Reviews /

Big Ideas from History : A History of the World for You

Authored by Unknown
Illustrated by Anna Doherty
Published by The School of Life

A book of events from history designed to support the philosophical principles of an organisation called The School of Life.

Founded by philosophers such as Alain de Botton, The School of Life promotes a view of the world covering such themes as finding fulfilling work, mastering relationships, achieving calm, understanding and changing the world. It emphasises the role of self-knowledge in particular. This book uses historical events to encourage particular ways of thinking about the modern world, drawing on the organisation’s philosophical principles. That helps the reader make sense of contentious statements such as ‘History wants to be your friend, standing beside you giving you encouragement and calming you down and suggesting possibilities and helping you not be afraid.’ (p.21).

The book promotes the view of history which says children should not panic about events happening now because ‘we have managed to deal with difficulties in the past, so we’ll be likely to be able to get through the next wave of difficulties’. (p.301). I am not sure that is completely true – we still have multiple wars and people living in abject poverty, for example.

The book also makes some bold statements which are not supported by sources of evidence. For example, ‘People started to build art galleries as a way of replacing religion. If religion was on the way out, we’d need something to replace it, and the choice fell on art.’ (p.214). No references are given, and this view is stated as fact. I am aware that all historical writing is an interpretation, but I would like to see what sources have been drawn on to reach this conclusion.

Fundamentally the book takes an optimistic view of the lessons that history teaches – ‘History isn’t saying things will be great, just that we’ll muddle through.’ (p.301)

Written in a direct style, addressing ‘you’ throughout with cartoon like illustrations that suggest the intended readers are primary age children. Older readers might find the tone patronising (‘The ancient religions weren’t ‘true’ – there isn’t really a lion-man, and the sun can’t hear our songs no matter how loud we sing’. P.54). There are 320 pages too, so reading stamina is needed.

This is not a book I would recommend for classroom use in History but a parent of an anxious child, worrying about what is on the news, might find it useful to share a positive view of the future.