Author: Pat Manning, Northeastern University
Date: Thu, 7 Mar 1996 14:32:15 -0800
[Here is the second in a series of reviews of world history texts by Northeastern University graduate students.]
Mark Kishlansky, et al, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY, 2 vols., (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).
--reviewed by Eric Rist, Northeastern University
By entitling their textbook SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY, the authors reveal the approach that they will employ. As the back cover of the book announces, this is "the first text to use area experts for its World History coverage." These area experts composed chapters pertaining to the civilizations within their specialties. By employing this technique, the authors created a compilation that is more comprehensive and balanced than many survey texts. However, this method also comes with some inherent limitations.
The authors designed SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY for introductory World History courses. It is a twovolume text, with three chapters common to both volumes. The first covers from early humans to 1715, while the second covers from 1500 to the 1990s. The first volume consists of sixteen chapters, divided by region. As a result, chapters often overlap chronologically. For example, chapter four discusses China and India from 1000 BCE to 200 CE, while chapter five relates the history of Rome and the Roman Republic from 800 to 31 BCE. In the second volume, the authors focused increasingly on Europe. As a result, consecutive chapters are often devoted to Europe as the time parameters for the sections narrow.
The authors employed several "user friendly" techniques throughout the text, making it valuable for first-year history students. Each chapter has an introduction that includes a full-page picture. These pictures range from paintings or sculptures to photographs. After giving background information on the image, the authors ask students to observe certain items or patterns in the picture. Chapter 14 opens with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (p. 406). The authors include a brief section on the Virgin's origin. Then they ask the reader to study the image and notice the similarities and differences between it and European depictions of Mary (these were shown in earlier chapters). This exercise introduces students to the theme of Indians preserving elements of their native cultures by integrating them with elements of European culture. These visual sections can draw a student in more effectively than a simple introductory paragraph can. Furthermore, the introductions convey a theme for the student to keep in mind throughout the chapter.
Each chapter also includes an illustrated essay. These essays range from the early life of Catherine the Great (pp. 604-5) to the flowering of Noh drama (pp. 342-3). In a subject as broad as World History, these essays can help to prevent a student from being overwhelmed. By discussing narrower and more personalized topics, the essays provide students with more concrete and manageable information. Rather than focusing on familiar political or military events, the authors concentrated on cultural and biographical sketches that add a more personal element to the narrative. By describing the conditions of slums in first-century urban Rome ("polluted with garbage, offal of slaughtered animals, and every sort of waste" [p. 171]), the authors could convey the human experience in the empire more effectively than by citing an endless succession of emperors.
The authors also included an array of primary sources for the student to analyze. This is a positive trend in recent history texts because it introduces the student to the tools of a historian. SOCIETIES AND CULTURES contains literary and cultural as well as political sources. In the sections titled "Gender and Culture," the authors employ their most innovative use of these sources. In these sections, art historian Debra Mancoff presents paintings and sculptures to illustrate attitudes toward gender in different societies. Although some may dismiss this as an attempt at "politically correct" history, these sections are valuable for providing students with examples of non-written primary sources to tell the history of those who could not leave written records. Furthermore, these do not just pertain to women, they also provide glimpses of the roles of men in society. Mancoff included images such as the Egyptian sculpture of King Shabaqo (fig. 3, after p. 126) to illustreate the image of the ideal powerful male in that society. The authors also made liberal use of maps and timelines to condense the vast amount of information.
By utilizing area experts, the authors avoided the shortcomings of some World History texts. Since Western historians or Middle Eastern historians did not compose the entire text, the narrative did not skim over certain areas that the authors were not familiar with. Because of the collaboration of authors, the text did not center on a particular theme or concept such as progress or exploitation. The inclusion of an Asian historian prevented the stereotypical depiction of the Chinese Empire as stagnant and backwards until being incorporated into Western trade. "No stagnant society, no homogeneous country, no ineffectual and irrelevant imperial government, China was a dynamic economy and a diverse society led by a strong government that could oppress as well as promote" (p. 691). The authors pointed out China's preference of political over economic considerations in foreign relations.
The area historians also departed from the standard practice of beginning the history of the world in fourth-century BCE Mesopotamia. They acknowledged the existence of pre-Mesopotamian societies in the refreshing, albeit brief, "Before Civilization" section. This section discusses the appearance of the first Homo sapiens sapiens and their subsequent migration. Most importantly, the authors make (although they do not stress) the point that "all humans today, whether they be Scandinavians, Australian aborigines, Africans, Japanese, or Native Americans, belong to this same subspecies" (p. 3). Unfortunately, they do not delve into the debates surrounding primo-geneses and multiple genesis.
Even more refreshing was that Leroy Vail began the discussions of civilizations with sub-Saharan Africa. Often, World History texts virtually ignore this area until after European contact. Vail explained the lack of early empires in Africa during this chapter. "Africa's physical environment demand[ed] the durability of the village and the town and ensur[ed] the transitory nature of ruling dynasties and empires" (p. 4). This prevents the student from interpreting the absence of Africa in subsequent discussions of empires as evidence that Africa contained no societies. Vail went on to discuss the improtance of the Bantu migration, an event often ignored in World History texts.
The authors also departed from the standard practice of leaving the Western Hemisphere out of World History until 1492, and then briefly summarizing all Native American history prior to that date. The early pages of the book contain a section discussing the early civilizations of America. Using archaeological evidence, the authors relate what information we can infer about people like the Olmecs and the Moche. Chapter 14, which disucsses such later Native Americancivilizations as the Inca and the Aztec, is included in both volumes of the text. This insures that students in either section of an introductory course will read about pre-contact American empires. Including the Aztecs and Incas in both volumes was just one way the authors were innovative in dividing the text. Rather than simply making the split at 1500, they stopped at different points for each area. For instance, chapter 15 on the Islamic world went up to 1700 to facilitate a complete discussion of the rise of four great empires.
