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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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Purpose and Method in the Teaching of English History

by The Rev. Canon Sing.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 753


The remarks and suggestions in this paper are not much more than the obiter dicta of an amateur. They are merely the stray ideas of one who was never taught how to teach, and has only taught history in such casual ways as occur in the ordinary work of a parish priest. They represent, therefore, lay criticism rather than professional experience; and those who, being professionals in the art of teaching, may happen to read them, can expect nothing more than the glimmerings of intelligence which occasionally illuminate the mind of the amateur.

I once, in setting a history paper, began with the question: "What is the good of studying history?" The examinees were pupil teachers, of average intelligence. Not more than then per cent. answered in such way as to suggest that they saw much good in the knowledge of the past. The answers that were adequate fell into three classes. Some few thought it was useful to know "about old customs." Some, but fewer, like to learn "about great men." One only--this was six years ago--said we "ought to know how the British Empire and Constitution had grown up." It was unsatisfactory, of course, to find that so many had been learning history without knowing why they were learning; but it was something to have drawn from a few minds some definite ideas, which taken together, practically covered the ground. For one could hardly expect that young people should have troubled to approach the question philosophically, and asked themselves the value of history as a mental training; nor does that rather abstract question fall within the scope of this paper, which is concerned more with the immediate and practical purposes which a teacher or parent should keep in mind. And these purposes are really sufficiently described in the three types of answer--the antiquarian interest, the study of great men, the duty of a good citizen to know the story of his country.

It is clear that the first two of these purposes are incidental to the study of history rather than essential. No one, of course, can be a competent antiquarian without a knowledge of the course of history; nor can a biography of a national hero or villain be understood without constant reference to what went on before and came after him. But people, and especially children, can pick up odd and interesting facts, and can indulge in a vague hero-worship without much knowledge of the course of events or of the causes that shaped them. The other purpose--the training of the future citizen to understand his country--must really be the main motive in the mind of the teacher. The teaching of history must be inspired by a wise patriotism, when the teacher, as in nine cases out of ten, is teaching about his own country. The teacher must feel it his aim to set before his pupils the true value of--

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, . . .
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war;… zz
is blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

And this, of course, not in a spirit of stupid insularity and unreadiness to learn from other nations, but with an adequate idea of the greatness of our political inheritance, with the knowledge alike of national development and national responsibilities.

It is clear therefore that the teaching of history stands on a different footing from many other subjects of a child's education. Morals are not concerned with the subject-matter of geography, or arithmetic, or spelling: they are deeply concerned with the subject-matter of history. In teaching the former subjects, morals only come in question by the behaviour of teacher or scholar: in the latter they are inextricably interwoven in the texture of the facts. It is not an exaggeration to say that the teaching of history requires in kind, if not in degree, the same sort of reverence as is required in the teaching of religion. The teacher cannot avoid this responsibility. If he teaches history, he is not teaching about lines, or symbols, or columns of figures, but about men and women, and how they lived, and why they failed and succeeded: his subject is a matter of human interest, and therefore of moral interest. If he shirks this moral responsibility his teaching at once becomes flat, dry lifeless: his historical characters cease to be men and women, his constitutional changes become bundles of laws and dates--as dull as a list of Chinese rivers taught by rote without a map. To teach thus is not to teach history. The teacher must invest his characters with reality, and can therefore never escape the duty of showing the moral interest in their lives. It follows that such sympathetic teaching must be broad-minded and generous. There is a cynical style of teaching history rather after the manner of Gibbon's sarcastic epigram, a belittling of great men, a censoriousness of human failings, a disparaging way of describing the controversies, which, if settled to-day, stirred men's minds deeply in a former age. This style is sometimes used by teachers just to enliven a lesson with a sort of sardonic humour. But it is alien to the ideal spirit of a historian, whose aim should be not to represent the ancestors of our race as puppets in a show, pulled always by the strings of the lowest motives, but as men and women, striving and failing in the strength and weakness of the same human nature which lives in us to-day. And it is only in the light of a genuine human sympathy with the past that boys and girls can to-day be trained to know the meaning from history of their English citizenship.

But while the training of the citizen is the leading motive of the teacher, "hero-worship," to summarize the knowledge of great men into a phrase, comes in a good second. It is likely enough that the knowledge of some striking personalities of history forms the bulk of what children carry away from most schools, and much of what has been already said emphasizes its value. It may be well, however, to point out the danger which clings to the representation of history as a mere portrait gallery. The singling out of a few individuals, especially if the teacher has consciously or unconsciously any strong political bias, must tend to inaccuracy and stimulate prejudice. The controversies are rare in which the right is all on one side, however much the personality of one leader may tower, in morals or intellect, over his opponents. And it is here that the knowledge of history as a whole comes in as a corrective to the undue exaltation of the individual. The more we know how the way was prepared for great national struggles, the more clearly we see, without undermining the pre-eminence of the great, that other men, if mistaken in their ideals and conduct, at least deserve sympathy. And the more that he whole of a period of history, rather than the greatness of an individual is set forth, the better are children trained to the fair and impartial mind of the good citizen.

But while these are the foremost aims which should occupy the teacher's mind, he will do wisely not to neglect the antiquarian interest which the study of history can rouse, for of this often far too little is made. In itself it is not important to know what kind of pots and pans the Romans and Saxons used, or in what directions they rode and walked; but such things may be of real importance in enlivening the interest of history and in helping to present the past to the frequently sluggish imagination of scholars. The objects of antiquarian interest often lie neglected close to the school, because so many teachers don't realize their value in the conjuring up of the past. The wise use of them quickens not only imagination, but also the faculty of observation. The child who is taught to notice that the world is full of the marks which past generations have stamped upon it, learns to perceive a hundred things which passed unrecognized before.

