Saturday, February 09, 2013

Tell me another story: CM and History (Philosophy of Education, Chapter 10)

Are you sitting comfortably?

Here's a story.

My elementary-school history education, in the 1970's, was rather dreadful...or, actually, pretty much non-existent.  Textbook-type history had taken its last gasps and was being replaced, along with geography and science, by Environmental Studies.  It was taught partly through unit studies and activity centers, and partly through copy-and-memorize notes on the blackboard.  Up through Grade Six, about the only history I remember doing was a unit on world explorers, and a unit on Ancient Greece.   Maybe some stuff about pioneers and local history.  Maybe a bit about Egypt. There may have been more, but I certainly don't remember it. 
In grades 7, 8, 9 (that one was an optional thing about our multicultural heritage), and 10 (not optional), we studied Canadian history, from pre-history through Cabot and Cartier to whatever.  In grade 11, we finally got to World History (optional), and after that you could take U.S. history or a couple of other senior courses.

Sorry, that's a pretty dull story.  Here's a better one.

When I was eight or nine, someone gave us two paperbacks by Jean Plaidy (who didn't exist--see Eleanor Hibbert):  The Young Elizabeth, and The Young Mary Queen of Scots.  I read the book about Mary several times, and I've never forgotten some of the details.  Because of that book, I never forgot what a dauphin was, and what it was like for a young girl to be sent away to a strange country to marry someone she didn't know,  even with several of her best girlfriends along; and how scary her mother-in-law Catherine de' Medici was.  "'And don't forget.  Take the potion as soon as you are able.' With that she went quietly away; and as soon as she had gone [Mary's maid] Seton picked up the goblet and stared into it."   Plain and simple, it was a great story.

History is supposed to be a great story.  Some people like to call it "His-story."  Charlotte Mason classified it with the "knowledge of Man."  At any rate, it's the story of who we were, and who we are; what we have done, and what we should or shouldn't do again.  For groups of oppressed or displaced people, remembering and passing on their own history meant both an identity and a belief in liberty, affirming the possibility of life outside of temporary bad circumstances.  The Book of Hebrews says we should carry on and not give up because we are surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses": those who came before us and walked in faith.

Today's public schools may not be teaching world or national history particularly well, if at all, if the complaints in the media are anything to go by.  But I don't want to focus on the question of why or whether to teach history.  Most homeschool parents already think it's important, if only for the reason that they feel they missed out themselves and want something better for their children.  And the publishers and vendors know that--boy, do they know that.  We are inundated with printable lap books, timelines, flashcards, colouring pages, copywork books, DVDs, websites, field trips, old and new textbooks, old and new historical fiction. We can access almost anything online, from Herodotus through Horrible Histories.  If the amount of history stuff sold is an indicator, homeschoolers must be doing a great job.

So the only question left to raise from this section of Chapter 10 is, does Charlotte Mason teach history any better than anyone else?

Do CM homeschoolers--or CM private-schoolers, or whatever situation--love history more, or understand it better?  If the answer for your children is definitely yes or absolutely not, are they the exception or the rule?  If they hate history lessons, are we missing something, doing "our CM" wrong?  If we've followed it to the letter, even using the same books, then is it the fact that most of us don't live in England?  Or that we should be using different books?  Or that it's 2013 and our children are just different now, they don't need to have all that history in their heads because they can access it all through their phones?  If we fail to teach them to anticipate history more even than dinner (to quote Charlotte's student), why is that?

For a subject so dear to Charlotte's heart and so central to her curriculum, her approach is surprisingly minimalist.  There's more than one Form One (primary) term programme where the history work is simply a section of Our Island Story.  Not even a biography on the side.  Kind of like a plain roast turkey, it had better be good all by itself.  Without any extra sauces or spices, the interest and value of the class seem to depend heavily on the quality of the book itself, and on the way it's presented.  (We hope not like the Griswolds' Christmas turkey.)

Was there some trick to this?  Charlotte said her only tricks were her usual formula:  the well-written book, the single (short) reading, the narration, a later examination, a few helpful pictures or comments from the teacher, having a sympathetic but not over-dominant teacher, and, after about age 10, creating a Book of the Centuries and hand-written time charts.

But there are one or two other things we might pick up from a careful reading of this chapter, and the other places in the six books where history is discussed.

