This morning I finished the outline for Volume II of the history series and sent it off. (Always odd to be planning for the next book while you’re still watching the previous one go into production…) So I am thoroughly mounted on my Why World History Is Important soapbox, and thought I’d share with you just why Americans generally think world history is 1) boring and 2) irrelevant.

Blame it on your schooling. Normally, in American education, students begin with social studies in first grade: the study of the child’s own particular community. After that, students go on to do American history, American history, state history, American history, world history, American history, American history, and then (possibly) world history again for AP credit.

This model has three effects.

First, very few adults actually remember much of anything that they learned in world history.

Second, this is based on a theory originating in the late nineteenth century, around the time that child-centered learning also emerged as an educational ideal. Children (so the theory goes) are always interested in what is most pertinent to them; so first they should do their own neighborhood, next their own country, and then eventually the rest of the world, in expanding circles of learning. If you were to draw a diagram of this learning style, you’d see the student right at the center of it, and world history on the far edge; the inevitable result is that children learn that they are at the center of history, and the rest of the world is very far off. (Anyway I don’t think the theory is true. In my experience, children are always much more interested in ancient Egypt and Pompeii than in their local government officials.)

Third, this gives students a grossly distorted idea of the relationship between America and the rest of the world. America looms large in the student’s mind; “everyone else” is extremely secondary. High school students—and usually college students as well—finish their studies with a picture of America like a huge ball with impermeable sides, floating around in space, with all the other countries in the world like much smaller balls that bounce off of us and never really affect us unless we have to shoot at them. (This explains so much about our foreign policy….but once again I digress…)

This sort of history education produces adults who have no idea how American history relates to the rest of the world. In their years of study, American history was so segmented off from “world history” (which is, apparently, everyone else) that they were never able to line up the events of the American past with the central events in the history of other countries. It always startles my college students no end, when we read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, to find out that Franklin spent so much time in France. In their minds, Franklin is firmly in the American history textbook, under the heading “American Revolution”; the French Revolution is over in the world history textbook; it generally does not occur to them to connect the two.

Which highlights the core problem with the way Americans study history. The study of countries in isolation shortcircuits any attempt to think critically about the past. You can only ask, and answer, meaningful questions about historical cause and effect if you can go outside the borders of a country to look for both. As long as you’re trapped within a single country’s history, you can never fully understand it.

The only way to circumvent this is to study history by era, not by country; study ancient times and medieval times, not “America” or “Asia” or “The World” (that would be, once again, everyone else.)

Which is why I’m writing the History of the (Whole) World.

And now for a quick farm update: I’ve just been for a little walk around the garden before going back to the Dissertation That Wouldn’t Go Away, and the grape arbor

has got more grapes on it than I’ve ever seen.

and it is the most beautiful, still, green, fragrant evening ever,

even if the chickens do appear to be plotting revenge just on the other side of the corn patch.

I hated to tear myself away and go back to work…but the kids are in bed, and the Dissertation That Wouldn’t Go Away hasn’t gone away. I’m on Chapter Four and at this point I’m boring myself. I can only keep typing as long as I play Dave Matthews and Live very loudly while I write. Can’t wait to get this finished and turn back the Middle Ages.

Showing 20 comments
  • Pat H

    I can’t wait for the first volume. I am sooooooooo fortunate that although my high school age daughter has been stuck with less than satisfactory spines for her historical studies, my boys will all be educated “ala” SWB! I think that your final volume will hit production when child #2 is in his last year of homeschool/high school. Thank you for making this Herculean effort!

    Loved the picture of your chickens but I must admit that they had that crazed “Chicken Run” movie look in their eyes. Are you certain that they are not “organizing” against you? LOL

    I can slightly relate to your dissertion that won’t go away. While I am by no means under the same pressures you are I do have my children’s Christian apologetics book hanging over my head. I am making steady progress but I must admit to days when I would really like for the manuscript and my kitchen matches to have an editorial meeting! My dear 14 year old daughter suggested that instead of crossing out sections that need revision, I should just cut the pages apart and paste the “good” paragraphs into a notebook. GRRRRRRR!

    Passing virtual chocolate your direction.

    Grace and Peace,
    Pat H

  • Mattias

    It’s funny, though, how this is largely an American occurance. European and Latin American kids know other regions’ history well: at least those that fall under the traditional umbrella of the Western World; and to say nothing of their knowledge of American history. The average European child knows more about President’s Polk, Fillmore, and Buchannon that an AP History student.

  • Susan


    I think you’re right. European education has its own problems; I don’t want to be one of those people who (in the words of the Mikado) praises every century but this and every country but her own. However, when I ask in my seminars how many people remember anything significant from their world history course, the folks who raise their hands very often went to school outside this country. (I gather from my Canadian friends that Canadian history education is not unlike U.S. education in this regard.)


