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Book Review


Bentley, Jerry and Herbert F. Ziegler. Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, 2nd edition (McGraw-Hill, 2003). 1169 pp, 2 Instructor's CDs (PC or Mac), online supplements for instructor and students, map transparencies available for purchase, $96.25 both volumes.

     I read the first edition of Traditions and Encounters with great pleasure. I have now read the second edition of this magnificent textbook with equal pleasure, taking voluminous notes. In spite of this reviewer's grumbling and mumbling and criticism later on - only to be expected - I am truly overwhelmed by the scope and the excitement of this book. There is a grandeur to it. There is responsibility. There is an ongoing sense of the very wonder of the human epic. Unfortunately, it is also very long and very heavy. 1
     I want to make it clear from the beginning that my review is focused upon the book and the electronic supplements as teaching tools. I never wrote a world history text, and I am not an historian. I was a history teacher, and books were tools. While I never taught with synchronized supplements, I was, in the last five or six years, using the internet with a full-time, on-screen, in-class projection capability. 2
     This textbook is - deservedly - one of the most widely used and most important world history texts, both for college survey courses and for Advanced Placement courses taught at various levels in high school. This second edition has been updated to include far more non-European material, more on migrations and on environment, on globalization of the Cold War, and on more recent globalization as well as terrorism and the AIDS crisis. A glossary of unfamiliar terms has been added. 3
     Traditions & Encounters has several distinctly different, commendable, and deserving peers, but this review will be descriptive rather than comparative. For information on a variety other such textbooks, I would recommend an instructive article by Tom Laichas in the May edition (Vol. 1, No. 2) of this journal.1 4
     The distinct dichotomy of student audiences contributes a measure of schizophrenia to all of these survey textbooks. Because high school Advanced Placement tests place a certain premium on coverage - if only because students benefit from breadth in choosing and designing essays - there is a certain tendency to jam in Theravada Buddhism or Aristotelianism or the Olmecs or Omdurman whether you are very interested in them or not, or whether you have sufficient space to do them justice. On the other hand, college survey courses are intended to attract a few students to the profession and to provide them with background. At the same time, they are also supposed to give most of the other students - potential engineers, soldiers, lawyers, business managers, technicians and chemists - a sense of the sweep, drama, insight, and utility of a field which can both serve them and protect them as they go through life. 5
     No survey text can even begin to do "everything." Even a book this size represents but the tiniest tip of a most gargantuan iceberg. Authors choose what they will do. This is a book that focuses upon trade as the most important connection among "complex societies"—and thus trade features largely as the stimulus that created the global interdependencies with which we are confronted today. This means that the book is, primarily, a book about people living in cities and towns or traveling among them. Although the authors try their very best to include the impact of cities upon gathering/hunting peoples and pastoralists and peasant villages - those people who were the vast majority of human beings in history - they inevitably devote the greatest space to urban events and concerns. Economic enterprise and diffusion and competition, as well as foreign policy, states, empires and warfare, dominate. There are significant sections in each chapter on culture and society, but they often seem isolated from the main themes. 6
     On the other hand, Bentley and Ziegler try to deliberately minimize the usual mythic anthropomorphization of states and empires, and to maximize biographical data about real, human decision-makers and the causes of their specific decisions. This is a laudable contribution to a revolution long needed in the profession. I felt a sense of engagement and energy in this text, a vital perception of the constant activity and energy of individual humans. The book has shortcomings, but dryness is not one, and I was not bored. Given the time and inclination to read carefully, I would trust the average student to be caught up in the drama of the human adventure, and the pragmatic need for a self-interested individual to explore it. Each chapter begins with a human vignette, usually superbly chosen and crafted. The illustrations were equally well chosen and presented, and the document excerpts were very carefully selected to both provoke discussion and to link them to the point of the chapter. 7
     The shortcomings of the book stem not from its scholarship, which is superb, nor from its design and structure. They come simply from the previously noted need to focus and to edit. Once one decides upon the centrality of trade, one necessarily decides what must be marginalized. I would not send a student to this book for its description of world religions, or to watch their divergence and elaboration and diffusion and philosophical maturation. Science and technology are dealt with far more, but even these lack space for adequate explanation of important theoretical complexities or revolutionary impacts. The unprecedented and radical effect of Indian numerals—and zero—upon European thought does not come through, nor does the explosive and revolutionary impact of instantaneous, long-distance electronic communication for the illiterate peoples within towns and cities. 8
     Neither—surprisingly—would I send a student here for a clear sense of geographical determinants. Most of the maps are political, mercantile or military rather than physical. This is not a book to leave a student with a deep and abiding sense that literate people were few and far between in the history of our species, or that, to this day, "indigenous cultures" strive to organize nationally and globally to lessen the devastating impact which trade and "civilization" still have upon their languages, cultures, rituals, and values. This is primarily the story of a small, select urban, literate elite. It is no accident that "civilization" came from civitas, civitatis - the citizen of a town or city. However, the history of civilizations is not by any means coterminus with the history of humanity. 9
     In the execution of its chosen task, the book is magnificent. "Trade" does not begin to capture the complexity of products and movements and migrations and ports and fleets and caravans which emerge with clarity, with precision, and with the excitement of a human drama. Economics can never again seem dull or dry after reading this superb account. It captures, documents and dramatizes what is often conceived of as wearying. While doing this, the authors demonstrate the centrality of trade in any analysis of how humanity has come to be where it is today. 10
     I was enchanted—virtually overwhelmed by—the supplements. The teacher's discs offer a manual which, for each chapter, provides an overview, a guide to discussion, and a lecture strategy. They contain photographs. They allow the editing of quizzes and tests. My impression was that these would be of immense value to a newly-appointed instructor terrified at confronting 40,000 years of human history. There are PowerPoint maps and lecture outlines. Overhead map transparencies are available for purchase if computer projection is not available. 11
     The Student Center Online provides chapter overviews, marvelously detailed chapter outlines, study questions, and interactive maps. There are elaborate internet activities, providing the chance to work with a wealth of documents online, as well as a section of "weblinks" which directs students to an unimaginable variety of text, graphic and other sites dealing with entire societies and periods. To test oneself, there are short answer essay questions, multiple-choice quizzes, matching quizzes and a relatively simplistic "Who Am I?" quiz. My impression from teachers and instructors is that more of them use these as extra-credit exercises, or as intellectual games to engage a computer generation, rather than to rely upon them as major determinants of grades. (There is the capacity to have the results sent directly to the teacher's computer). This may not be true of college instructors facing a course with, perhaps, 500 students. For them, these supplements might well mean survival. 12
     I am certain that Traditions and Encounters will continue to be a leader among world history survey textbooks. It simply cannot fail to be. It challenges students to move beyond simple chronologies to confront the fascinating, serious and exciting analytical and interpretive questions and skills which are not only the discipline at its best, but the discipline at its most necessary for ordinary citizens. 13
Jack Betterly
Emma Willard School
1 Tom Laichas, "On My Desk: History and the Textbooks" World History Connected May 2004 <>(13 Aug. 2004).

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