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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 Concurrent Teaching of English and French History

by Alex Devine, Master of Clayesmore School, Enfield
Volume 11, no. 9, 1900, pgs. 622- 627


"In a superior sense to that of any other nation, the story of France is the story of medieval and modern Europe. It is impossible to mention France and leave out the most vital and stirring episodes and experiences in the history of Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, with Germany and Switzerland all forming part in relationship and influence with the story of France, which bore first-hand upon its heart-influences and impressions that came to us in later years second-hand from the sister nation. The story of France, then, is also the story of the main events and influences of the Continent of Europe and is rich in incident and wealth of detail."


The average man who is devoted to his profession is tempted to exalt unduly the peculiar calling to which he belongs; but I take it that this exaggeration is practically impossible in connection with anyone devoted to education. To the schoolmaster comes young England, and young England is the centre of the hope of England; to the schoolmaster also comes young France, in whom all the hope of France is fixed, and the man engaged in educational work who realizes his stupendous opportunity for character training and influence, the man who grasps the fact that in his hands lies the grant power of raising the ideal and outlook on life of the boys submitted to his care, that man then begins to call his works sacred, and a God-given "sense of humour" will alone redeem him from the oppression of his great task. I take it that the chief object of the educationalist is to deal with human nature and affect human character; and of all the various instruments in the hands of a teacher for the effecting of this purpose, I know none so natural and so effective as the study of human nature and human character, to which we give the name of History.

Here, in the actions of men, the story of their ambitions, successes, mistakes, passions, struggles for freedom baseness, folly, beauty of life and character, we gain great things. We get opportunity for the exercise of memory, of judgment, of imagination, of thought--all of deep educational value. The mere accumulation of a string of dates and facts seems to me to be of hardly any value or use. Ideas, vistas, general impressions and principles, the underlying relations between different groups of phenomena--these are of enormous value; the power to throw life into social development, the sources of strength and weakness in nations, the cause of some succeeding event, the effect of some preceding one--these ideals of teaching become truly educational, thought-compelling. Viewed simply as an engine of education, comparison is amongst the most important a teacher can use or cause to be used; and I do not hesitate to say that there is no history teaching worthy the name that is not comparative. We can understand white because we know black. We state a fact, and demonstrate it by the exhibition of a contrary fact; and akin to this, as a value in history teaching, is the contrast of period with period, nation with nation, such as is provided in the concurrent study of French and English history.

There remains one more question to be answered: Why should French history, of all history, be selected for comparison purposes with that of England? In the first place, it becomes necessary, in view of the already overcrowded school curriculum, that one particular country should be selected for comparison purposes. This being so, what nation so accessible, and so much our neighbour in so many ways, as France, the only country of Europe whose shores we may see from ours; its history most intertwined with our own, not only up to the time of the Reformation, when there were ties of personal relationship between the reigning houses of both countries, but the strong connection between Scotland and France, and later relationships equally important.

The whole subject is too large for very close attention in detail within the limits of this article; but I am anxious to do full justice to the method I advocate, so excellent as I have experienced it to be in practical educational results, lighting up, as it does, the history of our own country, and explaining many matters impossible of real explanation unless the foreign view and condition of things was made clear. The plan we adopt has been to divide the history of the respective nations into certain periods, say six or seven, and to study the history and literature of these periods side by side. Simply by way of illustration, let us take a comparison of the English and French Revolutions, both of them springing from the same root, and both in many ways similar in matter of detail and incident. In both countries, an unpopular Queen. In England, the Long Parliament; in France, the self-constituted National Assembly: the flight of Louis to Varennes; the flight of Charles to the Isle of Wight: the trial and execution of both kings: the government by Parliament; government by Convention, the outcome in both cases-a strong man: Cromwell--Napoleon Buonaparte: both assemblies expelled by force, a military despotism succeeding; both heirs of the strong men set aside for the restoration of both lawful kings; and the after-effects of each.

Professor Spiers, in his most admirable book History and Literature of France, so invaluable an aid to all students of French history, points out the profound difference underlying the two Revolutions; but nevertheless, what possibilities do we not obtain by means of such comparison for exciting interest and helping at the formation of sound judgment. The English Revolution, standing alone, becomes more or less a statement of certain facts; by comparison, all the wealth of thought and judgment is provided with immediate exercise. Or again, compare the French literary influences upon England during the Stuart period, and the stupendous and far-reaching influence of English thinkers and writers upon the French literature of the eighteenth century. The amazement of Voltaire and Rousseau at the toleration and freedom, religious and political, in England, divulged to a discontented and oppressed people by these apostles, setting on fire the pile that was already waiting for the fatal spark of flame, and with what stupendous results, both to France, and in its turn, again back to England. Examples may be given by the score of similar parallelisms.

