Thursday, May 2, 2013

Volume 1: History

I am a very amateur history buff. I love it. It was always my "tied for second" subject in school, next to literature, of course:) I was very nearly a History major in college, but happily my discovery of historical criticism allowed me to combine both literature and a fascination with the past.

Part of my excitement in giving my children a CM education is a desire to see the past come alive for them, to watch their eager minds connect the dots in "an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas" full of books, poems, art, music, nature, science, and yes, history. Without a knowledge of history, the child will not have "principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behaviour of nations, and rule his own conduct as one of a nation." This is character development by way of history! This concept has been so revelatory for me...can you imagine how your view of the world and your place in it might have changed if you had this kind of cohesive liberal arts education, one that made wonderful use of books to grow your virtues? I had glimpses of it, but never in the sort of rigorous way Charlotte proposes. She has such a profound love and understanding of both history and child's mind, and in these few pages in Volume 1, she lays a foundation for our understanding and application as well.

Most of us were given dates to memorize, and perhaps those dates stuck. You might know when Queen Elizabeth I ruled, but how much can you tell about the woman herself? If you had been given fascinating, well-written books about her life, her loves, her beliefs, the world around her in England and beyond, you'd know the Elizabethan era in a very different way. This is what Miss Mason proposes.  "As for the dates, they never come right; the tens and units he can get, but the centuries will go astray; and how is he to put the right events in the right reign, when, to him, one king differs from another only in number, one period from another only in date?" We need to offer the fuller, more human story of history, and allow the child to come to judgement about its men and women with all the information, not just the bare facts with a moral tacked on.

Another common tool used in many history classes is an outline: a rough list of important dates, people, and events. By using this wide, broad view, students can more "efficiently" sweep through history and get a general idea of what happened when. Ugh. No wonder so many children grow up disliking history! Here is what Miss Mason suggests:

"Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, 'the truth-teller,' with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V.––Shakespeare's Henry V.––and his victorious army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus."

Last year, I read one of the best history books I've ever had the pleasure of coming across. John Adams, by David McCullough, is history told in the best way. It's beautifully written narrative, deeply human and engaging, chock full of fascinating detail about Adams' daily habits, books he read, journal entries, marriage, worries over his children, and of course his many trips from home at the service of our nation. This is how we can engage our children in history. If they are able to get to know one great man or woman, and if the book is well-written, they will have a deep sense of how and why things happened, and form a connection to it. History will have been made their own. After reading McCullough's work, I felt as though I had walked next to Adams. I felt his sorrow over the death of his wife. I related to his need to be judged and found worthy. I cried when he and Jefferson, once rivals, died the same day (the 4th of July! Can you believe it?). I felt he was my friend. No history text book ever made me cry, but they did make me wish for more and come up empty.

Where shall we begin with our young ones? Charlotte says the best place to begin is at the beginning, by telling the stories of one's own nation. Where possible, we should allow a writer from that time to tell their story to the child, so teachers should present a first hand narrative. "These old books are easier and pleasanter reading than most modern works on history, because the writers know little of the 'dignity of history'; they purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you 'all about it,' stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book." Miss Mason makes some suggestions of material, from the Venerable Bede to the Chronicles of the Crusades to the History of the British Kings. These are wonderful starting points indeed, and her choices her support her assertion that to dive right in to a nation's ancient myths is to present a harsh and bald version of the past. Better to begin with the age of kings, at least for British history.

So, what children want is "graphic details concerning events and persons upon which imagination goes to work; and opinions tend to form themselves by slow degrees as knowledge grows." And when they are quite young, they are capable of assimilating and enjoying wonderful stories from history, if we will allow it. I think there is a fear that if we go slow, if we offer stories of lives and events rather than outlines, dates, and snippets, the children won't learn everything, or they won't have been exposed to all areas of history. The reality check is that they won't. None of us will ever learn everything there is to learn about history, because the world is so full of amazing stories. Those children in your average school classroom, learning history by dates and outlines? They don't learn it all. And even worse, they have been given so little mind food, so little for their growing imaginations to work on, that they do not care. They often walk away with very little to hang their hat on, so to speak, when it comes to the lives of the real people who lived the history they studied. We can do so much better than that! Especially if we are about the business of respecting the child as a person.

Charlotte includes a wonderful quote from Mr. Arnold Foster, which really is a manifesto for what we must try to avoid and what we give these little people in our charge: "To read English history and fail to realise that it is replete with interest, sparkling with episode, and full of dramatic incident, is to miss all the pleasure and most of the instruction which its study, if properly pursued, can give."

N.B. Please do also read Miss Mason's wonderful advice about narrations (which shouldn't be "a mere feat of memory"...I laughed out loud), play acting historical events, and the creation of history-based drawings. Excellent advice and ideas all around.

1 comment:

  1. A Charlotte Mason education is also good for those of us who loathed history because of how we were taught in school. Your words bring to mind what Mason said about the large room, "The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”