Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    History Through Different Lenses: Comparing Bauer with Foster

    April 3, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    This book didn’t honor Commodore Perry at all,” he said. If his face was any indication, he was disgusted with what he had just read. “Why not? What’s wrong with it?” he asked me. I was trying not to laugh at him because he had almost completely botched the question on Perry in his exams a couple weeks ago, and at the time my suspicion was that it had more to do with attitude than lack of knowledge (suspicion confirmed), especially as he went through and compared and contrasted, without prompting, Susan Wise Bauer‘s take with that of Genevieve Foster.

    The homeschool adventure resulting from reading Susan Wise Bauer and Genevieve Foster at the same time, and the lessons we learned.

    I had noticed this when I did my pre-reading, but I didn’t say anything to my student because I’m not one to bias a reading. I disapproved, but Story of the World isn’t my favorite anyhow.

    “Which one is true?” he prodded me. I had wandered off in thought, and he was bringing me back.

    “We-ell,” I hesitated. A lot goes into the writing of history. How much should we really get into here? In the end we discussed bias and perspective.

    “But which is true?” he asked again, after all of that. He reminded me of what he perceived to be factual contradictions, to say nothing of the tone of Bauer’s work, which portrayed Perry in a sort of snide, knowing way. In a he-thought-he-was-so-smart-but-the-Japanese-knew-better way. In a looking-down sort of way.

    Or, at least, that was how I took it. Apparently, my student took it in much the same way.

    So I told him I’d check up on the factual contradictions — as well as the parts that were obviously left out by Bauer when compared to Foster — and see what I could come up with. I’m no expert. What if Foster embellished? What if what happened really was what Bauer said, in spite of that Bauer tone which irks me every. single. time?

    And so I searched the internet, looking for reliable sources.

    It helps immensely that Francis Hawk’s book is now available on Google Books. Francis Hawk claims in his preparatory notes that all he really did is “compile” information sourced from journals written not just by Commodore Perry, but the other men with him.

    Was Commodore Perry an Ignorant Fool?

    If I had only read Story of the World, I might have thought him silly, at the very least. For example:

    [T]he Americans told the Japanese who tried to board, “We bring a letter from the president of the United States to the Emperor of Japan. But we can only give it to a high official of the Emperor.”

    The Japanese went back to the shore to talk this over. They could see that the Americans did not understand how Japan was governed. Japan did have an emperor, but although the Japanese believed that the emperor was almost divine, he didn’t actually rule in Japan.

    Now, nothing said here is untrue, but knowing only this, it gives the impression Perry is going into this situation blind. The beginning of the section discusses why and how the Japanese cut themselves off from the world, but nothing of substance about Perry.

    Genevieve Foster, however, tells us:

    Long before he started Perry had tried to learn all he could about the mysterious island. He sent to Holland for all available books, pictures and maps of Japan. These he spread out and studied over all of one summer in the library of his country home…

    And then later Foster explains why Perry used this tactic:

    Perry saw the reason for [why the Dutch had to make their deliveries to the “back door” of Japan]. Japan was a nation with a proud caste system. Tradespeople were considered low class, and foreigners were “scum.”…

    If, on the contrary, someone of apparently high caste approached Japan with the proud but courteous formality which Japanese could understand, would he not at least receive consideration?

    Whether or not Perry understood the relationship between the emperor and the shogun, Perry definitely had more knowledge — as much as could be gained considering Japan was all but closed off from the world — than Bauer gives him credit for.

    All of this intrigued me, so I did a little digging. It is obvious from Hawk’s Narrative of the Expedition to the China Seas and Japan that Perry had extensive knowledge of the works of Philipp Franz von Siebold, one of the leading Dutch experts on Japan of his time. I read much on this subject that validated Foster’s claim that, before undertaking his expedition, Perry spent much time (reports seem to vary from a handful of months to two full years) studying Japan and preparing himself to engage the Japanese culture.

    This is why, during Year 5, Term 2, my student and I spent a bit of time comparing Commodore Perry to Lilias Trotter — specifically, how they came to understand the foreign culture they were engaging in order to be more effective in accomplishing their aims.

    This sort of cultural understanding is evident in the fact that Perry didn’t require the Japanese to sign the English translation version of the treaty:

    Perry’s letter to the Navy Secretary, also in the holdings of the Archives, offers an explanation: “It will be observed that the practice usually pursued in affixing signatures to treaties was departed from on this occasion, and for reason assigned by the Japanese, that their laws forbade the subjects of the Empire from putting their names to any document written in a foreign language.” The missing signature demonstrates that Perry’s determination to achieve mission objectives was tempered by a willingness to compromise on issues of custom.

