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History lessons

A high-school reading list tells America's story

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

I've received over the past year many requests for a reading list of American history books for high-school students, so it's about time to take a trip down memory lane. In doing so I'll skip by three kinds of books.

First, the list does not include books written as textbooks. Some books I recommend may be a reach for high-school students, but many would rather read harder stuff by good writers than the dumbed-down texts typically assigned them. (For those who insist on an overall text, the best one I've seen is Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States.)

Second, I've left out books whose authors assume greater knowledge than we have of why specific events happened in particular ways. All history is providential in the sense that God the master novelist intricately weaves together billions of subplots, but unless the Bible gives us the reason for a particular occurrence we can't state that cause as certain.

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Third, the list includes none of the wonderful, terrific, extraordinary history books that I've written; students will just have to let their fingers do the clicking to online venues. [Editor: Noble of you to be self-sacrificing in this way. Me: Yes, and humble, too.]

I'll start with a book that's now on bestseller lists: David McCullough's 1776. Mr. McCullough writes history the way it ought to be written, with graceful prose, a dramatic narrative thread, and a focus on individuals. Examining the ups and downs of Revolutionary War battles, Mr. McCullough emphasizes the way that "circumstances-fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often-intervened," and doesn't wave away the clouds of mystery that make history so fascinating. Burke Davis's The Campaign That Won America tells a good story about the end of the war.

To have students understand early 19th-century America, I'd have them read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage about exploration, and extended excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which is really a romance: Alexis loves America of the 1830s and describes happily his beloved's face, form, and character, particularly noting the role of churches and informal social institutions.

Next on my reading list comes the American Iliad, Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War. The books are long but they read like riveting novels, filled with strong characters, mighty exploits, and abysmal failures. (My two oldest sons at age 12 or so each received a Roger Clemens rookie card for reading all 2,700 pages or so, and I like to think that reading them contributed to the straightforward and manly prose style each has developed.) To understand one aspect of the postwar situation, Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, is a good read.

The chapters about the United States in Paul Johnson's Modern Times are a good overview of most of the 20th century. (Mr. Johnson also has written a readable overall book, A History of the American People, but the necessity to cover everything leaves it plodding at times.) The move away from Orthodox Christianity during the 20th century's first half affected every part of American culture, and J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism shows cogently the lines of the divide during the 1920s and thereafter.

High-schoolers now have trouble understanding the 45-year Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that ended in American victory, so I'd suggest that they read the first 85 pages of Whittaker Chambers's Witness (1952), which lays out the stakes. Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King, a biography of Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley's The Fall of the Berlin Wall, explain the crucial figure and the signal event of the victory.

It's vital to understand American perseverance during that era if we are to persevere in the war against terrorism. Ms. Noonan's A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag chronicles well the beginning of our new war, and Karl Zinsmeister vividly shows the undermining of a regime that harbored terrorists in Boots on the Ground and Dawn Over Baghdad. In the meantime, the domestic cultural war continues: Robert Shogan's War Without End is a useful overview of it since the 1960s.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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