from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in world history

World History: The Human Odyssey
1998. 1,121 pages + appendices. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-314-20561-6.
West Educational Publishing, 5101 Madison Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45227.
(This company is a part of International Thomson Publishing Inc.)

This Admirable Book Falters
in Describing Recent History

Michael A. Ledeen

Wow! -- 1,121 pages, and they're loaded with maps, all manner of jazzy time lines, "You Are There" articles, mini-biographies, excerpts from great books, and gorgeous graphics!

Sometimes, reading World History: The Human Odyssey makes you think that you're watching television, which is perhaps what the publisher intended. But I must wonder whether all those bells and whistles help high-school juniors and seniors to understand the workings of history.

Students can't achieve historical understanding by ingesting little nuggets of this and that. The Human Odyssey would be a better book if the publisher had restrained his use of attractive nuisances, so that readers could devote their attention to the main text. That text is eminently readable and is often exemplary.

The book's title page shows one author: Jackson J. Spielvogel, professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. Spielvogel is a Europeanist who specializes in Reformation studies, and he has won several awards for his outstanding teaching. I can easily believe that The Human Odyssey is really his creation, and that he himself generated much of its content, because this textbook embodies a great deal of pedagogic skill. The prose is easy to read, and Spielvogel repeatedly asks his readers to attempt to put themselves in the positions of the historical personages whom they are studying. His explanation of the various "schools" of historical analysis is smooth and effortless, his end-of-chapter materials are well chosen, his portraits of major figures are surprisingly complete, and he moves deftly between the "big picture" and crucial details, such as technological innovations or natural catastrophes.

Spielvogel also has an eye for religious and intellectual affairs -- topics that have been missing from many textbooks in the past decade or two. A few years ago my daughter brought home a high-school history text that made Martin Luther look like a crime-busting district attorney, not a man of faith. When I queried the head of her school, a cultured man who held a doctorate in history, he sadly observed that all the available textbooks failed to deal with religious matters in any depth. That is not true of The Human Odyssey: Here the explications of religious movements and of the important intellectual themes in world history are, for the most part, exemplary. In The Human Odyssey, Luther is a renegade bent on preaching a novel theological doctrine of salvation by faith alone. He is not simply trying to tidy up the corruption of the Church of Rome.

When Spielvogel tackles the currently sensitive subject of African history, his instincts are sound. He is careful to observe that slavery, far from being an invention of white colonialists, had long been practiced by Africans themselves (and also by other peoples, all over the world). He gives an appreciative treatment of ancient African civilizations, such as the one that produced the mighty stone structures at Great Zimbabwe, and he stresses the importance of tribes and tribalism, even in the modern period. He looks at the role of women in African societies, including matrilineal ones, although he doesn't give enough attention to polygamy. Polygamy is still a crucial element in many African societies today -- not only because it confers great social advantages upon the males but also because it has greatly accelerated the spread of HIV infection. (The index in The Human Odyssey has no entry for polygamy, nor for primogeniture.)

Because Spielvogel is a student of the Reformation, it is no surprise to find that his history of Europe in Renaissance and Reformation times is excellent. So is his history of Europe in the modern era. I am particularly impressed by the sections that deal with modern mass movements and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Though so many other books stress the differences between fascism and communism, Spielvogel uses the concept of totalitarianism to elucidate profound, lethal similarities between Hitler's regime in Germany and Stalin's in the Soviet Union. He also is careful to underline the great differences between Mussolini's Italian-style fascism and the Nazi horror. It is rare indeed to find a book that reflects such a comfortable mastery of the facts and such a fine appreciation of subtleties. Undoubtedly, students who read The Human Odyssey will avoid the common mistake of using the term fascism as a catch-all epithet for any nasty modern tyranny.

Where the Book Is Weak

Jackson Spielvogel has done so many good things in this book, and has rejected so many of the fashionable distortions which have poisoned a lot of recent schoolbooks, that it seems almost churlish to criticize the book's weaknesses -- yet some of these weaknesses are serious and need attention.

Astonishingly, there is no discussion of Stalin's systematic terrorizing and extermination of the peasantry. Students will not learn that Stalin caused the extermination or forcible relocation of tens of millions of Soviet citizens in his efforts to snuff every flicker of freedom's flame. Nor will they learn that the Chinese Communists, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, compiled an even more horrendous record of mass murder. Spielvogel cites examples of individual acts of violence, but he does not provide the appalling statistics that students need to know. This contrasts with his careful, sound treatment of the Holocaust and of the Nazis' use of terror.