One is that, while we may be teaching young children, we are trying to create a learning atmosphere that anticipates the one they will work in as older teenagers, as almost-adults.  For a younger student as much as an older one, "history shall give weight to his decisions, consideration to his actions, and stability to his conduct."  Charlotte had a lifetime program in mind; she envisioned a nation of adults who would read, think and talk about history just because they wanted to; who would buy history books; who would ask, "how shall we then live?"  She believed that a knowledge of history would promote individual responsibility and national stability; that knowing who we are would inspire us to become more of what we could be.  So, again--what sort of junior history books, what sort of teaching, would head us towards those Form V and VI (senior high) levels, the ability to make sense of Green's Short History and Macaulay's essays?

Well, cuteness is obviously out.  Something that gradually builds up history muscles would seem to be in order, so we move along from Marshall to Arnold-Forster to Gardiner's Student's History to Green's.  A chronological approach is also key, although Charlotte doesn't quite use the Creation (or dinosaurs)-Egypt-Greece-Rome-castle times-Renaissance-whatever else chronology that has become kind of the norm.  Literature gets correlated with history and adds to the unfolding picture, though, in Charlotte Mason's thinking, it had better be good literature in itself.  (Was Jean Plaidy good literature?  It's been a long time since I read The Young Mary, but the fact that that book has stuck in my head for close to forty years has to be worth something.)

There's a hint about teaching history in the way that Charlotte describes outdoor lessons in physical geography for little ones, back in her first book.  Remember how she wanted little children to climb trees and hills, splash in brooks, and notice things like shadows?  Then the parent can compare what the children have seen to the things that they haven't--the sea is kind of like our pond, but much bigger.  You start with something they do know, and build on that.  Maybe something they've noticed.  Or something they should have noticed but haven't paid particular attention to before.  One of her better-known examples drawn from Our Island Story asks the student to explain the meaning of some initials on the English penny, which leads into a whole story about Henry VIII.  After that, you'd never look at a penny in the same way.

Similarly, even the youngest students were taught about some of the honoured ones and heroes by reading the three books by Mrs. Frewen-Lord, about the monuments and tombs in England's cathedrals.  Those who don't know the stories would walk right past, or, as Charlotte says rather scathingly about the "Dominion cousins", i.e. Canadians mainly, they/we wouldn't care if Westminster Abbey itself fell into the Thames.  But to those who know "the rest of the story," the monuments aren't just slabs of stone with names on them--they represent real people who did great things.  Charlotte's older students were taught some of their ancient history through artifacts, the ones in the British Museum that would probably be in the same place for their whole lifetime.  She knew that not everyone would ever get to walk through the galleries, but she wanted all the students to feel that they knew and, in a way, "owned" those helmets and carvings, just the same as those who lived in London and could visit them anytime. 

So the big history questions of what books, what stories, what methods, remain, especially for those of us who claim a different nationality or who need to add another country's history onto Charlotte Mason's studies of Britain.  (Don't forget, though, that the history she taught wasn't only British.  Along with the ancient history mentioned above, the junior grades were introduced to French history, taught in the same chronology as their own; in junior high, they added a book about India; the high schoolers got a broader look at European history; and they all got an extra dose of history through geography classes that included short histories of other places.)  What are our monuments, our artifacts, our national treasures, our everyday things-with-a-story?  Knowledge can't be scrappy or trivial, warns Charlotte; celebrating "national pelican day" one day and "history of the hot dog" another isn't what she is after.  It's the big ideas that will let people fully use their powers of mind.

One or two history books, without any lapbooks or gizmos? 

One reading, one narration?

It sounds almost too simple to work, or to interest our kids.  Try an experiment, Charlotte once said:  you, the adult.  Read a chapter of a novel, or an essay or something, to yourself.  Tell it back to yourself as you're sitting around or lying in bed.  See if you can go over it again, visualizing it, scene by scene or point by point.  Can you do it?  Are you still thinking about it the next day?  Can you still remember it later on?

Would you remember it better if it had been taught more like a "school lesson" or a lecture?

Give the kids--and the books--a chance.

Linked from the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival: Knowledge of Man, at Piney Woods Homeschool (July 2013)


Queen of Carrots said...

I don't know that my children love history better than dinner, but they do love it, with nothing more elaborate than reading the stories and talking about them. And I see them growing in their understanding of who people are, of the effects of actions, of good and bad character.

Stephanie said...

I love this post! My 7yr old ds jumps for joy when I tell him we are reading Our Island Story that day for school. And then asks me to read it again. Love it!