  • Tonya

    AMEN, preach it!!
    I was reading this and thinking of a disagreement my 2 (5 &8) kids had yesterday. they were discussing whether a historic location in TN was in America. the 8yo said it’s been america since creation, the other said no, it wasn’t america (her argument was the presence of indians-we still have work to do, haha) it all boiled down to whether that piece of land was US territory at that point in time, but what a great discussion for them to have! (teachable moments!)
    moving on- to support your arguments about the big ball theory. I am proof. My dad was in the Army and we lived in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down- exciting? YES- but I didn’t even know what the Berlin Wall was (I was in HS at the time- old enough to know)! 40 years of cold war had a huge personal affect on me (the whole reason I was living in Germany) and I had NO CLUE what it was all about! This past Christmas, at a party, I felt stupid cause I didn’t know who Mussolini was! I look forward to continuing our SOTW in the fall (we have been working on vol 1 for 2 years) to see learn what other History I’ve missed thru my public education and give my kids the foundation I never had!

  • Sharon

    I just finished giving two of my children the ITBS. I (and they) were frustrated with the “social studies” portion of these tests, because we do history, not social studies. I’m not worried about the scores, because I know what we’ve done and I believe as we keep pecking away at history in particular and school and life in general that they will learn a lot of what is on these tests. My main gripe is that the questions are so child and US centric, like you mention in your post. Not a single question that really could be classified as history.

  • Mindy

    Susan, I will just continue to say (again and again) thank you for SOTW! I know it is a spine for grammar school, but by teaching it I have, for the first time, filled in many of those holes!! I can’t tell you how many A-ha moments I have had as I realize the connections between historical events. We are almost done with 3 and looking forward to 4 next year! I will be first in line for Story of the Whole World. Thanks for working so hard.

  • Mika in NC

    Add me in as another adult without much historical perspective. In my rural ps, my history “teachers” were often folks who chose to be coaches first and educators second (or third, or fourth — depending on how many hats they were hired to wear).

    As a result, I also experienced the “big ball” worldview problem, have no context for the ordering of historical events (in my mind, all of biblical events take place before the rest of the world’s history — HARD habit to retrain!), and American history ends at reconstruction. I have no idea what happens afterward! Also viewed history as a boring subject, instead of realizing it is really what I love — a grand story about individuals, their lives, their actions and interconnections with one another.

    I’m really looking forward to beginning history with my children later this summer and learning all these new things with them!

    BTW — the grape arbor is amazing! We never had such a bounty of grapes on my Pawpa’s arbor. Seeing the pictures makes me a tad homesick for rural Arkansas. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jeannette

    One of the joys/pains of writing history is figuring out how to organize it. By eliminating geographical perspective in favor of epoch organization, one problem is dealt with, but another arises, one that I deal with all the time (as a music historian): creating false “eras”. Periodization is complicated (as I’m sure your finding) and never goes away, despite one’s best idealization.

    Partly because it goes beyond the strictures of years. How much of the ancient mind is in the medieval mind? When does the medieval mind begin anyway? Is it Boethius, who is actually, for all his purposes, a good Roman? But then he permeates the medieval mind. In my discipline, renaissance music is, oh so very medieval sometimes. When we put things in makeshift historical categories we miss some of the connections we could be making. Not really sure how to deal with the periodization problem, because it’s easier to study history when it’s divided up somehow. Sometimes I tend to try to avoid using the period names and just go by century, though, don’t know cardboard that is or not.

    So that’s my soapbox. 🙂 Interested in your tackling the problem…

  • Susan


    Very true. I find myself that as I write history I’m looking for the organizational principle that does the LEAST violence to the material…but I think all honest historians end up feeling that every organizational strategy ends up distorting some part of the material.

    Doing away with country-centered history entirely wouldn’t solve the problem, since epochal organization introduces its own warping into the narrative of history. But right now history education in the U.S. has no balance. It’s ALL country-centered. Some of each approach, at the very least, would be nice to see.


    P.S. The ancient era ends with Constantine, of course! and the medieval with Gutenberg. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Russ

    Yes, but…. I think if (by some miracle) the current standard approach were replaced by world history by period, the problems inherent in that approach would loom more large. What exactly is “medieval” about 10th century sub-saharan Africa or North America? Periodization is inevitably particular to a culture, so some culturally-specific way in to the world is necessary.

