The Story of Mankind

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  • Reviewed on Sunday, December 21, 2003
  • Grades Used: 6ish
  • Dates used: 2002-2003
Van Loon's book, The Story of Mankind was the first children's book ever to win the Newbery Medal.It was originally written in 1921 and later revised by the author and then by his son. This book is a 550 page overview of mostly western world history with a few nods to eastern history. My 1967 edition has 72 chapters covering prehistory to the Cold War era. It is similar to Hillyer's A Child's History of the World but the writing is a little more advanced. Where Hillyer is about 4th grade reading level, this one is about 6th or 7th grade reading level. It is a secular, not a religious book.

The writing style is far more interesting and in depth than a similar A Beka book I've seen. It begins with a couple of chapters on evolution and cave men which are outdated even by secular standards before getting to the meat of recorded history. I had my kids skip those chapters.

The writing style as I've said, is interesting but racially patronizing, though not racist, in some places as is typical of so many books written in the first half of the 20th century. I find myself either disagreeing with something or questioning an assertion in almost every chapter but I find myself learning or understanding something new in almost every chapter as well.

For instance in the chapter on the rise of the Christian church he talks about how tolerant the Romans were of religion, actually saying The Roman Empire was tolerant through indifference.

I have read quite a bit of Christian history and to me this seems a blatant out and out lie. The Christians suffered severe persecutions and martyrdom from the earliest days. The Romans were anything but indifferent.

In the chapter on Chivalry he brought up the interesting point that the vows of the knights were merely the Ten Commandments expressed in terms which the people of the Middle Ages could understand. And I thought, Oh, of course! I never thought of it that way.

So, all in all, it is a good overview. I don't expect my children to know history well after reading such a cursory overview, and that would apply to any single world history text, but they will have had an introductory background which I think will serve them well in later years as they study history in more depth and it provides a framework which can be referred to when reading historical biographies, etc. When I come to something I disagree with, I interject my argument.

The author himself supplied the lovely black and white pen and ink drawings interspersed throughout the book.

I have assigned it mostly as independent reading but sometimes have read out loud. The chapters are short, only taking 5 to 10 minutes to read.

This book is used by the Ambleside Online curriculum.

I like this quote where the author plainly sets forth his own background and philosophy. I appreciate forthright honesty. He says,

In the preface to this book, I told you that I should NOT be an infallible guide and now that we have almost reached the end, I repeat the warning. I was born and educated in an atmosphere of the old-fashioned liberalism which had followed the discoveries of Darwin, and the other pioneers of the nineteenth century...I state these few facts deliberately (I skipped some here) that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view.

Would that all authors of history would state their bias so plainly.