Modern Times (about 1850 to present day) is a jam-packed era in history. So many things were happening all around the world; and thanks to improved technology, we have access to more details than any other time period. The thing we need to be careful of is overload.
You cannot teach your child all about everything. Especially in this Information Age, that goal is physically impossible. The brain can take in only so much before it hits the saturation point. So keep in mind that you will need to make choices when studying any period of history, but especially modern times.
There are so many people and events that your high school student could study, and so many good books available to read, that it will be easy to overload. But keep in mind two guiding principles.
First, “education is the science of relations.” In a Charlotte Mason approach your goal isn’t to try to teach all about everything. Your goal is for your student to form personal relations with and between the people, events, and countries that he reads about. Forming a personal relation takes time to process. A hectic reading schedule does not encourage time to process. Make sure you’re not trying to cram too much into a short time.
The second guiding principle is that the Charlotte Mason approach is designed to keep a love of learning alive and to equip your child with the tools to self-education. So there is no need to cram every possible book on every possible topic into these years. If you are using Charlotte’s wonderful methods, your student will want to keep learning and be able to keep learning for himself for the rest of his life.
So though there are lots of living modern history book options, here are my top picks for high school. I will be sharing both American history and world history titles to encourage a global perspective and support those important relations that your student should be forming between the countries of the world.
If you would like daily reading itineraries with these books, as well as all of the books I recommend for grades 1–9, check out the lesson plans in Modern Times & Epistles, Revelation. You will find all of the planning already done for you in that book. The plans will outline which books to read, how much to read, and for which students on each day.
Actually, all of the books I recommend here have been mentioned in previous posts. Charlotte Mason often spread a book over two or more years, and I like to do that for these titles.
In the Early Modern book reviews for high school, I talked about America: The Last Best Hope by William Bennett. This is a three-book series. I like to start Volume 1 during Early Modern history and then just keep going through the rest of Volume 1 and all of Volume 2 during Modern Times. Those two volumes present an interesting, living overview of events and people that your student has been reading about through the grades. Volume 2 goes up to 1990 and the end of the Cold War. Then Volume 3 covers from 1990 up to 2008 and ends with the election of Barack Obama. It’s a lot of reading for one year, and that’s why I like to make Volume 3 optional in the lesson plans. It really depends on your student. Some high schoolers will be able to fly through all three books easily; others will do better with only two of the books assigned and know that they can read that third book for themselves anytime. There is no deadline to learning. So while I recommend the whole series, you decide how much of it will be the best fit for your student during the time you have available.
American Voices edited by Ray Notgrass is another book that I like to start in Early Modern studies and then continue through Modern Times. It is a collection of original sources: documents, speeches, essays, hymns, poems, and short stories from American History. By coupling this collection with the overview in the America: The Last Best Hope series, your student will be able to access the firsthand accounts and the actual words of people and events he reads about. So as he learns about the Civil War, he can read the Emancipation Proclamation. As your student learns about the Statue of Liberty, he can read “The New Colossus” poem by Emma Lazarus in this collection. And as he focuses on various presidents and their leadership over the years, he can read inaugural addresses, messages to congress, farewell addresses, and other speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and more. You will also find Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as excerpts from landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. All in all, it’s a helpful and powerful collection.
One of my favorite authors for American history is Russell Freedman. I always learn so much from his books, which are living in their narratives as well as in the photographs he includes. In the interest of picking and choosing, not overloading, I have written only one of his books into the lesson plans for high school for Modern Times: The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. You may recognize this title from the post with reviews for grades 7–9. Read that full review for more details on this wonderful title.
As a few bonus titles, let me encourage you to check out the other books that Russell Freedman has written about a wide variety of people and events in American history. Here is just a sampling: Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a wonderful presentation of a peaceful but powerful demonstration and test of endurance during the civil rights movement; and Angel Island, which was known as the Ellis Island of the west and was the gateway for the immigrants coming to America from Asia. (I’d never heard of it before reading this book!) He has also written Children of the Great Depression, The Life and Death of Crazy Horse, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, and many more. All of them that I have read would be appropriate for high schoolers, and many of them would be a good fit for seventh through ninth graders too. As always, pre-read and make that judgment call with your own student in mind.