    Who Was Toda?

    According to Bauer (who refuses to refer to Perry as Commodore):

    [T]he Japanese decided to write a letter assuring Matthew Perry that the governor of a nearby town, a man named Toda, was the emperor’s high official. They signed the letter in the emperor’s name, and gave it to the Americans. When the Americans saw this forged paper, they agreed to come ashore and give the president’s letter to Toda.

    So Matthew Perry came ashore with his officers and a military band. The Japanese escorted him into a room hung with purple cloth and gauze curtains, where Toda sat, looking very serious.


    Toda thought the whole scene was very funny.

    Foster, on the other hand, writes:

    The Governor would like to see the letter. At sight of the beautiful rosewood box inlaid in gold, his manner changed at once. He could take the matter up with a high Councilor at Yedo, he said…

    Three days later he returned and … he said that a meeting had been arranged to take place two days later near Yokohama.


    Perry walked the length of red carpet and presented to the First Councilor of the Empire the President’s letter. With the announcement that he would return in the spring for the answer, the ceremony ended.

    I searched and searched. Every original and secondary source I could find — meaning journals from those who were on the expedition, records at the National Archives, books written in the 1800s and early 1900s compiled almost exclusively from journals and records and containing little commentary, agree that Prince Toda of Izu and Prince Ido of Iwami, who received the letter from Commodore Perry, were in high positions of authority. Some sources I read said they were representatives of the Emperor, but most seemed to agree that they represented the Shogun himself.

    The only “evidence” I found supporting Bauer’s claims was a slew of sarcastic blog posts on websites designating themselves as “anti-imperialist.” I’m not saying there isn’t any evidence out there, but only that I was unable to find any.

    Who Signed the Treaty?

    Bauer ends her retelling of events by saying:

    When Matthew Perry came back to Japan in 1854, the Japanese agreed to sign a trade treaty with them.

    But Foster says:

    That year 1858, Ii Naosuke had been appointed Prime Minister of Japan, or Tairo, the highest office under the Shogun and one filled only in a time of national emergency such as this caused by the knocking of the Americans on their door.

    Japan was torn into two factions, bitterly opposed. Many government officials wished to continue their old policy of isolation and drive off all foreigners by force. Ii Naosuke, and a smaller group of his countrymen, realizing how strong the foreigners were and how impossible resistance would be, favored signing the treaty of commerce, if necessary.


    Ii Naosuke, however, felt that it could not be avoided. Therefore, in the face of tremendous opposition, he courageously signed the treaty on July 29, 1858, and so unbolted Japan’s door from within.

    For that he was called a traitor and a rebel.

    Obviously, these things, again, are not directly in conflict (except for the dates, and in this case, Bauer is correct and Foster is incorrect).

    For Bauer, the signing of the treaty is something of an afterthought, whereas with Foster, it is an important part of the story. To some extent, I’d say that, if Foster is correct (and the Encyclopaedia Britannica agrees with her), it is difficult to justify stating that the “Japanese agreed” to sign the treaty. The Japanese did not agree, which is partly why Naosuke was assassinated just a couple years later.

    History Through Different Lenses

    This case of contradiction was a wonderful experience for my student. It raised questions that he needed to answer, it gave him a chance to learn that history is written by persons with bias  — that all history is written in this way. I’m going to offer him a Kindle copy of Hawk’s book, if he wishes to read more about Commodore Perry’s adventures … from Commodore Perry himself.

    It does concern me, though, that many homeschoolers I have met read one version of history throughout the elementary years. It might be one author or another. Yes, Bauer is very popular, but so are other series. The problem is that they all tend to have a modern slant (harder to identify because it is our own slant, whether we like it or not), and they all tend to have the same author’s slant.

    One of the things that I like about AmblesideOnline is that we get a bit of a variety, even though we of course limit ourselves to the “best” available books. But H.E. Marshall, James Marshall, M.B. Synge, Virgil Hillyer, Richard Hannula, Diane Stanley, James Daugherty, Feenie Ziner, Genevieve Foster, Hendrick Van Loon, Natalie Bober, Susan Wise Bauer, George Grant, and H.A. Guerber are some of the authors featured for the first history rotation. Some stories will be read twice, from two different authors, allowing for the sort of “rounding out” you see here in this post.