The book is also weak in its treatment of present-day Japan. Spielvogel's glowing descriptions recall the literature of about a decade ago, when Japan was widely hailed as a superbly successful nation that had combined the best features of American capitalism and Oriental social discipline. Now we know better. As Japan today staggers from one economic crisis to the next, it teaches us a lesson about the destructive effects of hubris. Many educated and well informed persons, both inside and outside of Japan, bought into "the Japanese model" -- but the model was more like a Ponzi scheme than a blend of Eastern and Western wisdom.

The fatuous depiction of contemporary Japan exemplifies this textbook's broadest failing: its spotty, often naive treatment of world history in the period since the end of World War 2. Some sections, particularly those dealing with the "Third World," look as if they were taken from the fashionable press.

Castro's Cuba, as an example, receives amazingly positive treatment. Spielvogel writes that "the theoretical equality of women in Marxist thought was put into practice in Cuba by new laws" -- a startling distortion. He lauds Cuba's health-care and education systems but never describes its system of political repression. He credits the Castro regime with an autonomous decision to export revolution to other Latin American countries, even though there is abundant evidence that most of Cuba's foreign policy was dictated from Moscow. (According to Spielvogel, the Cubans undertook to ignite guerrilla wars in South America because Castro, after the missile crisis, recognized that "the Soviet Union had been unreliable." This is a most dubious linkage.)

While Castro's leftist regime in Cuba is sanitized, the right-wing regimes that controlled neighboring countries are portrayed in relentlessly dark terms. For example, Pinochet's repression of the left in Chile is described in some detail -- but the student doesn't learn that, during the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile's remarkable social and economic development dwarfed the social and economic changes seen in Cuba. Nor does the student learn about Chile's successful transition to democracy.

The weakest section of all deals with the end of the Cold War. According to The Human Odyssey, most of the credit for that singular development belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev. There is nothing to tell that a dramatic expansion of Soviet military power, beginning in the late 1970s, had served to revive the solidarity of the West. Nor is there any acknowledgment that the events which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet empire included military defeats in several theaters, from Angola to Grenada to Afghanistan. Indeed, Spielvogel's treatment of the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan is most remarkable, for he calls it "a war . . . that the Soviet Union could not win," rather than calling it what it was: a defeat. And even though he credits the Reagan administration with arming the Afghanis, he does not describe the decisive effect of superior American technology -- especially the Stinger missile.

Instead of showing that the West, in the end, was victorious over Soviet imperialism, Spielvogel describes the implosion of the Soviet empire in terms of economic failure and Gorbachev's "radical reforms." He appears to credit Gorbachev with guiding the Soviet Union toward a post-Communist rebirth, something that Gorbachev himself explicitly rejected. And in his zeal to make Gorbachev the man who put an end to the Cold War, Spielvogel says that "Gorbachev made an agreement with the United States in 1987 to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons (the INF Treaty)." The truth is that the INF Treaty was shaped principally by Ronald Reagan, not by Gorbachev. It resulted from Reagan's insistence on the "Zero Option" -- the principle that the United States and the Soviet Union must not merely reduce their stocks of strategic nuclear weapons but must eliminate those weapons entirely.

Spielvogel's eccentric account reaches its apogee on page 1,116, where he says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 brought new hopes for democracy and for international cooperation on global issues. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet empire has had almost the opposite effect. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has led to the emergence of several new, squabbling nations and a general atmosphere of conflict and tension throughout much of Eastern Europe.

Spielvogel, as a distinguished historian, should have noticed that those aren't "new" nations. They are old nations, now restored to independence -- and today's atmosphere of conflict and tension in the Balkans represents a return to conditions that prevailed at the beginning of our century. If Spielvogel had acknowledged this, he would have created an excellent opportunity to show his readers that the study of history is indispensable for understanding the present.

My final complaint: In his introductory essay, during a discussion of the skills that historians must have, Spielvogel offers some remarks about bias:

It is impossible for human beings not to be biased. Bias is the inclinations, predispositions, and prejudices we all have . . . . There is nothing inherently wrong with being biased, as long as we don't allow it to prevent us from approaching new situations and people with objectivity and tolerance.

