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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

by D. M. H. Nesbitt
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 917-929


"The educational value of history lies in the fact that it gives a knowledge of the world in its human relations. It does for human nature what physical science does for inanimate nature."


It may be assumed that most people agree in the advisability of admitting history to a place in the school curriculum, but perhaps some of us could only express rather vaguely our justification of this opinion. History was indeed excluded from the curriculum of many of the mediaeval schools, as for instance the earlier schools of the Jesuits. In fact, it was a saying, "History is the destruction of him who studies it." It was felt to be dangerous knowledge, for in all times and countries, the light of history is dreaded by those who wish to confine human thought or to train people in obedience to some merely personal authority instead of to a principle of right. Its study is condemned by some modern writers, not as pernicious, but as useless. Herbert Spencer is among those who would have it omitted for the reason that the facts in school histories are "unorganisable."

Many educationalists, however, acknowledge its value, and its study is encouraged by most of those who, like Locke and Montaigne, have given new ideas to educators. Rousseau is one of the exceptions, but he was at enmity with all that existed in his own day, and his tacit motto seems to have been, "Whatever is, is wrong." In view of these conflicting opinions, it may be worth while to consider some of the answers that are commonly given when we are asked by our own pupils or any one else, "Why do we learn history at all?" If we are too utilitarian in our ideas, perhaps some of our reasons may sound a little shallow or superficial as we utter them. "It would not do to be thought ignorant." "You ought to be able to converse upon topics familiar to everyone else." "People might think you had not been educated as a gentleman or as a lady, as the case may be." Such answers are redolent of last century finishing schools, and would seem to relegate history to a place among the list of "accomplishments," with which it was once the aim of everybody to be well veneered, however thin the coating might be.

Perhaps we settle the question off-hand in a more practical way. "Of course we must learn history in order to he able to understand politics and to utilize our votes properly, or to be enabled to advise others how to vote." Perhaps our querists wonder precisely how their having read the story of King Alfred and the cakes in a little textbook should influence their opinions about such a modern question as Local Option, or whether their having drawn a plan on the blackboard of the disposition of the troops who took part in the Battle of Crécy should enable them to give our generals hints about the conduct of the Boer War.

Another view is that the sole object of teaching history is to afford training in the powers of judgment, while others again quote to us familiar lines about the influence of the "lives of great men."

There is some reason in all these answers, although none of them are nearly adequate. History cannot perfectly instruct us in the duties of citizenship, for these change and develop with the growth of ages;—but history can and should help us to become dutiful citizens. Let the right spirit come first to the child, and then the youth trained to loyalty and patriotism will find out for himself, whether with or without the help of the study of the laws of Political Economy, how to carry his principles into such loyal and patriotic actions as are needed in his own times and under modern conditions.

Political economy without history would be like precept without example. Ignorant people who do not know of the many social experiments recorded in history, fall in with any plausible but unpracticable scheme that may be suggested to them. To be a good citizen implies more than merely knowing how the vote should be given. True public spirit is shown in preferring the good of the community to any private interests. History, then, is to be taught, not for its facts, but for its ideas. The story of the Battle of Agincourt is useful, not because we could in modern warfare follow the tactics of Henry V., but because we may catch the spirit that made that little handful of Englishmen cling to a forlorn hope until it became a glorious actuality, the spirit which we do indeed see to-day, and which is no mere sentiment, but an essentially practical feeling to which definite and tangible results bear witness. The educational value of history lies in the fact that it gives a knowledge of the world in its human relations. It does for human nature what physical science does for inanimate nature.

Education is indeed defined by the PNEU as the establishment of relationships.

Any history book or any method of teaching which does not establish the child's human relations by bringing him into touch with other peoples and other times, fails proportionately in its educational object. Let the children realize their glorious heritage, that of the accumulated labour and knowledge and experience of all the ages. In a sense, indeed, the humblest of us is "making history." The same ethical principles which govern masses govern individuals, and a sense of the solidarity of the race, and of the responsibility of each unit in the social organism towards every other unit, should be most stimulating to any of us. We must try to induce in our pupils this feeling of oneness with all ages, by presenting the characters of history to them as living people. We should not deal in generalities, but picture the lives of individuals. Let the child know intimately as many great and fine historical characters as possible, and, if possible, fire him with the true heroic impulse. "We needs must love the highest when we see it." Let us give the children opportunities of seeing by opening to them new vistas—the long vistas of the past, illuminated by so many glorious deeds and heroic lives. This is not to be accomplished by adopting an over-didactic or moralizing tone, or by the continual reiteration of an already obvious moral. Some history books, especially those written for children, err in this way. All kings are labelled as "good" or "bad," and no opportunity is left open for the children to use their own moral sense or their powers of discrimination.