    Reading broadly will protect us from being gullible when it comes our history reading — both in regard to “facts” as well as in regard to bias. Just because Bauer (or Foster!) wrote it in her book, doesn’t make it true, and doesn’t make it the whole story.

    The one who states his case first seems right,
    until the other comes and examines him.
    (Pr. 18:17)

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Catherine February 23, 2017 at 11:32 am

    We hit this chapter in Foster’s book today, and thanks to you, I was prepared 🙂 We had a lovely discussion about perspective and history today, and even opened to the chapter in our Bauer book (which we haven’t opened yet) so she could see how they differ. At the suggestion of your readers, we bought “Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun” to add to our knowledge of Japan’s history, and will be using the 20th Century book rather than SOTW for T3 (though I’ve had DD listen to all the others for enjoyment, and will probably do the same with book 4 eventually). So grateful for all the help you give to other AO moms 🙂

  • Reply Cindy Rinaman Marsch December 5, 2016 at 5:39 am

    Excellent demonstration of the beauties of homeschooling. I expect 98% of public-schooled students graduate without even knowing the name of Perry or a glimmer of Japanese history. I have not read Bauer’s work but have my own issues with Foster’s. I’m enchanted with Foster’s format and concept for her books, and I’ve loved reading them with my children, but *Augustus Caesar’s World* contains such a warping of Christianity that it infuriates me – not just suggestions but editorial leveling that makes Jesus, Buddha, and Zoroaster roughly equivalent. Nevertheless, it offers additional opportunity to “consider the source” in education. Well done!

    “Retired” homeschooling mom of four, three now college graduates and one enrolled as a freshman

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 5, 2016 at 9:56 am

      I hate that chapter in Foster, too! I skip it — that leveling you spoke of is basically blasphemy? I think so. And thanks for dropping by. It is nice to have more experienced homeschooling moms around here. 🙂

  • Reply Joy December 3, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Great article. I agree that it is important to read from a variety of sources in order to get a better picture of what really happened. It’s one of the things I most appreciate about AO’s variety of suggestions.

  • Reply SS #12: Close Encounters of the Other Kind | Scholé Sisters October 7, 2016 at 2:01 am

    […] History Through Different Lenses: Comparing Bauer with Foster […]

  • Reply Ozark Mama April 1, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    Ok, I feel kind of silly for asking for advice in my previous comment after the point of your post was on reading history through more than one lens. Because, um, yeah, that takes care of the problem! I had the mistaken impression that SOTW would be the sole source of modern history after AO year 5 but it looks like there is another source in there as well. I’m in one of those periods where I’ve been feeling inadequate to the educational task before me which, I’m sure, is not uncommon when homeschooling the oldest child. Most of the history is new to me and I am learning along side her so I always feel I am flying a little blind.

  • Reply Michelle April 1, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    I noticed that as well when pre-reading. Thank you for the details!

  • Reply Ozark Mama April 1, 2016 at 11:03 am

    I am glad to see this post. Just last week after reading the SOTW chapter on Perry dd commented “This book isn’t as well written as Abraham Lincoln’s World. She left out a lot of details.” then “The words are easier and the sentences shorter.”

    I was bothered by my pre-reading of this chapter. I am uncomfortable using this book because the of tone but the alternative seems pretty dry and dd preferred this one after reading a little from each one. I’m kind of at a loss. Any advice?

  • Reply Tanya Stone April 1, 2016 at 7:24 am

    (I know this post is old but I’m just seeing it, and I’m also going to be doing Y5 for the first time next year)
    This was really good and will make me think. I happen to have another book about Commodore Perry in my house that I may use as well. I’ll admit I’m hesitant to use “Story of the World”. I understand it was chosen for it’s literary style but there are genuine concerns over her other volumes and their historical accuracy–and not just from bias, actual factual inaccuracies. I don’t have them but when I saw reviews stating that I looked at samples from the books and saw them myself. So while I appreciate how this is good, to get different perspectives, I’m still not sure I want to use one that could be genuinely wrong. That said, I recently some inaccuracies in Marshall’s “Our Island Story”, but I think that is more about language and time than actually being wrong (for one, she called a location “English Bend”, when really it’s labeled on the maps “English Turn”; she also called a battle by a certain name when really it’s recorded by another name; those things probably just changed over time or are called different things by different cultures). Still, I have to do so much prep work with my kids–AO is definitely more hands on/teacher intensive–that I really get annoyed when I have to do so much vetting and extra work. So I dunno. We’ll have to see. Thank you again for your thoughtful post(s).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 1, 2016 at 9:08 am

      Tanya, I will say that *this* time I’m doing Year 5, I chose the alternative to Bauer — it’s something about 20th Century … ah! What Everyone Should Know About the 20th Century.

