World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

The World History Workbook: An Alternative to Commercial Textbooks

David Hertzel
Southwestern Oklahoma State University

    Students spend a lot of time watching movies and television or surfing the internet. Glossy history books that try to compete with those texts by striving to 'bring history to life' are often met with yawns and cynicism from high school and college students, particularly from non-history majors. While self-consciously striving to disprove popular perceptions that history is unimportant and boring, many textbooks seem to endorse the prevailing attitudes.  The organization of many textbooks is encyclopedic, the packaging pandering, and the style repetitive and overbearing.  As a result, wonderful opportunities to teach and learn history are frequently lost.  Two years ago, to address these and other problems with teaching world history I wrote my own textbook and have used it ever since.1
    Following our department's decision in 1997 to convert the Western Civilization course to a World History General Education requirement, we said goodbye to Marvin Perry's Western Civilization and began reviewing the available world history textbooks.2 For the next six years the other historians and I evaluated or tried many of the major textbooks as well as some of the lesser known ones. Stavrianos, Adler, Bulliet, or Spodek—one or the other of us assigned them in our World History sections.3  In each work we found commendable and valiant efforts but none seemed to fit our needs 'just right.' Some seemed unable to leave a Eurocentric perspective. Others were written at levels more appropriate to upper division or even graduate students. Some were simply too long, or too expensive. Some texts suffered from what I call the 'regional catalogue' syndrome. Each chapter described a single people or place, segregated in catalogue-like fashion with one region or time having apparently little to with any others. But it seemed to me that if we are to teach the history of the world there should be common and connecting themes, lest we find ourselves teaching an inventory of national or continental attributes and inadvertently return to the old problems of 'centrisms,' one-way streets, and issues of defining 'civilized' and 'uncivilized.' Over six years I tried six different books, but there was never a semester I was content. My colleagues, though more patient than I, shared my grievances.
     Many students accept probably more than do their professors that history textbooks are the way they are. Students are resigned to teaching and learning 'to the test' in history classes, and the conventional textbooks facilitate that method. Unfortunately, this often means that students at the lower levels use only short term memories and very little imagination, reason, or critical thinking. Even where a teacher or professor encourages critical thinking in discussions or papers, textbooks often undermine those efforts. From prior experience, students recognize glossy, encyclopedic volumes as history textbooks and apparently believe history courses should use such books. I was never comfortable with these assumptions.
    I have now used my textbook in twelve sections of World History, spread out over four semesters. Although I revise and edit The World History Workbook every semester, the book and its method have been successful and I use the workbook as the principal organizing tool in all my World History sections. I find that students enjoy the format, which includes projects and integrated primary source readings, and which facilitates group work and discussion. Students learn the lessons because they work conclusions out for themselves. I am finally comfortable and confident with the content, the length, the method, and even the cost of the textbook I assign. 4
    The World History Workbook directs students to think critically using historical sources. Primary sources are the substance of history and students respond well to the broad range of selections provided. Because of its brevity, variety, and hands-on approach, the book draws students gracefully into the process of historical interpretation. 5
    The workbook includes a narrative, an annotated appendix of primary sources, and twenty-eight projects. The current edition is 175 pages long. Students might work on projects and readings in groups or in discussions. I allow students to work on projects in the classroom, most of which can be completed within fifteen or twenty minutes. As the work requires some critical thought, more mature students seem to have less difficulty working independently.
    The opening chapter explains that history is neither an encyclopedia of 'facts,' nor one historian's personal assertion. The work of historians is the formulation of argument using historical evidence. This is the first lesson General Education students need to learn because many students bring from public schools or popular sources incorrect assumptions about how the discipline of history works. This opening statement, like most of the book, speaks to students as capable, smart people and neither panders nor condescends. Discussion in the first chapter includes descriptions of historical sources, evidence, and examples of good and poor scholarship.
    Chapters Two and Three describe the singularity of human civilization using examples of universals in literature and myth as well as a description of the relationship between languages. The student is introduced to the 'comparative method' used by linguists.  The unity of the human community is also shown through discussions and projects on genealogy. This material gets some of the most positive responses from students and I often find it the most rewarding to teach. Students grasp the project on genealogy much better through discussion and projects than did my former students when I lectured the same information. The difference between active and passive learning is striking here.
