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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in world history

Prentice Hall World History: Connections to Today
1997. 1038 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-803271-8.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.
(Prentice Hall is a part of the entertainment company Viacom Inc.)

Elaborate Presentation,
Conventional Approach

James Jankowski

Prentice Hall World History: Connections to Today, intended as a comprehensive history of the world, has thirty-seven chapters grouped into eight units. The first three units span the time from "The Dawn of History" to (approximately) AD 1500; then the next three units cover the period from 1500 to World War 1; and the final two units are devoted to what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has termed "the short twentieth century" -- the period from World War 1 to the present. In an effort to produce an up- to-date book, the writers have included references to events that took place as recently as 1995, such as the assassination of Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult's gas attacks on subway passengers in Tokyo.

Physically, Connections to Today is an impressive work. The publisher seems to have spared no expense in producing a visually lavish book, replete with features to help the student and the teacher. The illustrations, most of them in full color, include reproductions of paintings, sculptures, cartoons, photographs and popular art. Numerous colored maps show physical geography, political realms, and movements of people.

The book is also loaded with pedagogical bells and whistles. Each of the eight units begins with a world map that includes notes about important historical phenomena, and each unit ends with a summary, an essay suggesting global comparisons, and a value-oriented discussion of some issue raised by material in the unit. Within the unit, each chapter begins with an outline and concludes with a review and a set of exercises for the student. The chapter itself is divided into sections, each of which begins with some questions (labeled "Guide for Reading") and ends with a brief quiz. Sprinkled through the text are various sidebars, excerpts from works of literature, and charts of "Cause and Effect."

How effective is all this? The illustrations unquestionably help the reader to get immediate, visual impressions of different times, places and cultures, and the maps are successful in representing political units and in summarizing the flow of historical change. I have mixed reactions, however, to the arrays of lists, questions, quizzes, activities and charts with which the text has been peppered. They are sometimes distracting and, on the whole, overwhelming. But I suspect that at least the introductory guidelines and questions, as well as the summaries and reviews, may be useful to students.

As far as writing is concerned, this textbook is both comprehensible and interesting. Many chapters and sections begin with dramatic vignettes or personal stories intended to draw the reader into the subject. Quotations from primary sources, many of them illustrative of popular experiences or attitudes, lend a personal dimension to the narrative and make it entertaining to read.

Traditional, Eurocentric Views

My reservations about Connections to Today are concerned more with its content and perspective than with points of format or style.

The introduction (on page xxiv) asserts that the book emphasizes nine overarching historical themes: Continuity and Change, Geography and History, Political and Social Systems, Religions and Value Systems, Economics and Technology, Diversity, Impact of the Individual, Global Interaction, and Art and Literature -- in sum, everything. But in reading the book, I have found that its narrative actually is dominated by rather traditional political and cultural history. Most chapters include a paragraph or two about the lives of women, but otherwise there is little of the new social history that we might hope to see. The concluding units offer some informative and thoughtful sections about economics and technology in the 20th century, but otherwise the book focuses on the formation and collapse of states, the evolution of high culture (as it is represented in formal religion, art and literature), and the deeds and thoughts of important persons. Much of what is said about these things is stated well, but it hardly constitutes a novel approach to the history of humanity.

Some important topics get surprisingly little attention. These include the evolution of our species -- a topic that recently has been illuminated by remarkable discoveries, and that is inherently interesting to students -- and the story of humans in prehistoric times. In Connections to Today prehistory gets ten pages or so, much of which is given to the methods of archaeology. This book also follows the conventional practice of treating premodern civilizations in isolation from each other, conveying little sense of the commonalities among civilizations or the development of global patterns. Until the book begins to deal with the modern era, it provides conventional accounts of the histories of different regions rather than a history of the world.

Equally conventional is the book's Eurocentrism. Particularly in its handling of the so-called Christian era, as we in the West misleadingly term it, the narrative clearly favors the history of Europe. In the unit titled "Regional Civilizations," covering the period from about AD 500 to 1600, three chapters are given to Europe (including Byzantium) and three chapters to the rest of the world. The Eurocentric orientation becomes more pronounced in the next unit, "Early Modern Times," as events in Asia, Africa and the Americas are narrated within a context of triumphant European expansion. The emphasis on Europe and the West continues into units addressing the 19th and 20th centuries, where the other parts of the world are treated primarily in terms of their reactions to Western dominance. The writers do note many of the Columbian exchange's devastating effects on the Americas, and there is some reflection upon the mixed blessings of European imperialism, but the overall impression offered to the reader is a comforting picture of dynamic Westerners meeting and mastering the stagnant, fossilized civilizations of the East.

