Author: Pat Manning, Northeastern University (email@example.com)
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 1996 13:47:10 -0500
[Here is the first in a series of reviews of world history texts by Northeastern University graduate students.]
TEXT REVIEW #1:
William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, WORLD HISTORY, Vol. 1: to 1800 (New York: West Publishing Co., 1994).
Reviewed by Whitney Howarth, Northeastern University
In this modern and comprehensive volume, Duiker and Spielvogel have made a genuine attempt to present an alternative approach to the telling of our world's history. Hoping to forsake the Eurocentric history commonly presented through the narrow lens of Western Civilization studies, the authors identify several prominent issues in the study of world history: cross-cultural interactions, global themes and connections, and comparative processes of the larger world-system. Yet, in constructing a text which is undeniably both "user-friendly" and accessible to the student, the authors have fallen short of incorporating these issues into their work. Thus, we are left with a text rich in potential but unable fully to achieve its global objective.
This world history is presented as a series of "world histories," identifying and tracing the developments of individual civilizations as they exist (at times in concert, at times isolated) in the larger global picture. Failing to bring comparative analysis _into_ the chapters, Duiker and Spielvogel instead place such interpretations in a few pages at the conclusion of each of the major three parts of the volume. These "reflections" portions (as they are titled by the authors) model a clear synthesis of ideas from the previous collection of chapters, but demand little exposition or critical thinking from the students. The end result is a volume which should be applauded for its overall style, narration, detail and ambition, but which fails to embrace the necessary objectives set out by world historians today.
Educators who select this text for use in the classroom will most certainly be pleased with the authors' choice of primary documents and instructive images. According to the authors, these selections are included "to enliven the past and let readers see for themselves the materials that historians use to create their pictures of the past." Unfortunately, these documents, photographs, timelines, maps, etc., are all presented without accompanying questions for analysis. Teachers who may prefer to utilize these documents to engage their students in higher-level thinking, debate, critique and analysis will have to design the method for doing so independently. The authors have included these sources as evidence and support to the general text narrative, rather than as exercises for critical thinking. While the text is not in itself interactive, a creative teacher or highly motivated student may find various methods of interpreting the material through dialogue. In this sense, readers will be encouraged to act as historians themselves, rather than observe "the process" from a distance.
The documents and images are placed appropriately in context with the accompanying narrative text. Still, teachers may prefer to use these resources outside their contextual placement and, in the spirit of comparative world history scholarship, investigate the similarities and differences of such items which originate from various cultural or geographic areas. For example, discussions about the role of women in different societies might be based on the comparative reading of Leo Africanus' description of Muslim women in Africa (p. 254) and Barbosa's travelogue describing 16th-century Indian Sati practices (p. 351). Students would thence be required to respond critically to the material, to discover themes and connections therein, rather than to sit passively as intellectual voyeurs.
While there can be no doubt that Duiker and Spielvogel make an effort to present a balanced picture of history with respect for the richness and diversity of the human experience, as stated in their preface, there yet remains a covertly present Eurocentrism in their design. Looking at the summary of chapters and section titles in the table of contents, one may be impressed by the "equal time" given to non-European, global identities. Upon closer examination, however, it is evident that the authors use European periodizations as the foundation of much of their classification. In addition, terms such as "emergence," "crisis," "rebirth," "reformation" and "intellectual revolution" appear here solely in European context, while China, Africa and India are represented by far less dynamic nomenclature. The idea conveyed here seems to be that while Europe is an evolving, "progressive" society, all other societies are not. This theme, though sadly not a new one, has no place in a world history text.
Though Duiker and Spielvogel denounce the myth that the predominance of Western Civilization has been the sole driving force in the evolution of human society, their table of contents lacks similar evidence to support this statement. Sub-Saharan African and Native American civilizations are not discussed until the second and third portions of the book, respectively (Africa begins on p. 228 and America on p. 459). In both cases, the authors decide to "wait" for a historically opportune moment to introduce these peripheral societies -- i.e., when in the European timeline they are "discovered." Discussion of these regions is then constructed in an "oops, let's catch up!" fashion in which the authors reverse their chronological storytelling, begin again from "the beginning of time," and explain the development of these peoples separately. hence, the first discussion of non-Egyptian Africa in the text comes after "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic." With similar inaccuracy, the chapter on the original Americans is quantly titled (in European style) "The New World." Two chronological charts in the chapter on European expansion (chapter 17) are titled "The Discovery of the Americas" and "The Penetration of Africa" -- needlessly perpetuating exotic myths about these "pre-European" lands. Though these nuances may seem slight or petty to the average observer, they should appear as blistering eyesores to the authors, who dedicate themselves to "adopt[ing] a global approach to world history, doing justice to the unique character and development of individual civilizations and parts of the world."
By far the most praiseworthy and valuable portions of this text are the authors' brief analyses of global trends, which lie hidden at the end of each of the three major sections of this work. These sparse "Reflections" (ten pages in all) draw on theoretical contributions from such renowned world historians as McNeill, Toynbee and Bentley. In a form of summary, they discuss major themes of the chapters and draw together patterns and forces from each selected period. These reflections also emphasize ideology and discuss several important historical tools: the need for careful interpretation when regarding historical forces, the importance of a relativistic perspective, and the requisite consideration of geography and culture in the evolution of history. These world history perspectives arrive belatedly, however, somewhat "after-the-fact," as students have already struggled through massive quantities of information and primary sources without conceptual guidance. If placed at the beginning of each section ("The First Civilizations and the Rise of Empires," "New Patterns of Civilization," and "The Emergence of New World Powers, 1500-1800"), these theoretical tools would serve their purpose better, as students would use them to _commence_ their historical exploration. The text would thus prove to be a far more effective teaching tool, as it would show students how to think globally for themselves rather than summarize global history for them.
In the preface, Duiker and Spielvogel state a wariness of presenting global history from a totally "world-centered" approach. They claim that all too often this approach (which treats the globe as an integrated whole rather than as a collection of different cultures) forces the researcher and writer "to focus on the forest at the expense of the individual trees." The authors worry that such an approach might "ignore the distinctive character of civilizations in the effort to present the story of human evolution as an integrated whole." This text is clearly reflective of the authors' fear of this danger. Their hesitation in making global history "too" global is all too apparent. Yet, to achieve the objective of world history, we must expect connections in our global narratives, and we must demand more integration than Duiker and Spielvogel present here.
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