      There is *not* a good modern history book out there, so I think each curriculum has to do what it can with what is available. With 20th Century, it’s a little more interesting, I think, but I have to read it aloud because there are sometimes things that need a bit of censoring or scaffolding. One of the reasons that was not the main choice is that for a while it got extremely expensive. But it’s very reasonable now, if you want to try it!

  • Reply Susan April 6, 2013 at 3:00 am

    I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the best way, as you point out, to teach history is to read different viewpoints. There simply is no such thing as a “just the facts ma’am” recording of history. Every word is influenced by human perception.

    And as Mystie points out, even I have my own preconceived notions based on what I’ve been taught or heard before. The very best thing we can do for our kids is to give them the tools and resources they need to form their own educated opinions.

    Just as scholars puzzle things out rather than accepting the standard line, so, too, do all thinkers. Thank you for your insights. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie April 5, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Of course John Knox, author of “The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women,” was bad. He hated Mary Queen of Scots and did his best to end her legitimate reign. If I didn’t know better, I might have assumed Bauer was Catholic when listening to volume 2. 😉

    I am curious now about what a traditional British view of Cromwell is. The history of the English monarchy is a hobby of mine, but my interest and knowledge ends with Elizabeth I. I had the impression already that Cromwell was a bad guy in English history, but I don’t even know where I got that belief. I think that’s all the more warning to be mindful of our kids’ history exposure, because it will shape their assumptions without them even being aware of it.

    • Reply Friederike April 20, 2013 at 6:37 am

      When we read children of the new forest, I felt the Cromwell government didn’t get a good portrait. We loved that book, but it made me search more about the 2 different governments. And I have to say it really is not black and white.Then when we read Elizabeth the 1st it all sounded positive about her, but otehr stories brought some negative points to it( what i didn’t want to hear). So it’s good to look at it from 2 different points. And yes they are all human and make mistakes. we might never get the correct picture of history

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 20, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      The more I read about Cromwell, the more I think he really was a mixed bag, which is probably why it is hard to decide about him. I also think that when we read about revolutionaries in general, they are so wonderful and idealistic when they are *not in power* but when they have power, they tend to be as bad–and often worse–than their predecessors! I think that happens because they usually wipe out not just the rulers, but the entire order that kept power in check, so they end up de facto tyrants.

      It reminds me of that verse about casting the demons out, and for a while they wander around and when they come back, they find the place well-swept, so they go and find seven of their friends and return, and the man is worse off than he was before. That about sums up most revolutions and revolutionaries, in my opinion. 🙂

      I never even *heard* of Cromwell until I was an adult. Public school, you know. 🙂

  • Reply Heather April 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    I came up against this same issue when we read Bauer’s account of Oliver Cromwell. I actually ended up summarizing and narrating portions of that section rather than reading her word for word. And not because I thought Cromwell acted without fault, but because her rendering was riddled with deriding him and I didn’t want my son’s first impressions to be so impressionable beyond repair for his later encounters with this period of history. A few weeks before this, my husband had been reading an Otto Scott book which discussed Oliver Cromwell in a different light so my husband suggested I read Scott’s account which until you mentioned this here I had forgotten about doing. We read SOTW aloud and he narrates back and we alternate who writes the narration. I have him reading Foster’s William Penn on his own and doing his own written narration. Her only mention of Cromwell says that he was honest and capable, but he was a Puritan and his rule very strict.
    This is the third SOTW volume we have used and this was the most major annoyance I have had to date.
    I have had a post brewing for my younger homeschooling friends who have kids under six about what to do while you wait to formally start homeschooling them and one of the topics is to read widely the history/biography materials you think you will use from AO or elsewhere so that you can be prepared to offer other points of view to your children. Or something like that. Enjoyed this one, Brandy, thanks for the history lessons!

  • Reply Celeste April 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I really appreciate your thorough explanation of this example, Brandy! It helps me get a feel for what to expect in the homeschooling years to come as we sort through bias and look at history through various lenses to get a feel for the ever-present complexities.