Along with Eurocentrism goes a hefty dose of political correctness. The accounts of the founders of major religions (the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad) are sympathetic and rely heavily on hagiographical sources written by believers; as a result, the book sometimes blurs the distinction between what is faith and what is fact. The status of women in some societies is duly noted (though the book does not consider the social history of women in any consistent, systematic way), and today's economic patterns are presented from the perspective of the World Bank; socialism is bad and has failed, capitalism is necessary and good, and the ravages that structural adjustments wreak upon the poor go unmentioned and ignored. There is little here to disturb school boards, parent-teacher associations, or the Chamber of Commerce.

In sum, Connections to Today is a visually rich and stylistically appealing book that students should find understandable and entertaining. Its content is largely conventional, and it offers the traditional Euro-American narrative of the course of world history, seldom doing anything to revise or challenge that narrative.

Overall, a Good Retelling
of the History of the West

Charles B. Paul

If we ignore some of its material about science, literature, the arts and various religions, Prentice Hall World History: Connections to Today is a useful high-school book about the history of the West. It has thirty-seven chapters, and twenty- two of these deal directly with the West. Eight other chapters deal with some regions of the non-Western world by adopting a Western perspective or by emphasizing the economic, political and cultural relationships that connect those regions to the West.

An excessively large part of this book -- about one-third -- is devoted to the period since 1914. However, the writers have firmly connected that period to earlier times through the use of explanation, repetition and a set of charts titled "Cause and Effect." Each of the charts summarizes the origins and legacies of an important historical phenomenon. As an example, the chart devoted to the Protestant Reformation (page 363) starts with the Reformation's long-term causes (e.g. -- "Roman Catholic Church becomes more worldly" and "Humanists urge return to simple religion"), and it extends through the Reformation's present-day results ("About one fourth of Christians are Protestant" and "Religious conflict in Northern Ireland").

The book is notably strong in economic, political, diplomatic and social history. For example, the writers do a superb job of linking European feats of exploration, the growth of European capitalism, and the uneven economic and cultural effects that the expansion of capitalism produced among the men and women of various classes. Other outstanding narratives include a description of the Black Death epidemic of the mid-1300s, a very relevant account of how Eastern Europe's varied geography and political history have helped to spawn turmoil and war over the centuries, and a good explanation for Japan's economic success in the years after 1945.

This textbook also dispels some widespread misconceptions. Instead of painting fascism as an undiluted horror, it presents balanced passages showing that fascism, in Italy and elsewhere, had much appeal. Likewise, it tells that in today's Middle East, the status of Muslim women differs from country to country. Indeed, this book deserves to be commended for its continual inclusion of social history that touches on the lives of women. It also offers five "Up Close" stories about women, including such influential figures as Elizabeth I of England.

More forthrightly than any other high-school text that I've reviewed, Connections to Today presents a global view of slavery and the slave trade. Of course it tells about slavery in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and of course it looks at the slavery fostered by Europeans during the age of exploration and colonization, but it acknowledges slavery in the Muslim world as well. It also tells that, long after the United States and the European countries outlawed the slave trade, "Arab and African slave traders continued to send human beings from Central and East Africa to work as slaves in the Middle East and Asia." (This book does not, however, tell of the African slave trade that exists today.)

Commendable too is the way in which Connections to Today shows that the followers of some religions don't always adhere to the lofty ideals that those religions profess. We see that both Muslims and Christians have committed "appalling atrocities in the name of religion" (page 222) and that Christians have engaged in religious persecutions and massacres, witch hunts, and the extermination of people whom they have chosen as scapegoats.

Less commendable is the way in which the Prentice Hall writers uncritically accept certain religious claims and casually slide over the relations and differences between religions. On page 40, for example:

Zoroaster's teachings were collected in a sacred book, the Zend-Avesta. It taught that in the end [the Zoroastrian god] would triumph over the forces of evil. On that day, all individuals would be judged for their actions. Those who had done good would enter paradise. Evildoers would be condemned to eternal suffering. Two later religions that emerged in the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, stressed similar ideas about heaven, hell, and a final judgment day.

That is misleading, because the occurrence of "similar ideas" in Zoroastrianism and Christianity and Islam isn't just coincidence. On its face, the recurrence of those "similar ideas" represents the diffusion of Zoroastrian ideas into Christianity and Islam by way of Judaism. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Persian empire; Judaism's doctrines about an afterlife were set forth in two Old Testament books (the books of Ezekiel and Daniel) that were written during or shortly after the Persian conquest of Palestine; and those doctrines were later borrowed and reworked by Christians and Muslims.

On page 906 the writers assert that "Like Christians in Europe, Muslims share the same faith but belong to different national groups." This is highly misleading. There are at least 200 sects of Christianity, and the differences among them go far beyond nationality; there are deep differences with respect to liturgy, organization, the interpretation of the Holy Bible, and even the enumeration of the sacraments. Muslims, for the most part, are divided among only four sects: the Sunni, the Shi'ite, the Sufi and the Wahhabi. But here too, the differences are matters of theology and religious practices. Even if one or another sect predominates in a particular country, it is wrong to suggest that the sects of Islam are merely "national groups."

