Reassessing Story of the World

It’s spring and we’re getting closer to the end of our second year with Susan Wise Bauer’s popular history series Story of the World.  I have to start this by saying that last year I was practically a Story of the World evangelist.  We loved doing the first volume, which is about ancient history.  I never bought the accompanying activity guide, but we read multitudes of picture books and books of myths.  We also did many excellent craft projects.  Most memorably, we made a real model Roman road out of carefully gathered pebbles and a model aqueduct out of paper towel rolls.

I saw flaws in the book.  I felt like it flew from different types of storytelling too quickly, taking kids from myths, to history, to “imagine you were there.”  I could also easily see the biases, but I didn’t feel they were any worse than any other source.  It was all things I was willing to work around.

But here’s the thing.  Ancient history, while it’s fun and interesting, is not really my area of expertise.  I majored in history, but I never did much about ancient civilizations.  On the other hand, medieval history is something I know a little more about.  Now that we’re on to history I know more about, I’ve been more and more disenchanted with Story of the World.

I think my first mistake was to buy the Activity Guide.  On a couple of occasions, it has given me a good book suggestion or two.  However, overall, I’ve found better books on my own and the craft projects are frankly lame.  Again, a few of them are great ideas.  However, there’s far too much color tab A and cut out slot B sort of non-crafts for my taste.  I don’t think anything that involves scissors, photocopying and some crayons can actually be termed a “craft.”  Things like that make me respect a resource a lot less too.

Cutting this out and coloring it is not a real craft project in my opinion.
Designing and building a castle with stuff out of the recycling bin (and a green cardboard from the craft store) is a real craft.

My issues with the Activity Guide are just a side note to my discomfort with the text.  The question of emphasis has been gnawing at me since we wrapped up the middle ages.  All the things covered in the book are interesting and important.  The topics for medieval Europe cover the beginnings of nations with Clovis, Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne.  The book covers the beginnings of England and the Norse invasion.  England, not surprisingly, gets heavy play in general, as Richard the Lionhearted, the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, and even Robin Hood are all discussed.  The Crusades and the Black Plague both get a reasonable treatment.  There’s a broad look at many of the things kids associate with the Middle Ages, including castles, knights and monks.  In fact, the chapter on knights takes the opportunity to hop across the globe and compare knights with samurai.  As with all the volumes of Story of the World, the emphasis is on the western world, but there’s a concerted effort to broaden kids’ horizons, so China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa, the Americas and even Australia get at least small sections.  Some topics that are usually skipped over in history surveys, such as the rise of Russia, also get their due.

But what about the things that aren’t there?  Well, that’s where I keep hitting a wall.  Some of the things which I think are vitally important to understanding medieval Europe are completely left out.  She leaves out the guilds, the cathedrals, the Peasants’ revolts, and the founding of the universities, just to name a few.  But it’s more than any specific thing.  After all, we supplement with a number of things (check out our shelf of supplements below).  We read the section in Gombrich’s A Little History of the World about the guilds and the rise of medieval towns.  We read the section in Gertrude Hartman’s The Builders of the Old World about the peasants’ revolts (that was really detailed too).  Any history book has to make choices and leave some things out.  Gombrich’s history barely even covers China or India.


However, it’s more than just specific things left out.  Story of the World simply never emphasizes the class structure of the medieval world.  It never emphasizes the move toward nations or toward towns and cities.  It never really delves into the struggle between the church and monarchs over authority.  When these things are covered, they’re just part of stories of the “great men” and not highlighted as part of a greater trend or story.