Shakespeare does not deem it necessary to tell us in so many words that Henry V. was brave, or that Henry VIII. was an unchivalrous bully, or that Richard II. was pitiably weak, but he brings us into such contact with each of them, that our imaginations are fired, and we perceive and know them for ourselves, because they have been presented to us living and pulsating with life, far better than if we had waded through pages of descriptive characterisation. We glow with patriotic pride when Henry of Agincourt rebukes his cousin Westmoreland for wishing for more men from England. We burn with indignation when Henry VIII answers with selfish cant the dignified and pathetic appeal of that "most poor woman," Catherine of Aragon, and we are irritated by a very real sense of exasperation when the weak Richard, giving way utterly at the critical moment of peril and refusing all hopeful suggestions, can only set his subjects an example of despairing impotency, and talk "of worms, of graves, and epitaphs."

Let us then be graphic with our pupils. Let them know and feel that these men of olden times were like ourselves. Let us omit no detail that can give colour to the picture of their lives, and let us have all our facts threaded together on a living idea.

The former sequence of teaching in many subjects has been entirely reversed. Time was when text-books on botany began by explaining the structure of a fibro-vascular bundle, and ended by enumerating the various typical shapes of leaves.

Now we put morphology before histiology; we work from the known to the unknown, from the obvious to the involved.

Let us follow this principle in history lessons. Lists of names and dates to be learned by heart may have their place, but they are the dry bones of history, a firm and necessary skeleton, but to be studied after, and not before, the human form.

But how often are children made to learn lists of the dates of kings whose very names are unfamiliar, and of whose reigns they know little or nothing! How often are they set to learn outlines and to read "condensed" and abbreviated histories before they have been awakened to a real interest in any one person or incident!

One is almost tempted to think that the object is to stifle as speedily and surely as possible the natural desire for knowledge which is so strong in us all, but especially in children. They are told that they must hurry on and know the outlines of all English history. Any matter which is supposed to be irrelevant to the particular syllabus or examination required is most searchingly weeded out, and the subject is made to appear to the child as finite as possible—all capable of being tabulated, written on so many pages, learned in a hurry—nothing beyond; no regions remaining unexplored, no ground uncovered.

We forget that the child's mind is unable to fill in the details of the bare epigrammatic statements, and that meagre outlines connote far less to his mind than they do to ours. Children need full and vivid descriptions. Their powers of imagination need direction. To a grown and educated person, the bare statement that such and such a battle was fought, or that such and such a town withstood a siege, may be interesting, for a grown and educated person has probably read or heard enough of battles and sieges to know something of their permanent conditions, and to be able to call up some mental picture, whether or not absolutely correct, in the particular instance; but to a child's mind such bare statements are worth nothing. He does not know what a battle really is, or what a siege is, and he is not much nearer knowing even after a concise definition of the words that would grace the pages of a standard dictionary.

How then are we to give the children this real and living idea of the scenes and actions of history ?

Let us first consider the beginners, little children who have learned nothing as yet even of the history of their own country. They will be eager to know, as are all children who have not been given a distaste for knowledge by mistaken methods of teaching. Do not begin by frightening them with a list of the dates of all the kings of England, while their names are still unfamiliar. There are many bright, chatty history books written expressly for children, but these have commonly the fault of "talking down" to them too much, and they are not infrequently written in very poor English. Do not begin with an outline of the whole of English History. It were better to first acquaint the children intimately with one period, and that, a short one. Let them live for a short time under the influence, as it were, of some hero of olden time. It is well for a young child to begin with an early period, such as the Saxon period, because early history is simpler and more natural to study. The story of Alfred is a most suitable one for children, and may well be chosen as the subject for the first term's work in history with children of from six to nine years of age. The little history book for children will give perhaps a chapter on Alfred in which we shall be told how he let the cakes burn, and how he wandered into the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel. The scantiness of matter will be compensated for by five or six paragraphs of chatty writing with a good sprinkling of moralising. We cannot get a term's work out of this. But why confine ourselves to the little text-book ? It is better to learn history from books of real literary value, and, when possible, from chronicles written by contemporary historians. The teacher should be capable of selecting passages, rejecting unsuitable matter, and explaining difficult words or involved expressions. For Alfred's life, we might use a book written by one who really knew and loved the hero king; The Life of Alfred, by Asser of Saint David's. The narrative is exceedingly simple, and many passages can be read to the children as they stand in the translation. Some of the wording will, of course, require explanation, but it is always easier to explain a strange word to a child than to illustrate an involved idea.

