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Book Review


Stephanie A. Hallock, The World in the 20th Century: A Thematic Approach. Boston: Pearson, 2013, Pp. vii + 314. $ 71 (paper).


     This book—a new text mainly intended for community college students—begins by giving readers enthusiastic hope for a new and user-friendly text for a number of reasons. First, Hallock chooses thought-provoking images for the cover that emphasize the role of people in history: one of British women demonstrating for the right to vote, a space ship being deployed in the United States, an image of the destroyed wall in Berlin, Germany with people walking around it, and an African woman wearing an earring with coca-cola symbol. Second, Hallock explains in her Preface that readers will benefit by a new approach to text book writing, which includes her classroom experience, a desire to integrate a multiplicity of teaching methods into her text, and the fact readers can take advantage of online materials that she cites in her table of contacts. Finally, she explains in the Introduction that she will revolve the text's material around four key themes: the effects of technology, changing identities, shifting borders, and globalization; so that readers can expect a nuanced approach to the material.

     But when one looks closely at both the table of contents and the index, the format of the book is not different than most textbooks where chronology of "big" events and "big" people dominate. While Hallock claims that her book shares "the story of our past, present, and future" (p xvii), most of the material focuses on influential people in Europe who have traditionally made decisions in history instead of a variety of people who may make different decisions that affect their lives and those of others in diverse parts of the globe; that is one would have expected a "peoples'" history of how individual or groups of people responded to the changes that she describes, but one does not find much about how people have made their own history.

     Each chapter begins with photographs, but some of which are sadly hard to see, of people which entices the reader's appetite for more information about these people and others; as well as a cursory timeline that focuses mainly on the events caused by "big" people in history. Some of the facts chosen for the timeline, as well as those chosen throughout the text, appear to contradict Hallock's four themes, since much of this evidence is political in nature and not thematic in approach. Some of the facts are actually wrong; Hallock does not appear to be up-to-date on the latest scholarship of many of the places that she includes in her world history.

     For example, the material that Hallock presents about both the United States and the Soviet Union provides arguments – now dated in historical scholarship – that the United States was exceptional as a democracy in the twentieth century and that the Soviet Union was an autocratic state. Her discussion of Nazi Germany and the Peoples' Republic of China are also outdated. Hallock provides little information of developments that are not seen in traditional textbooks about events in most of Africa, the Americas, and Asia (except for China to a lesser degree), despite the presumption of inclusivity that one finds in the Preface and Introduction.

     While each chapter concludes with essential questions about her four themes, little of the evidence or few of the topics in the book would help students address these intriguing questions thoughtfully or coherently. Furthermore, most of the sources chosen are those of "great" men making decisions; only a few suggest that people – individually or collectively – are actors in these decisions affecting their lives.

     Despite Hallock's premise that themes guide her thinking of the material that she chooses to present, the book is ultimately a traditional history book that revolves around "great" men's decisions from powerful nation-states that somehow guide the history or histories of those that they influence. Even the themes that Hallock references, only two of them are centered on people making choices and influencing the past: changing identities and shifting borders. The way that Hallock presents the other two themes – the effects of technology and globalization – are devoid of action, as if these developments are things that were or are done "to" people by those in positions of power, not "by" people. The reader's initial enthusiasm to think that this text would prove a path breaking and new way to engage students at any level was left sadly unwarranted by the material presented in the book.

James A. Diskant is a secondary teacher of history and government at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, MA. He received in Ph.D. from Boston College and teaches courses in world and United States history and politics. He can be reached at


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