The purpose of this essay is to discuss in a general way the type of history instruction that is most appropriate for students of differing maturity levels. The essay which follows this one develops these ideas in a much more detail by providing specific recommendations for various grade levels. It is our purpose here only to describe the overall challenges and possibilities, and approach the problem philosophically rather than practically.
1. Grammar School Selections—Variety
In the earliest years of grammar school, when a student is still struggling with reading fluently, the focus should stay on whatever helps the child learn to read. We do not recommend seriously attempting to teach history until a student is reading well at a fourth grade level. History Readers such as Baldwin's Famous Stories series are oriented toward early readers and are generally well done, but they cover historical topics only superficially. During the early grammar years worthwhile history related stories might be read aloud for entertainment, but it is not essential to cover history at all at this time.
Once a child is reading well we recommend a relatively unstructured, independent reading-based approach for two or three years, which allows the student to follow his own interests as much as possible and introduces him to a wide variety of history stories.
Instead of using history as a "work-horse" to teach other subjects such as writing, we recommend using it as a carrot. "When you're done with your math and grammar, you'll get to read history." No tests are necessary in grammar school and we believe that history workbooks that focus on reviewing specific facts are counter-productive for any student who considers writing a chore. A few reports or projects can be assigned, but nothing so cumbersome that it detracts from independent reading.
Stories from American history, should be covered during this period, but also Mythology and Legends, chivalry, hero stories, Folk Tales, and Famous Stories from any age of history. A complete list of the books we recommend for this age group can be found on the Young Readers Classical Curriculum.
The grammar school period is a fine time to do "unit studies". Some unit studies are quite excellent but young readers should not have their history selection confined to a single subject. It is a time for exploration and a critical time for developing a broad taste for history.
2. Mythology, Hero Stories and Legends
Mythology and legends are essentially fairy tales of special importance and are most appropriate for grammar school. The stories of the Greek heroes, for example, contain many of the most spectacular monsters ever invented and the heroes themselves are essentially "live action heroes", as compelling to most youngsters as spider-man or Captain America.
But just as teenagers eventually out-grow Batman, mythology and legends are significantly less interesting to young adults when they are encouraged to study them as literature, especially if they have no previous exposure to them. If your student missed the opportunity to learn the Greek myths as a youngster he may need to wait until he has children of his own to fully appreciate their appeal.
We ourselves were not introduced to Greek mythology until "Advanced Literature" classes in high school and by then they seemed childish and inane. Our interest was only re-invigorated when our own children got to that delightful age and fell in love with the Greek Heroes. Only now, having seen them once through a child's eyes, do we understand their eternal allure.
Myths, legends and hero stories are not only appropriate for grammar school students but they are frequently their favorite books and should be a top priority for the early years.
3. Middle School Selections—Ancient History.
By Middle School students are prepared to start learning comprehensive history. Timelines, prominent characters, and important conflicts should be presented in an orderly fashion but memorizing every detail is not as important as learning the stories and character of the civilization being studied.
When starting to teach comprehensive history it is helpful to start at the beginning and Ancient Greece makes a terrific beginning. Students who are already familiar with Greek Mythology and Bible History can transition into Greek History with an already strong background and the fascinating characters, rousing battles, and heroic feats make for an attractive first exposure to structured history.
Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and Mediaeval Europe are essentially the foundational periods of Classical Western Civilization. Upon close inspection they were all very sophisticated civilizations that dealt with highly complex political and social issues, but middle school students do not need to delve into these difficulties and can stick to the more romantic stories of the time.
It is important when introducing a student to Ancient Civilizations to use caution when considering modern texts. Much contemporary treatment of ancient times is spectacularly awful!. Modern books often harp on ancient civil rights abuses and the lack of opportunities for women, and downplay the drama and excitement of ancient battles and revolutions. It is almost as if their greatest fear is that students might actually enjoy their subject matter, or empathize with those hardy souls who laid the foundation of western freedoms.
4. High School Selections—Preparation for Modern History
Teaching the history of the twentieth century to young people presents a difficult challenge and Heritage History has limited resources available in this area. Our history stories end in 1922 just as the modern era was ushered in, complete with its murderous totalitarian governments, cataclysmic wars, and astounding advances in technology.
