Teaching and Knowing History

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal historian David McCullough discusses the historical illiteracy of students (who, of course, grow up to be us big people), even from the most esteemed institutions. He speaks of a young woman who told him after an appearance at “a very good university in the Midwest” that “until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.” He bemoans the state of textbooks that are “so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back are given very little space or none at all.”

Some of his comments on how he thought history lessons should be presented reminded me much of the teaching philosophy of Charlotte Mason.

“History is a source of strength. It sets higher standards for all of us.”

This brought to mind Miss Mason’s suggestion of reading such things as Plutarch’s Lives to be inspired to noble living.

“The great teachers love what they’re teaching”

This is true for the teacher physically with you, as well as those authors that teach through “living books.”

“History is often taught in categories—women’s history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

Charlotte Mason advocated teaching history chronologically so that students make connections and see cause-and-effect relationships. And then there are the Timelines and Book of Centuries that she promoted to help the student see the flow of history and to see where people of different genres and categories fit together in time.

“And they’re so badly written. They’re boring!”

Again, here is where Miss Mason spoke of the necessity of “living books” and richly written literature.

“Grade school children… can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”

Charlotte Mason and the magic of Narration! Drawing it. Molding it. Acting it out. Tell it. Write it.

“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”

And Charlotte would say, “Amen!”

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