The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman (1914–1918)
Freedman has some good world history books as well. As with the other Freedman titles, this one mixes archival photographs with a compelling narrative to make the war come alive in your student’s mind. Chapter 1 begins, “It was a perfect day for a parade,” and paints the picture of the crowds lining the streets of Sarajevo, waiting to catch a glimpse of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife. The narrative goes on to explain how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked a war that soon drew the whole world into its clutches. The book does not glorify war, nor does it sensationalize the gory details. It presents an authentic and unforgiving picture of this war that was supposed to be the last one, and then explains at the end how the peace was lost. By the way, this is one of Freedman’s titles that I don’t usually recommend for grades 7–9, because of the war-time photographs. As I said, they are not sensationalized, but they are realistic; and some might be disturbing to younger students. You make the call; you know your child best.
There are many biographies that could be read during a study on Modern Times, but for high schoolers I recommend reading about two men in particular: Hitler and Stalin. I think those two biographies are important for students to understand how a nation can be led astray and how power can be corrupted. Those are crucial concepts for young adults who will be voting soon. And for both of those biographies, I turn to the author Albert Marrin; he wrote Hitler (1889–1946) and he wrote Stalin: Russia’s Man of Steel (1879–1961). The School Library Journal’s review of his biography on Hitler says, “Marrin’s book stands out for its lively writing, its emphasis on personal anecdote, its value as a reference source, and its insight into the nature of totalitarianism.” And he used the same writing style for his biography on Stalin, which was voted the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. The atrocities that these men committed make for heavier reading, of course; but their lives and deeds must be remembered.
Then along those lines of thinking about what ideas were affecting history, I like to assign one of these two books to high schoolers: How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer or 7 Men Who Rule the World from the Grave by Dave Breese. How Should We Then Live? is a review of world history from ancient Rome through the mid 1970s. Francis Schaeffer examines the prominent worldviews based on writings and art and music and society in general. This book is more of a discussion about philosophy and its changes through the years. There is also a DVD series by the same name that covers the material. 7 Men Who Rule the World from the Grave focuses on the twentieth century and discusses seven men whom the author considers the instigators of the most influential movements of that modern century. Breese focuses more on the way those ideas have contended for our minds and potentially affected our own worldviews. Both are written from a Christian perspective. You can decide which of the two will be the best fit for your student.
I’d like to also mention four bonus titles. As I said, there are a lot of good living books for modern times. But remember, I’m sharing these additional titles in case they might work better as a substitution or an alternate for a book I’ve already mentioned or in case you have a voracious reader and need some titles for leisure reads. Just make sure you don’t overload your student.
These first three titles can be found free online.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (c. 1861–1865)
This is a classic inside look at a young soldier during the American Civil War. It focuses on his inner struggles and experiences behind the lines as an individual. While many war books give the bigger picture of battles and strategies and such, this book is uniquely personal and conveys the confusion and terror and decisions from one boy’s point of view. Be aware that it contains some strong language.
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1858–1915)
This is a powerful autobiography that traces Washington’s rise from slavery to freedom during the Civil War, his struggles to get an education, and his work to help other former slaves become independent and learn useful, marketable skills after the Emancipation Proclamation. The narrative covers more than forty years of his life and work.
The story of Helen Keller is an inspiring one. It is the story of how a deaf and blind girl in the 1800s learned to communicate and how those around her were finally able to peek inside the door of her amazing mind, a door that had remained locked for many frustrating years until Anne Sullivan found the key to open it. This book is Helen’s account in her own words as she sketches the episodes of her life that seem the most interesting and important to her.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (1898–1947)
This is an unforgettable book. It is a firsthand account of life for two sisters in a concentration camp during World War II. The back cover says it well: “The Hiding Place is much more than just a dramatic, heart-touching narrative. Every page shines with timeless virtues cultivated in the haven of a gentle watchmaker’s shop—and tested in the horrors of Nazi Germany.”
So those are my top picks for high school students studying modern times. Good books are powerful. I’m so glad we can read them and discuss them with our children!