  • Reply Mystie April 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Great post, Brandy! It is good to make sure our reading is broad, and make sure we remember there’s no such thing as an objective history book. 🙂

    We’re listening to SOTW on audio, working our way through all the volumes. We just started volume 3. There’s no denying Bauer abridges with a purpose and twist. John Knox was a total bad guy in her telling! I was rather indignant, though not surprised. She definitely has dry and wry irony in her tone, particularly when it is drawled by Jim Weiss. 🙂 I like it when I agree with her, and fume when I don’t, but overall I do think it makes the book more personable, like Hillyer.

    The way you lay it out here clearly shows what “debunking” is, and it’s something I’ve been unable to understand in concrete examples. It is unfortunate that the modern approach of attempting to honor other cultures translates into robbing our own culture of its honor, as if there was only so much to go around.

    I’m currently (slowly) reading her ancient history for adults and enjoying her take and style. It will be interesting to follow those through as she writes them.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 10:48 pm

      John Knox was a *bad* guy? How awful!

      I do think you are right that the book is personable. I definitely see why AO chose it, even if she does get to me sometimes.

      Tell me (because I was already wondering this): does her book for adults have a similar tone? She gets to me, and possibly because her writing style in SotW reminds me of a snide relative I have… 🙂

      I would like to take credit for the debunking thought, but that is Cindy’s. It hadn’t even dawned on me until she pointed it out! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    What was interesting to me, also, was in reading Hawk’s book, it sounded like *some* of the American actions were also due to curiosity. He talks about the questions different people were asking: naturalists wanted to know about the flora and fauna, Christians wanted to know the level of idolatry and the possibilities for missionary work, etc. It sort of rounded out the idea that this was *solely* for merchant purposes.

  • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Two of you mentioned Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun. For what age would you suggest it? I’m curious if I should grab a copy for my student for free reading since he’s so interested in it.

    • Reply Mahers Hill Academy April 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      The back of the book says 8 and up. It would probably be a bit much for my 8yo to read independently, but my 10yo strong reader had no problems with it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 10:46 pm

      Thank you! I will definitely put it on my list, then.

  • Reply sara April 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    We too read Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, and found it interesting and largely sympathetic to Commodore Perry, although it did not ignore the politics going on inside of Japan. When we had a dinner conversation, my son influenced by his Government HS IB World History skewered Perry for taking gross advantage of the poor ignorant Japanese.

    Interesting conversation.

  • Reply Ordo-Amoris April 4, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Well done, Brandy. What an excellent example. I agree that it is great to go to different sources and we also have to be careful not to turn our modernity into debunking which is a firestorm that eventually leaves nothing in its wake but our cleverness which is a sorry bargain.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm

      I think that is my main complaint about modern history books–not all of them of course, but many of them: the debunking. That is sort of what I felt was going on here. For over a hundred years, Americans have “honored” {to use my son’s word–it is interesting to me that he was interested in what was honored or not honored} Commodore Perry, but Bauer’s take was that the Japanese were merely humoring him. He really did shrink in my eyes when I read her words. I came away wondering: is it so bad to think him great for doing something brave and trying to be wise about it like that?

      In high school, of course, we’ll have to talk about Expansionism…I know it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

  • Reply Mahers Hill Academy April 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I have Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun here which my dd read when she was learning about Japan. You have intrigued me, and I think I will read it myself to see what the author’s “take” is. 🙂 It does have the actual letter from the US President to the Emperor of Japan, the response to that letter and the text of the Treaty of Kanagawa in the appendix.

  • Reply walking April 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Fascinating. We read a book about Commodore Perry by Rhoda Blumberg last year. Pamela did not catch Bauer’s snarky tone, but I did. Thank you for spotlighting the difference. Have you read all of Story of the World?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      I haven’t read all of SotW. I briefly considered using it when we were starting Y1 or Y1 {can’t quite remember} and was stunned by her tone. I understand AO’s choice of SotW Vol. 4 for Y5 and Y6, though. There really aren’t very many texts out there for this era that are age-appropriate–and I *want* to be able to hand off the book to my child. It is, at least, written as a story rather than textbooky fact-feeding.

  • Reply Dawn April 4, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Thanks, Brandy. I really enjoyed this piece.

  • Reply Lady M April 4, 2013 at 1:45 am

    {{Clapping}} Thank you for the reminder to not just take our information (whether it be history or news!) from just one source and from someone in just one time period (history in this case).

  • Leave a Reply