Friday, April 11, 2014

Charlotte Mason and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay: Mentors of the Modern Home Schooling Movement


This is Part V in our BFB Fundamentals Series. 
Click on the links to read Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV.

By Rea C. Berg

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The year 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s book For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for the Home and School. Neophytes to home education back in the early 1980s (as most of us were) found in Macaulay’s book a call to a model of education that resonated with something deep in the human heart—something most of us had only inklings of. Macaulay was the first voice to articulate the teachings of Charlotte Mason in a way that was challenging, inspiring, and reflected many abstract thoughts circulating about education but not yet formed into a cohesive paradigm. Over thirty years later, Macaulay’s work is visible in nearly every quarter of the homeschooling world, where the legacy of Charlotte Mason is seen in countless ways.

Intrinsic Value of the Child as an Individual

How did the work of Charlotte Mason, as revitalized by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, shape the grassroots home education movement as it emerged in the early 1980s? While their vision and impact is difficult to quantify, I think there were three very distinct ways in which these two women impacted the education of hundreds of thousands of young children and by extension their parents. The first was a call to a sense of the intrinsic value of the child as an individual. Mason stated that “children are born persons” and challenged parents and teachers to really get to know, study, and respect the children God has put into their lives.1 Elaborating on this point, Macaulay noted that “Charlotte Mason not only said she treasured the minds of children, but she acted upon that belief, [she] enjoyed sharing the good things of life with the eager minds of children. She dealt with them on an eye-to-eye level . . . delighting in introducing them to all aspects of reality with a positive joy. She delighted in their separate individuality.”2 I remember distinctly how these thoughts impressed me—a busy young mother with four little ones under six. Never having seen this kind of parenting modeled growing up (where the motto was “children should be seen and not heard”), I hung on every word and labored to implement delight and joy into mothering and educating my four. As I learned to see my little ones with an eye to their individual gifts and intrinsic uniqueness, Mason and Macaulay taught me how to love my children better and how to relish the gift of life expressed through each of them. When Macaulay pleaded: “Where are the friends and lovers of children?  Who will open up the wonderful windows into the whole of reality and let their capable minds be stimulated?”3 I knew that I was the one to do that for my children. Mason and Macaulay gave me a vision of nurturing motherhood that was fresh, challenging, and consistent with a Biblical worldview. It required energy, passion, intelligence, and devotion, but promised the gratification and satisfaction of exploring the wonder and beauty of God’s world alongside my children. We would become fellow pilgrims journeying together in a great adventure of learning.

“Twaddle-free” education

Based upon the foundation of the intrinsic value of the child, Mason and Macaulay demonstrate how to provide children with a rich adventure in learning.   That was the “twaddle-free” course of study.4  This phrase, coined by Mason, reflected a course of study free of textbooks and workbooks–both women lamented what they viewed as the watered down, uninspired, pedantic nature of so much that passes as educational curriculum. The very nature of institutionalized education spawned the birth of curriculum designed to keep classes of children engaged eight hours a day. Macaulay decries this approach to education, noting 
. . . how colorfully and scientifically our generation talks down to the little child! What insipid, stupid, dull stories are trotted out! And we don’t stop there. We don’t respect the children’s thinking or let them come to any conclusions themselves! We ply them with endless questions, the ones we’ve thought up, instead of being silent and letting the child’s questions bubble up with interest. We tire them with workbooks that would squeeze out the last drop of anybody’s patience. We remove interesting books and squander time on ‘reading skill testing,’ using idiotic isolated paragraphs which no one would dream of taking home to read.5 
Ruth Beechick, in her book You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, echoed this notion by pointing out that presenting our students with information that is “pre-digested, pre-thought, pre-analyzed, and pre-synthesized . . . depriv[es] children of the joy of original thought.”6  The cultural critic Neil Postman, who was most popularly known for his book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggested in his book, The End of Education, that often knowledge is presented as the accumulation of facts, dates, times, places—trivializing the pursuit of knowledge to the extent that “there is no sense of the frailty or ambiguity of human judgment, no hint of the possibilities of error. Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward truth.”7Sadly, in the current trend toward academic efficiency there is often a neglect of works of quality and enduring value for the “convenience” of books that contain neither literary beauty nor status in the world of children’s canonical literature.
What Charlotte Mason insisted upon rather than “twaddle” was a course of instruction rich in classical, historical, and biographical literature. Young children should have a diet full of folk and fairy tales, oversized picture books beautifully illustrated, Bible stories and tales of talking animals. Even Shakespeare could be introduced to young children of third grade in a book such as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Literature should never speak down to children, but rather should engage them intelligently and respectfully. The best books for children do this naturally. 

