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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1995

Reviewing two middle-school books in world history

Peoples and Places in World History

The Ancient World
1993 (second edition). 500 pages. ISBN: 1-878473-63-8.
Medieval and Early Modern Times
1990. 486 pages. ISBN: 1-878473-56-5.

Clearly Written Textbooks
with a Eurocentric Thrust

James Jankowski

Peoples and Places in World History comprises two volumes, intended for use in the 6th and 7th grades respectively.

The first volume, The Ancient World, starts with the prehistoric origins of our species, then covers historical times from the rise of Middle Eastern civilizations to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Each historical chapter in this volume includes a section about geography; topics covered in the geographical sections include oceans, climates, maps, deserts, and trade routes. The second book, Medieval and Early Modern Times, opens with a chapter about archaeology, then provides a series of exclusively historical chapters that span a period from the decline of the Roman Empire to the 18th century.

The format employed in both volumes has clearly been designed to be accessible to middle-school students. The basic narrative is presented in large type, on pages that have wide margins. Inserts printed in blue ink discuss important individuals or ideas, or present relevant quotations. Questions in the margins tell the student what to expect in the main text.

The designers of the Peoples and Places books have made frequent use of line maps and sketches, along with occasional pictures of historic sites or scenes. Although the maps and other illustrations are generally useful in supporting the narrative, the maps sometimes do not clearly distinguish land from water. Some of the maps are not directly linked to the adjacent text, and this may confuse students.

Each chapter is followed by a helpful vocabulary exercise, a set of "Review Questions," and a number of "Think It Over" questions that vary from stimulating to historically irrelevant. (For an example of historically irrelevant questioning, see the fifth chapter of The Ancient World. While the chapter deals with ancient Egypt, the writers have injected a "Think It Over" question that pertains to a current controversy over the protection of desert tortoises in the southwestern United States: "Ravens often make desert tortoises their meal. Some people suggest killing the ravens. Do you think this is right? Why should a tortoise have a better claim to life than a raven?")

The Peoples and Places books are based on the premise, declared in the introduction to The Ancient World, that "We must understand the past in order to understand our lives today." The emphasis is on helping students to understand the connections between different places and periods, as well as the relationships between the past and the present. In the introduction to Medieval and Early Modern Times, the writers set forth an additional goal: to provide a systematic account of the human experience, giving attention not only to political events and institutions but also to the social, cultural and intellectual dimensions of life.

Of these two aims, the first is realized more effectively than the second. The writers' narrative is relentlessly present-minded, repeatedly noting and emphasizing the historical origins of technological developments, scientific advances, and social or political institutions that resonate in our own society. A consequence of this approach is that the books have a heavily Eurocentric thrust, giving preponderant attention to peoples who are presumed to have contributed significantly to the development of the Western tradition. If the writers had adopted an alternative approach, exploring the varying, equally viable ways in which various societies have resolved fundamental social questions and universal intellectual problems, the books would have turned out much differently.

Clearly, any attempt to present the history of humanity from prehistoric times to the French Revolution, and to do so in terms intelligible to 6th-graders and 7th-graders, is a daunting task. On the whole, the writers of Peoples and Places have done well. The accounts of different peoples and societies are generally clear and understandable. The analyses of major historical controversies or unsettled questions -- e.g., the question of whether all humans are descendants of a single African female, or the questions surrounding the origin and compilation of the various books of the Bible -- are reasonably up-to-date and sometimes are surprisingly nuanced, given that they have been written for a young audience. In the chapters about the ancient Middle East and medieval Europe, the descriptions of daily life and work concisely convey the different textures of life in the past.

I find the books less satisfactory in some other respects. In The Ancient World the sections about geography interrupt the flow of the historical material and distract the reader. In both books, and especially in Medieval and Early Modern Times, the narrative sometimes becomes bogged down in political matters that are presented in greater detail than seems necessary in a book for middle-school students. And both books show considerable variation in the quality of the passages that describe important ideas and beliefs. For example, the account of concepts underlying the ancient Egyptian view of life and death is quite well done, as is the discussion of the achievements of Hellenistic philosophy and science; the discussions of Islamic and Indian thought, on the other hand, sometimes neglect key elements or conflate discrete ideas.

The overall interpretation of the human adventure offered in the Peoples and Places books revolves around the rise of the West; and as I already have noted, the writers devote particular attention to peoples who are identified as contributors to Western civilization. Among the ancient Middle Eastern peoples, for example, the Sumerians and the Egyptians and the Hebrews are discussed in detail, but groups who are not closely associated with the West -- e.g., the Hittites or the Persians -- are only mentioned in passing or are ignored. The history of ancient Greece and Rome, of course, receives extended treatment (five full chapters in The Ancient World). So does the history of Europe from the later days of the Roman empire to the early modern period (six chapters in Medieval and Early Modern Times). In contrast, the history of the rest of the world is accorded only eight chapters in the two volumes together: one chapter for India, one for the Islamic world, one for the Americas, one for Japan, two for Africa, and two for China.

