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Nonfiction Microreviews


Globalization in World History
Edited by A.G. Hopkins
W.W. Norton & Company, $16 (paper)

Globalization, as a term, has gained wide usage since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Supporters of capitalism and free trade seize upon globalization as a path to raising employment opportunities and living standards around the world. Opponents, on the other hand, blame it for the debt and depletion of resources in developing countries, the increase in sweatshops, and damage to the environment. But there’s a basic problem underlying the debate about globalization, A.G. Hopkins argues. Both sides see it as a process widely associated with America’s rise as a superpower in the post<0x00AD>–World War II period. This view, according to the book’s eight contributing historians, is misleading. Globalization, they show, is a much older, more complex, and broader process in which regions outside the West—like China, South Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world—have played a role for more than a millennium. Rejecting any quick and easy definition, Hopkins illustrates what has been for historians a constantly evolving phenomenon: “[Globalization] is widely agreed to be a process that transforms economic, political, social and cultural relationships across countries, regions and continents by spreading them more broadly, making them more intense and increasing their velocity.” Hans van de Ven shows that China has had social, trade, and cultural links with Southeast Asia since the twelfth century, long before modern globalization. A provocative essay by John Lonsdale challenges the notion that Africa—battered by misrule, graft, and tribalism—is essentially unable to participate in globalization today. Rather, he argues, Africans have always had regional and indirect international trade links; they were one of the earliest people to practice agriculture and herding. However, because the continent was sparsely populated due to poor soils, inadequate rainfall, and disease, groups were by necessity mobile, hindering the formation of state power and capital. The tribal conflict now associated with Africa, he stresses, does not imply a rejection of globalization but a scramble for survival as Africans labor under the impact of colonialism, manipulative African rulers, and a competitive disadvantage due to farm subsidies in developed countries. In an intriguing departure from conventional wisdom, Lonsdale states that “tensions between ethnicity and state citizenship in Africa match those between nationhood and ‘ever closer union’ in Europe.” He laments the fact that most businessmen from developed countries, knowing the weakness of African states, don’t open the continent to a free market. Rather, they bargain for exclusive concessions like oil drilling or exchanging arms for diamonds. The book, the first on the subject written exclusively by historians, shows that globalization is more global than pundits make it seem.

—Wilson Wanene


The Questions of Tenure
Edited by Richard P. Chait
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

The American system of academic tenure has been called “the worst of personnel systems save for all the others.” It has been defended for more than sixty years on the grounds of academic and intellectual freedom, economic security, and quality control. But tenure has always had its critics, and recently conservative pundits, education school policy experts, and corporate leaders who serve as trustees and regents of their alma maters have turned up the volume. They accuse universities of being inflexible, inefficient, and unaccountable, and they view the tenure system as an impediment to effective university governance. They find the protection of academic freedom argument no longer convincing in the post–Cold War era, though responses to September 11 have raised new concerns about academic freedom on campuses. They ask why professors should have lifelong job security when no one else does. They argue that tenure produces mediocrity.

Richard P. Chait and his nine contributors to The Questions of Tenure are mainly policy-oriented scholars in education schools armed with mountains of data on university employment practices across the United States and abroad. They aim to raise the quality of the tenure debate, which Chait claims has long been ill-informed. We learn that there are 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States, presenting an enormous variety of faculty appointment contracts and that most students go part-time and are considerably older than the 18 to 22-year-old full-timers who attend elite institutions. We also learn that the percentage (52%) of full time faculty with tenure has not varied much in the past twenty-five years, and nor has the percentage (39%) of full time women faculty with tenure. In the meantime, demographic changes and heightened financial pressures have swelled the ranks of non–tenure track teachers, including part-timers, sharpening distinctions between the academic haves and have-nots.

With the removal of the retirement age cap in the early 1990s, tenure has become a less economically effective and intellectually flexible personnel system than it once was. It is too early to tell if reforms such as post-tenure reviews will serve as useful correctives. Not surprisingly, Chait and his colleagues find that the vast majority of American faculty surveyed prefer tenure track appointments against all other plausible incentives, including higher pay.

In spite of the various challenges and threats to tenure, very few institutions have managed to eliminate it. The contributors conclude that it is not likely to disappear soon. Why? Because tenured faculty, especially in the arts and humanities who have reason to complain about being undervalued and undercompensated, tenaciously defend the system. There is another factor that the book overlooks. Tenure underpins what has become the world’s most creative and successful system of higher education and research. It may be inappropriate for certain types of American colleges and universities, but for those that both generate and disseminate knowledge it continues to work rather well.

—Philip S. Khoury


The Future of Life
Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (cloth)

When E.O. Wilson is describing the astonishing amount we now know about the diversity of life on earth, his language is precise and heightened and often beautiful. In The Future of Life, he writes that “The biosphere creates our special world anew every day, every minute, and holds it in a unique, shimmering physical disequilibrium,” that last phrase economically evoking fragility and beauty while invoking a scientific concept. After reading Wilson’s accounts of biodiversity here and in his 1992 The Diversity of Life, the world looks different: every square foot of woodland becomes a snapshot of the fantastically productive power of Darwinian evolution. Wilson’s writing is often elegiac, too: “Ancient Hawaii is a ghost that haunts the hills, and our planet is poorer for its sad retreat.” The book’s central argument is that we are causing a mass extinction of species on a scale seen only a handful of times in the history of the earth; as many as half of the world’s millions of species may be doomed, if trends continue, by the end of the twenty-first century. Wilson is unfortunately less convincing when he says solutions are possible. In his chapter “For the Love of Life,” he calls for environmental policy imbued with an ethic of conservation: “Life forms around us are too old, too complex, and potentially too useful to be carelessly discarded.” And while he makes a case for the latter, including much fascinating material about the medical value of the tropical rainforest, he argues more eloquently for the intrinsic value of the immense, evolved diversity of life. He doesn’t convince you, though, that in laying out a plan to preserve it, he has fully grappled with all the potential conflicts of value, both humanitarian and environmental, that may arise. If protecting biological diversity does not coincide as happily as Wilson assumes with sustainable development for the 10 billion humans who will be around at the end of the century, then there may be more tragic inevitability to confront than Wilson’s “guarded optimism” allows. Reading Wilson makes you care immensely about the future of life, even if you’re not convinced that it will be a happy one.

—Andrew Hrycyna

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review



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