Embrace the child’s tender years

What has become an oft-repeated tale in the current trend of academic rigor is a neglect of the tremendous wealth of young children’s literature. At a recent speaking engagement I was dismayed to hear from numerous parents of young children who knew nothing of the above authors, not to mention Charlotte Mason. Following an educational trend, they were missing one of the greatest joys of parenting—the vast treasury of glorious children’s books!  The beauty of Mason’s philosophy was the freedom she allowed parents and teachers to embrace the child in their tender years with literature suitable for innocent minds and hearts.  Rather than imposing education from without—following a pre-determined scope and sequence set by others—Mason trained us to see education as a matter of the spirit. The world of knowledge is brought to the child through gradually expanding circles of understanding.  In other words, the simplest fairy tales, folktales and picture books for the young one, then stories of our country for the primary child—and gradually moving on to the stories of other lands and places as they mature in understanding and scope. As we imgres-1explore the beauty and wonder of God’s world with the child, we nurture the spirit, validate the individuality of each young person, and respect the unique gift that every child is. 

An unlimited treasury of rich children’s books


From the moment a child enters the primary grades, the choices for a course of study rich in historical, biographical, and classical literature are unlimited. No young child should grow up without the wonderful works of award-winning authors like Meindert de Jong, James Daugherty, Arnold Lobel, Ruth Krauss, Alice Dalgliesh, Robert McCloskey, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, William Steig, Virginia Lee Burton, Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Brinton Turkle, Marguerite Henry, Munro Leaf, Marguerite de Angeli, and many imgres-2others. In my view, Mason’s and Macaulay’s promotion of “twaddle-free” curriculum was their second most salient contribution and one that birthed an entire industry of rich literature-based programs.

Stories that make for wonder . . .

Two decades ago, those who implemented Mason’s paradigm discovered wonderful benefits in family life. Since most of us were products of traditional classrooms where textbooks comprised the bulk of our education, the opportunity to immerse ourselves and our students in a world rich with literature afforded us an opportunity that enhanced our personal lives dramatically. We became passionate about literature; we read books we had always wanted to read; we journeyed to other times and places in our imagination; we walked in the footsteps of others and understood better their joys, sorrows, and triumphs. In the process of doing all of this our hearts were enlarged, our relationships with our children were strengthened, and we learned empathy and compassion for others. C. S. Lewis referred to this process as the “baptism of the imagination”—an apprehension of that which is pure, true, and beautiful, and ultimately holy.8   Ruth Sawyer, the children’s author and critic, said the best children’s works are
. . . stories that make for wonder. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir within, with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.9
The ability of great stories to speak to the human heart is a powerful tool in our parental tool chest.  The added beauty of reading aloud together with our children is that the books we read often have incredibly valuable lessons to teach us as well.  As our children watch us respond to the characters, events, and lessons we see in literature, they learn appropriate responses to all the vagaries of human life.

