What We Study and Why We Study It: History

What We Study and Why We Study It: History

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series, we are looking at individual subjects and asking why we study them and, to a lesser extent, how. Thus far we looked at two “STEM” subjects, math and science. This time I’d like to look at what I have always considered the core of our homeschool: history.

Why We Study History

We have all heard the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but why, from a biblical perspective, should we study history?

In mathematics, we look at the structure God built into Creation. In science, we learn about the Creator from what He has made. When we study history, we are studying how God has worked in the lives of individual humans and of larger human societies. Another corny truism: history is His story. It tells us about God and it tells us about ourselves, our propensities for evil and the good that we, through the Spirit, can do.

The Scriptures instruct us to tell our children the things God has done:

“Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps. 78:3-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The forces of history, nations and rulers, are formed and controlled by Him:

“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 7:26)

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21:1; cf. Rom. 13:1)

“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings . . .” (Dan. 2:21; cf. Dan 2:37-38; 4:17)

We see specific examples of this in the Scriptures themselves. God uses the situation in Egypt to save His people in the days of Joseph. He raises up the Persian King Cyrus, again to save His people and return them from exile (Isa. 45:1). He uses the nations as rods to punish His people (2 Kgs. 18:9-12; cf. Isa. 9:11; 10:5-6).

But it is no less true that Christ is king of nations today and that He is still as intimately involved with their rise and fall as well as the more day-to-day lives of people (Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:4).

Cornelius Van Til argues that because history is about man, it should be the center of our educational endeavor:

“Arithmetic and all other subjects that emphasize the space aspect of the space-time world lie in the nature of the case in the periphery of the whole area of the creation of God. This is due to the arrangement God has made in his creation, namely, that man should stand at the center of it. And since man is a selfconscious and active being his most characteristic human traits will manifest themselves more fully in the movement of time, that is in history, than in the immovable atmosphere of space. Accordingly it is easier to bring out the more specifically human and the more specifically Christian interpretation of reality when teaching history than when teaching nature.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 204]

How We Teach History

“The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, p. 8)

Christians tend to get themselves bent out of shape over science resources — Does it present a biblical view of Creation? Is it godless? Does it assume evolution? Does it agree with my view of Creation? But the Van Til quote above argues that the mindset of our history curriculum is even more vital. As he says elsewhere, there are no uninterpreted facts (p. 88; see also this post for a number of quotes from other authors on this point). We see history through a lens. If we assume a godless universe, there will be no meaning to the events we study. Cultures will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost because of economic and political and military factors but there can be no higher meaning nor is there any end towards which events are moving. Even those who accept the idea of a Creator can misunderstand events if they do not accept that He is a Sovereign God who is in control of all things. As reformed people, we believe that there is a purpose towards which all things work and that there is no event or detail, no matter how small, that is outside God’s sovereign plan [Ps. 135:6; Lk. 12:22-26; Acts 17:25-28; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11; Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 3:1; 5:1; Van Til does an excellent and thorough job of critiquing other Christian worldviews and showing how they fall short (pp. 72ff)].

Those beginning with young children often wonder where they should begin with history. Is it best to start at the beginning of human history or to begin with one’s own country? I don’t think there is one biblical answer to this question but my own inclination is to begin with what is closest. The child should first learn how God has worked in his own life and that of his people. “His people” here can include a few different circles. Most narrowly, it may include the family — Where do we come from? How did his parents come to faith? Are there family stories of deliverance from illness or other troubles?

Beyond that there is the state and nation in which he lives. I do not believe the United States is a Christian nation but its history does contain wonderful tales of God’s deliverance that affect the lives of small children. The story of the First Thanksgiving comes to mind. Nor should the bad stories be neglected, the ones about our failures.

I would add that though history should always be taught with the assumption that God is in control of people and events, we do not need to beat children over the head with the fact. The Bible (largely) does not do so when it tells us of God’s actions. It tells the stories and leaves us to see God working and to judge the humans involved and to make our own conclusions. It does not moralize. Lessons are best learned when one is allowed to draw one’s own conclusions. The tendency on the part of adults to want to add morals to every story often arises, I believe, from our own lack of faith in God’s story. His deeds speak for themselves more powerfully than we can when we turn a history lesson into a sermon.

We are also all part of a community of faith. The Scriptures give us part of the story of God’s work among His people. The story continues as well through the history of the church, both on a broad basis and, depending on one’s denomination, on a more local level. (As I outline my proposals for a Reformed approach to education, I am assuming that “religious” education is going on as well but I am largely confining myself to education on “secular” subjects so I will not spend much time on how we teach the Bible.)

Though we may begin with history close to home, it is also good and necessary to expand beyond one’s own people. We learn first what God has done for us, but then we also need to learn that God works in other societies as well. How we expand may depend upon our particular circumstances. It seems reasonable to me for those of us in the United States, having learned something of our own nation, to next consider those close to us. What it means to be “close” can be defined in various ways. We are a big country and personally I don’t live especially close to a national border. So “close” may be defined by geography but it need not be. Historically and culturally, England is our closest neighbor. In my own homeschool, I tend to emphasize the history of England when we cover the middle ages in the hopes that it will give my children a feel for where our own government comes from. Looking back even further, we are part of the stream that is western civilization so again it seems reasonable to spend a little more time on western civilization and its foundations (read: Greece and Rome) than on other cultures. There may be other societies to which you feel a particular tie that you want to spend more time on as well. It could be a family tie. It could be another kind of connection. Perhaps your church has missionaries there. Perhaps you have friends from another country.

And then there are peoples to whom we have no immediate tie (though you never know where God will take you in the future). Here too we can study them to learn how God has acted among people very different from us. We can also learn about the people themselves. We may see that they are very like us and that the same forces work in their societies as in ours. We may learn that they have different values and that the things we have always assumed need not be true for everyone (perhaps this is good, perhaps not).

A word especially to homeschooling parents: Human history if a huge subject. You will not get to everything. We all have gaps in our educations. Personally I learned very little about the middle ages when in school and no American history after WWII. The point is not to do everything but to do what you can and to do it with the right mindset.

The other big question I hear about history is whether it is safe or wise to teach the myths of pagan cultures to children, especially young children. Of course if you begin, as I am suggesting, with more local history this may not be an issue for a few years. I will say my own children heard Greek myths from an early age. One child was particularly attracted to these and now has declared a college minor in classics. I have never known a child to be confused by these myths and to wonder if Zeus is real or Jesus isn’t. If anything, even younger children seem to see quite clearly how messed up the lives of the Greek gods are and how hard it is to live in a world with many gods to please. On the positive side, I do believe these myths teach us about human nature (which is really what is reflected in them, though the characters are divine). And, as mentioned above, they in some sense form the basis of our own culture and a familiarity with them can help one understand later allusions and ideas.

While I am trying to give broad outlines and not specifics in these posts, let me make one more plug for “living books” (see this post for a longer explanation of what makes a living book and why we should use them). If the history we are teaching is God’s story and if we want children to see Him in it, we need to provide them with interesting books. Dry compendiums that are little more than names and dates are not going to engage their interest or help them see the majesty that is there. And similarly, I am not opposed to all memorization, but recalling facts (lists of presidents, for example) is not knowing.

Those are my thoughts in history, why we study it and its importance and place within the curriculum and a little bit on the how. Do you have other questions about history?

Until next time,

Nebby

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] subjects and asking why and how we study them. So far we have discussed mathematics, science and history. Today’s subject is language. I am thinking here both of one’s native language and of […]

    Reply

  2. […] What we do need is to place Truth before our students (see this post). Though I am not sure I agree with his reasons, I do agree with Zylstra (and Van Til) that the humanities, and history in…. I also like his arguments for language and art and the arguments he makes when discussing […]

    Reply

  3. […] also affects how we view each of these areas of study. This is seen most easily perhaps in history. Events are not random, nor are they merely due to human choice or economic forces. All that has […]

    Reply

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