William H. McNeill was a professor at the University of Chicago and, for a long time, a lonely crusader for the cause of teaching world history. J. R. is his son and a professor at Georgetown University.
I became familiar with the elder McNeill's work when I was teaching a course called World Studies. It was difficult to teach because the secondary textbooks which purported to be about world history were really just European history with a bit of Asian history and even smaller bits of African and Latin American history appended to them (mostly as topics for discussing European colonialism).
Even academic historians (except for McNeill [right] and a few others) argued that world history was just too huge and too diverse to be a legitimate subject of study. McNeill and his allies began writing history that was really world history and demonstrated to all but the most chauvinistic that there were generalizations and comparisons to be made and lessons to be learned in a field that supposedly "diluted" real history. I had the pleasure of meeting the senior McNeill at a conference in Washington, DC a long time ago. He was as impressive in person as he is in his books.
One of McNeill's cohort, Ross Dunn of San Diego State University, wrote a secondary textbook and it was actually published. Links Across Time and Place was pretty radical. I remember that chapter 8 was about the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty. (You can see right there how "real" history was being "diluted" -- Lynn Cheney's word.) It was also a pretty good textbook and helped get students thinking.
Things have changed some in the past 30+ years. World history is considered a legitimate, if rare academic subject. The Advanced Placement program has a World History course that is rapidly catching up with European History in popularity. And we're back in a war in Asia when even Jon Stewart is pointing out that no one has ever been able to run Afghanistan: not the Mesopotamians, not Alexander the Great, not Ghenghis Khan, not the Turks, not the British, not the Russians, and not even the Afghanis. (That's a real world history lesson and the kind of lesson a lot of us learned in the 1960s.)
So, most of what's in The Human Web... was familiar to me. I haven't taught World Studies in this century. So the book has been partially read for a long time.
What I enjoy from this book is seeing new connections, and this is the book for that because it's about webs among people. Webs that were created by things like creation of speech, sharing of technology, and competiton for resources.
I liked things like:
- "Bureaucratic administration, alphabetic writing, and portable, congregational religions have never been surpassed as instruments for sustaining civilized societies, and stand as the most important innovations generated among ancient Southwest Asian peoples between 2350 B.C.E. and 331 B.C.E."
- "Cheap transportation allowed goods of common consumption to circulate widely. In favorable locations, a peasant family could concentrate on raising silk worms, or some other commercial crop, and rely on the market for food and other necessities."
- "The linking up of the world's ecosystems altered Australia and the Pacific islands more drastically than any other parts of the world."
- "Urbanization and population growth stands as the cardinal social change of the last century."
- "Ironically, therefore, to preserve what we have, we and our successors must change our ways by learning to live simultaneously in a cosmopolitan web and in various and diverse primary communities. how to reconcile such opposites is the capital question for our time and probably for a long time to come."
If you're a fan of history, especially if you're familiar with traditional and localized histories, you might find this entertaining and worth your time. I liked it, but I've been a fan of McNeill and his work for a long time. Check it out and tell us what you think of it.
- Articles and books by William H. McNeill
- Why Study History, and essay by William H. McNeill
- Books by J. R. McNeill