Before tackling modern history, however, it is important for high school students to gain a solid background in the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Heritage History has a great deal of material in this area. Our collection of histories pertaining to the British Empire are particularly relevant since Britain was at the forefront of many of the dramatic events of the progressive era.
Many teenagers are mature enough to learn about modernist ideologies that arose within Europe during this period, but older books are not particularly helpful in this task. Traditional authors do an excellent job of relating events but sometimes come across as unduly confident in the possibilities of "social progress". Many of the histories available on Heritage History were written prior to the Great War, before the dark side of the progressive era was revealed by that calamitous clash between scientific statism (Prussia) and decadent liberal democracy (Great Britain and France). Others were written soon after the war, and the difference in tone from optimistic complacency to reflective pessimism is striking.
Although it is impossible to rely exclusively on traditional histories when teaching recent history, they are very useful resources when covering periods up to the 1920's. High schoolers benefit most from a mix of both older and more recent points of view when trying to comprehend modern world events.
5. High School Selections—American History
Teaching American history to high schoolers entails many of the same difficulties discussed in the previous section. In particular, ideology plays an enormous factor in recent events so that it is nearly impossible to write non-"politicized" history. The dilemma presented by the American republic is simply this: The principles on which the nation is currently governed are nearly antithetical to those on which it was founded. This fact is significant and it greatly complicates the problem of presenting a coherent narrative of American history, especially in a manner that is comprehensible to young people.
It is perfectly consistent for modern historians who are supportive of the current form of American government to be critical and dismissive of the pretentions of the founding fathers. Far more perplexing are historians who extol the ideals of the founders, yet are complacent regarding the "evolution" of a democratic republic into a statist plutocracy, governed by bureaucratic obfuscation and judicial fiat. It is a terrific stretch to embrace both the ideal of limited government and the reality of unlimited federal largesse, financed largely by mortgaging unborn generations.
Teenagers don't "fail to understand" the American form of government because they are stupid or because it hasn't been explained well enough—they fail to understand it because it is, in point of fact, an incomprehensible monstrosity. This cannot be fixed by writing better history books, but it helps to explain why compelling narratives of recent American history are so difficult to come by.
In contrast, studying early American history from traditional texts can still be relatively enjoyable. Up until the early 20th century, the American republic still retained much of its original, individualist spirit. Historians who wrote about national events from the American revolution up to and including World War I could do so within a coherent ideological framework. Certainly there were atrocities, injustice, corruption and oppression in early American history, but older writers could relate and even criticize these events without tying themselves up in knots trying to reconcile flatly opposing value systems. The traditional historians can be said to be naive, or even bigoted, but they are at least comprehensible and in this age, that is a welcome relief.
6. Absorb, don't Analyze.
There is a great push in modern education to develop critical thinking skills. We have virtually nothing nice to say about this phenomenon, but it is especially pernicious in regards to history. Making sure students "understand" history is no more constructive at a young age than making sure they "understand" fairy tales, and equally deadly to fostering interest in the subject. Even many older students cannot analyze history well, but can still learn and enjoy it.
We believe that young people should be allowed to absorb history without being required to analyze it. Pointing out ironies, competing values, and historical disputes is a fine thing, but asking students to write position papers on complicated issues with a sophomoric background is usually a waste of time and paper. We are not certain that students (not to mention politicians, pundits, or professors) should even be allowed to write position papers until they have successfully completed an introductory course in logic, which most clearly have not.
There is undoubtedly a subset of students who are naturally interested in politics and policy, but a debating society or a rhetoric class is the right framework for that sort of activity. Argumentative students who are interested in politics should presumably be interested in history also, but they should not have a monopoly on the subject. History is a wonderful subject for rhetoric, but history is not rhetoric.
The fact is, most people are not analytical by nature and will never synthesize all of their historical knowledge into a grand theory. Yet even people who do not have the skills or desire to be a political analyst get a great deal of insight and perspective from history, even if they never learn to articulate it well. Many of the most enthusiastic amateur historians we know are not politicos, but plumbers, printers, and every-day people.
The misconception that history is primarily a vehicle for teaching political theory is precisely the pernicious notion that Heritage History stands against. It is thoroughly appropriate for bright, well-read, articulate, students to discuss and expound upon these topics at length, but it is a ridiculous waste of time for almost everyone else, and detracts from, rather than enhances the experience of learning history.