The programme of work for the term as set by the Parents' Review School is worth consideration in connection with this subject, as it shows the working out of PNEU principles in this direction. The Herbartian principle of concentration of studies may have been sometimes carried to excess in practice, but it is based upon a very real psychological law, that of the association of ideas. For a definite time, all studies are made to centre round some particular idea. By presenting facts and ideas in a connected manner and consecutively, permanent interest is induced and logical memory strengthened. History is usually the subject chosen as the core or centre of instruction, being a humanistic study and one with ethical power. Formal studies, such as reading and writing, are made to fit into the others and to intensify interest in them. Thus, reading exercises may be taken from the history that is being studied instead of something totally disconnected with the child's previous train of thought. The geography lessons of the term would include the physical features of those parts of England with which Alfred was familiar, i. e., Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia. The children might make a model in clay or putty of the south and south-eastern coast lines of England, and mark the various places where the Danes effected a landing. The difference between the physical features of the country in Alfred's time and to-day must he pointed out. The children can mark the sites of the great forests which have been so much cut down, and the great swamps which have been reclaimed, since the days when the Saxons were hunted and driven from their own homes to take refuge in these friendly wildernesses, before at last they turned to bay and, in a desperate rally, freed themselves from the fierce tyranny of the invader.

A book which might be utilized for the children's own reading is the Life of Alfred, written by Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, which is very well arranged and clearly expressed.

The method of teaching for these little children is by reading and narration. Maps and pictures should be used as much as possible. We will imagine that the lesson is to be on Alfred, and that the children have already followed his story up to 878, the darkest and most disheartening time for the king. The objects of any lesson or series of lessons, stated broadly, are, first, to give ideas, and, secondly, to cultivate certain desirable habits, as attention, promptness, discernment, etc. A lecture aims only at giving ideas, and therefore is not so suitable for children who need mental discipline as well. A lesson cannot have a disciplinary value unless the children work as well as the teacher. Such a history lesson as this on Alfred has then a two-fold object:—

(1.) To give the children certain ideas about Alfred and his times, e.g., his courage and hopefulness, and the faith of the Christian Saxons as contrasted with the foolish superstition of the Danes.

(2.) To strengthen the power of accuracy and clearness in narration.

The advantages of cultivating the power of narrating clearly, accurately, and in detail a passage that has been read aloud are obvious, and the test of whether the lesson has been well taken will be the manner in which the children narrate.

The lesson may open by a few questions intended to arouse interest and to connect the new matter with the subject of the previous lesson. The scene in which the events (to be taken in the lesson) take place is then described as graphically as possible, with the aid of such maps and pictures as may be procured. As it would not be advisable to interrupt the reading too often in order to explain hard words, such should be introduced beforehand. The children are told they are going to hear about how the Danes attacked a castle believed to be impregnable (that is, impossible to enter from outside), and surrounded by what Asser calls "walls in our own fashion," that is, great banks of earth thrown up, which were the only kind of walls that the poor Saxons had time to build then. Arouse the curiosity of the children and make them think and ask questions for themselves, e.g., Had the Saxons got anything to eat inside the castle? How could they fight the Danes from behind the earth walls, etc.? When the children are quite interested, and have been told enough about the scene to have a clear mental image of it all, having been helped by graphic word painting, the following passage may be read clearly and with expression:—

