Review of Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources Vol.1: To 1500 by Robert W. Strayer Bedford St. Martin’s

Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources Vol.1: To 1500. Robert W. Strayer. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. ISBN: 9780312489175

For every history teacher, the question of what world history textbook to use remains important in as far as encouraging students to see the big picture.  Bearing in mind the overwhelming breadth of material in world history available for consideration, many college level history textbooks employ different approaches including, but not limited to thematic, temporal, and spatial as their organizing principles.  As historian William H. McNeil explains, an organizing principle can make world history accurate and exciting, both as a research and teaching field. (see: William H. McNeil, “Beyond Western Civilizations: Rebuilding the Survey,” in The New World History: A teacher’s Companion, edited by Ross E. Diana, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2000), 84.)  There are, however, some key criteria to look for when choosing a world history textbook.  For instance, text readability, its audience, balance of the themes and regions covered.  Furthermore, presenting information in a way that it sticks with students is of particular importance.  A quick look at how Robert Strayer’s The Ways of the World is organized, illuminates some of these perspectives.

The text is divided into three broad historical periods.  The first part examines the beginning of human history to 500 B.C.E., the second part deals with classical era, and finally the third part looks at post-classical era. Each of these periods is then broken down further into thirteen distinct chapters with thematic, regional, and chronological organization.  While keeping its college-level readable narrative, Ways of the World has a series of related primary source documents from different cultures at the end of each chapter.  For instance, documents such as The Quran offer the students an opportunity to compare and contrast Islamic religious ideas and practices with those of other religions such Hindusm, Christianity, and Buddhism;  while the document on Reflections from Socrates allows students to explore the ‘ways’ of Socrates and ask questions such as why Socrates was not  popular with the Greek authorities. These documents reinforce students’ perspectives of the bigger picture and offer them opportunity to provide their own interpretation.  The text also does a good job of providing, what the author refers to as ‘reflective’ questions, at the beginning of each document, and after the end of each chapter. The questions guide students to focus on certain issues encouraging students’ active learning. Maps and many of the visual sources present in the text further help students to provide their own construction of historical events.  In addition, each chapter opens with contemporary events, for example, Chapter Two presents Elsie Eiler’s story and her town of Monowi in Nebraska.  The town was once a beacon of farming but the impact of globalization had many of its residents looking for alternative ways of living—migration to urban areas to seek employment in industries.  Such contemporary reference gives students a coherent trajectory that they can recognize as one aspect of human history.

One of the major strengths of the Ways of the World is the organization of chapters around themes, which are linked, as a whole, to the larger premise of connections in human history over time and space.  Chapters such as “China and the World: East Asian Connections, 500-1300;” “The Worlds of European Christendom: Connected and Divided, 500-1300,” The Worlds of Islam: Afro-Eurasian Connections, 600-1500,” are some of the examples demonstrating cultural connections. The author offers an explicit example in the chapter on “The Worlds of Islam,” when he discusses the spread of Islam vis-a- vis the trading activities of Arab merchants with the West African empires such as Mali, Ghana, Songay, among others. (492) Such large-scale connection reflects the text’s strength to highlight the aspects of world history that most conspicuously relate to the process of regional and cultural interaction in different ways.  In yet another chapter, a solid examination of the building of global empires in Eurasia during the classical era, the author notes that the empires “brought together people of quite different traditions and religions, and so stimulated the exchange of ideas, cultures, and values.” (145). Such broad focus on trade, religions, and global empires of the Ways of the World  prevents it from falling into one of the traps some world history textbooks find themselves—interpreting history from political and military perspectives only.

Furthermore, Ways of the World draws attention to the distinctive political, social, economic, and cultural traditions of different societies while paying attention to the “changing location of particular centers of innovation and wider influence.” (v).  As far as major religions of the world such as Buddhism are concerned, Ways of the World makes it memorable for students to learn, for example, why Buddhism is practiced widely from where it originated. Students learn to make connections and gain skills to interpret different historical events.  The text also focuses on women, who have often been left out of history textbooks.  While women from different cultures are mentioned and integrated in the texts’ narrative and the documents, (with the exception of historical Greece whose women contributed to the military aspect of their society and participated in sporting activities), most of the material looks at how women and their roles were marginalized in the overly patriarchal system of the time.  Although evidence to support women’s roles may be difficult to find during this period, the author could have made room for the agency of past groups, such as women, in order for students to understand the view of history that casts women’s agency as opposed to how their roles were marginalized.

Despite its many strengths, Ways of the World does have one major flaw. While most world history textbooks condescend the discussions Africa and the Americas, Ways of the World devotes a chapter, “Classical Era Variations: Africa and the Americas” to the discussion of Africa and the Americas, from 500 B.C.E.-1200 C.E.  In the broader classical eras, Africa and the Americas, however, were discussed in isolation from the rest of the world. For instance, Africa is described in general terms as a “geographical concept and not as a cultural entity.” (283). This somehow detaches the two diverse continents from the rest of the world giving students the impression that some places or cultures warrant more attention than others.
Apart from this, Ways of the World provides the student with events and connections that have created a globalized world.  Additionally, it provides provocative questions such as “What is so revolutionary about agriculture”?  While keeping individual societal inventions, the text goes beyond stimulating student understanding of historical narrative, to include how diverse cultures connected, compared, and changed.


Reviewed by Fatuma B. Guyo, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]