August 2017

Review: The World before Modern Times, Unit 1 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

Unit 1 of Jackson Spielvogel’s high school history textbook World History: Modern Times is by far the most expansive, covering the period from the Neolithic Age to the Renaissance and a geographical area that encompasses Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. By far its biggest issue is its privileging of European knowledge systems.

See our introduction to this series for a list of the other units reviewed.

Unit 1 of Jackson Spielvogel’s high school history textbook World History: Modern Times is by far the most expansive, covering the period from the Neolithic Age to the Renaissance and a geographical area that encompasses Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. By far its biggest issue is its privileging of European knowledge systems, particularly the development of writing. The very first chapter labels the period before the development of the first known writing systems in ancient Mesopotamia a time “before history” (4). Though many both in and outside academia continue to accept a chronological division between “prehistory” and “history,” numerous scholars have begun to note the inherent Eurocentrism of such dichotomies in the past several decades.[1]

Students deserve the most accurate portrayal of world history possible. The knowledge they receive from textbooks impacts the way they interact with their world after graduation, and without accurate knowledge those interactions will only perpetuate the power structures that shape their lives in damaging and destructive ways.

European colonizers frequently justified their conquests by characterizing colonized societies as ahistorical peoples because they were both unable and unwilling to identify the systems used by those peoples to record historical events. Colonizers even more frequently furthered their conquests in practical terms by taking advantage of colonized peoples’ early inability to understand European writing systems, insisting that colonial negotiations be recorded in documents over which they had sole control (thus allowing them to change the contents of such documents at will regardless of the real content of any negotiations).[2] Continuing to rely on the European division between “prehistory” and “history” thus serves to perpetuate the modern-day privileging of European forms of knowledge and views of the past and sustains the ongoing colonization of non-European peoples.

Unit 1 falls into a number of other Eurocentric traps as well. The unit consistently relies on the notion of “civilization” (7) to delineate which societies are and are not worthy of its focus, a term that was similarly wielded by European colonizers to effect exploitative ends by privileging their own view of the world over that of conquered peoples who had their own systems of knowledge. It similarly celebrates the innovation of agriculture (7) without discussing the larger and often destructive implications of agricultural developments in the Global North for societies in the Global South.[3] (As with writing systems, Europeans’ unwillingness to recognize the agricultural practices of colonized peoples served as a justification for colonization and allowed them to exploit natural resources in colonized lands without concern for questions of sustainability.)

Continuing to rely on the European division between “prehistory” and “history” thus serves to perpetuate the modern-day privileging of European forms of knowledge and views of the past and sustains the ongoing colonization of non-European peoples.

Perhaps more alarmingly, it makes a practice of emphasizing the occurrence of warfare in non-European societies, while downplaying its occurrence in Europe. Each of its sections on non-European societies are rife with references to frequent acts of war, while its sections on Roman history seem to elide such acts in favor of a discussion of the “pax Romana” (51), a period that was peaceful only for those at the center of the empire unaffected by the endemic frontier warfare that enabled it to maintain control over such a large territory. (An interesting offshoot of this practice is the author’s decision to blame Cleopatra VII for the loss of Egyptian independence to Rome in the first century B.C. (16), rather than the long series of aggressive actions by Roman leaders that set the stage for Egypt’s conquest long before her reign.)[4] Likewise, the author characterizes the High Middle Ages as a “more settled and peaceful time” (132), despite the fact that the period failed to see a single year without warfare on European soil. Such characterizations fall into centuries-old modes of thinking that misleadingly identify non-European cultures as inherently violent—again as a justification for colonization and conquest.

Wuertenberg Image 1
Trade between Rome, India, and China. Courtesy of Vox.