"In the same year (978) the brother of Hingwar and Halfdene, with twenty-three ships, after much slaughter of the Christians, came from the country of Demetia (or South Wales), where he had wintered and sailed to Devon, where, with twelve hundred others, he met with a miserable death, being slain while committing his misdeeds by the king's servants, before the castle of Kynwith, into which many of the king's servants, with their followers, had fled for safety. The pagans, seeing that the castle was altogether unprepared and unfortified, except that it had walls in our own fashion, determined not to assault it, because it was impregnable and secure on all sides, except on the eastern, as we ourselves have seen, but they began to blockade it, thinking that those who were inside would soon surrender either from famine or want of water, for the castle had no spring near it. But the result did not fall out as they expected, for the Christians, before they began to suffer from want, inspired by Heaven, judging it much better to gain victory or death, attacked the pagans suddenly in the morning, and, from the first, cut them down in great numbers, slaying also their king, so that few escaped to their ships; and there they gained a very large booty, and, among other things, the standard called Raven; for they say that the three sisters of Hingwar and Hubba, daughters of Lodsbroch, wove that flag and got it ready in one day. They say, moreover, that in every battle, wherever that flag went before them, if they were to gain the victory a live crow would appear flying in the middle of the flag, but if they were doomed to be defeated it would hang down motionless, and this was often proved to be so."

This is, of course, one example among many of a passage which may be treated in this way. Such phrases as, "we ourselves have seen," give a reality to the incidents related. The children should now be called upon to narrate the incident fully and clearly. Careful enunciation and well expressed sentences should be insisted upon, and I have known quite little children very soon acquire the power of narrating a similar passage with perfect accuracy and fluency. For older children and in higher classes, besides a special period to be studied during the term, some general history up to the end of the Tudor period may be read. The third class programme of the Parents Review Schol recommends A History of England, by Arnold Foster, a book which, though written for children, addresses them as intelligent human beings.

Let us suppose the period for the term to be 1587-1603, the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth. The whole reign, being such a full and important one, would be too much for one term, and as the division of history into reigns is purely arbitrary, we need not keep to it when there is any good reason for departing therefrom. The term's work will include contemporary history, especially the study of those events which have a direct connection with the history of our own country. It is easy to see how an account of the progress of the Inquisition in Spain and the fighting in the Netherlands, and also the history of the bitter religious struggle in France, at this time will help the children to understand the force and terror of the fanaticism of the age to the yoke of which England so resolutely refused to bow her neck.

It is also obvious that it would be well to know something of the geography of Spain, and the West Indies, and of Peru and Mexico, the lands whose violated gold ruined Spain, and, as is the way of great wealth won without corresponding labour and effort, led to the pauperisation and degradation of those whom it at first enriched.

For recitation the children may learn the whole or part of Macaulay's Armada. I know a little girl who, when saying this by heart, can never pass the lines—

The sentinel on Whitehall Gate looked out into the night,
And saw o'erhanging Richmond Hill that streak of bloodred light

—without pausing to say with shining eyes and breathless voice, "Mustn't it have been exciting?"

She knows Richmond Hill and she has often passed the sentinels at Whitehall. Those lines bring home the fact of the Armada to her as nothing else could do.

A graphic account of the coming of the Armada, from the Spanish point of view, is given in The Spanish Story of the Armada, by Froude. There are translations of some of the letters which passed between Philip and the Duke of Medina Sidonia. One of these I cannot refrain from quoting, showing as it does the positively ludicrous unfitness of the leader of the expedition for his task. Medina Sidonia writes to Philip's secretary—"My health is bad, and from my small experience of the water I know I am always sea-sick. I have no money which I can spare, I owe a million ducats, and I have not a real to spend on my outfit. The expedition is on such a scale and the object is of such high importance that the person at the head of it ought to understand navigation and sea-fighting, and I know nothing of either. I have not one of these essential qualifications. I have no acquaintances among the officers who are to serve under me . . . If you send me, depend upon it, I shall have a bad account to render of my trust."

For general reading, perhaps in the afternoon or evening hours, the programme suggests Kenilworth and Westward Ho. Much may be said in favour of a good historical novel. The imagination of a good writer fills in with great truthfulness many of the gaps left by history. The authentic chronicle treats of facts objectively, the novel is subjective and treats of the spirit of the age, its ideals and ideas. Literature is intimately connected with history. The literature of the period should be studied, and also some literature about the scenes and events of the period.

It is not an insuperable objection to Kenilworth that Scott has rearranged chronology to suit his story, that for instance he introduces Shakespeare as a well-known player and dramatist at a date when he was in reality an infant, or that he makes the death of Amy Robsart occur fifteen years too late. We would not use Kenilworth as a reference book for dates, but we find in it a valuable portrait of Elizabeth and her times, which may in some respects supplement the historical accounts, just as a painted portrait often supplies the deficiencies in life and expression of the more strictly accurate photograph.