Spielvogel contradicts himself. If it is "impossible" for any of us not to be biased, then it is impossible for us to view situations, people or anything else with "objectivity." And as for "tolerance," I do not want my children to regard evil with tolerance -- I want them to fight it.

I recognize that Spielvogel's recitation about bias is merely ritual cant, intended to appease the gods of political correctness, but the time has come to stop burdening our students with this sort of drivel. In the case of The Human Odyssey, it subverts the enjoyment of reading a good book.

This Inconsistent Text Excels
When It Deals with the West

James Jankowski

World History: The Human Odyssey is a survey of human history from the emergence of our species to the late 20th century. As in many world-history texts, the narrative becomes more detailed as it approaches the present. About 700 pages of this 1,100-page book are given to the period since AD 1400.

The analytical framework is largely a regional one, in which most chapters discuss particular geographic regions in specific periods of time. However, a few of the later chapters attempt to survey global phenomena, such as European imperialism or modern nationalism in Africa and Asia.

Though a regional approach is conventional in world-history texts, and perhaps is the only pedagogically sensible way to organize an introductory survey, it has some serious drawbacks. It produces a certain amount of overlap and repetition in the narrative, because some pivotal developments (such as the Crusades, or the Mongol explosion of the 13th century) were transregional. It also impedes the comprehension of phenomena such as Islam and Buddhism, because it obscures the broad, interregional sweep and syncretic character of these religious and cultural systems. Most seriously, the use of a regional framework inhibits any detailed discussion of global history, which has entailed the cumulative thickening of interregional contact, interregional exchange, and interregional influences.

In the present book, for example, the gradual emergence of a "global civilization" during the period AD 400-1500 is mentioned on page 193, but it is not systematically developed in the chapters that follow. Similarly, the emergence of a "world economy" during the 19th century is acknowledged on page 692, but it nowhere receives deep analysis. Overall, World History: The Human Odyssey is less a history of the world as a whole than a history of the world's regions.

The book is loaded with extras. Literally hundreds of study-questions appear at the beginnings of chapters, within the chapters, and at the ends of chapters, and more questions are appended to the numerous feature articles that accompany the main text. These articles fall into several categories, including "Biography," "Focus on Everyday Life," "Our Artistic Heritage," "Our Literary Heritage," "The Role of Science and Technology" and "Sports and Contests." Pictures and plates are abundant, there are various (questionless) sidebars labeled "Connections," and the body of the book includes more than 120 maps. Additional maps appear in an appendix titled "Historical Atlas." I estimate that study-questions, feature articles, sidebars, illustrations, and other embellishments occupy at least half of the total space between the book's covers.

I have reservations about the pedagogic effectiveness of these devices. The study-questions that pepper the text are sometimes useful, occasionally trivial, but ultimately annoying in their cumulative effect. As I was reading, I found myself asking, "Can't they let me read this material for myself?" The feature articles and sidebars have a similar effect. While these inserts are individually attractive and enlightening, they can -- by their sheer volume -- make reading difficult. I had to struggle to stick with the narrative, rather than skipping from insert to insert.

Misleading Illustrations

Some of the illustrations are particularly problematic, because modern photography is ostensibly used for depicting social life or cultural practices in times long ago. On page 273, for example, in the chapter titled "Early Civilizations in Africa," a photo shows "a healer trying to cure a sick woman in northern Cameroon" -- and this purportedly illustrates that African societies relied on traditional healers in ancient times. Page 324 has a photo of a modern scene in India, and the caption says that Indian farmers today "still use bull carts [sic] for plowing, just as they did centuries ago." On page 67, the caption under a picture says: "This photograph shows that village life in India has remained essentially unchanged for over 2,000 years." Here the student is evidently supposed to believe that one photograph, taken at one point in time, can show village life at two different points in time, separated by twenty centuries. This is a logical absurdity.

Logic aside, however, such illustrations are highly misleading. Though the villages and houses appear to be timeless, the humans shown in these 20th-century photographs may well be wearing garments imported from Manchester or Hong Kong. Further, the illustrations contradict the narrative text, which shows that "traditional" life in India, for example, has changed enormously under the impact of modern imperialism and capitalism.

The anachronistic use of modern photographs does not extend into the chapters about premodern Europe. In those chapters, premodern social life is illustrated by images drawn from premodern sources, such as medieval manuscripts. There is no photo of, say, a 20th-century village in Brittany, with a caption reporting that village life in Brittany hasn't changed for 2,000 years.