The unit also seems to privilege Judeo-Christian views of history over those of other religions. For example, the textbook unreservedly accepts the Biblical narrative of Jewish exile in and later flight from Egypt (18), despite decades-old archaeological findings that suggest those events may never have happened.[5] It also directly pairs its section on the Roman Republic, and later Empire, with Christianity by titling it “Rome and the Rise of Christianity,” suggesting the author’s belief that Roman history is unworthy of study on its own merits but is rather a mere precursor to the rise of a religion. (It might feel strange, for example, to title the section “Rome and the Decline of Paganism,” because Roman society was no more or less defined by its religious practices than any other.) Additionally, it treats the practice of Christianity in medieval Europe as both monolithic and unchallenged, despite the publication of countless works of scholarship that suggest the continued existence and widespread prevalence of folk traditions rooted in paganism throughout the period (not to mention the numerous “heresies” the Catholic Church worked to stamp out with internal crusades and inquisitions).[6]

Oddly, however, the unit seems to downplay the role of religion in the formation of European societies while emphasizing religion’s role in the construction of non-European ones. In its discussion of the Indian caste system, for example, it concludes that the establishment of castes was largely the result of Hindu notions of “religious purity” (18). While the caste system may have been justified in those terms, decades of scholarship suggest that socioeconomic factors played a much larger role in the system’s formation than did religion.[7] This tendency may, in part, be due to developments in European thought since the Enlightenment, which characterize Europe as a “rational” society and non-European societies as mired in “superstition.” It may also be rooted in European notions of non-European ahistoricism, which characterize non-European societies as crystallized, unchanging communities motivated only by factors present at the time of their original formation. (Again, Europeans used both characterizations to justify their colonization of other societies.)

Wuertenberg Image 2
Courtesy of UCLA.

Many of these issues are explained by the author’s seeming identification with the European past, as well as the expectation that his audience will identify in similar terms. Each chapter of the unit begins with a question for students to consider as they move forward. The chapters on non-European societies ask questions related to the role of local environments in the development of the communities within them (a decision that is perhaps motivated by a long European intellectual tradition of associating non-European peoples with nature). The chapter on Greece and Rome, on the other hand, begins with the question “how did the Greeks and Romans shape our culture? (emphasis added),” (36) an indication of where the author’s loyalties lie and where he expects those of his audience to lie as well. This skewing of perspectives results in a distinct imbalance in the unit’s relative coverage of European and non-European societies. While the non-European societies (which countless historians have taken entire books to discuss) are jumbled together into shared chapters, Greece and Rome enjoy their own chapter without any competition for focus. By contrast, the Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in history and second largest empire overall behind the British, is given one page (108).

These choices may have been unintentional. They are not without import, however. The story of human societies’ interactions with each other and the world is a complex one, in which the European past offers only one among many competing systems of knowledge and power. To pretend that European systems are uniquely “good” or “rational” is simply incorrect. Students deserve the most accurate portrayal of world history possible. The knowledge they receive from textbooks impacts the way they interact with their world after graduation, and without accurate knowledge those interactions will only perpetuate the power structures that shape their lives in damaging and destructive ways. Textbook authors have an obligation to use their knowledge for the betterment of their readers’ lives. Unit 1 has fundamentally failed to meet this obligation.

Recommended Readings

Parker, Charles H., ed. Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Raaflaub, Kurt A., ed. War and Peace in the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publ., 2007.

Robertson, Elizabeth Ann, and Jennifer Jahner, eds. Medieval and Early Modern Devotional Objects in Global Perspective: Translations of the Sacred. New York (N.Y.): Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Schmidt, Peter R., and Stephen A. Mrozowski, eds. The Death of Prehistory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Notes

[1] See, for example, Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012),

[2] See, for example, James H. Merrell, “‘I Desire All That I Have Said…may Be Taken down Aright’: Revisiting Teedyuscung’s 1756 Treaty Council Speeches,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d, LXIII, no. 4 (October 2006): 777-826.

[3] Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine, May 1, 1999, accessed July 27, 2017, http://discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race.

[4] See Susan Walker and Peter Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth (London: British Museum Press, 2001).

[5] See Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed (New York, NY.: Free Press, 2001.

[6] See, for example, Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Routledge, 2015).

[7] See, for example, Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth to the Modern Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.

I am the founder of The Activist History Review and one of its executive editors. I am currently a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I am conducting research for a doctoral dissertation on the 1775 American invasion of Quebec, entitled “Divided We Stand: The American War for Independence, the 1775 Quebec Campaign, and the Rise of Nations in the Twilight of Colonial Empires.” I received my MA in history from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and my BA in history and Spanish from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. I recently contributed a chapter to the two-volume series Violence in American Popular Culture entitled “From Knights to Knights-Errant: The Evolution of Westerns through Portrayals of Violence.” I can be followed on Twitter at @nwuertenberg.

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