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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1999

Reviewing a high-school book in world history

Modern World History
1999. 597 pages + appendices. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-538-42306-4.
West Educational Publishing, 5101 Madison Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45227.
(This company is a division of International Thomson Publishing Inc.)

Editor's Introduction -- West's Modern World History has been developed specifically for use by 10th-grade students in California, where the State Board of Education's History - Social Science Framework says that 10th-graders should take a course in "World History, Culture and Geography: The Modern World." However, West is also marketing Modern World History nationally and is advertising it as a general-purpose survey of "the major turning points in the shaping of the modern world, from the eighteenth century to the present." The advertisements do not mention this book's particular connection to the California curriculum.
This Spin-Off Book Focuses
on the Evolution of the West

James Jankowski

West Educational Publishing's Modern World History is a truncated and slightly amended version of World History: The Human Odyssey, an earlier, much larger textbook sold by the same company. Modern World History consists essentially of chapters 20 through 34 of the earlier book, covering the period from the late 18th century until the present. These have been repackaged with two highly condensed, introductory chapters which, in 79 pages, summarize the history of the world from the Paleolithic era to AD 1800. In The Human Odyssey, this early history commanded some 640 pages.

[Editor's note: Reviews of World History: The Human Odyssey ran in TTL for May-June 1998, under these headlines: "This Admirable Book Falters in Describing Recent History" and "This Inconsistent Text Excels When It Deals with the West."]

Everywhere but in the two introductory chapters, modifications are minimal. The "Acknowledgments" section at the start of Modern World History is identical with the "Acknowledgments" section in The Human Odyssey, and it gives no indication that Modern World History is a spin-off. The prologue titled "Becoming an Historian" is essentially the same in both books, though a few modern illustrations and examples have now been substituted for the premodern ones which were used in the earlier volume. Chapters 3 through 16 of Modern World History correspond directly to chapters 20 through 33 of The Human Odyssey, with no apparent revision. (When I spot-checked, I found that Modern World History retains errors that I had seen in the parent book. For example, the West Bank of the Jordan is still termed the "Left Bank.") The last chapter of Modern World History, chapter 17, is an epilogue that closely mimics the epilogue in The Human Odyssey, though the sections on current environmental issues and contemporary technology have been expanded.

Even the two introductory chapters are not really new. By and large, they consist of text passages, sidebars, and other items that have been lifted from The Human Odyssey and have been pasted together. Only one illustration -- the map of "Asia in the Middle Ages," on page 51 -- seems to be unique to Modern World History. The narrative in the introductory chapters, like the narrative of premodern and early modern history in The Human Odyssey, revolves around epochs and societies that conventionally are regarded as central to the story of Western civilization. Hence ancient Greece and ancient Rome get more than eight pages apiece, but "The World of Islam" and "Early African Civilizations" have to make do with about two pages each.

This emphasis on the West -- the same emphasis that we saw in The Human Odyssey -- is maintained throughout Modern World History. Like its progenitor, Modern World History is essentially a textbook about the evolution of the West, with occasional nods toward developments in other regions.


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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