Life Long Learning

Heritage History takes the view that mastery of historical knowledge is not a race, but a lifetime venture. There is no implied expectation to read every book on the site before one's eighteenth birthday, or to be conversant with the Icelandic Sagas before entering middle school. The resources of Heritage History are intended to be available whenever they are desired, for ten-year-olds, for teenagers, for young adults and parents, and for still-interested seniors.

According to our way of thinking, anyone who "quits" history altogether after completing their formal educations has missed the boat entirely, no matter how much information was crammed into their heads in their formative years. On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to "take up" history seriously for the first time in middle age. Unlike many other skills that must be mastered in youth or not learned at all, the study of history can proceed later in life, often with more enjoyment and insight than it is possible to have to have at sixteen.

Keep Interest Alive

The key to instilling an abiding love of history in students of any age is simply this: Keep Interest Alive. History is so fascinating in and of itself, you do not need to "add" anything. To keep a student's interest in history flourishing you need only refrain from smothering it. History is a natural outlet for a student's interest in the world around him, and as long as his natural curiosity is not overwhelmed by the hype, chaos, commercialism, and exploitation of modern culture, he is likely to enjoy the subject.

Assuming a young person is protected enough from the distractions of the modern world so that he can focus his energies on reading, well-written history books, such as those found on Heritage History, are usually not a hard sell. History can and should be a "favorite subject" for students of a whole range of abilities.

Parents or teachers who are directing a student's history reading, however, should keep a few additional things in mind. There are ways to smother a student's natural curiosity in history that should be assiduously avoided. Well-intended instructors who want to make sure that their students derive every possible benefit from their study of history are liable to fall into the same trap that destroyed traditional history in the academic world in the first place. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions", and so is the road to dull and overwrought history.

What can be done to keep a student's interest in history alive? It is only necessary to keep from crushing it with well-meaning, but off-putting instruction.

1. Donít confuse interest with importance:

The most interesting anecdotes about historical characters are usually not the most historically significant events in their lives. Every young student who reads about Alexander the Great in classical history books will learn about the stories of the Gordian Knot, and Alexander's encounter with Diogenes. The Conquest of Thebes, on the other hand, which resulted in the complete destruction of the city, and the massacre of almost the whole population, is often mentioned only briefly, although it was of vastly greater consequence than the two more famous anecdotes. This is because traditional writers have long known that anecdotes are often more interesting to their readers than political analysis, and are very revealing in their own way.

"Sometimes small incidents, rather than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are more exact in doing the face, where the character is revealed, than the rest of the body, I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks of the souls of men."

—Plutarch

2. Donít confuse interest with virtue:

Villains, wretches, and even fatally-flawed heroes are often fascinating. St. Margaret of Scotland was an exemplary human being, but Genghis Khan was more interesting. Do not be concerned if your student's favorite history stories contain unsavory characters and events. Wholesome goodness is not often of great literary interest unless it faces off in some dramatic manner against evil, but evil is fascinating in and of itself.

The most interesting history stories feature plenty of decadence, cowardice and adversity. The bravest and most irrepressible souls often have character flaws a mile wide. The most noble and patriotic characters often meet with ingratitude and bad ends. The true stories of history are just as likely to inspire cynicism as righteousness.

Character formation is vitally important to young people, but history cannot be used as a tool to shape character, without distorting and politicizing the stories beyond recognition. History teaches history. If you want to teach moral philosophy, teach moral philosophy.

3. Donít confuse interest with comprehension:

One can read fascinating books about World War I, without being able to give a full account of the geo-political conditions that caused the war. Almost all wars, in fact, are vastly more complicated, in both their causes, and their execution, than a young person can possibly understand by reading an introductory account. Even experts in history, who are familiar with virtually all of the available source material, produce widely varying accounts.

The point is, history is a very difficult subject to "understand". It cannot fairly be said that almost anyone fully comprehends it, in the same way that some people comprehend something comparatively simple, such as Einstein's theory of relativity. The best one can do is increase one's knowledge of the uncontested facts of the matter, and honestly consider how these facts jibe with one's world view.

An obsessive concern with making sure students "get the point" from all of the history they read is a losing battle. Even the brightest students are unlikely to really be able to discern the full meaning of all of the facts of history that they encounter. And if a student does not have a well-formed world view, he has no frame of reference from which to judge historical events. This is not to say that important themes in history should not be pointed out, or that teachers must downplay their own interpretations of events. But instructors should not demand that young people draw conclusions from the stories of history that are beyond the analytical abilities of their students. Comprehension and interpretation are life-long tasks—there are no short-cuts or quick-fixes, and oftentimes nudging is more effective than shoving.

Keep history interesting and importance, virtue, and comprehension will come in time . . . maybe . . . eventually. . .

Kill off interest, and you can forget about the rest.



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