Then we have the matter of presenting unsubstantiated religious claims as if they were historical facts. On pages 256 and 257, for example, the writers set down, as facts, the claims that Muhammad had a "vision" and "heard a voice" which ordered him to "Proclaim -- in the name of your God, the Creator, . . . ."

The writers also assert "facts" that are false by any standard, whether theological or historical. On page 571 they say that the Bible "told how God created the world and all forms of life within seven days." Surely the writers could have got hold of a Bible and learned that the biblical tale of creation unfolded in only six days.

Muddling the Arts and Sciences

If the Bible seems to be a closed book to these writers, so does much of the historical record pertaining to literature, the arts, and science. For example, there is no justification for saying categorically that Baroque paintings "glorified historical battles or the lives of saints" (page 464); some of the greatest Baroque masterpieces are portraits, still lifes, landscapes, domestic scenes, or scenes of peasant life. And the section on Romanticism (like the corresponding sections in most of the high- school history texts that I've reviewed) is full of sweeping statements that are quite unreliable. On page 574, for instance, the writers indicate that Beethoven brought innovation to music by writing "from the heart" and by "conveying intense emotional struggle." In fact, many composers before Beethoven had been masters of the art of "conveying intense emotional struggle," and all the great composers have written from the heart; if they hadn't, their music would be lifeless.

Among the passages given to the history of science, some are excellent and others are seriously flawed. Pages 364 through 366 offer a good, if brief, account of the astronomical revolution effected by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, and the writers tell that resistance to heliocentrism came not only from religious quarters but also from scientists who refused to abandon Ptolemaic astronomy. On the other hand, the writers have badly misconstrued the development and precepts of scientific thought: They don't understand the import of Descartes's famous dictum ("I think, therefore I am"), they don't understand Francis Bacon's actual role in the emergence of science, they don't understand that Bacon's approach to studying nature led nowhere (and soon was discarded by science), and their outline of "the scientific method" is both fanciful and incorrect. Their notions about science seem to have been derived from erroneous material presented in earlier Prentice Hall books. [See, for example, Charles B. Paul's review of Prentice Hall's World History in TTL for January-February 1993.]

In sketching some scientific developments of the 1800s, these writers take the unusual and commendable step of acknowledging Charles Lyell and his "evidence to show that the Earth had formed over millions of years" (page 570). Yet they fail to show the connection between Lyell's work and Darwin's, and their account of Darwin (page 571) is flimsy; they do not explain that Darwin's concept of descent with modification has been richly verified, since his day, by work in comparative anatomy, paleontology, embryology, genetics and molecular biology. When they get to the 1900s and Einstein, they fail to distinguish between the special theory and the general theory of relativity, and they claim that "Einstein argued that space and time measurements are not absolute but are determined by many factors, some of them unknown." I do not grasp that phrase about "many factors, some of them unknown." What will it mean to students?

I have noticed various other mistakes in Connections to Today, including errors of fact, errors of omission, and items that are misleading. The time line on page 3 gives the false impression that all prehistoric societies were contemporary. Marco Polo made two journeys to China; he undertook the first journey with his father and uncle, the second by himself. Erasmus made a Latin translation of the New Testament only, not of the entire Bible. Thomas More was not merely "an English judge"; for seven years he was the Lord Chancellor, the highest judge in England. The Enlightenment was not just an extension of the Scientific Revolution; other factors that favored the Enlightenment included the advent of the limited monarchy in England, Locke's theories of knowledge and of constitutionalism, the weaknesses of the reign of Louis XIV in France, and the Europeans' expanding knowledge of non-Christian religions. It is misleading to say that the Belgians and the Dutch have different languages; about half of the Belgians have Walloon, a variant of French, as their native tongue, but the rest have Flemish, a variant of Dutch. The epithet that the European powers applied to the declining Ottoman Empire in the 19th century was "the sick man of Europe," not "the dying man." A Communist regime seized control of Czechoslovakia not "by 1946" but in 1948. And in Mexico, the "majority population" consists of mestizos, not Indians.

Connections to Today has a mature tone and has been written with some style and verve. Yet it also harbors serious errors, and many passages show that the Prentice Hall writers and editors have created their text without consulting primary sources, without honoring the methods of legitimate historiography, and without taking account of recent scholarship. I am able to recommend this textbook only with strong reservations. Teachers who attempt to use Connections to Today in the classroom will have to compensate for the shortcomings that have been outlined in this review.


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.

Charles Paul, a specialist in cultural history, is a professor of humanities, emeritus, from San Jose State University. His book Science and Immortality examines the science and the scientists of 18th-century France.

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