Embedded in the text are some casual ethnocentric judgments about the virtue of the Western tradition. For example, Medieval and Early Modern Times offers an evaluation of Europe's High Middle Ages: "This was a period of great intellectual and artistic activity. Few periods in the history of the world can match the achievement of those years." Such a judgment may be comforting to the Western reader, but it is questionable as historical analysis.

The books' coverage of the two regions with which I am most familiar -- India and the Middle East -- suffers from some major omissions and some failures to deal satisfactorily with particular topics. In regard to India, I find that there is adequate discussion of the evolution of Indian ideas up to the time of the Upanishads, but the text is sketchy and unclear in its treatment of later developments. The analysis of caste (a page and a half in The Ancient World) is much too brief, failing to capture the substance and uniqueness of the Indian social order.

In the material about Islam, which forms a chapter of Medieval and Early Modern Times, the substantive differences between Sunnism and Shi'ism are not clarified; the central intellectual discipline of Islamic civilization, law, is ignored; and there is no systematic account of how Islam grew and spread through much of the Old World. The fact that a significant portion of humanity eventually became Muslim is a major historical development that needs both emphasis and explanation. It receives neither here.

A broader shortcoming of the Peoples and Places books is their failure to deal adequately with the transmission of ideas from people to people and from region to region. In The Ancient World the writers tell about the dissemination of the alphabet and of the use of iron, and they give some attention to inter-regional contacts (both commercial and intellectual) in the chapters about ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Otherwise, however, the writers generally neglect such contacts until, in Medieval and Early Modern Times, they describe the European explosion after 1400. As a consequence, there is little sense of the dissemination of crucial technologies and seminal ideas among different societies, and little sense of the shared technological and intellectual advances which have moved humanity, as a whole, to new levels of achievement and understanding. These are complicated skeins to unravel, and difficult to present in a middle-school text; but much of the adventure of world history is lost if they are ignored.

Both Peoples and Places books offer a rather rosy picture of history. The world that they present is a world without much exploitation except for slavery (the existence of which, in different societies, is duly noted). It is also a world without peasants, save in ancient Sumer, ancient Egypt and medieval Europe. The ubiquitous institution of taxation is almost never mentioned, and the various forms of domination based on class or gender are not discussed in any detail. This avoidance of the unpleasant and disturbing dimensions of history may reflect the writers' judgment that 6th-graders and 7th-graders don't need to fret about inequality, exploitation and injustice. The result, however, is a skewed version of the human experience which downplays its darker side.

Sketchy, Superficial History
That Can't Satisfy Students

Sara Thompson

The Peoples and Places books, intended for use in successive middle-school grades, conduct their readers on a breathtakingly rapid but almost continuously dull journey through the past. By attempting to cover too much, the writers have produced a fragmented and shallow account of human history. Complexity, drama, controversy and romance, all of which combined to stimulate my own interest in history, are conspicuous by their absence.

The first volume, The Ancient World, has three units: "Early People and the First Civilizations," "Asia and Africa in the Ancient World" and "Greeks and Romans." According to the writers' introductory statement, the material in this book is united by some "common threads": the influence of geography on culture; the daily life of common people; the role of religion; artistic accomplishments and scientific advances; and political structures.

The Ancient World suffers from a number of problems, the most important of which are these:

Superficiality

A survey text has to condense material and has to paint in broad strokes. But if doing so means that stories, themes and connections are lost, what has been gained? In The Ancient World, China is a blur of dynasties while Greece and Rome are generally reduced to military entities. What is missing is a sense of life on the human scale. How did people live? What did they look like? What did they eat? How did their values affect their decisions about how they should conduct their lives?

Poor integration of geography

There are only 29 maps in this 500-page book. Moreover, the maps are often of poor quality and often fail to show key places mentioned in the text. Migrations of peoples, important trade routes, military campaigns, and such events as the Babylonian exile appear in the text, but there are no pertinent maps. Without maps, some of these topics are almost meaningless.

A lesson on geography concludes each chapter, but the lesson usually bears only a minimal connection to the chapter's content. Indeed, for all its apparent emphasis on geography, this book does a poor job of helping the student to fit a given culture into a geographic context.

