Advice for Independent History Teachers

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. . . What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. In other words, it is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.
—G. K. Chesterton

The following collection of essays are based on a talk prepared for a homeschool audience and are primarily directed to parents and self-learners. They may not be directly applicable to classroom teachers who work under far more constraints than independent instructors. We hope, however, that at least some of the resources available on Heritage History will be useful to professional teachers, even if they are not free to embrace all of our wayward notions.

The essays begin with an overview of the uses of history and the differences between modern and traditional history. The middle sections feature general principles for teaching history in a way that retains the interest of young people, taking into consideration the differences between boys and girls, and between students of various abilities. The final essays describes our own course of study from elementary grades through high school and end with a final exhortion to keep History from becoming a chore.

The following essays describe many of the principles on which we organized the Heritage Classical Curriculum.

Why Bother Learning History Anyway?
Modern vs. Traditional History
Principles for Teaching History
Girl History vs. Boy History
Age-Appropriate Selections
Life Long Learning

Why Bother Learning History Anyway?

Before talking about what young people should learn about history, or how to teach it, we should first agree upon a reason for undertaking the whole enterprise in the first place.

Advocates of history education can provide long lists of sensible-sounding reasons why one should learn history, but the truth is, historical knowledge has very few practical applications. There are exceedingly few jobs which actually require historical expertise, and most don't pay much.

Even fields like law and education, which at one time were considered to be rooted in history, are now so thoroughly modernized that only the most superficial nod to historical tradition is expected. So the question is, in a world with lots of interesting and higher paying opportunities, why bother?

The fact of the matter is, you can get into any of the most prestigious colleges in the nation with almost no history background whatsoever. You can get a University degree and work in a high-paying profession, surrounded by intelligent, witty, and fashionable people and never be embarrassed by your colossal ignorance of history. You can marry, be an upstanding member of your church or community, have children, and make decent, lifelong friends, all without knowing any history.

The fact that history is "not vocational" is only one of many objections put forth by critics of traditional history. It is said to be "biased", "written by the winners", and "irrelevant" to modern life. It is said to focus "too-much on war and conflict", and "not enough on the lives of women and every-day people." It is said to be "sexist", "racist" and written by "dead white men". The vituperations go on and on . . .

And then there is Macbeth's famous observation . . . "Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

So again, why bother? It is difficult to refute the over-riding consensus that learning history is a waste of time and energy. What possible reason could one have for making the effort?

Only one. The same reason that history exists in the first place. The same reason that it has been passed on from generation to generation since the beginning of human society, through all civilizations, through all upheavals, through all ages.

Because it is Fascinating!

Don't try to identify practical, tangible, politically astute reasons for learning history. Learn history for the same reason your grandparents and great-great grandparents learned it: for recreation—because it is riveting, thought-provoking, horrifying, edifying, ironic, and terrific food for thought. In short, it is great entertainment.

History is entertaining because human drama is highly engaging. It is heartrending because life is tragic. It is humorous because "the comedy of man survives the tragedy of man." It is absorbing because the human condition is utterly, astoundingly, fascinating.

The stories of history are just stories taken from real life rather than human imagination. They may be embellished; they may be biased; in few cases they may be based more on myth or false representation than actual facts. But none of these criticisms really do anything to detract from the fundamental merit of history, which is its all-encompassing human interest.

It is true than history can teach a great many valuable lessons, particularly about human nature, society, and permanent values. But there is no guarantee that those who study history will learn the wisdom that history has to teach. A narrow mind will not be forcibly broadened by mere exposure to noble minds and great deeds—yet even the most obstinate fool might be entertained.

The fundamental argument of this essay is that history should be taught and learned, simply because it is interesting. Yet this argument, which for hundreds of years passed as common sense, is today viewed as absurd to a generation familiar only with the mind-numbing tedium of modern history textbooks.

Nevertheless, it is an argument which has to be made, because, it is true and right. History should be taught to young people because it is interesting, not because it is useful. And it should be taught in a way that, above all, preserves its entertainment value.

The facts of history, in and of themselves, do not mold character, form a worldview, or even clearly pertain to the modern political questions of the day. They do not prepare one for a job, provide resilience for the setbacks of daily life, or guarantee happy personal relations. These are all laudable goals, but history cannot be used as a tool to accomplish "social goods", without diminishing its primary gifts: top quality entertainment and enduring human interest.

To some people, who possess an analytical frame of mind, history can provide an immensely rich field for analysis, comparison and instruction. To people of even average intellect, the stories of history can provide fascinating insights and problems to reflect upon. This depth of interest is one of history's most valuable aspects, it is not its primary purpose.

Teachers of history should not forget first principles in passing on stories of our human past. Maintaining the most interesting aspects of history is, in fact, the most important thing a history teacher can do. Lessons, theories, and principles that might be derived from history, while valuable, must all be dealt with as secondary considerations.

Interest must precede understanding, or all learning of history is mere regurgitation.

Back to Start Next