In my last blog post, I complained about the way our textbooks address Question Three, Why then and there? I also promised that I’d stop complaining in the next post (this one) and tell you about a textbook that actually gets Question Three (mostly) right. But first a story…

It was 2002. I’d just become a high school teacher. I was mopey on account of incompetence. Half a year earlier, I’d been lecturing successfully (I presumed) to large audiences and running lively graduate seminars. Now I was struggling to get 15 year olds to sit still and pay attention. It was a long year. 

In the midst of it, I discovered that I was supposed to tell my 10th graders that alliances had caused World War One. The Cold War had just ended. The general consensus was that balance-of-power politics had worked. The superpowers militarized and waged ideological battles. Each side recruited or coerced client states and sponsored proxy wars. And yes, both sides formed alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. And yet, no World War Three. 

As a general proposition, alliances do not cause world wars. The evidence on whether they cause any wars at all is murky. European states created and dissolved a variety of alliances in the century preceding the Great War, largely without incident. The US continues to maintain defensive alliances with a variety of countries, so far without calamity. Yet my textbook insisted, without evidence and without much reasoning, that alliances were one of the primary causes of World War One. 

Naturally, I complained to my boss. I observed to him that the textbook he gave me had dressed up the story of what European countries were doing and thinking right before the Great War as an explanation — a set of “causes.” My former political science colleagues would have been aghast. Worse than that, the book risked scaring our students into thinking that alliances were simply dangerous. 

The Missing Question: Why Then And There?

My boss and I argued, for about a decade. By then, Jon and I had figured out the question the textbook missed: Why then and there? Why did alliances lead to war in 1914 but sustain the peace after 1945? Even better: Under what conditions do alliances (or militarism, nationalism, or imperialism) increase or decrease the likelihood of war? 

Question Three makes it possible to learn meaningful lessons from history. It is extremely unlikely that our students will confront a Balkan crisis in the midst of an Anglo-Germanic power struggle during their lifetimes. But when and where alliances (or those other factors) alter the chances of war — that will be on their real-world agenda for some time to come.

Lessons go well when you and your students have an engaging, well-formulated question to grapple with and the training and resources to answer it. The same is true for textbooks. My old textbook didn’t really know what question it was trying to answer. “Why then and there?” would have helped its authors and their end users enormously.

So imagine my delight when, in the course of preparing the Question Three chapter of our book manuscript, I discovered that there was a textbook that helps students to answer it!

Strayer & Nelson Get It Right!

Every chapter in our 4QM manuscript models a full-blown inquiry case study, with sample sources and responses, graphic organizers, and step-by-step instructions. Our advice for teaching Question Three is to create a DBQ (document-based question) for your unit Question Three. Collect some brief documents and data, preferably in graphic form, that provide the background knowledge students need to see patterns and make connections. Present that at the launch of the inquiry. 

For our Question Three case study, we focus on a puzzle about Chinese and Japanese responses to western imperialism. The Chinese government resisted fecklessly, then dithered, and then, after the calamitous Boxer Uprising, capitulated. Japan’s response was more unusual: a group of daimyo (warlords, roughly) and their samurai followers overthrew their dithering government, restored the emperor to nominal power, and set out on a crash course of government-led modernization. It worked: by the early 20th century, Japan was itself an imperializing power. 

In quarantine, I happen to have a desk copy of an AP World History textbook, Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World, 4th ed., BFW (2019). I’ve never actually used the book in class. For that matter, I’ve never taught an AP class. (My list of deficits is long.) Anyway, we had a DQB to write, and I had this textbook. 

Strayer and Nelson do a nice job of comparing and contrasting China and Japan’s responses to imperial encroachment. They describe key background facts about population growth, economics, and governmental capacity. And they make an honest attempt to explain how these contextual differences affected the divergent outcomes in the two countries. We supplemented our model DBQ with some charts and graphs from a scholarly article we found on the internet and with some simplified quotes from a book by a political scientist. But the textbook worked great for us on this topic. 

Strayer and Nelson even gave us a neat follow-on assignment to our DBQ. They include the Ottoman empire in their chapter on responses to imperialism. They did that purposefully and thoughtfully: the Ottoman empire was a lot like Qing China and quite different from Tokugawa and Meiji Japan. So we decided that, once our students had formulated some reasonable hypotheses about obstacles to modernization in China, we would give them an abridged version of the Ottoman section and ask them to see if the evidence there supports their claims. 

And The Great War?

I was almost afraid to look, but couldn’t resist: The Great War. This section in Strayer and Nelson is just okay. The comparison — a temporal rather than spatial one, in this case — that starts the chapter is brief but effective. In a few sentences, Strayer and Nelson trace the history of European rivalry from 1815 until the Great War. They say that, after the defeat of Napoleon, “a fragile and fluctuating balance of power […] maintained the peace among Europe’s major countries.” They also note that a “powerful and rapidly industrializing Germany, seeking its ‘place in the sun,’ was a particularly disruptive new element” in that power balance. 

All that would fit very nicely into a Question Three DBQ on the reasons for the collapse of the 19th century peacekeeping system — what the old textbook called the “causes” of World War One. The contrast is clear: first, a balance-of-power system that, while “fragile,” actually did prevent major wars for almost a century. Then, a change in context and conditions that upset the balance: a unified, powerful, rapidly industrializing Germany. 

Strayer and Nelson’s account still insists that alliances drove the spread of the conflict. They say that countries felt bound to their commitments to their allies, even though some of those alliances were secret, some were broken, and some weren’t alliances at all, like Russia and Serbia. And there’s no contrast here, which tells you that they’ve actually started narrating and interpreting and abandoned explaining. 

Still, I’m grateful to have been disabused of the idea that history textbooks are good for stories and not much else. Jon and I have decided that one of our future projects is to produce a sourcebook of Question Three DBQs, something akin to the many primary source document collections that support our classroom work on Question Two (interpretation). It’s nice to know that there are some textbooks out there to help us get started.