The book also fails to make geographic connections across cultures. In a typical case, a culture is treated as if it existed in a vacuum. The writers do little to explore cultural diffusion, and the reader is left wondering how ideas and technologies spread through the ancient world.

Devotion to cut-and-dried facts

This text, like so many others intended for use in middle schools or high schools, presents history as a series of established facts. The processes of examining evidence, building hypotheses, and testing hypotheses against observations -- all of which are parts of the historian's craft -- are not described. Yet this is exactly the kind of material that would enliven the study of history, would show students that historiography is based on inquiry, and would give students an idea of where facts come from.

The book begins with putative, sometimes fictional, descriptions of the earliest humans, augmented by two paragraphs about the current argument surrounding "Eve," the purported ancestor of all the humans living today. It is encouraging that the writers have said something about this argument, but they could have done much more with it. It could have formed the core of a whole chapter on how archaeologists, anthropologists and historians work. What are their methods and their sources of information? How do they use the scientific analysis of remains and artifacts in reconstructing the past? Such topics could have been used to get students involved in building hypotheses and sorting evidence.
Another missed opportunity is seen in the chapter about the Hebrews. In contrast to the ones that precede it, this chapter is lively and is filled with accounts of individuals and their actions. It is also specious, misleading and devoid of educational merit, because much of it consists of biblical myths disguised as history. Instead of using the Bible for building a lesson about how historians approach folklore, the writers repeatedly present Hebrew tales as factual information. I shall say more about this below.

Social History?

The second volume, Medieval and Early Modern Times, covers history from late Roman times to the period of European expansion and colonialism. Its five units are "History Underground" (consisting of a single chapter about archaeology), "The Early Middle Ages in Europe," "Asia, Africa, and the Americas," "Medieval Europe and Early Modern Europe" and "Learning from History" (which consists of a single chapter about links between the past and the present). Unlike The Ancient World, this book attempts to weave geographical information into the main text, instead of isolating it in end-of-chapter lessons; and on the whole, this book does a better job of establishing geographical contexts.

In their introduction (page vii) the writers claim to focus on daily life, education and some other aspects of social history. However, they devote a majority of their pages to military and political history, which too often becomes a superficial recitation of which monarch followed which, or which dynasty rose after another dynasty fell. As a result, the text gives only a poor reflection of the new scholarship that has been offered by social historians, and there is far too little information about people's everyday lives -- especially the lives of women and children.

In Medieval and Early Modern Times, as in The Ancient World, maps are frustratingly scarce. In the chapter on Japan, for example, the writers say that Mongoloid people first entered Japan from Korea, but there is no map that shows Japan, Korea and the geographical relation between them. There is a map showing Korea alone, with a caption saying that Korea "was always the gateway for new people to enter Japan," but this is simply not helpful. In the same chapter, the text mentions Japan's Yamato Plain several times, but the chapter's one and only map of Japan doesn't show where the Plain is. Similar failures to provide proper maps, and to make text and maps work with each other, occur throughout the book.

The need to cover a great deal of material in a limited space requires a condensed style of writing, but the writing in Medieval and Early Modern Times is needlessly disjointed and sometimes bizarre, and several passages left me scratching my head or even laughing aloud. One of these occurs on page 69, in a section titled "Byzantium's Problems":

In the Eastern Balkans, the mixed population of Dacia took refuge in nearby mountains to avoid the Avar and Slavic invaders. They went into hiding for a full 500 years. Later they reappeared as the Romanians.

Another passage, on page 381, isn't quite as bad, but it still strikes me as odd:

In 1428 a remarkable woman appeared on the scene. Her name is [sic] Joan of Arc. She was only a young girl . . . .

People typically spring from nowhere and "appear on the scene" in plays and pageants. Unfortunately, they also do it in this schoolbook.

In some places, the text of Medieval and Early Modern Times is maddeningly disconnected. The chapter dealing with Japan (on pages 261 through 297) again provides an example, because the writers mention feudalism a number of times but never describe it. (On page 293 they casually say that feudalism is "a society in which kings have little power while rural landowners have much," but that remark is wrong.) No description of feudalism appears until the next chapter, which deals with medieval Europe.

Value-Laden Presentations

The writers have a curious tendency to make value judgments that strike me as inappropriate or even silly. For example:

In summary: These Peoples and Places volumes don't advance the teaching of history at the middle-school level. Middle-school students of history are hungry to study relevant, controversial and complex issues from the past. They cannot be satisfied by a sketchy parade of events punctuated by religious preaching.


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.

Sara Thompson is a high-school social-studies teacher and curriculum-development consultant. Her most recent project has been the writing of a curriculum about contemporary Japan for the Laurasian Institution (Atlanta, Illinois). She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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