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Book Review


Robert E. Niebuhr, When East Met West: World History Through Travelers’ Perspectives. Reading, MA: Trebarwyth Press, 2010. Pp. 219. $19.99 (paper)


     We all agree that teaching world history is a challenge.  Therefore, when new approaches come along, they are always welcome. Robert E. Niebuhr’s When East Met West: World History Through Travelers’ Perspectives is for that reason well worth considering for use in the world history classroom. Niebuhr has given us a new take on the primary-source reader as travelogue.  The goal is to provide students with both primary sources for analysis, and to offer a vicarious substitute for actually experiencing foreign cultures. This is an exciting approach because it presents possibilities for livening up a world history classroom. The book is well organized, nicely written, and sticks closely to its purpose throughout, despite being a reader composed of diverse primary sources. When East Met West is also problematic in that it requires students to understand some new and difficult ideas before they can take full advantage of the book’s contents.

     Primary-source readers present both opportunities and obstacles, the biggest of which is the most basic one of teaching students to read, understand, and analyze primary sources in their historical context. So many issues arise here—including students’ prior knowledge of history, reading comprehension skills, ability to maintain awareness of language and perhaps translation issues, and a willingness to engage with the text at a deep level—that constructing any primary source reader is a challenge. To this, Niebuhr adds the need for students to understand his complex reasons for choosing sources exclusively from western authors, and to have some theoretical aptitude as well. In other words, students must be aware of a package of historical and theoretical knowledge before engaging the text. The necessary tool kit includes knowledge of European exploration and colonization after 1492, a grasp of intra-European conflict during the same period, and an understanding of the Enlightenment. Students also need to be familiar with terms like “other” as it is used in post-colonial theory, and an ability to read and comprehend brief bits of Kant. There is something to be said for teaching both the historical context and the sources simultaneously. The course design for such an approach, though, means that this volume should only be adopted after careful consideration and with the expectation of much preparation prior to the beginning of the semester. The high expectations for theoretical aptitude also anticipate reading comprehension skills or a work ethic that may not be present in large numbers in high school or lower-division college classes.

     None of this reduces the potential this book has to open doors to past cultures and foreign places for students. Niebuhr’s argument in his introduction that a travelogue may be one way to help students imagine with interest places that they cannot visit is compelling. The author’s decision to rely exclusively on western authors is nicely linked with the concentric geographical organization of chapters to create a sense for readers that they are experiencing foreign places from the comfortable seat of their own cultural experiences, and this format still provides teachers with a good opportunity to problematize that ethnocentric approach in class discussions.  The sources themselves are well chosen, and Niebuhr’s introduction can be easily used to get at some of the issues I have mentioned as problems above.

     In particular, Niebuhr’s organizational strategy to “divide the readings into geographic regions that move further from the center of European power (3),” makes it very easy for students to see how close to home the process of exoticizing foreign cultures begins. His chapter on the Balkans includes a memoir from Arthur D. Howden Smith that seems particularly useful.  An American, Smith’s reports on the wars between the Turks and Macedonian Chetniks, published in 1908, are close enough to current news reports on conflicts in the Middle East, both in language and in terms of methods of cultural analysis, for American students today to read them with great interest, and to find much to talk about in class. 

     In general, Niebuhr’s book is a challenge, both for what it will require in terms of preparation for teaching, and the difficulties it will present to world history students. On the other hand, we are in the business of challenging students, and the fresh approach of this book is compelling, and is well supported by the book’s excellent organization. Despite the preparation time required, When East Met West could provide a much-needed opportunity to breathe life and relevance into a world history course.

Patrick Patterson is an Associate Professor of History at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches World History and Asian History. His primary area of research is Modern Japan. He can be reached at


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