Unfortunately, as much as the use of area scholars enhances the text, it comes with inherent limitations. With separate authors writing on their specialties, the text is one of World Civilizations rather than World History. The authors presented their areas as discrete entities, and minimized discussion of interactions or larger trends. This was particularly true in the first volume. In the second volume the authors discussed interactions only in the context of their area, without mentioning underlying global causes or trends.
The first volume consisted of a history of civilizations; any mention of larger trends was purely incidental. In some cases the authors touched on global trends but did not develop them because they were restricted to covering their assigned area. In chapter 1, the authors described the collapse of the Egyptian Empire in the 12th century BCE as part of "a general crisis of the civilized world," in which "Egypt, Syria, the Hittite state" were besieged by "internal political, economic and social strains . . . " (pp. 20-1). They do not, however, develop this process further or speculate on whether the same elements mights have played a role in the collapse of the harappan civilization. A few pages later, the authors state that the religious warfare of Tiglath-pileser's Assyrian army has been "paralleled through the centuries in the cries of 'God wills it' of the Christian crusaders and the 'God is great' of Muslims" (p. 25). They do not expound on this point.
Examples like these continue throughout the first volume. The method of separate authors for each area also limited the discussion of inter-civilizational interaction. Chapter 11, on East Asia, contains this passage: "The Mongols were astute traders, and under their rule trade prospered. The sheer size of the Mongol empire facilitated contact between east and west, which enhanced trade" (p. 327). The author proceeds to discuss internal commercial reform in China rather than eastwest trade. No further mention of this trade appears until chapter 15, which emphasizes the increase in Muslim knowledge of the Old World. The author states that:
"This was possible because the Pax Mongolica had for the first time united the Mediterranean, the northeast European world, and East Asia. This overland trade continued with surprising vigor until the eighteenth century. Although western Europeans, especially Italians, continued to dominate merchant shipping in the Mediterranean . . . Byzantine and Muslim participation in this trade was far from negligible." (p. 448)
After this passage, the Pax Mongolica is not mentioned. An event as important as this, when the Afro-Eurasian world experienced an unprecedented degree of interaction, should be more fully developed in a World History text. It should not be relegated to these brief passages describing localized effects. However, since the authors concentrated on their areas of specialty, they did not discuss the growing intercivilizational exchange. The most developed discussion of interactio appears in chapter 7, concerning Africa. In this section the author illustrates the effects of religious interchange and Middle Eastern trade on African state building. Still, because of the exclusive focus on events in Africa, the author does not discuss the effects of the Africans on Muslim traders and leaves the reader with a picture of one-way diffusion rather than exchange. When discussing these changes, the author describes how "Arab conquerors carried the new religion of Islam from Arabia into North Africa and Spain, incorporating these areas into a single political and economic zone" (p. 212). Although this passage mentions interactions, it minimizes the actions of Africans by presenting outside forces as the causal agents.
The second volume contains more references to interactions due to the nature of the time period being studied. Still, the authors restrict these references to their particular areas. Chapter 14 dexcribed the effect of European encroachment on the New World and Africa, without mentioning the reciprocal effects these migrations had on the Old World. The chapters describing European state formation mention the riches of the New World without discussing the processes of Native American dislocation and African slave state formation that were complementary to European growth. Arab involvement in this expanding area of interaction is discussed in a separate chapter. The effects of the Americn crops on the Chinese agricultural revolution are not discussed. Even when dealing with global interactions, the regional organization of the text prevents it from conveying the scope of these cross-cultural exchanges. The authors focus on the effects of their individual areas, thus presenting onedimensional accounts of the interactions. They cannot illustrate the layers of reciprocal and secondary results of these exchanges. Because of these limitations, the authors cannot fully develop the network of events and interactions that make up a true World History.
I do not wish to attempt to critique the selection of material for a text of 1100 pages intended to tell the history of the world. In the preface, the authors inform the reader that the text "devotes more space to the West" in order to be appropriate for either Western or world civilization classes. This is certainly true of the second volume, where over half the chapters pertain to Europe. The danger of this is that it can leave a student with the impression of European dominance of the events of modern World History. The organizational style that allowed for only onedimensional analysis of cultural exchanges occasionally reinforces this view. Chapter 19 contains a section describing the integration of the Middle East into the World System. Because the World System is not defined, this section is ambiguous. The authors, by discussing this integration in terms of the Western economy absorbing that of the Middle Eastern states, leave the reader with the impression that the Western System is equivalent to the World System. In general, however, the authors avoided Eurocentricity by constantly offering perspectives from other societies.
Because of an organizational approach that allowed area experts to write the history of their specialties, SOCIETIES AND CULTURES IN WORLD HISTORY avoids some of the problems of past World History texts while accentuating others. Several "user-friendly" techniques made the text beneficial for introductory students. The collaboration of authors prevents one approach from dominating the narrative. However, the authors fail to discuss global trends and interactions. The text focused on World Civilizations rather than on World History. If we ask students to take a World History class, we must illustrate to them that some area of integrated World History exists. If the closest we have is a series of area studies, the student would be better served by taking a series of area study courses. SOCIETIES AND CULTURES is a step in the right direction. The next step is to avoid presenting areas as discrete entities and focus on interaction between groups and on global trends that transcend other boundaries.
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