and have tried to make their book look up-to-date, by adding a little material about some non-Western societies. Not unexpectedly, this attempted compromise between tradition and faddism has given rise to a book that lacks coherence, lacks continuity, and lacks a point of view.

Major Mistakes

In a book that is so heavily slanted toward Western civilization, it's surprising to find that no more than ten pages are devoted to material about the West's fine arts, literature and philosophy. The book's treatment of the history of science is even thinner -- so thin that it is virtually worthless. Some ancient Greek thinkers are covered on pages 187 through 190; then the Scientific Revolution is dispatched in five short (not always accurate) paragraphs, on pages 523 and 525, which mention Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. A few other scientists -- such as Harvey, Lavoisier, Dalton and Darwin -- are named in a chart on page 524, but they are not mentioned in the book's text. (The chart's description of Darwin consists of one evasive phrase: "advanced theory on development of plants and animals, 1858." This seems to be a relic from the days when many textbook-writers devised false statements and false synonyms to avoid using the word evolution. The great theory that Darwin put forth in 1858 and 1859 dealt with organic evolution, not with organic development. The term development is not a synonym for evolution, and the note about Darwin in Human Heritage is false.)

Nowhere in Human Heritage do we find any references to the scientific or artistic revolutions associated with the names of Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky, Einstein, or Watson and Crick.

Some other major omissions deserve notice. The text rightly points to the use of African slaves by Europeans, starting in the 1500s, but it fails to tell about the widespread use of such slaves, long before 1500, in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. It also fails to tell that Muslim traders, such as those that Vasco da Gama encountered in East Africa in 1497, dealt not only in "cloves, pepper, gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones" (page 470) but in black slaves as well. Because of these omissions, Glencoe's book reinforces a common and false impression, which Thomas Sowell has described as "the impression that slavery is something created by or for one particular race." [See "Where Did Slavery Come From?" in this issue of The Textbook Letter.] Another glaring defect is the total omission of substantive information about American blacks in the years since 1865 -- their status as a persecuted minority, their political struggle to secure their civil rights, and their musical, literary, and other contributions to American culture.

Along with omissions, I find many errors of fact, a few of which are hereby corrected:

Page 101: Glencoe's writers are wrong when they claim that the Philistines were Phoenicians. Page 207: Most (not just "many") words in Spanish, French and Italian derive from Latin, while about half of the words in English derive from Latin or French. Page 248: Among the ancient Romans, the extreme penalty of crucifixion was reserved for treason or other high crimes, and it was applied only to persons who were not Roman citizens. (To suggest that crucifixion was merely a way of killing "lower-class criminals" is inaccurate.) Page 505: Generally, the Cavaliers comprised the gentry, the Anglican clergy and the peasantry, mainly from northern and west-central England; the Roundheads consisted of the great merchants, many of the great nobles, and members of the middle class, mainly from East Anglia, northern England, and London. Page 604: World War 1 certainly was not "the first war where civilians . . . were also attacked." (Most wars before 1500, and numerous wars thereafter, had included the killing, wounding, torturing and raping of civilians.) Page 611: During the civil war in the Soviet Union (1918 to 1920), the Whites consisted largely of Tsarists and Cossacks, along with separatists from Ukraine and the Caucasus. (The text is wrong when it equates the Whites with the Mensheviks.)

Aside from its comparative brevity and its strong Western slant, this book's most striking feature is its idiosyncratic style of prose. The Glencoe writers, evidently trying to keep their language plain, use a style that combines numbingly simple syntax, peculiar diction, muddled phrasing, and a propensity to suggest questions without answering them. As a result, their text is often opaque or puzzling rather than transparent. Let me cite a few examples. On page 29 we read that Mary Leakey "worked with her husband until his 1972 death." (What were the dates of his other deaths?) On page 59: "Part of the Gilgamesh story tells of a great flood that covered the whole world. The account of the flood is very much like the biblical story of Noah and the ark." (Is this really just a quirky coincidence? Or is there some explanation for the similarities between the two tales?) On page 362 we find that Ghengis Khan "improved many areas." (Geographical areas? Areas of endeavor? And how were they "improved"?) On page 417: "[During the Hundred Years' War] the French arrows were not as sharp as the steel-tipped English arrows." (Why not? Didn't the French know how to make steel? Didn't they know how to sharpen a steel weapon?) On page 612: "In Ukraine, Stalin caused famine to control the people." (How did such a sentence get past any editor's desk?)

The writing in Human Heritage is also marked by lifeless understatements, such as "Pharaohs were treated with great respect" (page 71) or "The [Roman Catholic] Church did not like being brought under state authority" (page 518).

Some Commendable Passages

Given all the defects of content and style in Human Heritage, is there anything in this book that deserves commendation? Yes, there is, for the writers sometimes do an excellent job of summing up a culture or of gathering different historical strands together. I particularly commend the passages about these topics: the ancient Persians; the Catholic Church's influence on daily life and on politics during the Middle Ages; the Crusades and their effects on European political and economic life; the causes of 19th-century imperialism; and the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and numerous Slavic peoples.

Human Heritage gives a decent amount of space to old-fashioned social history, so we learn a great deal about daily life among some peoples of the past. We learn about the lands they inhabited, the foods they ate and the jobs they performed, and sometimes we even learn about their recreations, houses and attire. This is all to the good, for it adds some vitality and immediacy to what otherwise would be a fairly dry account of political, diplomatic and military history. On this score I particularly recommend the passages about the Etruscans, the early Germans, and the medieval European nobility.

Finally, I praise the writers' handling of geography. The conventional five themes of geography are set forth in chapter 1; then all but the theme of "Regions" are extensively illustrated in the rest of the book. The writers typically introduce particular civilizations or peoples by providing maps and descriptive paragraphs that reflect the theme of "Location," and there are various passages that resonate with the theme of "Movement" (which deals with connections among people and places). Especially noteworthy is the section on the Etruscans: Besides telling that the Etruscans drained marshes and built fortified towns on hilltops, the text tells what the Etruscans learned about military matters from the Greeks, and it tells some of the social, political and religious customs that the Etruscans passed on to the Romans.

Despite such occasional achievements, however, Human Heritage is, as a whole, a failure. I do not recommend this book as a teaching text, much less as a text that allegedly covers world history.


William Weber, a specialist in modern European history, is a professor in the Department of History at California State University, Long Beach, and an editor of The History Teacher, the quarterly of the Society for History Education.

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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