The book's title page shows one author: Jackson J. Spielvogel, professor of history at Pennsylvania State University.
is a Europeanist who specializes in Reformation studies, and he
has won several awards for his
I can easily believe that The Human Odyssey is really his
creation, and that he
himself generated much of its content, because this textbook embodies a great deal of pedagogic skill.
The prose is easy to read, and Spielvogel
repeatedly asks his
readers to attempt to put themselves in the positions of the historical personages whom they are studying.
explanation of the various "schools" of historical analysis is smooth and effortless, his
end-of-chapter materials are well chosen, his
portraits of major figures are surprisingly complete, and he
moves deftly between the "big picture" and crucial details, such as technological innovations or natural catastrophes.
also has an eye for religious and intellectual affairs -- topics that have been missing from many textbooks in the past decade or two.
A few years ago my daughter brought home a high-school history text that made Martin Luther look like a crime-busting district attorney, not a man of faith.
When I queried the head of her school, a cultured man who held a doctorate in history, he sadly observed that all the available textbooks failed to deal with religious matters in any depth.
That is not true of The Human Odyssey : Here the explications of religious movements and of the important intellectual themes in world history are, for the most part, exemplary.
In The Human Odyssey, Luther is a renegade bent on preaching a novel theological doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
is not simply trying to tidy up the corruption of the Church of Rome
tackles the currently sensitive subject of African history, his
instincts are sound.
is careful to observe that slavery, far from being an invention of white colonialists, had long been practiced by Africans themselves (and also by other peoples, all over the world).
gives an appreciative treatment of ancient African civilizations, such as the one that produced the mighty stone structures at Great Zimbabwe, and he
stresses the importance of tribes and tribalism, even in the modern period.
looks at the role of women in African societies, including matrilineal ones, although he
doesn't give enough attention to polygamy.
Polygamy is still a crucial element in many African societies today -- not only because it confers great social advantages upon the males but also because it has greatly accelerated the spread of HIV infection. (The index in The Human Odyssey has no entry for polygamy, nor for primogeniture.)
Because Spielvogel is a student of the Reformation, it is no surprise to find that his history of Europe in Renaissance and Reformation times is excellent.
So is his
history of Europe in the modern era.
I am particularly impressed by the sections that deal with modern mass movements and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
Though so many other books stress the differences between fascism and communism, Spielvogel
uses the concept of totalitarianism to elucidate profound, lethal similarities between Hitler's regime in Germany and Stalin's in the Soviet Union.
also is careful to underline the great differences between Mussolini's Italian-style fascism and the Nazi horror.
It is rare indeed to find a book that reflects such a comfortable mastery of the facts and such a fine appreciation of subtleties.
Undoubtedly, students who read The Human Odyssey will avoid the common mistake of using the term fascism as a catch-all epithet for any nasty modern tyranny.
Where the Book Is Weak
has done so many good things in this book, and has rejected so many of the fashionable distortions which have poisoned a lot of recent schoolbooks, that it seems almost churlish to criticize the book's weaknesses -- yet some of these weaknesses are serious and need attention.
Astonishingly, there is no discussion of Stalin's systematic terrorizing and extermination of the peasantry.
Students will not learn that Stalin caused the extermination or forcible relocation of tens of millions of Soviet citizens in his
efforts to snuff every flicker of freedom's flame.
Nor will they learn that the Chinese Communists, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, compiled an even more horrendous record of mass murder.
cites examples of individual acts of violence, but he
does not provide the appalling statistics that students need to know.
This contrasts with his
careful, sound treatment of the Holocaust and of the Nazis' use of terror.
writes that "the theoretical equality of women in Marxist thought was put into practice in Cuba by new laws" -- a startling distortion.
lauds Cuba's health-care and education systems but never describes its system of political repression.
credits the Castro regime with an autonomous decision to export revolution to other Latin American countries, even though there is abundant evidence that most of Cuba's foreign policy was dictated from Moscow. (According to Spielvogel
, the Cubans undertook to ignite guerrilla wars in South America because Castro, after the missile crisis, recognized that "the Soviet Union had been unreliable.
treatment of the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan is most remarkable, for he
calls it "a war . . . that the Soviet Union could not win," rather than calling it what it was: a defeat.
And even though he
credits the Reagan
administration with arming the Afghanis, he
does not describe the decisive effect of superior American technology -- especially the Stinger missile.
Instead of showing that the West, in the end, was victorious over Soviet imperialism, Spielvogel
describes the implosion of the Soviet empire in terms of economic failure and Gorbachev's "radical reforms.
And in his zeal to make Gorbachev the man who put an end to the Cold War, Spielvogel
says that "Gorbachev made an agreement with the United States in 1987 to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons (the INF Treaty).
Spielvogel, as a distinguished historian, should have noticed that those aren't "new" nations.
They are old nations, now restored to independence -- and today's atmosphere of conflict and tension in the Balkans represents a return to conditions that prevailed at the beginning of our century.
had acknowledged this, he
would have created an excellent opportunity to show his
readers that the study of history is indispensable for understanding the present.
My final complaint: In his
introductory essay, during a discussion of the skills that historians must have, Spielvogel
offers some remarks about bias:
It is impossible for human beings not to be biased.
Bias is the inclinations, predispositions, and prejudices we all have . . . . There is nothing inherently wrong with being biased, as long as we don't allow it to prevent us from approaching new situations and people with objectivity and tolerance.