Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review: A Child's History of the World by Virgil Hillyer

Ever since my homeschooling career began , I have seen A Child’s History of the World  (ACHOW) listed in catalogs and I have read numerous reviews of the book online. As a Charlotte Mason enthusiast, I was intrigued because so many proponents of living books recommend this “textbook” as part of a Charlotte Mason program. I recently decided to check it out for myself. I must admit that I was a bit skeptical because I knew that Hillyer’s text was regarded as a secular book. I feel strongly that ALL of the facts of history should be taught. The influence of Christianity, for example, should not be ignored, excluded, or continually presented with a negative bias. On the flip side, Christian texts should never gloss over past atrocities committed by so-called Christian individuals or groups (this happens too). The good, the bad, and the ugly should all be included in a history curriculum. We need to understand ALL of history in order to learn from it and prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated. Revising history to suit the perspective of the textbook author is just plain wrong. As a Christian, I also have concerns with secular history books because of the interpretation of events that occurred prior to recorded history contained in such books. Obviously, there is very little evidence to explain definitively the people and events of that time and “pre-history” is open to interpretation. Such interpretations are usually made in accordance with one’s worldview.  My hesitation about these history texts, even if they are not overtly revisionist books, is that the authors’ interpretations of “pre-history” and prehistoric man do not line up with scripture. Because I believe in the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Holy Bible, it is important for the teaching of “pre-history” in my home to be interpreted through the lens of scripture. These concerns characterized my initial uncertainty regarding ACHOW.

Let’s begin with the facts. ACHOW is a survey of world history published by Calvert School for fourth grade students. Other companies, such as Sonlight, sell the book as part of a curriculum package for students as young as first or second grade. ACHOW was originally published in 1924 by Virgil Hillyer, Calvert School’s first headmaster. Reprinted in 1951 with some updates and revisions, the book consists of 603 pages contained in 91 chapters. Although Hillyer stated in his Introduction that he grew up in the Christian faith, the first four chapters present a secular interpretation of prehistoric man with evolutionary content.  Chapter 5 is entitled “Real History Begins” and from this point on, the chapters move chronologically through history, highlighting key people and events from all major societies and cultures. As would be expected, the book begins with ancient civilizations, including Egypt, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, and the Roman empire, including the mythology and beliefs of those cultures. ACHOW discusses the beginnings of both Christianity and Islam in great detail. This book also discusses the history of ancient Africa, Phonecia and Arabia. We are then transitioned into the Middle Ages and presented with plentiful information about castles, knights, pirates, lords and ladies, and servants of the feudal system. The rise of Islam and the Crusades are also highlighted. Some details about West Africa and Asia during this time period are covered, although Europe receives much greater emphasis. Modern history through the twentieth century encompasses a broad range of topics, including Columbus, explorers and conquerors, Native Americans, the Elizabethan age, the Tudors and Stuarts of England, the Protestant Reformation, slavery and the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. China, South America and the Caribbean Islands are given considerable coverage too. Because this book is meant as a basic survey for children, some topics are given a general overview and the intention is not to "cover everything". Rather, the focus is on the captivating stories of history. Notably, illustrations are limited to a few black and white line drawings.

Now to offer my humble opinion about this book. Truthfully, ACHOW is the most engaging history text I have ever read. It clearly qualifies as a living book! From the moment I began reading, I found it nearly impossible to put down. I devoured it more readily than I would a novel (and that’s saying something) and completed all 601 pages within a matter of a few days. It is no exaggeration to say that I learned more world history in those three days than I did during my twelve years of public school. Hillyer’s delightful style of storytelling brings the past to life and presents history in a way that is fascinating for children and adults alike. Because history is so often presented in a rather tedious manner, we are inclined to forget how engaging and interesting it really is. We tend to get lost in a sea of names and dates while learning little about the personalities, conflicts, and triumphs of the human spirit that have shaped our world. Not so with this book. Your children (and you) will be drawn into the lives of real people from the past, gaining insight and understanding that goes far beyond anything trivial or rote. Regarding my concerns about the secular nature of the book, it was honestly a non-issue. Excepting the interpretation of prehistoric man in the first few chapters, ACHOW covers history factually, without noticeable slant or bias.  ACHOW would be an interesting and age-appropriate book to use with any child in the elementary grades or even junior high. Perhaps this text could even provide a high school student with a light refresher during short breaks from the regular curriculum. I believe that my own experience and testimony provide living proof that college-educated adults can learn a lot from this book!

Although ACHOW is an excellent book, I would like to mention a few minor concerns. For Christians who are concerned about the book’s presentation of prehistoric man, I would recommend skipping chapters one through four and beginning with chapter five. The Bible, along with other books written from a Christian perspective, can be substituted. Also, a wise parent will skim each chapter ahead of time to make note of anything found to be objectionable. For example, some parents have complained about political correctness and minor inaccuracies in the updated version. I did not notice a lot of this, but we each have our own standards and should be aware that some parents are apprehensive about ACHOW for this reason. I only noticed one inaccuracy, which was when Hillyer referenced the biblical account of David and Michal and stated that they “fell in love”. Anyone who has read this story from the Bible knows that Michal was offered to David as a prize for defeating the Philistines. There is more to the story, but “falling in love“ had little to do with it. I noticed this single inaccuracy, but other aspects of this book are undeniably superior to anything else I have read, making it worthwhile in spite of it.

ACHOW could be used multiple ways in a homeschool setting and it would be impossible to adequately expound on all of them in this post. This book would be ideal as a multi-age, family read-aloud or it could be read independently by a child of appropriate age and reading level. It could easily stand alone for a history survey course or it could be used as a spine along with age-appropriate literature, including biographies, historical fiction, and Usborne-style picture books. Lapbooking or notebooking could be worked in nicely or the study of history could even be expanded into several multi-subject unit studies based on each time period. Charlotte Mason’s narration technique would work well with this book, but Calvert School sells a workbook with comprehension exercises and other activities if you prefer a more structured approach. Regardless of whether nothing, a little, or a lot is added to ACHOW, it has great potential as an ideal fit for many families. Although marketed as a one-year course through Calvert School, it could easily be expanded into a two-year course (or possibly even longer) by adding in literature, map work, a time line, and hands-on activities or research projects. In addition, ACHOW should have broad appeal to both Christian and secular homeschoolers.

 I believe that world history can and should be taught in the elementary grades and that ACHOW is a wonderful resource to help us accomplish this. In Hillyer‘s introduction, he stated that most American children inadvertently believe that time began in 1492. They have very little knowledge of the world prior to the discovery of America. This is truly a shame and should inspire us to teach world history regardless of whether or not it is included in our more traditional curricula. As a Christian parent, I have thought about the following questions regarding the teaching of history as it relates to our faith. How can our children comprehend the Bible without understanding the histories and cultures of the nations that existed during Bible times? How can they nurture a desire to fulfill the great commission without knowing about other nations, including the people, events, and beliefs that shaped them? How can they possibly understand current events without the ability to view them through the lens of the past? We must remember that history really is His Story and that Christian parents have a responsibility to share that story with our children. A Child’s History of the World  is a great resource to help us do just that. May God use the teaching of history to plant seeds in the lives our children that inspire them to share His story, His love, and His Son with others around the world.

To purchase A Child's History of the World, click here: