Learning History

Dear Reader,

The Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival is working its way through her sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education. This coming week’s chapter is on history. It is significant that the title of this section is “The Knowledge of Man: History.” Even in the title we get a clue as to why Charlotte believes history is so important. When we study history, we study human beings. We learn (if we are doing it correctly) how they have acted and why. And through them we learn about ourselves. And hopefully this is knowledge that we can apply practically to the problems of our own day. Charlotte says,

“To us in particular who are living in one of the great epochs of history it is necessary to know something of what has gone before in order to think justly of what is occurring to-day.” (p. 169)

The how of history in Charlotte’s method is pretty simple, read living books and narrate. She says that her schools can cover much more ground in this way, doing away with time-consuming and dry lectures. Each reading is done only once; the student is required to pay attention the first time or he will miss it. Of course, if the material were very boring, the pupil would probably not mind this. But the idea is that history should be fascinating, if only the right books are chosen, and that the child will naturally pay attention:

“. . . . the concentration at which most teachers aim is an innate provision for education and is not the result of training or effort.” (p. 171)

The attitude of the teacher is important here. If we assume that the material will be boring or that the student is incapable of attending, then we will likely reap what we sow.

Following the reading, the child narrates. This is not memorization. We are not to require specific facts of them. If things are going as they ought, the child should have envisioned the story as they read or heard it:

“Trusting to mind memory we visualise the scene, are convinced by the arguments, take pleasure in the turn the sentences and frame our own upon them; in that particular passage or chapter has been received us and become a part of us just as literally as was yesterday’s dinner; nay, more so, for yesterday’s dinner is of little account tomorrow; but several months, perhaps hence, we shall be able to narrate the passage we had, so to say, consumed and grown upon with all the vividness, detail and accuracy of the first telling. All powers of the mind which we call faculties have brought into play in dealing with the intellectual matter thus afforded; so we may not ask questions to help the child to reason, paint fancy pictures to help him to imagine, draw out moral lessons to quicken his conscience. These things take place as involuntarily as processes of digestion.” (pp. 173-74)

We must really need quality books to produce such a reaction. A textbook is not going to cause children to see and feel what they read. Note that Charlotte says we are not to ask questions. The important thing is that the child takes away what they will; the details we deem vital may not be what catches their attention.

Charlotte also mentions the use of a Book of Centuries. This is a way for students to make some record of what they have learned, a kind of timeline and journal combined. For more on that, I recommend this excellent post from Higher Up and Further In.

It does not sound to me like the children in Charlotte’s school were reading a lot of history. She speaks of 50 pages a term which even in a fairly short-term does not sound like much to me. It also does not sound like they go over the same material multiple times. Instead, they progress through English history as they grow with sections on other times and cultures added in at various points. She does stress the need to study more than one’s own land. Since she was British, English history is the core of her students’ learning, but she mentions also French , ancient and Indian history.

It is an interesting question how we Americans should apply this. To study the history of our own country is, of course, necessary. But our history is so short. We have used Heritage History this year which approaches the Middle Ages by looking specifically at Britain. This has worked well and been interesting for our family. It has certainly helped me understand how some  ideas important to our own society came to be.

It is sad to me to think that the study of history is being undervalued today. There is a lot of emphasis on science and math with the assumption that these are what our country needs to stay ahead of the world. It is not that Charlotte did not teach science, but it seems to have played a back seat in her system to history. And I think it says something about what we value that we talk little about history and  a lot about science and technology (they even get a clever acronym: the STEM subjects). Our modern goal is to get or stay ahead. This is materialistic and competitive. It is also very much focused on tangible, mechanistic things. But in Charlotte’s conception, history is the focus because it tells us about who we are as people. It is not about getting ahead but about being better. And I tend to think that being ahead means nothing if we are not better.


One response to this post.

  1. […] first is that, as with history, literature is included in the section on “the Knowledge of Man.” This gives us a big […]


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