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Choosing A Textbook for AP World History

David Dorman
Manhasset High School

    The choice of a new textbook for use with my AP World History class was one of the toughest decisions of my teaching career. I had been teaching for 38 years and had been teaching AP European History for 15 of those years. Further, I had developed a two-year honors world history program and had been teaching it for ten years when AP World History came into being. I had selected many textbooks over the years, including three for my AP classes.1 Yet without a doubt, the AP World History course—with its emphasis on patterns of changes and continuities, globalization, and cultural interactions—begged for a new textbook. I took the responsibility for its selection very seriously.
    I personally examined every new book that claimed to be a world history text. This meant reading many chapters from each, comparing the content of each for specific topics that I picked at random, and assessing the overall pros and cons of each one. What follows is an account of my agonizing year-long quest to find the right text for my class.
     The first order of business was to gather together the emerging crop on world history texts. They included the texts by Bulliet, Bentley & Ziegler, Duiker & Spielvogel, Spodek, and Stearns.2 In addition to personally reading sections of each, I asked the reading specialist in my school to do a readability study on each one. Each of them proved to be acceptable in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, and length of paragraphs. Our reading specialist handed back the books saying they all seemed appropriate for my upcoming AP classes in world history.
    In June of 2001, I attended the WHA conference held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There I attended as many discussions, workshops, and lectures as I could on the subject of AP World History. In fact, there was even a special meeting designed to focus of the question of textbooks. I spoke with authors, scholars, and teachers in order to gain insight into the idiosyncrasies of each textbook. 4
    The next test to which I submitted the texts was to give copies of each of them to several students. The students selected included boys and girls, top students and weaker students, ninth graders and tenth graders. They were instructed to read sections from each text. The selections were carefully chosen so as to include most of the chronological periods of study into which the AP course is divided, as well as several of the overarching themes of the course. I also asked them to focus on the maps, artwork, and graphics they encountered in their reading. They each submitted a one-page summary of their analysis and we conducted a round-table discussion of each book when they had completed their tasks. Student input helped me to whittle the list of choices from five to two. The "survivors" were the Stearns text, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, third edition, and the Duiker and Spielvogel text, World History, third edition. 5
    The process was repeated with different students. Further, I enlisted the help of a parent of one of my students. He is a physician who specializes in tropical diseases and had lived in eastern Africa for several years. In addition, he had written books on Africa. I asked him to examine the "coverage" of Africa in both texts.
    The response from the students was clear. Duiker & Spielvogel was deemed to be more clearly written. Our discussions revealed that what the students meant was that the narrative flowed more easily, and when they had completed reading a section of text, they were confident that they understood the material. The Stearns text, they felt, was not more difficult to read, but when completed, had raised more questions than it answered. The parent who reviewed only the African and African related material concluded that both texts discussed essentially the same things, but noted that they were organized differently. His personal preference was the Stearns text.
    Thinking the whole process over in my mind, discussing it with colleagues, and closely following the lively discussion of texts and text selections on the AP World History Listserv led me to some conclusions. First of all, the Stearns text is not only a world history text; it is grounded in the AP syllabus and organized accordingly. It is also, however, clearly a college-level text. My students, while taking a college-level course, are in fact in high school. Secondly, the Stearns text focuses on patterns of change throughout world history and assumes that the reader knows some of the underlying historical narrative that drives the forces that shape such patterns. This explains the fact that the parent textbook examiner preferred the Stearns text while my students opted for Duiker & Spielvogel.
    Further thought on my part made it clear that while the primary criticism of Duiker & Speilvogel is that it is too Eurocentric, this is a function of organization rather than content. In the end, I chose the Duiker & Spielvogel text because I wanted my students to have a more readable narrative. As for the organization and the attention to the AP World History themes and habits of mind, I reasoned that it was my responsibility to convey those to my students. The text would present the historical narrative, and together my students and I would develop the skills of historical analysis and synthesis. This would occur through our class discussions and seminar groups that would revolve around a close reading of the Duiker & Spielvogel text along with selected primary source documents. In addition, I decided to use Stearns for myself, and at times have included ideas from some of the In Depth essays as launching points for classroom analysis of specific topics. I have also used some ideas from the Bentley text in my class. 9
    Thus did I begin my first year of AP World History in September 2001. I knew at the time that the text I chose was not the text of choice for most AP World History teachers. Nevertheless, I felt that I had done my homework regarding the selection, and was confident I had made the right choice for my students and for me. 10
    The school year was filled with more than the usual amount of interruptions and distractions. The attacks of September 11 hit my school and its community (located as it is in New York state) especially hard. Nevertheless, we persevered, progressed and moved on to complete the year's work and prepare for the first AP World History Examination. 11
    During the year, I grew more and more confident that I had made the right choice for my students. They said the text was a good read, and that the combination of supplementary readings and class presentations by students and by me had made the patterns and themes of world history comprehensible. Moreover, I came to realize that the third edition of Duiker & Spielvogel is strong in an area where I am weak: gender issues. Gender issues are a major theme in the AP course, and Duiker & Spielvogel deal with the subject well by integrating the material thoroughly into the text rather than sidelining it to special boxes. 12
    Although the process I underwent in determining which textbook to select for my AP world history students was lengthy and at times agonizing, the hard work paid off. At the end of the year, on the first AP world history exam ever administered, 100% of my students (in three classes) earned a three or better, and 80% earned a 4 or a 5. 13
    I do realize, of course, that success in teaching isn't just about the text. In my high school, I am fortunate to be able to teach world history over a two-year period, which allows me to take the time to present selected topics in depth. In addition, I think that most experienced teachers who understand the philosophy and content of world history could probably work successfully with any of the texts I reviewed. Nevertheless, after having explored all of the possibilities for myself, I continue to feel confident that the foundation text my students are reading is one that will support their study—and understanding—of world history. 14
Biographical Note: David Dorman has taught history in Manhasset High School, in Manhasset, NY for 42 years. He holds a doctorate from NYU, has written articles on both teaching and on history, and has taught World History to teachers throughout the USA on behalf of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Program in World History. He also serves as faculty consultant to the College Board in World History.  


1 R.R. Palmer, et al's A History of the Modern World (Knopf) was the text of choice when I was teaching the course to seniors, but I switched to Chambers, and then to McKay,Need Publisher A History of World Societies, when the course was moved into the tenth grade.

2 Richard Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (Houghton Mifflin Company); Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (McGraw-Hill); William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, World History (Wadsworth); Howard Spodek, The World's History (Pearson Prentice Hall); Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (Pearson Longman).


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