A Comprehensive American History Book That Doesn’t Suck

Land of Home, by Wilfred M. McClayI really, really wish that Wilfred F. McClay’s Land of Hope had been available when I started homeschooling my son, or a couple of years ago, or a year ago, but it wasn’t. This well-written and comprehensive treatment of American history was published in May, so while we’re certainly getting some use from it, it comes as my son is entering a private high school and so a little late for our educational needs–but perhaps it’s in time for yours.

Land of Hope was deliberately written as an antidote to Howard Zinn’s popular, but cartoonish A People’s History of the United States. While Zinn’s book continues to be inflicted on students around the country, even left-wing thinkers admit that it’s not a good take on history.

A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions,” Michael Kazin wrote for Dissent in 2004. “His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.”

Zinn’s work continues to be popular, though, because so many of the competing offerings are unreadable, boring, and ultimately unsatisfying in their takes on what should be the fascinating and grand tale of the history of this country.

“We historians have for years been supplying an account of the American past that is so unedifying and lacking in larger perspective that Zinn’s sweeping melodrama looks good by comparison,” McClay, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma told the Wall Street Journal. “Zinn’s success is indicative of our failure. We have to do better.”

McClay sets out to do just that and–to cut to the chase–does it rather well. He does it not by picking heroes and villains and then tailoring the story to match, but by presenting a balanced treatment of figures and events in American history. It’s not a white-wash of America’s sins, not is it a vilification of the United States. Instead, it treats the country as a flawed, but aspirational project of human beings–a view captured by the book’s title, Land of Hope.

That’s not to say that I find the book perfect. There are points I would emphasize more or less than the author, and people I would treat better or more poorly than McClay does. For example, I don’t think you can ever be too critical of Woodrow Wilson, who did enormous damage to people’s lives and liberty. Although I wish this book was available years ago, I’m probably happier with the results of teaching my son from multiple sources and points of view, and the ability to dive in-depth into specific issues that DIY lessons gave us.

But if you’re going to lean heavily on one source for teaching American history, this is the best I’ve seen so far. I think it would be very difficult to top Land of Hope both in its balanced presentation and the very readable quality of the writing.

Leading up to high school, I realized that my classical history-obsessed son was more familiar with 5th century B.C. Greece than with the United States of the past 40 years. I set him loose on this book and he tore right through the relevant sections. A little discussion added the emphasis that I considered important.

Read an interview with McClay here.

You can buy Land of Hope at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

And don’t miss this list of homeschooling resources that you may find helpful!

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