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We’ve been reading The Story of the World series of history books for several years, and we’re now starting into the fourth and final volume: The Modern Age. I read the author’s foreword and was reminded why I love reading Susan Wise Bauer’s narrative of history.

history for children kids story of the world
Ruins in Columbia, S.C. No. 2 photograph by George N. Barnard, 1864, public domain

Having a degree in history myself, I’m turned off when materials aimed at children push political agendas rather than an understanding of history and human nature itself. Bauer does not disappoint. I’ve appreciated her handling of history from Volume One on. Reading the foreword to Volume Four, my appreciation has only been confirmed and strengthened.

Here are her words concerning the violence of history, and especially the brutality of our modern era–why this particular volume should be saved until at least fourth grade, but also why it should not be kept from children.

…A fourth grader hears the news on the car radio, on the TV, or in the conversation of his elders. He hears the words (“terrorism”) and senses the worry of the adults around him. A fourth or fifth grader who has a vague idea of what is going on in the world deserves to be started on the path to understanding. The shape of the world today is not random; it has been formed by a very definite pattern of happenings. To deny a child an understanding of that pattern is truly to doom a child to fear, because war, unrest, and violence appear totally random.

Even in this book [on the modern age], violence is not random. It is alarming, but not random. As you read, you will see, again and again, the same pattern acted out: A person or group of people rejects injustice by rebelling and seizing the reins of power. As soon as those reins are in the hands of the rebels, the rebels become the establishment, the victims become the tyrants, the freedom-fighters become the dictators. The man who shouts for equality in one decade purges, in the next decade, those who shout against him. Boiling history down to its simplest outline so that beginning scholars can grasp it brings this repetition into stark relief.

Again and again, while researching this book, I was reminded of the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in the labor camps of the Soviet Union, and who, when he became powerless, finally understood that revolution never brings an end to oppression. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. …Even in the best of hearts there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being. …And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them.”

Revolution shatters the structures; but the men who build the next set of structures haven’t conquered the evil that lives in their own hearts. The history of the twentieth century is, again and again, the story of men who fight against tyrants, win the battle, and then are overwhelmed by the unconquered tyranny in their own souls.

Bauer’s telling of history–in each of her volumes–gives this kind of instructive look into the patterns of human nature played out in the global theater. There is drama and interest and wisdom–without need for embellishment or politicized rhetoric.

This is why I love her books and I love reading them to my children. Because at my core I believe that history in itself is instructive if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. There is a bigger story than our current political drama. And there is a higher right and wrong than our current iteration of left and right. I want to give my kids wisdom and understanding so they can see straight in the midst of fearful and confusing times. Mere social studies or politically-driven books for children won’t cut it. I want to give them history.

Whether you homeschool or your kids are in public or private school, these books make for great family read alouds. My children have begged for them over the years: “Mama, let’s play Legos while you read The Story of the World!” We simply read, discuss, and sometimes find the place we’re reading about on a globe. Easy. A small investment that has reaped huge dividends in our family’s understanding and ability to have good conversations about all that is going on in our world today. It’s hard to grasp big principles without some kind of context. History gives kids (and their parents!) the story, the context, for understanding the patterns and principles at play in our world.

Bauer’s books are by no means our only source of history reading (reading more than one author is incredibly important), but these volumes have made for a delightful overview and they are a great place to get started if reading history with young children is new to you and your family.

If you have early elementary children (K-3rd graders), I recommend starting with Volume One: Ancient Times. The reading level increases a bit with each volume, and the story unfolds in a chronological sweep, so this is a great series with which to grow. If you have kids that are at least ten years old (or a mature nine year old), you may enjoy jumping in to Volume Four: The Modern Age. Just know that it’s like jumping into a movie series at the end. No worries, the movie may be enjoyed as a stand-alone. But it’s so much more meaningful if you know what led up to it! 😉

All four Volumes are available as audiobooks if you find that more convenient.

I suppose this post may have turned out to be something like an ad. That’s not really the point. If needed, go back and read the quote again and let it sink in. Bauer’s words are more the point of this post. Her books are just a great way to apply it, and I couldn’t help but recommend them because my family has found them so valuable.

Any other history read alouds that your family has enjoyed? Have you noticed the difference between giving kids social studies and giving them history?