The time has come.
After 14 years of using the popular history curriculum The Story of the World (with a couple of breaks and along with other secular and Catholic supplemental bits and snips), I’m switching without regret to a new Catholic history program next year. In this post I’ll explain why I’m making the change and what I’m looking for in a solid history curriculum. In my next post, I will provide an overview of the best of the Catholic history curricula that I found, and why I ended up choosing one particular program for my family.
SOTW: The Good
The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer is a 4-volume chronological, narrative style world history program. American history is integrated into world history, and the series presents the history of both the east and the west. So it’s quite ambitious. When we started homeschooling, I’m not sure there were any other history curricula available that approached history this way, but since then others have emerged.
I chose Story of the World 14 years ago partly because of this unique way of presenting history, but also because 1) I could use our homeschool charter budget to purchase it and 2) the curriculum is easy to use. Now, in my mind, these are perfectly reasonable motivations for my choices. Most homeschoolers live on a pretty tight budget, and we have to make difficult decisions about where to spend our money. Why not avoid unnecessary expenses, right? Because SOTW is considered secular, our public homeschool charter covered the entire cost for us. Our time is also precious. Nobody wants to use some overly-complicated curriculum that requires a training course before we can actually use it with our children.
I appreciated that I could use SOTW with multiple kids. It is a 4-volume series covering 4 periods of history (ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern). You cover one volume a year, so it’s a 4-year program. I found I could use the texts from grade 1 up through grade 8, so we would could use the texts with many different children at the same time. Some of my kids did the first volume twice in elementary school because they did it once alone, then again with a younger sibling.
I also appreciated that the main text comes in either book or audio format. The audio lessons have been a lifesaver. I play the audio CD’s in our van while we are on the road – which happens increasingly more as my kids get older. You can also purchase an activity guide for each volume which presents discussion prompts, maps, references to history encyclopedias, coloring pages, and, perhaps best of all, a list of additional resources (both fiction and non-fiction) for each chapter — many of which you can find at your library. Having all this information IN ONE PLACE has been time saving — and space saving!
SOTW: The Bad and the Ugly
Now, given this glowing report, why on earth would I abandon Story of the World? For years folks have told me about other history options. I nodded politely and appreciated their experience, but I yawned in my mind, No thanks. I’m good. I’ve got my SOTW.
However, over the years I have noticed that the series contains some anti-Catholic viewpoints, and at times blatant lies about the Church. The first volume (on ancient times) is pretty safe and solid (and in my opinion the best of the volumes in terms of style). However, problems emerge toward the end of volume 2 (on the middle ages) with the presentation of Martin Luther, and then into volume 3 with the coverage of the Protestant reformation.
This is not the place for apologetics, but suffice it to say, there are two sides to this story. For example, while Susan Wise Bauer presents Martin Luther as a victim of a cold, harsh Church whose practices and teachings made him feel distanced from God, even Protestant historians note the affect of his abusive childhood on Luther’s adult spiritual and emotional struggles. Martin Luther was beguiling, brilliant, and pious, but he was also deeply troubled, anti-Semitic, and downright mean at times. Bauer does not mention any of these negative aspects of Luther, but she is comfortable presenting an exaggerated, unreflective caricature of the medieval Church.
I once read a remark that had it not been for the political forces in play at the time, Luther’s complaints about the Church would have led to a new religious order, not a schism. We would have Lutheran monks and sisters with a particular special charism. I like to remind my children of this. Protestants are truly our brothers and sisters, and I don’t think we should be separated.
So, anyway, clearly I did not like these chapters in volumes 2 and 3, and I resented them increasingly more over the years as my own understanding of Catholic history and my own commitment to my faith deepened. I wouldn’t read these chapters to my kids, of course. I would skip them and read special selections with my children that presented a more balanced, honest picture of the people and events in question. But this is a lot of work for me.
I also don’t like the way Christianity is presented in SOTW along with other world religions without any evaluation of the truths within these religions. Obviously this is a secular history program, so I wouldn’t expect the author to evaluate the truth statements of the various religions, but she had no problem offering as historical fact many mere emotional opinions about the Catholic Church. And this is part of the problem. It’s too easy for history books to appear objective and neutral, when in fact the choices to include and exclude particular experiences, people, and documented evidence reveal the inevitable biases of the authors of these history books. I am not neutral. I don’t think all religions are equally true. I want my kids to understand that we need to be respectful of the people who hold views that differ from our own, but this does not require us to sacrifice our reason and discernment.
Through my experience with SOTW, it is non-negotiable for me that our history curriculum be written from a Catholic Christian worldview. So, “cheap and easy” is not good enough for me anymore. From now on, I will expect more in any curriculum I use with my children.
The Search for the Perfect Catholic History Curriculum
In the fall of 2016 I began searching for a new history program for my homeschooled children. I asked myself what I really wanted out of a history curriculum.
Here’s what I want:
- Chronological. I want a chronological history program. This is the way Charlotte Mason taught history. Of course, most history programs teach chronologically within a given unit or when covering a specific country, but I prefer a cycle similar to SOTW where world history is taught chronologically over a period of years. I do think SOTW is weakened by too much jumping around on the map, though. For example, it’s okay with me if more time is spent developing the unfolding history of Ancient Greece before jumping over to what’s going on in another country at the exact same time. If kids are keeping timelines, they will see that we are moving back on the timeline slightly when we begin learning about what was going on around the same time in other parts of the world.
- Living Books. I want my children to read living history books – beautiful, interesting books that leave them thirsting for more.
- Moral Lessons. I want my children to recognize that “history is not neutral in its ethics and morality, but offers us numerous life lessons from those have gone before us” (Jack Beckman in When Children Love to Learn, 163). In this way, they see that they are participating in the unfolding of history, that their choices affect not only those around them today, but they influence the lives of people in the future in ways they can’t imagine, and for good or ill depending on their choices.
- Catholic Christian Worldview. I want the contributions of great Catholic men and women to be represented fairly. (How on earth any medieval history book could leave out Thomas Aquinas is befuddling. Even if you aren’t Catholic, how can you deny his contribution to western thought?) I want the contributions of the Church to be presented in addition to its failings: I don’t want a sentimental, uncritical portrayal of the Church in history, but I won’t abide the perpetuation of lies about it either.
Does such a history program exist? YES. In my next post, I will review what I consider the 3 best Catholic history programs that fulfill my wish list, and I’ll explain why I chose the particular program that I did.