While browsing through a used bookstore recently, an old, faded paperback caught my eye. The title took me back to my school days; The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon. An imposing leather bound copy of this book had always occupied a prominent position on the coffee table in a friend’s home. I remember leafing through this awesome book that professed to contain the entire history of the world in one volume.
The book was also on my school’s recommended reading list so I tried to wade through it. It was quite an impressive work and I could recall some parts but not others. So when I spotted this little shopworn paperback version, at a bargain price of 95 cents, I snapped it up.
Hendrik van Loon was indeed a brilliant man with a colossal knowledge of world history. After immigrating to the United States from Rotterdam in 1902, he enjoyed a long and successful career that included teaching history at Cornell University. Later in his life, van Loon tried to reach a wider audience by using a technique he called "the humanization and popularization of history." This led him to write The Story of Mankind. In roughly 500 pages, van Loon attempts to take us from 500,000 BC to the end of World War I.
In my recent re-reading of the book, I realized that van Loon was writing for young people rather than adults. But to connect with his young audience, he went too far with his "popularization of history." Also, his goal was a little too ambitious; he simply couldn’t compress such a massive amount of history, along with his numerous illustrations, into a 500-page work. Fittingly, van Loon begins with a Darwinian explanation of the origin of man that consumes almost 12 pages. Egypt is allotted two pages, while Mesopotamia gets only one. The Greeks, the Renaissance, and the Reformation rate several pages each, while Feudalism is allotted only three. Moses also gets three pages. Alexander the Great gets two. Jesus and Mohammed are allowed five pages each but van Loon takes over eight pages to portray Buddha and Confucius. Seventeen pages are devoted to the French Revolution and Napoleon is awarded a grand total of 12 pages.
The American Revolution rates almost a dozen pages in van Loon’s history but he capsules The War Between the States into a mere three paragraphs. I want to quote these three paragraphs in full because they are a typical example of how history textbooks are written. Certain facts are selectively excluded. What is included is overly condensed; and the point of view avoids complexity.
Let me assure you that I didn’t make this up, nor am I paraphrasing. The three paragraphs below are quoted verbatim from Hendrik van Loon’s book.
"In the United States of America the question (slavery) led to grave difficulties and a prolonged war. Although the Declaration of Independence had laid down the principle that "all men were created free and equal," an exception had been made for those men and women whose skins were dark and who worked on the plantations of the southern states. As time went on, the dislike of the people of the North for the institution of slavery increased and they made no secret of their feelings. The southerners however claimed that they could not grow their cotton without slave-labour, and for almost fifty years a mighty debate raged in both the Congress and the Senate.
"The North remained obdurate and the South would not give in. When it appeared impossible to reach a compromise, the southern states threatened to leave the Union. It was a most dangerous point in the history of the Union. Many things "might" have happened. That they did not happen was the work of a very great and very good man.
"On the sixth of November of the year 1860, Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer, and a man who had made his own intellectual fortune, had been elected president by the Republicans who were very strong in the anti-slavery states. He knew the evils of human bondage at first hand and his shrewd common-sense told him that there was no room on the northern continent for two rival nations. When a number of southern states seceded and formed the "Confederate States of America," Lincoln accepted the challenge. The Northern states were called upon for volunteers. Hundreds of thousands of young men responded with eager enthusiasm and there followed four years of bitter civil war. The South, better prepared and following the brilliant leadership of Lee and Jackson, repeatedly defeated the armies of the North. Then the economic strength of New England and the West began to tell. An unknown officer by the name of Grant arose from obscurity and became the Charles Martel of the great slave war. Without interruption he hammered his mighty blows upon the crumbling defences of the South. Early in the year 1863, President Lincoln issued his "Emancipation Proclamation" which set all slaves free. In April of the year 1865 Lee surrendered the last of his brave armies at Appomattox. A few days later, President Lincoln was murdered by a lunatic. But his work was done. With the exception of Cuba which was still under Spanish domination, slavery had come to an end in every part of the civilised world."
When I recently re-read these three paragraphs, I didn’t know whether to laugh or curse. Some of the oversimplification can be excused because van Loon was writing for young people. But his bias and mangling of facts cannot be justified.
After Hendrik van Loon’s death in 1944, his son updated The Story of Mankind through World War II. And the book is still in print, the latest revision occurred in 1999, with John Merriman, professor of history at Yale University, supplying chapters on events from World War II through the 1990s. I haven’t read this version but I fear it is more of the same and, even worse, probably shaped by today’s politically correct trends. If the book is still on school reading lists, and I feel sure that it is, public schools are teaching an unbalanced view of history and this concerns me.