    Chapter Four shifts from similarities to differences in societies beginning with a contrast of Confucianism to humanism. The chapter also introduces Islam, animism, mysticism, and other enduring traditions. This material is fairly conventional and the projects ask students to contrast Confucian texts to humanist texts. Discussion on this material is awkward and I am always amazed at how little my students understand the underlying principles of their own society, let alone of foreign societies.  The chapter includes a section that outlines humanism as the 'western tradition' and describes briefly each one of the great developments conventionally associated with humanism, from the Renaissance to the French Revolution. The fifth chapter describes the twentieth century as the century of 'Globalization' and explains how interdependent the modern world has become. The conclusion to this section is that we share a common fate and we have responsibilities that impact people around the world. 9
    The thirty primary sources in the Appendix are introduced in the narrative or within the projects. Students comprehend the sources in a historical or thematic context. Sources represent a wide range of people and times, although the list holds convention with selections from the Mahabharata, The Code of Hammurabi, the Hymn to the Nile, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and readings from Friedrich Engles, Confucius, Gandhi, and Plato. There are also three selections describing traditional Zulu life, two accounts contrasting perceptions of pilgrims on Mt. Fuji, and an early Christian blessing. Twentieth century sources include personal accounts of post- Second World War violence in central Europe, a lecture by the Iranian historian Hashem Aghajari, and a 2003 address on globalization delivered by Bill Clinton to the Bob Dole Institute. For the Reader I selected sources that supported arguments in the textbook and facilitated contrast and compare projects. 10
    The narrative in the main body of the book also integrates primary materials not contained in the Appendix, including passages from the Popul Vuh, the Qu'ran and the Sunnah, Hildegard of Bingen, Albert Schweizer, Xuanzang, Ruth Comfort Mitchell and several poets from around the world, Sir Edward Creasey, and the United Nations Human Rights Watch. These sources were selected for their applicability to various arguments but also with an eye to representing societies from many times and places.  Poetry is used in part to demonstrate to the student that fiction can provide insight into historical cultures and need not be overlooked because it is not 'true.' 11
    Some of the twenty-eight projects follow a standard model, such as "using quotes from the Code of Hammurabi, answer the following questions...does the code allow women to own businesses....?" Others are comparative, such as, "is there in the Declaration of the Rights of Man a parallel to the Confucian concept of 'heaven' mentioned in the Mandate of Heaven...?" Three or four projects have students work on the descent of human languages or require students to use the comparative method of borrowing, inherited, or accidental occurrences of words. Other projects identify universals in world literature. Two or three of the simplest projects demonstrate how greatly the world has changed in the past two hundred years. Students only need to use resources from outside the workbook on two of the projects. 12
    I wrote the Workbook for my General Education students, but I expect our majors to appreciate the same principles contained in the book. Perhaps in a more rigorous program the textbook would serve as a supplement but for our required course the workbook and accompanying discussions and projects cover an ample body of material. The workbook could be used in other ways, as a supplement to a textbook, as a supplement to lectures, or as the vehicle for weekly discussion groups. 13
    Because of the projects and the use of so many primary sources, in my own classes I prefer however to let the text stand alone.  Students may attend discussions on the readings and projects if they choose or they may work 'self-paced.' I lead discussions using a Socratic method and I am most reluctant to tell students what any text says, although I don't mind helping them to their own interpretations. I expect my students to learn to reason problems through for themselves. Most students do better if they attend discussions. 14
    I grade on the basis of five multiple choice tests and on the workbook itself, which students hand in when they have completed the projects and tests.  Students who evaluate this course give it consistently high marks. Written comments are almost always positive and frequently mention group projects which are popular, the flexibility of the course, the variety of the primary sources, and the accessibility of the narrative. It is nearly impossible to do well in this course without reading the material however, and students who try to 'cram' the night before a test rarely get high grades. For this reason some do not like the course though this represents a small number of students.  The breakdown of grades is consistent or slightly higher in my sections with grades from other sections of the same course past and present. 15
    Undergraduate students are smart but most have little experience with historical analysis or authentic historical sources.  In a world where texts of all kinds are available at the click of a button college students need to learn a critical method. This they can learn by acting like humanists themselves, reading texts critically and participating in critical exercises. It is my experience that the World History Workbook achieves these goals. 16
Biographical Note: David Hertzel, a Fulbright scholar (1996), received his Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Oregon.  He holds the rank of Associate Professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University where he teaches modern European topics as well as World History.  He has served six years on the Faculty Senate and five years as sponsor of the Native American Student Association.  Dr. Hertzel's dissertation was translated into German by a local historical society in Germany and he has published in The Catholic Historical Review.  


1 David Hertzel, The World History Workbook.

2 Marvin Perry et al., Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society (Houghton Mifflin).

3 Leften Stavrianos, A Global History: The Human Heritage (Prentice Hall); Philip Adler et al., World Civilizations (Wadsworth); Richard Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History  (Houghton Mifflin Company); Howard Spodek, The World's History (Pearson Prentice Hall).


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use