The overall effect of this, although perhaps unintended, is pernicious: It signals to the reader that we change and make history, but they do not.

The Book's Major Drawback

I've discussed this matter in some detail because it exemplifies the major drawback of World History: The Human Odyssey -- its disproportionate emphasis upon the West. Quantitatively, half of the 1,100-plus pages in this book deal with what is conventionally termed "Western" history: Greece and Rome; medieval Europe; Europe from the Renaissance through the 20th century; European-derived colonies in the Americas; and recent European and American civilization. Here are some more examples of this disparity in coverage:

The sections about European history are excellent. They are visually rich, broad in scope, clear in exposition, and thorough in their discussions of politics, changing social patterns, and the evolution of high culture. The sections dealing with Europe or America in the 20th century are splendidly done -- comprehensive in their coverage of social and cultural as well as political trends, vivid and sensitive in their descriptions of the traumas of war and revolution. Both the triumphs and the tragedies of modern European and American history come to life in the later chapters of this book.

I do not find such high-quality work in the chapters about Asian and African history. In the coverage of the Middle East and India, the two areas with which I am most familiar, the passages about significant topics are sometimes less than adequate, the links between causes and effects are unclear, and some of the interpretations are outdated.

The accounts of the ancient Middle East, of ancient India, and of both the Middle East and India during the Islamic era lack explanatory power. Too often, religions or political systems simply pop up, with little attention to the historical context that helps to explain their emergence. Thus we read about both Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but we do not see them as products of a Middle East that was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as discrete local civilizations came into greater contact with each other. We read about the Mauryan empire in India, but without the wider socioeconomic context of urbanization, increasing trade and state-building that made an empire possible. And when the book tells about the expansion of Islam, the idea that Islam held social as well as religious appeal is not clearly developed. Yet this social appeal was largely responsible for Islam's success among the masses in much of Asia and Africa.

The chapter on ancient India offers a static, monolithic view of what outsiders call "Hinduism," with little sense of the variety of concepts and practices that Hindu religion actually embraces. Similarly, the account of caste in India incorporates a mistake that outsiders commonly make: The four (later five) scriptural categories or varnas of Vedic religion are conflated with the much more complicated social reality of "caste" -- an outsider's term -- that evolved over thousands of years.

The account of the early-modern and recent history of the Middle East retains customary interpretations that have been challenged by recent scholarship. For example, the conventional image of Ottoman "decline" in the 17th and 18th centuries (page 524) is now being replaced by a more nuanced picture of social and economic change. Likewise, the old image of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe" (page 869) is giving way to a more convincing account of how a polity and a society were transformed as they were integrated into the world economy.

The material about the Middle East during the years since 1945 is hasty and disappointing. On page 1,058 students read that "Technically, Egypt was not an Arab state," but there is no explanation of what this ambiguous statement may mean. On page 1,060 the date given for the formation of the United Arab Republic is incorrect, and the circumstances of the UAR's collapse are misstated. On page 1,064 the intifada is seen "inside Israel," rather than in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the West Bank is termed the "Left Bank." On the same page, the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is attributed to "the Arab states," rather than to a coalition of Asian, African and Latin American countries. The Gulf War and its aftermath are viewed chiefly in geostrategic terms: The text reports that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 "sparked an international outcry," and that Saddam Hussein is still in power and continues to "vex the administration of President Bill Clinton," but the war's regional economic and human consequences are ignored, though they have been massive. The chapter's final paragraph tells that "the Middle East is one of the most unstable regions in the world today" -- a truism that masks the impressive longevity of most of the region's regimes.

To conclude: World History: The Human Odyssey does a fine job of presenting the history of the West, but its treatment of the history of the world beyond Europe and America does not inspire confidence.

Michael A. Ledeen is a historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (in Washington, DC). Ledeen has written extensively about fascism, about 20th-century Italy, and about contemporary international affairs. His books include The First Duce: D'Annunzio at Fiume, published in 1976 by Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore) and Freedom Betrayed, published in 1997 by the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, will be issued by St. Martin's Press (New York City).

James Jankowski is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He specializes in the history of the modern Middle East, and he is a coauthor of the books Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs (published by Oxford University Press in 1986) and Redefining the Egyptian Nation (published by Cambridge University Press in 1995). He regularly reviews world-history books for The Textbook Letter.


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