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Book Review

 

Mitchell, J. R. & Mitchell, H. B. Taking Sides, Clashing Views in World History, The Ancient World to the Pre-Modern Era, Volume 1 (3rd Ed) (Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill Contemporary Learning Series, 2007). 354 pp, $28.44.
 
   

     For far too long, history has been presented as his-story; a single-perspective, one-dimensional accounting of events, rarely challenged or debated. But if we look back through history, we'll find that the accountings of life events, large and small, are greatly influenced by the perspective of the one telling the story. If we take the story of the lion and the hunter, for example, the story would be far different from the one we know if it were told from the perspective of the lion. History is no more than an extension of this: the telling of stories of events that have happened in the past from a single perspective. The way those stories are told—what is emphasized, what is dramatized, what is skewed, what is embellished, and what is falsified—depends greatly upon the storyteller. Traditional history texts have forgotten this, and therefore often present historical material as complete truths with little room for arbitration. As a result, students are bombarded with strings of names, events, and dates to memorize, but get very little in the way of the intrigues, petty jealousies, loves, hates, consequences and betrayals that surrounded historical figures and the events they took part in.

     Very rarely are students given the opportunity to read converging viewpoints about the same event or notable figure. The perspective of the historian, and the conclusions they draw, often become those of the students. By adding multiple points of view to a history text, students are allowed the opportunity to see the story from different angles, and can then draw their own conclusions. Taking Sides, Clashes in World History, Volume 1, offers teachers and students the opportunity to look at history in just this way. It does not present the information as items to be memorized, but as information to be considered, analyzed and debated.

     The book does not have the look and feel of a traditional text book. It is broken down into three sections: The Ancient World, The Medieval/Renaissance Worlds, and the Premodern World. Each Section contains six issues. For example, in Part 1 some issues include: Did Homo Sapiens Originate in Africa; Was Sumerian Civilization Exclusively Male Dominated; and Did Christianity Liberate Women? There are 18 such issues in the text. It is interesting to note that the issues are presented as questions rather than as topic titles. So, issues that teachers and students may have considered as foregone conclusions are being presented here as items for debate and discussion.

     Mitchell and Mitchell pose each question for each issue and present arguments to validate each side of the debate. For example, for the issue "Did Homo Sapiens Originate in Africa," students are given differing opinions of leaders in the field. Professor Stephen Oppenheimer states that given the genetic, archaeological, and climatic evidence, it is evident that humans developed in Africa and then spread to other parts of the world. This is often referred to as the "out of Africa" theory. On the other hand, paleoanthropologists Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari disagree. According to them, there is scientific evidence proving that humans developed simultaneously in different parts of the world. This is referred to the "multiregional" theory. Obviously, these are two divergent points of view which set up the question of where humans originated nicely in terms of further debate and discussion.

     This treatment is given to each of the 18 issues within the text. Also, each issue contains an introduction and a postscript. The introduction sets the stage for the debate, while the postscript makes some final observations. There is also a "Suggestions for Further Reading" section within each postscript which will help teachers and students who want to continue their research of the subject. All of this provides teachers of Social Studies with a wealth of material and a variety of teaching strategies to choose from.

     One obvious strategy would be to hold debates within the classroom around certain issues. A notable aspect of the text is that it offers a section entitled, "On the Internet " after each part opener. Here, it provides information and links where teachers and students can find additional information. The material in the text could serve as a starting point, and students could then be tasked with taking either the pro or con position, doing some additional research, and then presenting and defending their positions in a classroom debate.

     Another teaching strategy that would work well with this type of text would be to organize graffiti groups. The teacher may formulate two or three questions around the main points of each position and place them on large easel papers. The students are then grouped, assigned to a topic, and given different colored markers according to their group. Each group is given three to five minutes to brainstorm and answer each others' questions. After each group has had the chance to respond, the original group assigned to the question must evaluate and synthesize the information they've been given. Students need to ask themselves what may be accurate, credible, or nave about the responses. What might be some of the "big ideas" that emerge? After this analysis and synthesis process, students could then present their findings to the class.

     A third teaching strategy that would also work well with this text would be "Take a Stand." This is similar to a debate, but with a twist. Here, students would be asked to give their opinion about which side of the debate they agree with, and to give logical, credible reasons for their position. Volunteers with very strong feelings on each side of the debate could be called upon to use persuasive arguments to sway their opponents. At the end of each such argument, the teacher would ask students if they've changed their "stand." If so, they could now move to a new group. The rationale here is to give students the opportunity to use their analytical, oratory, and persuasive skills to not only craft and argument, but to deliver it with precision and eloquence.

     Mitchell and Mitchell have created a text that will no doubt be a hit with students and teachers of history. One of the best things about this book for me was that it was not boring. The information was presented in such a way that it was engaging and interactive. The information was also presented in such a way that students can compare and contrast key points within certain issues, make connections across time, and reflect on current events through the lens of similar historical events. It does not allow students to merely be passive bystanders, but forces them to be actively involved with the material. It gives students the opportunity to draw on their past knowledge, and to question their prior assumptions. They may end up with the same conclusions they started out with, but going through the process of analyzing, verifying, and validating their ideas will make them much more concrete and relevant than they were prior to this process. Students will be required to think critically about issues and to view them from varying perspectives. They will learn to be critical consumers of information.

     However, because the book is so nontraditional in nature, it may prove difficult for beginning teachers or beginning teachers of Social Studies. The book does not offer bread crumbs, such as predetermined goals and objectives, to help teachers plan their lessons. It also does not show how each lesson may be aligned with board or state benchmarks. This will be the duty of the teacher to perform and incorporate. Also, the book does not call for standard measures of assessment. Since students are being asked to read critically, a multiple choice test would not be an applicable assessment tool. Teachers would need to think outside of traditional assessment means and methods.

     For students who are not used to this kind format, the book may prove challenging at first. For most students, thinking analytically is reserved for mathematics class. They will have to shown how to transfer that skill for use in Social Studies. Teachers may have to work harder to bring shyer, weaker students on board. However, the extra effort on everyone's part will no doubt create a dynamic atmosphere where thinking and learning will take center stage.

 

Angelene McLaren
Wayne State University

 

 
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