I think for a lot of the truly classical homeschoolers, who really adhere to the idea of the logic stage being for straightforward memorization, this makes a lot of sense.  They would say that no matter what the overarching analysis or synthesis, it doesn’t have a place in the logic stage.  I’ve borrowed a lot from classical homeschoolers.  I agree that young kids are like sponges and that memorization has a place for elementary school.  However, I don’t accept the idea that young kids can begin to ask questions and think more deeply about what they learn.  But even if I were going to simply give them the stories without any sense of trends or rudimentary analysis at all, presenting Robin Hood and not Wat Tyler is still a choice and represents a perspective, one with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

I think of history at this age as being in part for fun and in part to introduce kids to these ideas so that it’s easier to go into depth later because there’s a vague sense of the flow of history already in them.  They have at least a sense of the names and stories.  Story of the World absolutely provides that.  However, some of the most important elements of that sense of the flow of history feel like they’re missing to me as I work through the text further with my kids.  I don’t personally expect that Mushroom and BalletBoy will revisit ancient or medieval history in 5th and 6th grade remembering names and details.  The best I feel like I can hope for is that they still enjoy history and have a sense of what it’s about and how the world has changed over time.  In that sense I’ve begun to wonder if Story of the World has educational goals that can mesh with my own.

We’re planning on taking a year off from world history to do a year focused on American history (and probably Africa as well since we’re planning a big trip in the spring).  When I first started envisioning a year of history without a spine as perfectly tailored to elementary age homeschoolers as Story of the World is, I was a little sad.  Now, I’m looking forward to taking a break from it and finding our own way.

8 thoughts on “Reassessing Story of the World

  1. I have had this experience as well, and we are currently on a “break” from SOTW and a more classical bend. The AGs I used mainly for the discussion questions. Some of the activities were okay and fun, but some were ridiculous and pointless. I felt that the overall picture was missing and isn’t that the point of chronological history?? At least in my humble opinion. That being said, my kids love the stories and miss it. And I still like SOTW enough that I would use it again, but probably in a different way that I did before.

  2. Thanks a lot for this thoughtful analysis. I really appreciate your perspective.

    This winter I read straight through all four volumes of SOTW, which was an interesting experience. I did notice the lack of emphasis on social movements – nothing at all about changing roles of women, for example, and very very little about the labor movement. The lack seems particularly jarring in the 20th century book, because if you consider the 20th century without broader context it’s just one grisly story after another about how awful people can be.

    I’ve still been thinking in terms of “what we’ll need to supplement,” though, so it’s interesting to see that you’re questioning whether it’s right for you even with supplementation.

    I haven’t decided whether we’ll buy another activity guide. I do like the maps, although the mapwork “assignments” are pretty minimal. But we haven’t done many of the actual activities, most of which – as you say – are kind of dumb and useless.

  3. Interesting. It’s refreshing to hear a criticism of SOTW other than the tired old “it’s too religious!”/”it’s not religious enough!” one :). We did what you’re doing a couple of years ago…took a break from SOTW after the middle ages and did some American history–in our case, it was because my oldest couldn’t stand SOTW, though. We’re back now after our detour, and this time around everyone’s loving SOTW 1….but we don’t do the activity guide at all, and mostly we listen to the CDs in the car and spend the bulk of our history time on other readings. I’m trying to put together resources for SOTW2 for next year…I should look back through your posts from this year to get some ideas.

  4. Thank you so much for this, we are currently working through Ancients and if I wasn’t using HO I doubt I would be continuing with SOTW. I appreciate your thoughts on and love the castle. 🙂

  5. I am finding the same thing with SOTW, but we like listening to the stories on audio and I think that will continue. I only used the AG for questions this year. May I ask what you use for world history? I would like something more fun and comprehensive with less colouring.

    1. So far, we’ve just been using SOTW, but with supplements. I think SOTW can actually be really fun and in some ways, it is more comprehensive than other programs. The focus is all western, but I don’t know of any other program that covers Australia with medieval history, for example. But not comprehensive in other ways and not equal in its focus, that’s for sure.

  6. I have yet to order a history curriculum. I’m not a historian, so I’ve been insecure about my hesitations over the highly praised SOTW. When I’ve browsed SOTW, there is an ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and perhaps not enough discussion about the ethics of ancient wars and practices (and no pre-history discussion). I wish there were other alternatives, as I will definitely need my hand held through a curriculum. I’ve also considered K-12 history program…I need to just order something and try it. Choosing a math and LA arts curriculum was so much easier than history and science!

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