My interest in history is bookended by a couple of academic experiences—one negative and the other positive. Actually I am mostly a private reading enthusiast as the number of post-high school history courses I’ve taken for credit can be counted on one hand. Two in college and two in seminary. My first course was a dreadful experience. The first semester of my freshman year, I had an eight o’clock class that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s entirely possible that I would have slept through a class on “How to Get a Girlfriend” at that awful sunup hour. So the class I really did take, “Medieval European History,” didn’t have much of a chance of gaining my attention (or attendance, ahem, if I’m honest). The professor was a stereotypical bore. Rather than put in the effort to win his students with engaging content, he dug in his heels against the “koofers” (Virginia Tech lingo for old exam copies) everyone knew were floating around out there by taking the esoteric minutiae route. So for three months history became to me a list of popes and kings, mixed in with lots of dates for minor military battles. Experience? Negative.
My last history class was a seminary course on the second half of church history—from the Protestant Reformation to the end of the nineteenth century. Rather than focusing on memorizing a bunch of dates and names, the professor deftly seasoned his lectures with stories of the heroes, villains, and everyday people of Christian history. He helped me put the names and dates in an exciting narrative context. Experience? Positive.
These two experiences frame my theory of how history is best taught and learned. Any book on history that aims to situate important persons, places, wars, and dates in a story has my respect. Some authors do this better than others. It’s a delicate balance. Tell too many stories and you risk not covering enough ground. Try to cover too much ground and you may run out of space to tell enough stories. Larry Schweikart and David Dougherty, authors of A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 1 (PHMW1), attempt to tell the story of the world from 1898 to 1945 from a distinctly American point of view. They cover a lot of ground in 424 pages, so much that I think they slightly err on the side of too many details. There are enough stories to keep the book moving, but perhaps not enough dialogue to make the stories compellingly personable. Too bad because their “just the facts” approach, which includes occasional value judgments (what telling of history doesn’t?), is refreshingly straightforward. Thus PHMW1 is a sufficient introduction to the significant persons and events of the time.