History is a favorite subject of study around here. My own history education was paltry and downright dull: a recitation of facts and dates. No story. No connections. No resonance with my young life. So when I first brought my older home, I was stymied by history. I knew next to nothing and really wasn’t interested. So I passed the decision on to my then seven-year-old son: What do you want to study about history? His answer was definitive: the American Civil War. So we studied it. Nine episodes of the Ken Burns series, countless books about the time period, and a few hands-on projects later, we were both full of Civil War knowledge and passion. We were also totally hooked on history.
A few years later, after further American History study, loosely centered around Joy Hakim’s History of US but full of rabbit trails including a long jaunt into the Renaissance, my younger, then 5, wanted in on the action. While the previous studies boosted my history knowledge and interest, I still felt lost. I wanted a framework for further study, largely so I could help them place events in a greater context. I wanted to study history chronologically, ideally from the earth’s beginnings to through the present, written from a secular, inclusive point of view yet interesting to children.
I took to the web and quickly faced the reality that history (and science) materials created for homeschoolers almost all are conservative Christian based. Often, this view is expressed as having a “worldview”, which initially I thought must be what I wanted. Surely, I thought, worldview must refer to a look at history in a way that respected the beliefs around the world, seeing all as equal. I quickly discovered my error: worldview, as used by most homeschooling curriculum providers, referred to a Christian-centric, highly conservative, young earth perspective. That wasn’t what I wanted for our studies.
Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of The World series repeatedly came up during my search. I was dubious. While many reviews gushed about the storytelling of the texts and activities outlined in the activity books, many others voiced concerns: Bible stories are presented as facts, too many exclamation points are used, the chapters move from civilization to civilization, which can be confusing. Certainly this wasn’t the curriculum for our family, but I wasn’t finding better options that could give us a full sweep of history accessible to a child of five and nine, given supplementation for my older child.
So I checked out the first book from our library network. I read the introduction about history and archeology. It contained way too many short sentences and certainly more exclamation points than I’d consider a mark of good writing. Read more, my younger insisted. On to nomads, then Egypt. He was hooked. I returned the library copy and placed my order for the first volume and activity guide.
Soon after we started on our own copy, we came to Chapter 6, The Jewish People, which tells stories of Abraham and Joseph with the same voice as that noting the history of ancient Egypt. Later in the book, Moses and then Jesus are addressed in the same manner. We are not a Christian or Jewish family. We don’t hold the Bible to be historical fact (although certainly historical people and happenings are retold in the Bible). Since Bauer did not point out story versus historical event in this case, the distinction was up to me. In the second edition of the first volume, other myths are clearly pointed out, but biblical stories are still presented as fact. Yes, this bothered me. And, yes, we continued to read. I simply presented those chapters as stories from religious traditions rather than as fact. We discussed the author’s inclusion of the stories and our understanding of the Bible’s writings.
In short, we talked about the makings of history. History is always told through the lens of the teller. Aside from the barest recitation of facts, it is colored by the experiences, race, ethnicity, politics, religion, socio-economic status, and time of the teller. If it’s written for any audience (and almost all it), it’s written to appeal to those people and sell to those people. It is not without bias, especially not without the bias of the time in which it is written. It’s in understanding this that we approach our history study at home. Understanding the biases and purposes of the author helps inform us as readers. Appreciating that history is rife with bias allows us to use a variety of sources, understanding our view of the world may not jibe with that of the teller, and that knowing that differences in the telling of the same events enhances our understanding of these events. It even enhances our understanding of the world today: thinking about why writers would write with a Christian worldview or liberal political worldview teaches us about current thinking in our time.
In Part II of this review, I’ll move to how we used the books and their activity guides and where we’re heading next.