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Learning History with Living Books

At Heritage History we believe that well-written, age-appropriate history books are of such natural interest that many students can learn the most important stories of history by independent reading, without lectures or busywork. Our program takes a Living Books approach to history and we encourage students to read a variety of engaging books about each topic. But our preference for living books over textbooks is only one of several important ways that the Heritage History approach to history differs from other popular programs.

This page introduces Heritage History's approach to learning history. First we introduce the philosophy that underlies the entire Heritage History program and then we explain how our resources can be used effectively with a wide variety of learning styles.

The Heritage Philosophy     Living Books vs. Textbooks     Design-Your-Own vs. Turnkey Curriculums     Four Year Cycle vs. Recommended Sequence    

The Heritage History Philosophy

The top priority of most curriculums is to stress the essential facts of history, so instructors can be sure their students have been exposed to the fundamentals. This is a worthy goal, and the Heritage Curriculum does provide a solid overview of the most important events of Western Civilization. But the primary goal of Heritage History is not to reiterate a set of stories that "all students should know", but rather to engage students' genuine interest and instill a life-long passion for history.

What we consider essential is not perfect retention of a particular set of historical facts and concepts but an abiding interest in history itself. Our object is to build on students' natural curiosity about the past with books that are both informative and engaging. We believe that history can be learned well through self-motivated, independent study. Knowledgeable history instructors are valuable but students who enjoy reading can learn much from the outstanding history authors of yesteryear. Well-written books can teach as well as entertain.

All students need a broad introduction to the essential stories of history and the Heritage History program includes an excellent selection of comprehensive histories. But to a larger extent than most other curriculums we emphasize student choice. Interest-driven history, which takes advantage of a student's natural curiosity and allows him to devote more time to subjects which hold special fascination for him, is a far more effective route to really mastering history that learning 'key facts' at a superficial level. When a student sees history as a life-long engagement rather than an academic chore, he is well on his way to achieving a real history education.

We believe there is no substitution for being well read in history. The wisdom gained from studying history cannot be confined to a set of lessons or a checklist of historical references. It is an appreciation of the breadth and variety of human aspirations and frailties that is the wisdom itself. The lessons that history teaches are best gained by breadth, depth, and variety of experience; but acquiring this knowledge takes time and persistent interest. There is no "getting right to the point" in history—it is a panorama, not a point.

'Living Books' vs. Textbooks

Some subjects, such as math, science, or foreign language, need to be taught in a systematic way. Everyone needs to learn the basics before they can comprehend more advanced concepts. For these subjects textbooks are appropriate and are often the best way to master a subject.

There are other important fields of learning, however, such as art and literature, that cover a broad range of human experience. It is important to know the basics of these fields but they cannot be properly understood unless they are age appropriate and presented in a way that inspires a student's interest. History has always been a pillar of the humanities, and it is best understood by tossing out textbooks and reading engaging stories from history.

Most of the 'core' histories recommended by Heritage History are national histories that cover all of the most important events and characters of a particular civilization but they are not textbooks. They tell the most important stories of history in an anecdotal way that engages younger students without overwhelming them. The majority of the books we recommend, however, are biographies, folk tales, simplified classics, or histories of specific events that provide more depth and interest than comprehensive histories. We call these 'living books' because they engage student's interest naturally, without overwhelming them with a flurry of facts to digest or names to memorize.

Design-Your-Own vs. Turnkey Curriculum

Even among advocates of 'living books' there is variation in the amount of structure that families desire in their curriculum. In general, families that are new to homeschooling or have younger children appreciate structure and guidance. Families with older children or those who have been homeschooling for many years often prefer to make their own choices. At Heritage History we provide options for both approaches and offer a seamless transition from a structured curriculum to a design-your-own-curriculum approach. Each Academy course includes several reading information pages created to help students make appropriate selections. The examples below are from the Ancient Rome Academy course.

core reading
Core Reading
The Core Reading page was created for students who prefer to work from pre-defined reading lists. Families can be sure that the reading assignments provided will include books that are age-appropriate, high-quality, and cover the essentials. These selections make an excellent starting point for families who are new to the Heritage History Academy. At any time the reading list can be modified as the parent and student become more comfortable with the Academy library.
book summaries
Book Summaries
The Book Summaries page was designed for students who are interested in exploring their options and customizing their reading lists. The Book Summaries page provides a brief synopsis of every book in the Academy Library. The books are organized by topic and genre, and colored stars are used to indicate books of particular interest.
Four Year Cycle vs. Heritage Recommended Sequence

Many world history programs are based on a four year cycle that covers Ancient History (year 1), the Middle Ages (year 2), and the Early Modern period (year 3), and the Twentieth Century (year 4). Heritage History's civilization-specific libraries can be organized according to the first three of these divisions, but we also provide our own recommended course sequence that differs from the Four Year program in several important ways:

First of all, we treat history as an enrichment activity rather than a serious academic subject until students are reading fluently. Our Young Readers program encourages elementary age students to read dozens of hero stories, folk tales, short biographies and exciting history stories, but does not emphasize in depth learning.

Once students are reading well we begin with Ancient History and then focus on British and American history. This emphasis on Ancient and Anglo-American history provides an Essential Foundation for the study of other civilizations and is closer to the classical approach of our forefathers. In the upper grades we provide several electives, including European, Hispanic, and Asian histories, and we encourage college prep students to focus on in depth biographies and adapted classics rather than superficial comparison and analysis.

  • The Recommended Sequence page provides an overview of all available Academy courses and describes the order in which we recommend they be studied.
  • The Four Year Programs page provides information for families that enjoy the four year cycle and would like to use Heritage History resources to supplement their program.
  • The Civilization Libraries page provides background information on the historical divisions into which the Heritage History library is divided.
  • The Young Readers page provides information about our program for early readers.