7. "Late Bloomers" should start at the beginning
Many adults, especially those born after about 1960, have a very poor history background. They frequently have a smattering of knowledge that they have picked up over the years and are familiar with the standard harangues of post-modern history, but are aware that their over-all mastery is quite terrible. Many such adults, especially those who take an interest in their own children's education, would like to improve their historical background but don't know quite where to jump in.
There are a few obstacles to learning history later in life, but none that cannot be overcome. The most difficult obstacle for many young and middle aged adults is a busy, hectic schedule, that does not allow time for a great deal of uninterrupted reading or reflection. Another obstacle is the belief that since they are already intelligent, accomplished adults, that the proper way for them to learn history is by attacking an erudite volume by Paul Johnson, David McCullough, or some such luminary. Although there are many superlative historians who write for popular audiences, finding the time to complete a dense 700 page tome is hard to mesh with obstacle number one.
A better approach for many adults with an active, over-committed schedule, is to give up on "adult" history for a few years, and turn to juvenile history instead. Classic juvenile history books are comparatively short, easy to follow, and can often be read in a matter of hours, not days. They are packed with the most interesting, streamlined information possible, and any adult with a basic understanding of human nature and a personal familiarity with "politics" (office politics counts), will be able to read much between the lines without having everything spelled out for them.
Furthermore, when and if they do get around to reading "adult" history, they will understand it far better than they will by reading without an appropriate background. Most adult histories are too intricate for a reader who does not already have a good grasp of the basic outline of a historical period, and few details are likely to be retained.
It is never too late to adopt the habit of reading history as an enjoyable leisure activity. The rewards of learning history do not diminish with age. They are, in fact, enhanced because one's understanding of human drama is likely to be much richer at forty than at fourteen. The panorama of history has as much to offer those who are approaching retirement, as does to those just starting out in life. Its legacy is an eternal one.
8. Tips for Reluctant Readers
Students range not only in reading-ability, but also in reading-enthusiasm. For some students, even after they learn the mechanics of reading, it remains an uncompelling way to spend time. Books are not everybody's "thing".
The following tips are provided more for reluctant readers than for students who have not mastered the mechanics of reading. As stated previously, we do not support the idea of using history to teach reading. When teachers try to "kill two birds with one stone" by make reading history stories a chore, there is a serious danger that one of the birds that gets killed will be the student's natural interest in history.
a. Turn off the television and play-station.
A great many children who show little enthusiasm for reading dislike it because it requires more effort than turning knobs on a game-boy, and is less stimulating than a simulated machine-gun battle with aliens. If your child is addicted to video entertainment he will not likely be interested in much of anything else, from bikes to baseball to books. Serious video addiction is much easier to deal with by banning than by attempting to set limits, which will always be pushed and resented. Try banning all video entertainment for six months, and see what happens.
b. Assign books below your student's reading level.
Many excellent history stories are written for grammar school students. They can still hold the interest of older students and are non-intimidating. The books in our Young Readers collection can be thoroughly enjoyed by a high school student or even adults who have a poor history background. There is no reason not to start with something fun, easy, and interesting, rather than "challenging" material that is more appropriate for a strong reader.
c. Less confident readers like short chapters.
Appearances matter, and a book with short chapters and small paragraphs will be more appealing to reluctant readers, than a book with longer, more comprehensive divisions. Authors such as H. E. Marshall, Helene Guerber, James Baldwin, Mary Macgregor all wrote most of their books in such a style. All of the Told to the Children and Children's Heroesr books, are likewise attractive to reluctant readers.
d. Longer stories instead of vignettes.
While it is true that reluctant readers tend to like "easier" reads and shorter chapters, they also are more apt to want to complete a whole book with an exciting plot, than a book with dozens of interesting, but unrelated stories. For this reason, simple biographies, historical fiction, and adapted literature are more accessible than comprehensive histories or collective biographies.
e. Assign high-octane books.
Boys who are reluctant readers frequently have short attention spans and a high desire for activity. The perfect selection for them may come straight from our special Adventure library. For example, Buccaneers and Pirates of our Coasts has never failed to enrapture, even when it was assigned to unmotivated students.
f. Find a series your student enjoys and go with it. Once a student finds a series he enjoys, he will often read the entire collection without complaint. All the series published by Heritage History can be found here, and some have up to a dozen volumes.
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