Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 121: The Mysterious History of Worlds Together, Worlds Apart

• Robert L. Tignor, et al: Worlds Together, Worlds Apart; W.W. Norton & Co.; 2002; 462pp.; $62.50

History books for college students are reputedly terrible. Do they merit that reputation? If Worlds Together, Worlds Apart is indicative, the answer is yes.
The authors of Norton’s new world history textbook, set out to accomplish something they say no history text has done: teach world history from 1300, instead of 1492, to the present and shift the focus away from the West so that all the world’s peoples are given “fair coverage.”

Cramming 700 years of human history into 462 pages requires a great deal of labor to separate the wheat from the chaff. With a year and a half to fit into each page, many individuals, movements, battles, events, etc. won’t make the cut or will be reduced to a passing mention. The seven Princeton University professors who wrote Worlds Together, Worlds Apart undertake this historical culling with gusto. They chop, snip, clip, and weave like hairdressers on speed, creating a strange narrative in which Thomas Jefferson seems less important than numerous popular entertainers.

Take the 20th century, for example. The authors carve out space for Nelson Mandela (mentioned on five pages), Nikolai Lenin (six pages), Adolf Hitler (eight pages), Mohandas Gahndi (eight pages), Joseph Stalin (10 pages), and Chairman Mao Tse-tung (11 pages), but also make room for figures (each allotted a mention on a single page), such as Boy George, Carmen Miranda, the Village People, Melissa Etheridge, Hideo Nomo, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Josephine Baker, the Black Panthers, Emperor Hirohito, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and British pop star Sting. It is difficult to see how students could get a coherent view of the century’s crucial events from this kaleidoscopic presentation.

There was so much going on in the 20th century that the authors obviously wouldn’t have space to include everyone. They had to put Boy George and Carmen Miranda somewhere. So, naturally, they left out certain irrelevant figures. Among those not making the cut were J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Sam Walton, Duke Ellington, Golda Maier, and The Beatles. Of course, reggae musician Bob Marley is mentioned on two different pages and has his own photo.

There is no confusing Worlds Together, Worlds Apart for an old-fashioned, Western-centric textbook that uses out-of-date concepts such as balance and historical perspective. In this book, we are spared long passages on such figures as George Washington, whose entire presence in the book consists of a single reference in the cutline describing a painting of Simon Bolivar. The entry on Washington reads, “Bolivar wanted to transform the former colonies into modern republics, and used many of the icons of revolution from the rest of the Atlantic world — among his favorite models were George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Junking Washington leaves room for an entire page devoted to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The text devotes more space to Guevara’s death scene (“The executioner first shot the communist’s arms and legs; with Che agonizing on the ground, biting his fist to stifle the cries…”) than to Washington, Isaac Newton, and Michelangelo combined.

Also given entire pages were The Communist Manifesto, Islamic rebels Abi Al-Qasim and Zaynab, the official 1993 declaration of war against the Mexican government by a group of peasants, and rantings on socialism and black power by the first president of Senegal.

The authors also spare us most specific dates, such as July 4, 1776. They dispense with such outdated concepts as the distinction between voluntary and involuntary transactions, saying “trade could also take the form of tribute to powerful rulers.” And they point out how social forces shaped history, claiming that the Mongol conquests were caused by “population pressures.”

Glossing over mass murder is a hallmark of this book. The Mongols were merely “terribly destructive,” but positively so because they “deepened the connections” between cultures. Likewise, Mao, history’s deadliest ruler, is summarized with, “many of Mao’s ventures proved disastrous failures, but the Chinese model of an ongoing people’s revolution provided much hope in the Third World.”

One could go on and on with examples of how the authors of Worlds Together, Worlds Apart have turned history on its head, lionizing socialism and taking pot shots at free trade and capitalism. But by now you get the picture.

Studies show that history is no longer a required course at many colleges and universities. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, if it means that students won’t be subjected to material such as this.

The authors have written a book designed to draw students — our children — into their socialistic, guilt-ridden worldview. You had better make sure your children know the difference between George Washington and Che Guevara, because this book won’t. Passing on that kind of knowledge is the best way to see that we keep our worlds apart from becoming worlds together.