Journal of World History 14.1 (2003) 87-90
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Experiencing World History. By PAUL V. ADAMS, ERICK D. LANGER, LILY HWA, PETER N. STEARNS, and MERRY E. WIESNER-HANKS.New York: New York University Press, 2000. 498 pp. $45.00 (cloth); $20.00 (paper).
When teaching the world history survey, we all seek to find materials that will draw students in, allowing them to see why and how world history matters. Through a thematic approach, this book effectively does that while providing insights into the world's social history. The book provides instructors with six narratives of world history, each told in chronological order, allowing one to prepare for a thematic lecture or discussion. For a college world history survey course, the book could provide an alternative to the standard 1,000 page text, if teachers are willing to provide background materials through an additional reader, lectures, and/or supplemental readings. (World history textbooks have their place but too often students lose sight of the larger patterns and processes in world history due to the level of detail and specificity that textbooks include.) For those teaching the AP world history course, the book is an ideal accompaniment, for student or teacher, as it addresses change over time in world history.
The authors assert that one can begin to understand the human experience by looking at global patterns and the development and interaction of societies over time. This book focuses on the "domain of social history on a world scale. How people worked and played, how they reacted to the physical and biological environment, how they reorganized relations between men and women . . ." (p. vii). The book is organized around six major periods, each one delving into five aspects of social history: biological (demographic), cultural, state, gender, and work and leisure. The focus on human agents of change allows students [End Page 87] to see world history as a human experience—one where the actors are not necessarily institutions, civilizations, or governments. The focus on states gets at how the people are really impacted—what actually happens versus what purports to happen. Each part includes an overview introduction and an epilogue, providing additional historical context, including a timeline and bibliography.
One of the obligations we have in teaching the world history survey is to make it relevant for students. In using a thematic approach, students see meaningful connections to their own lives, rather than a compendium of facts and dates. Through the themes, the authors help students to think historically by thinking about change and continuity as well as causes and comparisons. Additionally, by focusing on these long-term thematic trends, students can see themselves in the historical narrative. This is done in the chapters on the twentieth century in order for students to get a sense of where these trends are headed in the future. As they consider probable and possible outcomes of these trends in the future, they become part of the historical process.
The book's greatest strength is in its modeling of change and continuity over time using select themes, not places. For example, the six chapters on population trace global processes such as climate change, migration patterns, growth (and control), population retreats, agriculture, diet, urbanization, disease, technology, and interaction. Within these sections, students can learn, among other things, the history of birth control options (p. 341), the impact of population encounters including the Columbian exchange (pp. 262-271), and the role of government in technological improvements (p. 199). Attention is also given to the shift in thinking about public health (p. 337). By looking at how the environment is altered by (and alters) societies, readers can see the changes that population, technology, and climate have on diverse places. In the 1450-1750 timeframe, Europe and China are approached comparatively to show the impact of demographic and technological factors. My own students found the book compelling reading when in their first encounter with it they read about the effects of population pressure on early urban areas. Here the author noted, "Civilization may have been grand and glorious, but it also waded...