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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Teaching of History

Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 822-826


IN the endeavour to discover a rational and satisfactory method for the teaching of history, the enquiry first suggests itself: What are the advantages to be gained, and which men seek to gain, from the study of history?

First may be mentioned as motives impelling us towards the study of history, the love of story and the satisfaction of inquisitiveness-- both appetites deeply seated in human nature. These appetites might at first sight appear to be wholly of an aesthetic order; but in common with all other aesthetic instincts, on analysis they will be found to assume a distinctly utilitarian aspect, and to have more or less close relations with the affairs of practical life.

History has been defined as the description of man's activities: it might assist us in our present enquiry were we to reconsider this definition, and further to characterise history as being a fixed and widened form of experience, while on the other hand experience or memory is but a fugitive form of history. In all the paths of life men act, consciously or instinctively, directly or indirectly, under the guidance of experience. In human affairs for the most part individual experience, eked out by some unmethodised and casual knowledge of the past, and with the important addition of a certain modicum of technical knowledge, is no doubt sufficient for the direction of the individual activities. But our individual activities do not sum up the whole life of man, we are members of a social organism, and, in order to the adequate fulfilling of our duties and relations in this capacity, a social experience must be added to the individual. This social experience is to be found in history.

History forms the experimental basis of all the various branches of social science; and consciously or unconsciously, mediately or directly, mankind have at all times based their action in Religion, Ethics, Economics, and Politics on the teachings and warnings of history. Whig and Tory, Conservative and Radical, Collectivist and Anarchist, have each in opposite senses appealed to history in support of their proposals; and doubtless the universal appetite for the knowledge of the past already alluded to, may be accounted for as an instinctive recognition of the value of such as enlargement of experience. But to return to the point from which we started, it is the interest no less than the duty of every member of the social organism, to furnish himself to the extent that may be within his power, with the knowledge necessary to render him a capable and useful citizen--an upholder of light and sanity in the midst of his social surroundings, however, limited. It might perhaps be objected that the knowledge of historical facts is in itself useless, as a means of furnishing the ordinary learner with the equipment needful for this purpose; that what is really required is a system of inductions from historic facts providing us with the scientific laws on which society rests, and the knowledge of which, entirely apart from the knowledge of particular facts, is alone necessary to guide us in our social relations. It may be pointed out, however, that in all our teaching it is becoming more and more recognised that knowledge, to be fully assimilated, must necessarily be presented to us not as abstract generalisations but in the form of concrete facts, to be handled, to be examined, tested and criticised, to be synthesised at first hand by the intelligent activity of the learner himself. The mere enunciation and explanation of scientific laws, however well authenticated, is of comparatively little value. When the facts are known, tested and assimilated by our own active intelligence, the laws of history have become as weapons that are wielded by a trained and practised hand.

Before considering the methods of teaching history it will be well to examine rapidly the genesis of history as a subject of conscious human interest, and its gradual assumption of a scientific status; from this examination doubtless some light upon method will be thrown.

The earliest dawn of civilization witnessed also the dawn of history. There exists upon the earth no tribe so intellectually dead as not to preserve some memory of the past; some tale of brave endurance; of danger overcome, some reminiscence of tribal origin. Even the Dyak records his victories by the treasured skulls of his enemies; the Red Indian preserves his victim's scalp as a memorial of his prowess.

Story is the mother of history. The aged father hands onward to his son the story of adventure, of strenuous deed performed, in which perhaps he himself has borne a part, or he hands on the secret of an improvement in art or agriculture; and from the son the narrative is passed on in succeeding generations; its definition is lost; it speedily becomes tradition and passes into legend. In the tribe, in like manner as in the family, the same process goes on; the recent story of notable achievement, authenticated it may be by relics-- weapon or amulet--passes rapidly into tradition, into legend: the hero is transformed to demigod. So with the beginnings of literature, a prime element in which is always historical, we find the metrical recitation, orally handed on from bard to bard, ever varying and evolving until at length it assumes the loftier form of epic.

In the simple tale, in the legendary song, in the Homeric Epic we find the germ of history. With the growth of self-consciousness, however, with the introduction of letters, the records of personal and national achievement become permanent and definite. The tendency of fact to lose itself in legend is abated; history becomes differentiated from the song of the bard; it becomes methodised and the chronicle is brought to birth.

In the chronicle we find the most elementary form of methodised history; it arises obviously and naturally through successive additions to the royal or national records,; here we find set down the accession and the death of kings, their deeds of fame, the spoils and trophies of the battle-field. The chronicle indeed is little beside an amplification of the family tree.

Thus far in the genesis of history man's self consciousness has hardly yet been aroused; the inquisitive spirit of philosophy has hardly yet been awakened. Men as yet are too intent on the problems of practical life, and perhaps on half-waking dreams of metaphysical speculation, seriously to concern themselves with the hows and whys of social conditions; to seek a deeper, a universal meaning in the affairs that are daily passing before their eyes; to compare age with age, country with country, and to note their differences.

With Herodotus, "the Father of History," however, a new era dawned. Travelling as he did in many lands, he enquired with curiosity and with diligence into all the social phenomena, into the history, into the traditions of the countries which he visited. These he examined and compared, these he carefully recorded and thus prepared the way for that synthetic view of human life, which onwards from his day has been gradually taking root in the thoughts of men. From Herodotus the science of history may be said to have taken birth.

As a means towards the more efficient teaching of history chronological tables, family trees and historical charts have for long more or less been made use of. In most cases, however, it may be said such aids have proved of comparatively small value, inasmuch as they have been largely artificial in their character. Lately there has been conceived the idea of constructing history charts, upon a system more accordant with the elementary conditions of visual historic representations as laid down in the previous paper; and it will here be convenient to explain briefly the nature of these charts and the principles upon which they are constructed.

The ideal form of the history chart, as has already been pointed out, is a space of three dimensions, of which one dimension represents time, and the other two the length and breadth of geographical surface. Within this three dimensioned space the historic details are to be inscribed. This chart then, in order to fulfil the purpose of its existence by rendering historical detail continuously visible in all directions, must as its most essential condition, be transparent and unobstructive to the eye throughout its whole substance, so that the inscribed details may be everywhere visible, in all their relations, in one single comprehensive view; but in contravention of this essential condition, these details by their very visibility, by their very existence, cannot in the very nature of things, fail utterly to confess and to obstruct each other.

The ideal chart, conceivable and even useful as a purely intellectual idea, thus becomes incapable of being rendered practically available. It appears then that to construct a chart that shall represent simultaneously and in approximate fullness of perfection, both the chronological and geographical relations of history, is a practical impossibility. This ideal chart, however, which we have been compelled so cavalierly to dismiss, leaves of one legacy of practical value, namely, its cross section, which resolves itself simply into the familiar historic map, of which as capable of representing in complete perfection contemporary historico-geographic relations at any particular moment of time, we shall gladly avail ourselves. In default, however, of any completely adequate representation combining a comprehensive view of history at once in its chronological and its geographical relations, which as we have seen appears to be absolutely unattainable, we must be content to substitute some more or less imperfect form of diagrammatic chart-- the best we can devise.

On experiment it will probably be found that the most practical form our History Chart can assume will consist of the "Time-stream" represented by a lengthened roll of paper crossed by lines, the spaces between which shall represent a definite cycle of time-- probably a year or ten years will be the period selected--while the geographical relations will be represented by roughly parallel longitudinal bands, expressing--inadequately it must be confessed-- the definite divisions of geographical surface, to which the events to be inscribed belong.

Such a chart as have been above suggested is capable of representing graphically, and also to a large extent quantitively, any one of the sub-divisions into which, as has been before noted, history has been divided; and it, is also capable of representing them in combination. Thus all the facts usually taken notice of in general history may be displayed, so as to exhibit to the eye, with some measure of accuracy, their mutual relations of time and place. To present historical events to the eye even thus imperfectly, as will be evident to every educationist, is a large step towards rendering history something more than a mere loose chain of isolated events, and to make it more easy to introduce something of organic life into the often somewhat vague and mechanical conception produced in the mind of the learner, by the ordinary teaching of elementary history.