Such then being the main principles on which the teacher is to work, something remains to be said about method. The difficulty may be summed up By saying that it is easy to present the bare outlines of past facts: it is not easy to present them in a living form. The mere skeletons of history--the lists of names and dates and laws and places--is peculiarly uninteresting. Many people carry to their dying day uncomfortable associations with the lists of the Kings of Judah and Israel, or of the chief laws enacted in the reign of Henry II. But these facts are as necessary as the skeleton to the body, only the skeleton must be clothed with flesh: the skeleton of history needs the flesh of noble deeds, of life and death struggles, and striking characters and growing civilization. The two cannot be separated: the skeleton alone will prove hopelessly bare and dry: the flesh alone will be flabby.

This being granted, it may seem an inversion of natural order to say that the skeleton of history must come after the flesh; but the first thing is to make history interesting, and interest can best be aroused by presenting facts, to begin with, in form of a story, or rather of stories. The hero-worship side of history is naturally first to be emphasized. Great lives and the striking incidents which hang round them must first be taught to show that history is not dead but living. There will be no need at first to weave a consecutive story together, nor to worry about dates, except so far as dates are wanted to give some idea of past time. If dates are needed, it is as well to see that they are understood. It is sometimes surprising how children learn dates without knowing what they mean, and are taught with little explanation of what is involved in the difference between 100 and 1,000 years ago.

When the teacher begins to carry history a little beyond the form of the "short story," then the skeleton must come in. Dates, if an evil, are a necessary evil. Children have to learn them, but there does not seem any reason why dates should not, if possible, be made amusing. Some of us used to learn the kings of England and their dates in rhyme: the rhymes were not always good, but the dates stuck in mind. A series of good rhymes which could carry the dates of something that would mark the reign, would lift teacher and scholar over some difficult places. If I were a teacher of history I should make children have a couple of minutes of dates day by day, just as one might treat the multiplication table.

If the scholar is thus being taught to learn that history both describes a succession of events, and tells us about real men and women who were just like ourselves, there is every need that the description should be picturesque. It is often the touch of some incident within a child's experience that makes the story real. Alfred is probably the best remembered personage in the whole range of English history. Only the danger of picturesqueness is obvious. If the detail is trivial, it is apt to force out the matters of real importance from the child's mind. Children are found to summarize the work and character of Henry II. in the melancholy detail of his death. It is easy to overload a story with detail, and then to find that the story is forgotten and the detail remembered.

It is in this connection that the antiquarian interest of history comes in. There is no neighbourhood in England which does not add its local events and monuments to the illustration of history. There is always some neighbouring castle or ancient church, some Roman road not far off, or some museum of antiquities, or some old house, or some local names which will add point to the tale. Likely enough there is some good historical novel which draws scene and incidents from the scholar's neighbourhood. The teacher's apparatus is incomplete if he neglects antiquities. They may not always interest every scholar, but the gift of rousing interest in such things depends on the teacher who, if he has any sympathy with the past, will easily find stirring "sermons" even "in stones." It need hardly be added--or ought not to need adding--that history is a vain lesson without maps. Geography of England is largely taught in the intelligent teaching of history.

There is, too, another help in picturesqueness which is not infrequently neglected--the newspaper. There has seldom been a time in recent years in which the events of the day would not give an interesting parallel to some event of the past. The Soudan, Cuba, and the Philippines, the Tirah Campaign, the Greco-Turkish War, to go back only a few years, were full of incidents which might have helped a teacher to present the past as a more living reality. The things that are going on round us in the world are real: these are in everyone's mouth: they touch many families directly: the linking of past and present by the teachers relieves the flatness of past events and makes them stand out as actual and distinct. And the discreet use of the newspaper may serve a double purpose: it will not only enliven the past, but suggest to the scholar, boy or girl, that there are in the paper other and more important things than football and fashions.

This leads on to a last suggestion, which perhaps concerns parents more than teachers--the importance of the history of our own time. Lessons in geography nowadays begin with what is nearest--the geography of the schoolroom, playground, street, and district. History cannot exactly begin in the same way: we cannot, unfortunately, teach it backward. But undoubtedly where children are taught to understand the nature of the political and national struggles which are going on round us, and the principles which underlie them, they are far more likely to grow up to understand what was involved in the history of the past. This clearly is more a parent's than a teacher's business. For modern politics can't be talked about by most people without some political bias, and this every teacher should avoid. But the child that is brought up to be interest in the politics of the day, even with some prejudice, is more likely in the end to understand history than the child who is treated by parents as unfit for the understanding of his country's interests.

In conclusion it may be humbly suggested that, in history as in other things, the boy or girl is likely to take the view of its lessons that is suggested by the parents' conversation. Where the parent obviously knows and cares something about the past, the child will learn to reverence and value the past also. Parents need not, after the fashion of Mr. Barlow, improve every occasion with a historical disquisition: that is only nauseating to the child. But it is one thing to be always dribbling out information; another, altogether, to be able to brighten a home-lesson, and make an excursion interesting with the knowledge of what the past can teach. And many a parent might do worse than change occasionally his evening novel or magazine for a renewal of his own memories of English history, knowing that his maturer intelligence might add something of zest and interest to his children's search into the knowledge of the past.