Monday, April 5, 2010

Teaching History -- Why and When Did It Start?

Let me try to "narrate" a bit on history as a subject that kids learn in schools. I'm just trying to get my thoughts in line right now so this might be a bit scattered! Writing helps me think!

History is a newcomer on the scene of academic disciplines, particularly in the primary and secondary stages of education. As far as I have been able to tell, though it's one of those topics that's hard to Google, it wasn't introduced until the 19th century and in some ways is inextricably bound up as a discipline with modern scientism. To put it another way, history up till recent times, at least as far as pre-university schooling went, was considered more as one branch of literature than as a professional science with a method and a philosophy and a tradition of its own (the links are all to Wikipedia articles so the usual Wikipedia caveat applies).

I so wish that this article on The Introduction of Teaching of History as an Academic Subject was available in its entirety. On the first page he says that history as an academic subject at any level is a relative novelty. Greeks invented history, he says, but in Greek days, history was read to adults (like a modern-day Teaching Company lecture, I guess) -- for example, he says, there is a story that Herodotus was reading one of his works to an audience that included Thucydides, which inspired the latter so much that he followed in his footsteps.

He goes on to say that of course students learned much history incidentally through studying literature and language style, but no one thought of teaching the "historical method" as such. There the preview ends, unfortunately.

I found this 1882 lecture on The Teaching of History in Schools. This author is talking from the modern point of view -- about the scandal that history, particularly national history, is so much neglected in favor of the study of the classics. At the time he wrote, history was taught almost universally in European schools but was still not a regular subject in most English schools, according to what he said. I want to come back to it sometime because he lists some things he thinks history study should do but for right now I'm just calling the author as a witness that history emerged as a study at just about the time that serious study of the Greek and Latin classics declined (and it tended to be the same people who "dissed" the classics that were the most invested in teaching national history, for reasons I don't at present completely understand).

He quotes from another source:
History is a school of truth, reason and virtue.
By the time this book on The Teaching of History was written in 1917, apparently most schools were teaching history, but the author says it was still considered one of the less important subjects... behind classics, modern languages, mathematics and the natural sciences. He quotes Enlightenment philosophers, Locke and Hume and tends to think that one aspect of teaching history is to make the child aware of how much we have progressed since the "old days". Certainly you see that trend of thinking in many, many modern history books written for school-age children -- it's one of the things that irritates me about Joy Hakim's History of US which Kieron is reading this year for US History. It's well meaning but tends to focus on the Self as the pivotal center of the universe rather than self as a discipline and emulator of the best things of the past.

Robert Schwickerath in Jesuit Education (written in 1903) says that history was taught in Jesuit schools in the 18th century -- not as a separate subject, but still, it took an eminent place in literary studies and was studied fairly systematically. Later on in the book, he says that history is an important area of study: "a magistra vitae, a teacher and mirror of life, a school of practical wisdom". This second section has lots of ideas about HOW a Catholic educator sees history which I want to note to look at more carefully later. In brief, he sees history somewhat the way Warren Carroll does -- with Christ as the epicenter, with the best of ancient times in some sense foreshadowing the Incarnation and the rest following.

Jesuit educators were unique (and in some ways still are, if you focus on the "good" ones -- Jesuits nowadays seem like the little girl with the curl -- the good ones are VERY good and the bad ones are "horrid" ) in being both conservators AND innovators. At their best they are brilliant in following St Paul's advice "test everything; hold fast to what is good". So Schwickerath is positive about the good things about history while still holding firmly to the traditional Jesuit educational principle that the goal of education in high school is a general one -- to form the future adult by teaching him the arts of thinking and speaking well, not make him into an antiquarian or specialist in arcane academia.

This book: Social studies in Schools: A History has a chapter on how history first started being studied in the schools (Google preview). It says that history in schools first started being taught (this was in the US) in the 1890's, with a civic, patriotic impulse.

"History was a window to the past and a door to the future, and anyone who studied it properly could apply its lessons to everyday life. Simply put, history had the potential to be the premier discipline of the school."

Here is a site which has a bit of a "crank" feel, not necessarily in a bad way -- I consider John Senior, Richard Mitchell and John Taylor Gatto as "good cranks", for example. Perhaps I should define "crank" as "person who is very invested in making his case and takes a contrarian and somwhat pungent approach". I haven't read enough of the site to see what their agenda is but the general subject is historical methodology (particularly as it appears in a study of a particular time period of Chinese history, but the articles have more general implications). It makes the point that history as an academic discipline in the university isn't really enough to become a real historian the way things are nowadays -- you have to study in other disciplines as well. There is some practical advice for students.

Now what does this have to do with anything? Well, I find I do better when I know why I'm doing something -- that helps me with the "what" and "how". Next I'm going to think a bit about the "how".

To wrap up with a question or tentative idea -- I'm wondering if history, as taught traditionally as a branch of literature and rhetoric, was thought of with a subtle difference of emphasis than it was taught later as a chronological study with scientific methods. To put it a different way, with an analogy -- reading the Bible with a focus on applying it now to one's life and knowledge of God and His working (bringing in historical and linguistic "erudition" or context to help me understand the meaning more properly) is a rather different thing from studying it in a rationalist way as "literature" or as "history" or as "science".... as from above, so to speak, a distinctive trait of the post-Enlightenment. If we read history in quest of that Chestertonian "democracy of the dead" it's different than reading it as sort of an exercise in tourism, whether of the scholarly variety or the rubber-necking "aren't those natives quaint" type. One runs the risk of becoming either hyperfocused or a sort of cultural philanderer. Chesterton again

The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men--diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men-- hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.
Given this sort of thing, one can see that Romans studied the Greeks, and medieval Catholics studied the Greeks and Romans, not as cultural exercises but in pursuit of wisdom for themselves right now at this time and place. Again, taking Chesterton to try to evoke indirectly what I see as the difference between the approaches:

It is a far deeper and sharper question to ask, "What can they know of England who know only the world?" for the world does not include England any more than it includes the Church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the world-- that is, all the other miscellaneous interests--becomes our enemy. Christians showed it when they talked of keeping one's self "unspotted from the world;" but lovers talk of it just as much when they talk of the "world well lost." Astronomically speaking, I understand that England is situated on the world; similarly, I suppose that the Church was a part of the world, and even the lovers inhabitants of that orb. But they all felt a certain truth-- the truth that the moment you love anything the world becomes your foe. ....The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.