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.
The authors are avowedly conservative in their politics, so if the reader is easily offended by liberal heroes such as Presidents Wilson and FDR being criticized, this may not be a relaxing read. And if you consider yourself only a citizen of the world and chafe at the notion that the United States has some pretty good things going for it, then the overt patriotism of this book may feel preachy. But at least the book presents its viewpoint of American Exceptionalism up front and without embedding a high view of America in racial or ethnic superiority. According to the book, there are four pillars that have made America historically great and explain why and how this country achieved a dominant place in the world in a relatively brief time-span.
- A heritage of common (as opposed to civil) law wherein the authority moved from the people upward
- A Christian and predominantly Protestant religious tradition
- A free-market economy
- Property rights, especially land rights
PHMW1 follows the history of this slice of modernity by focusing on “three thematic lines: the struggle between Progressivism and Constitutionalism within America; the rise of American global power and its corollary in the decline of European constitutionalism and international influence; and the rise of new, non-Western powers challenging the United States for world leadership (or perhaps, dominance)” [pp. 7-8]. As conservatives, the authors value Constitutionalism over Progressivism and celebrate the four pillars of the American Exceptionalism they espouse.
Chapters are long in this book, but are subdivided into manageable units of less than 10 pages. The table of contents:
- American Emergence Amid European Self-Absorption [pre-World War 1]
- Cataclysm [World War 1]
- Seeking Perfection in the Postwar World [post-war optimism]
- The Totalitarian Movement [post-war angst]
- The Hounds Unleashed [World War 2 before American joined the Allies]
- Canopy of Freedom [World War 2 post-Pearl Harbor]
I found this history a little slow going at the beginning. Somewhat like a novel that must establish setting and develop characters, PHMW1 plods along from 1898 to World War 1 when it becomes more engaging—at least for this reader. (Disclosure: I enjoy reading about the World Wars, particularly the second one.) The book feels like it majors on the years from 1918 to 1945. Only 150 pages are devoted to the first 20 years of the modern epoch covered. The antagonists in PHMW1 are progressive politicians and activists (the authors have a few negative things to say about Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger). The bad guys are also obviously the Nazis and the Communists. The Italian Fascists are portrayed more as Hitler’s bumbling sidekicks. The Japanese Imperialists are bad too. The good guys are England, France, and the rest of the Allied Powers. The hero is the United States.
Every retelling of history must evaluate and project. PHMW1 touts the pillars of American Exceptionalism (on the whole) as a good thing for the whole world. The authors believe these pillars are under attack by enemies foreign and domestic. The opponents who live within our borders are those who do not subscribe to Constitutionalism and thus seek to bring America in line with the rest of the world by undermining the four pillars. Therefore if America is to retain its status as leader of the free world it must value and protect those things that have made America great in the past. As historians, the authors want to do their part to educate people, including rising generations of students, on what needs to happen to lead and prosper. Their answer: to conserve that which is good through education, defense, and liberty.
Who would profit from carefully reading PHMW1? I imagine three groups of people: college students, twentieth century history enthusiasts, and everyone interested in politics. Students will gain an understanding (connecting the dots) and appreciation of America’s role in the modern world. History fans will be entertained by an increasingly rare moral retelling of history—the post-modern critique notwithstanding, it’s lamentable that we’ve lost the art of framing history in good-evil terms. Politically-minded folks will have to face a sustained argument that will sometimes confirm and challenge your views of history’s heroes and villains. And that’s not such a bad thing for anyone.
A Patriot’s History: official website
Schweikart addresses the Heritage Foundation about the book
Schweikart talks about the book: