Finding Unbiased History books for School

You’re not going to find such a thing. You will be using biased books no matter what. Now, some biases are so far in one direction as to cease to be history, but instead have become fiction.  I’m not going to name any names but they are on both sides of the spectrum, everywhere from A to Zinn. oops.  I named a name.

Be aware that when you find books that suit your own slant,  that’s often more dangerous than the books you rejected due to bias.

We are Christians. We used Hendrik Van Loon’s book on world history.  I would not say that Van Loon is warm and friendly toward Christianity, quite the opposite, in fact, but I believe this is a defect overcome by proper teaching in the home. I also believed that since my children are often going to meet people who do not have warm, tender feelings toward their faith, it is actually beneficial to them to meet this sort of thinking in books, at home, with me there to discuss and answer questions.
I also think it’s really important for us to understand those who disagree with us and see things differently, from their point of view.  There is a quote on the back of a book in the ‘opposing viewpoints series’ that goes something like, “Those who do not understand their opponent’s viewpoint cannot understand their own.”  I really agree with that.  But also, it makes your arguments weak and you just look silly when you misrepresent somebody else’s position, even when it’s not deliberate.

In every history book old or new there will be some areas where the best historical research of the time might not agree with the best historical research of another time.  Sometimes there isn’t even one ‘best’ understanding of any given event in history- there are multiple current opinions, each equally well researched, but quite contradictory- did Richard III kill the princes in the tower or was that accusation a hatchet job done by the supporters of Henry VIII?  When and where did King Arthur live, or was he even based on a real person?  Was Mary, Queen of Scots a villainous usurper or a tragic victim?

At some point in their studies, I think it’s important for our young scholars to learn that viewpoints change over time, and that while there really is one truth about what happened in the past, it is also true that we may never know for sure what it was.  It’s also important to recognize, and to help our students recognize, that what we believe to be true may alter or at least be slanted by our own viewpoint and place in history. What we believe we know about history may be based on limited information, and sometimes new documents or artifacts come to light that give us more information and historians have to revise their data. I wouldn’t begin this sort of critical thinking  in the early grade school years, but I think there are no drawbacks to making sure children understand this by the time they finish high school. It’s a great way to help children learn that perspectives in history change and that point of view influences the retelling of any history, even the recent history of why your little sister is crying.

Sometimes what we believe about history is going to be largely informed by what we already believe about religion.  Whether you think three young children truly saw a vision of the virgin Mary in Portugal is going to be hugely influenced by whether or not you are Catholic.  Whether you believe it’s appropriate to call Mary a virgin will depend on your starting point – Catholic, or not?   Whether you believe that she went on to have normal marital relations with her husband which produced the brothers and sisters of Jesus referred to in the Bible, or whether you think those siblings were her step-children will depend largely on whether or not you are Catholic.

Whether you think Joseph Smith was a scoundrel who engaged in illegal treasure hunting (because it was generally a form of being a con artist), married multiple women (including other men’s wives, and a young teenager) against his wife’s wishes, and a traitor who tried to scrape together his own army against the United States government, or whether  you think he was a prophet of God and now lives in Heaven with the Gods (and his wife or wives) as a god repopulating another planet is going to depend pretty much entirely on your religious viewpoint- because you won’t even consider the historical evidence that undermines your religious view.

We could say the same about many other points of history- who were the bad guys in the war of 1812, who won that war, was the temperance movement admirable or the work of cranks, every question around slavery and the American Civil War, the Reformation, and on and on.   Whatever history book you use and whatever your own starting point, it’s a valuable exercise, as Miss Mason recommends in volume 3, ‘to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause’, and also to trace logical conclusions from differing starting points of view.

There just isn’t a perfect history book. I have not ever seen any history book that I thought was 100 percent accurate. I have seen errors of omission, errors of commission, errors of slant, bias, and fact, or just poor literary style in every single history book I have ever examined for use in our school, and I really think this means well over thousand books at the moment, both out of print and in print. So whatever history text a family uses will be based up choosing between imperfections, really. Which ones matter most to you? Which ones will you most be able to address?

I tend to prefer the older books because in general, well written older books use richer vocabulary, more complex sentence structure, and contain more ideas per page than modern books. Recently written books, by contrast, use watered down language and sentence structures and sandwich meaningful ideas in between pages and pages of fluff. Some are more interested in promoting social studies rather than history.

I also think that most older books that we use have stood the test of time, and that can be a tough test. Books that have been read for generations generally will be read for generations more because there is a timeless quality to them. They rise above their own period and speak to readers of other ages.

Some modern books will probably do that as well, but it’s too early to tell which of our current crops of books will still be communicating to readers outside of the culture and time that produced them. Those of us in that culture and time are perhaps not best suited to judge the books that are our contemporaries on their timelessness.

I have yet to see a history book- old or modern- which does not have a viewpoint or historical information with which I differ. I can fix those things.  I can fill out a history book selection with original documents, with biographies, with historical fiction, with diaries and letters written by people at the time.   I can’t fix tepid writing as easily as I can an errant fact. For our studies I want real living books packed with informing ideas rather than twaddle and barren facts. More often than not, that tends to be an older book rather than a newer one.

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