Of course, it is evident to all who study the history of the two countries, that the history of France does not lend itself as completely as that of England to the process of observation from the point of view of gradual emancipation. In France, what was gained in one period seems to have been lost in the next; but still there remains much food for study. Compare, for instance, the effort to establish absolute monarchy--an effort more successful and complete in France than even in this country, and therefore bearing with it, almost of very necessity, a reaction more violent. Or take the story of the Crusades and their influence, or the struggle against Feudalism in both countries; or again, the story of the French and English Colonies. One can hardly mention a name in France but that the counterpart in England suggests itself; Rabelais, Swift and Sterne; the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, and Locke; a Richelieu--a Wolsey; and scores more. But not alone because of the intertwining histories of both countries, is France most suitable for comparative study in English schools. In a superior sense to that of any other nation, the story of France is the story of medieval and modern Europe. It is impossible to mention France and leave out the most vital and stirring episodes and experiences in the history of Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, with Germany and Switzerland all forming part in relationship and influence with the story of France, which bore first-hand upon its heart-influences and impressions that came to us in later years second-hand from the sister nation. The story of France, then, is also the story of the main events and influences of the Continent of Europe, and is rich in incident and wealth of detail. I believe that such a plan as I have tried briefly to set forth cannot fail to bring with it a deeper patriotism and love of country on the one hand--deeper, because based upon no foundation of ignorance, or foolish prejudice, but upon a knowledge and study of historical fact; and also, more charity and a more generous sense of human comradeship; the abandonment of foolish insularity; a more dignified patience, it may be, under misrepresentation; and altogether ideals--of greater chivalry and generosity.

My friend, Sir Clements Markham, writing me on this subject, says:--"This was an ideal of Sir John Fortescue, the Chief Justice, who taught young Edward of Lancaster in his exile by comparing the institutions and the conditions of the People Of France and England. The account of this system of tuition was first published in the year 1537, and has since been translated and edited by Lord Clermont. The young Prince was just at the most interesting age--between twelve and sixteen."

Reading Montaigne recently, l was struck with the argument he sets forth against foolish insularity:--"When I have been abroad out of France, and when people have asked me, out of courtesy, whether I would be served in the French fashion, I have laughed at them, and always sat down at the tables most occupied by foreigners. I am ashamed to see my fellow-countrymen besotted that stupid humour--of finding fault with all fashions opposed to their own. They seem to be out of their element when they get out of their own village; wherever they go, they stick to their own ways, and abominate these foreigners. Do they fall in with a fellow-countryman in Hungary? They congratulate themselves on the meeting; from that moment they are inseparable and lay their heads together to abuse all the customs they have seen; how can they be other than barbarous customs seeing they are not French? Indeed, the cleverest people are those who have noticed things sufficiently to abuse them. Most of them go only to come home again; they travel wrapped up in themselves, closed against all intercourse, with a taciturn and unsociable caution, to protect themselves against the infection of a foreign air."

Surely we have the very representation of an Englishman as he is imagined in France to-day! And again:

"The great world is the mirror in which we must look if we would really know ourselves. In short, I would have that to be my scholar's book. The great variety of humours, of sects, of judgments, of opinions, of laws, and customs, teach us to judge soberly of our own, and lead our judgment to recognize its own imperfection and natural infirmity; and this is no mean apprenticeship. So many revolutions in states, and changes in the fortunes of nations, instruct us not to see so great a miracle in our own. So many names, so many victories and conquests buried in oblivion, make it ridiculous to hope to immortalize our own names by the capture of a dozen dragoons or a paltry fort which is only remembered by its ruins."

And with what wiser words could I close my little paper? However much natural habit of mind, the force of tradition, disposition, and inherited tendency may separate nation from nation, we may find surely, if we have the grace and sense to seek it, some common ground, some bond of comradeship. In the region of thought we may join hands; in the ranks of the historian, the philosopher, the economist, the poet we may find kindred spirit, and such comradeship as will aid us to be broader, wiser and more charitable. Ignorance is the greatest foe we have to contend with--the next narrow prejudice, lack of thought and knowledge; and I claim for the schoolmaster and the schools a considerable portion of the work of overcoming these ghostly enemies. The young are hero-worshippers, and the most generous representatives of the old chivalry we have left to us in these prosaic days. I know many English boys who are as proud of Bayard and Du Guesclin as of their English heroes. We in England are safe and content in our island home; safer than ever amidst the whirl of opposition and war; quite sure of our strength, despite blunders and mistakes. Shall we not, too, in the time of our wealth be generous? Shall we not stand, cap in hand, before the quiet grave of our dead adversary, Joubert, as the soldiers of Charles Quint stood when the body of Bayard went by, in respect of a stalwart and honourable foe? Shall not we, as we study and teach intelligently the story of France, do some wise work in helping to wipe out the memory of any petty insult, And as we tell the story of France and our own best-loved land to young England, will not this aid to the formation of quieter, deeper judgments as little else will? Will, in short, the recital of the mutual struggles, fellow-failures and mistakes, fellow-glories and braveries, rob us of one ounce of loyalty or devotion to the interests of our homeland? Will it not rather strengthen and deepen the ties that bind us to it, yet draw us to a finer toleration and generosity of regard towards those of other blood?


Proofread May 2011, LNL