Why History Isn't About Dates
If you’re like most people, your educational experience with history largely consisted of memorizing endless lists of dates, events, battles or other fairly meaningless tidbits of information. Charlotte Mason believed “[h]istory is an entrancing subject of study…”¹ and anything less is a great disservice to our children. She goes on to say:
“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.”²
Miss Mason saw history as an opportunity to cultivate deep, meaningful thinking and reasoning. It is through the study of history that students should begin to wrestle with the complex subject of morality. “...The lesson that men and women have a great power for good or evil, and that their actions live after them. No lesson is more powerful than one drawn from the life: here are found examples for imitation and for warning. The characters described in history and the results recorded in the deeds of heroes provide aids in forming good ideals; they awaken sympathy with the noble and good, and a condemnation of the evil and selfish.”³ So how does this play out practically? First, Charlotte Mason believed history should be taught with living books - not textbooks. Second, chronology matters. Time is an elusive concept for young children, and we don’t want to create a disjunctive picture of history; therefore, teaching history chronologically makes the most sense. In Charlotte Mason’s schools students kept a Book of Centuries to help build a solid understanding of time; it also allows students to conceptualize how events are related to one another and make their own personal and lasting connections with the past. In the early years, focusing on a single person (usually via biography) is acceptable. Biographical accounts familiarize students with the societal, political and cultural patterns of the age. Lastly, history is not a standalone subject; history naturally lends itself to the study of literature, poetry, art, and music of the time and place being studied. Thus deepening the connections being made. Finally, it’s easy to forget that all of history is part of the grand story authored by our Creator. We get so wrapped up in our own kingdoms that we forget how staggering it is that He intentionally orchestrated every last detail of history in such a way that has led to the very screen you’re looking at now. It can be hard to think of history in this way - especially given the disproportionate amount of emphasis placed on fact memorization in traditional schooling. Remember, education is an atmosphere. So if we’re feeling lukewarm about studying history, our students will feel it. We set the affections of our children; so if we’re genuinely excited about history, it’s more likely they will be excited about history. Part of that comes from understanding and believing the important role history plays in our lives today. Charlotte Mason has lots more to say on teaching history to our children, I'd encourage you to read her volume, Home Education to get a deeper understanding of her philosophy and methods.
¹ Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, p. 291
² Nesbit, D.M.H., "The Teaching of History." The Parents' Review, Vol. 12. 1901. p. 917-929.
³ Mason, Charlotte. "History as a Branch of Children's Education." The Parents' Review, Vol. 10. 1899. p. 205.