Children in Class III. should be capable of writing in simple narrative form as well as narrating by word of mouth what they have studied.

For the teaching of chronology, we use charts. The object is to visualise the dates so that the children may remember through their sense of sight. A number of squares are ruled off, each representing a year, and in these are made drawings symbolical of the event of which we wish to be reminded. Thus accessions may be denoted by a crown; the birth of a great man by a rising star, or a battle by a sword.

In this way, the child gets a mental picture of events in their proper sequence.

In higher classes the methods are similar, but books of a more discursive type may be used, and the pupils should have practice in writing essays as well as narratives. The fourth class programme recommends Green's Shorter History of the English People, and for foreign history, Lord's Modern Europe.

A programme taken at random gives as the period for the term the Restoration (1660-1685). The literature for the term includes Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Milton's Samson Agonistes, Pepys' Diary and the Life and Writings of Pascal. The pupils make entries into a "Commonplace Book," of those passages whose literary force or beauty have particularly appealed to them. For lighter reading, they may turn to Scott's Peveril of the Peak. It is very important that the pupils should have opportunities of reading good literature.

Constitutional history is suitable with these older pupils, and the leading problems and principles of political economy may be discussed with them.

By comparing the history of various nations during the same period, the pupils will be able to discern what was the leading spirit of each age, the Zeitgeist [spirit of the age] whose force is felt by all peoples. They will be interested in seeing how the great ideas which are given to the world as it is ready to receive them are modified according to national or individual characteristics. Thus in the Middle Ages, "the age of chivalry," we see in the Crusades the result possibly of general enthusiasm for service, the striving after the championship of a cause as an ideal, and, in its perversion, the desire for glory dominating all other aims, and the love of martial renown leading to the sacrifice of all the arts of peace.

Perhaps we may find evidences that in later times, when the spirit of discovery is in the air, the desire to do is to some extent subservient to the general desire for knowledge. The discovery of America, the revival of learning, the invention of printing, all help to broaden the minds of men, to lift them out of their narrow grooves, to widen their path of vision till they are eager to see more of other lands, and to hear more of other times than their own. But invention and improvement and discovery lead to increased comfort in life, to luxury, and, as a reaction against this, to the conviction of the necessity of discipline, to Puritan strictness and Quaker simplicity, till again in still later times the ideal of strictness in life passes almost imperceptibly into that of freedom of thought, and we have an age of progress and changes, broken by eruptive revolutions and fed by passionate and unconventional writings by which the present age is ushered in, and by what Zeitgeist that is led, perhaps posterity alone can say; or are we perhaps learning to realise more fully in this age the truth of the unity of the race, and the brotherhood of man? And is it this spirit which helps us towards universal education, and the acknowledgment of rights and privileges to all classes, and in its perversion, incompleteness or partiality leads to communism, rebellion against just authority, and even to anarchism, for an age, like a person, has "the faults of its qualities."

We must encourage older pupils to think for themselves. We must try to give a direction to their thoughts without in any way forcing our opinions upon them.

Let them read the works of the men who have thought honestly and deeply on either side of a question. Let them write and speak of great men in a tolerant and diffident spirit, even when their opinions or teaching are widely different from those of our own day. Essay writing is good as inducing thought, provided that no subject be set until sufficient material in connection therewith has been stored in the mind for the pupil to write about. As an instance of a subject that might be set for a historical essay, we have "Compare and contrast the character of Milton with that of Pascal." We would show how each was led by the spirit of the age to similar thoughts, though through widely differing channels. Both despised the luxury and sinful effeminacy that they saw around them. Pascal, with his hair shirt, and Milton, with his ascetic puritanism, seem instances of the meeting of two extremes.

The subject might be pursued indefinitely. Indeed, we want our pupils to feel that the subject of history is infinite. If we can succeed in teaching them the power of sympathetically entering into the minds of others, of comprehending the train of thought by which people, in utterly different times and circumstances, may have arrived logically at conclusions which appear to us at the first glance narrow, absurd, or even ludicrous, then we shall have made of their history lessons instruments of their education; their sympathy with, tolerance for and love of their fellow-creatures will be increased, and they will be broader in mind, less ready to be carried away by extreme notions and more able to see that "there is a great deal to be said on both sides" of any question.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009