  • shanmar

    I was just placing my orders for next year’ lessons. We will be starting SOTW 3 as a family. I have been having so much fun learning all the history I never learned, I was kind of bummed to be ordering all this Pilgrim, George Washington, etc. stuff. However, I keep reminding myself that we be learning it in an entirely new context. My dd will be a freshman and is required to have US History. So I titled the course “US History”, but the version in my head is “US History in Context with the Rest of the World”. Please don’t tell the powers-that-be that she will be learning more than she is supposed to.

  • dangermom

    Oh, yes, I’m another mal-educated kid. When I was 16 I spent a year in Denmark, and–like Tonya–that was the year that the Berlin Wall came down. Romania’s dictatorship fell, too. I was fascinated but clueless–there I was, watching history unfold right in front of me, and I had no idea of what it really was. My host dad was German and we watched the news together, but it was hard for us to communicate, since my Danish was not yet very good, and he spoke no English. I was sometimes unsure of which events I was watching!

    However, I was not the only clueless one in a crowd of educated Euro-kids; my host sister was oblivious (to my dad’s fury) and my classmates were too. None of them seemed to care at all, which mystified me.

    Anyway, I certainly hope to do a better job with my kids’ education. Since my teens, I’ve done a lot of reading and found out that I love history! If I’d known earlier, I might have been a history major. (But then maybe I wouldn’t have ended up a librarian…eek!)

  • Patricia

    I have always regretted that my history studies were not taught in chronological order. I have never had an acurate concept of what was happening at the same time in the rest of the world when America was emerging and becoming a world power. How could we be expected to recognize and avoid the pit falls of the Roman Empire or any other former world power? Consequently — “history repeats itself”.

    I also regret that we do not understand and therefore do not respect other cultures.

  • Melora

    We are finishing up the second year of SOTW, and I’m looking forward to starting to relearn early American history, in context with the rest of the world, in a couple months. You did such a great job with those books! If you keep at it, I’ll be able to use The History of the (Whole) World with my kiddos by the time ds takes his third round of history!
    Ds got a kick out of the picture of your young rabbit hunter. He claims that, if we would Only let him have a bb gun, he would eliminate the need for us to buy meat. Of course, we can’t actually trust him to use good judgement with a pencil and a rubber band, so there’s not a Chance that bb gun will happen, but he was impressed by your son’s prowess.

  • Jeannette

    “What exactly is “medieval” about 10th century sub-saharan Africa or North America? Periodization is inevitably particular to a culture”
    Excellent point, Russ.

    Which brings to mind…I’m curious, Susan, how you’re dealing with the non-Western cultures in your history. That’s a gap I always wished had been filled in my education. The couple history courses on non-Western areas that I had in college hardly account for the gulf in my own knowledge. I hope it gets included; it seems that as the world gets “smaller” with explosion of informational technology, it would be good for Americans to not only get beyond not only our centrist education in American history but also of Western history.

    p.s. hope the diss is coming along okay…

  • Osmsosis Mom

    Well, I am from Denmark and was educated there. We did receive a pretty great foundation, but no, not that much world history. Lots of viking-studies, though, most with primary sources (an interesting journey in itself!). We studied tons of WW II related history as well, but when the Wall came down it wasn’t really talked about or used as a teaching moment (geez, we had a syllabus to keep up with in high school…).

    I can’t get over wanting to delve more into each country’s history in our homeschool than barely doing one period at a time. We try to compromise so our curiosity gets satisfied. I am not particularly doing classcial education, though (sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t be postinghere!!) since I am not convinced in the grandor of the West. I did study Greek mythology and Latin and it never did anything for me (except enhance my focus and memo-techniques while learning Latin). I was -and am- appalled at the context of the Greeks and their ethics (we never did study the Romans and are now trying to figure out what we really *want* to know about them due to their different set of morals).

  • Virginia

    I agree. My girls (ages 5 and 3) are learning so very much and retaining it from Story of the World. They are still talking about King Tut, The Great Pyramid and Sphinx.

    Locally, they know the three branches of local “law enforcement” and the jurisdication of each one. Local police, county police and state police. After that….well they’re not clueless but almost.

  • Egana


    A few years ago I read TWTM, and I was blown away. I have since become an advocate of classical education, and have joined the ranks of the self-re-educating. Thanks for your blog, and a window into the process of writing nonfiction for publication.

    I have often attempted to discuss this current issue (the way we approach history in American education) but have found myself hemming and hawing my way through the conversation. I hope you will not mind if i trackback to this article from my blog Egana’s Tapdance at
    The article in which I quote you is found at:

  • Sherrill

    Go, Susan! When the dissertation really goes away and is finished, your chains will fall away, and you will finally be free ; )! Well, after the defense, of course, but I think all will be well. It’s been a long road, but you’re almost there. You and G are finishing neck-and-neck!


  • Tori

    I agree…. with Dave Matthews and Live playing, ALL IS POSSIBLE!!!

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