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Book Review


Stearns, Peter N. World History in Brief: Major Patterns of Change and Continuity, Volume I (to 1450), 6th Edition (New York: Longman 2007). 304 pp, $46.67.

Stearns, Peter N. World History in Brief: Major Patterns of Change and Continuity, Volume II (Since 1450), 6th Edition (New York: Longman 2007). 448 pp, $46.67.

     I first taught the two world history survey courses at a community college in 2001. As someone who was new to teaching world history and who possessed many gaps in his knowledge, I needed a textbook to organize the course and fill those gaps. I wanted a text with a strong narrative structure that students would read before class and that would form the basis of our classroom discussions. I also sought a book that concentrated on comparing civilizations for the first part of the survey and adopted a more interconnected global approach for the period from 1500. Finally, the book had to examine the world in truly global terms rather than rehash a Western Civilizations text. After weighing through the many available texts, I first adopted Peter N. Stearns et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience, but after my students complained that the book tended to overwhelm them with data, I subsequently opted for a brief edition of the text. I settled on Peter N. Stearns, World History In Brief: Major Patterns of Change and Continuity and supplemented it with primary and secondary sources. In this review, I want to critically examine the latest and sixth edition of the book and its supplements in light of my classroom experiences using the text.

     Peter Stearns is rightly esteemed as a masterful historian of world history, and has produced a textbook with stunning breadth of coverage. The first volume surveys the period from prehistoric times to 1450 and examines the major features of the principal civilizations of the world. Some chapters deal with two or more civilizations and some are devoted to single civilizations. The second volume examines the world from 1450 to the present in which economic and ideological developments and new contacts brought greater interaction between societies. Both volumes contain sections on historical debates, world cultures, and profiles of prominent individuals which teachers can use as the basis for classroom discussions. The sixth edition includes new sections on Global Connections, which highlights global contacts during historical periods, and Paths to the Present, a welcome addition which connects historical events with present-day issues. There is also increased coverage of the classical period, and the narrative is brought up-to-date with recent developments in world history—including the rise of religious extremism. With a strong emphasis on gender relations and economic, intellectual and social history, World History in Brief helps students to understand the various world civilizations and the move towards today's global society.

     The sixth edition of the text also comes with a number of supplements. An online Instructor Resource Center includes an instructor manual and a test bank. Most helpfully, the teacher has the opportunity to utilize a Course Management System to create an online course using the Stearns text. The course site contains numerous primary sources, quizzes, maps, videos and PowerPoint presentations. Some of the resources are rather basic but the course can be customized by the instructor with unwanted course materials discarded.

     All historians make decisions about what to include or discard in their narratives, but in writing the first volume of World History in Brief, Stearns has made some disconcerting choices. The origin of humans is one of the topics that provoke much classroom discussion, yet Stearns says far less about this topic than other world history texts. Stearns also tries too hard to eschew a Western-centered approach by cramming the most noted western civilizations, Rome and Greece, into one shared chapter with Persia but devotes single chapters to Indian and Chinese civilizations. For a text that concentrates on civilizations, the chapter on nomadic societies could have been removed. Still, the coverage is more than adequate, and the volume provides students with a thoughtful introduction to the study of early civilizations.

     The organization of the second volume is even more problematic than the first. Stearns chooses to chronologically trace the history of the world up to World War I but then annoyingly decides to examine different regions of the world in isolation. By adopting this approach, the text misses a wonderful opportunity to discuss major events like the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the upheavals of the 1960s in a transnational global context. I find myself assigning extra readings, rather than the text, to compensate for the lack of global coverage of these events.

     My community college students find both volumes of World History in Brief to be hard going. Like virtually all other world history texts, especially brief editions, too many major events are skimmed over. The paragraphs are often dense, the chapters don't always follow a logical or chronological narrative, and the writing appears to be disjointed at times. In the end, the brief edition is no easier to read than the comprehensive version. Rather frustratingly for me and my students, when I first adopted the text and used the accompanying test bank, the quiz questions didn't match the text. I therefore had to rewrite the quiz questions myself. Moreover, at $46.67 per volume, the text is too expensive. Every few years students are expected to buy the new edition of the text but the sixth edition does not seem to have changed much since the previous edition which was only published in 2005.

     The publisher's willingness to provide instructors with a customized online course using the Stearns textbook in some ways compensates for the weakness of the written text. I have slowly introduced technology into the world history classroom. At first, the only technology I used was an overhead projector, a videocassette recorder, and a portable stereo system to play music. Once I realized the benefits that some of the Course Management Systems' tools could bring to my classroom teaching, I began to gradually incorporate online components into my classes. It is clear that a CMS allows instructors to extend the educational environment beyond the classroom walls and provides students with far more exciting resources with which to learn world history. To encourage students to read the textbook, I originally assigned students a weekly in-class quiz on chapters of the textbook but the CMS allows me to use the text in much more exciting ways. In addition to weekly quizzes, which the CMS automatically grades, I now assign online discussion questions which focus on the supporting materials provided on the course site. The interactive maps, videos, PowerPoint presentations, and websites can be used by students at home, or by utilizing a computer and a projector they can invigorate a classroom lecture.

     For those looking for a brief introduction to world history with a truly global rather than a narrow Western-centered approach they will find the Stearns text more than meets their requirements. Instructors seeking to reinvigorate their world history teaching will see that World History in Brief: Major Patterns of Change and Continuity provides the online teaching tools necessary to promote active learning and to bring world history alive. In the end, however, the textbook, and especially the second volume, needs to be reorganized. Because of this, I decided to adopt a new textbook, Jerry H. Bentley et al, Traditions and Encounters, A Brief Global History Volume II: From 1500 to the Present, for the second part of the survey because of its truly transnational approach to twentieth century history.


John F. Lyons
Joliet Junior College


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