The Gift of Play

Finally, Charlotte Mason and Susan Macaulay emphasized the profound importance of play in a young child’s life. When a child is children-playing-philippines_40412_600x450nurtured and fed upon the best books, the natural outcome is a rich imaginative life. From the treasures of imagination comes the delight of play—free, unstructured, play-acting of the stories lining the shelves of the mind. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In our hurry-scurry world it is often free play that gets pushed out of the schedule in our endless shuttle to soccer games, violin lessons, church choir, youth group, gymnastics, ballet, etc. etc. Added to that, even the home schooled child may have play squeezed out in pursuit of academic excellence. Pity the childhood sacrificed on the altars of scholastic achievement. Of this pitfall Mason warns:
There is a danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out [or what is the same thing] should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than about work. We do not say a word against the educational value of games (such as football, basketball, etc.) . . . but organized games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.10
The rapidity with which children can pick up and play, anywhere and everywhere, is a testament to this wonderful God-given impulse in human nature. I have often been distracted from my homeschooling lessons by an important phone call, an email message, or an unexpected visitor. In every case my children disappear from their “assignments” and can be found donning dress-up clothes, building Playmobil cities, or dancing across the kitchen floor. While in former times I found this irritating, I now understand how wonderful it is. Play’s caprice is something we ought to delight in and embrace. It is a fruit of children who are loved in their homes, nurtured by a steady diet of rich literature, and secure in the love of their family and their God. It is a reflection of the God who made us for His pleasure–a God who delights in bestowing joy.
The teachings of Charlotte Mason, brought to a new generation by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, are truths that stand the test of time and bear sweet fruit. Nurturing our children’s individuality, providing them a twaddle-free curriculum, and allowing them the gift of play, are as peaceable and easy to entreat as they are simple and sensible. Thirty years after their clarion call was sounded, their reverberations continue to ring true with all who are childlike at heart.
Attention all California friends!  Be sure to sign up soon for the Great Homeschool Convention June 12-14 in Ontario, California.  Remember that if you sign up through Beautiful Feet Books here, BFB will donate $5 to the Brent Blickenstaff fund to help the family through this present crisis.  In my next post I will present a synopsis of the three sessions I’ll be presenting at GHC, so be sure to watch for that.  The three sessions include: Charlotte Mason Meets Plato: Restoring the Joy of Education in Your Home, American History Through Literature, and Character Through Literature.  Looking forward to seeing you there!
We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.
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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Reading for Emotional Health

I recently came across a wonderful article entitled "Deep Calls to Deep" written by Joseph Prever. In it he speaks about the power of story to speak to us during the difficult times in life, often in unexpected ways. Growing up in a literary family he was exposed to literature far beyond his comprehension and only later was able to appreciate the formative role it played in his life. And only later was he able to understand the emotions faced by the characters he encountered. It's a beautiful article and one that I'm sure you will find encouraging. Click here to read.

The section of the article I found exceptional and very moving was where he talks about being exposed to the gruesome images of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And he asks a question we're often asked at BFB and answers it much more eloquently than we have been able to!
Is it safe to expose children to such dark images? I think so, or as safe as any real poetry can be; poetry is no tame lion. At that age, I had no categories in my mind for real darkness, and so the darkness couldn’t get in to do me damage. But the image stayed; which meant that when the reality showed up years later, I was not defenseless.

What a beautiful way to put it. In the past decades we've increasingly sterilized the images we place before our children. While the original Grimm fairy tales were in fact very grim and often disturbing, we're no longer willing to tell stories of cannibalistic women living in candy houses and instead opt to present stories of princesses attaining self-fulfillment and tales where dreams come true and everyone lives happily ever after. This may be a good thing, especially when it comes to evil stepmothers wanting to be rid of their stepchildren, but when it comes to great literature one must ask, "Are we limiting the ability of our children to deal with the difficulties life will inevitably present them?"

When one considers the stories that speak most deeply to us they are not the tales of everything turning up roses. They are the stories that provide guidance to us in the decisions and situations we face in real life.

Whether one seeks relational wisdom from Jane Austen or encouragement from Psalms, great literature is not made up of cotton candy tales. When I was young I spent hours staring at the illustrations that accompanied a fantastic children's version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. These were pictures of frightening monsters, dark valleys, daunting mountains, and treacherous companions. I remember friends of my mom expressing their surprise that she allowed her children to be exposed to such a violent book. This despite the fact that Pilgrim's Progress is one of the great literary works of Christianity. Just as Prever later found solace from the poetry his mother read to him, I've found myself comforted by the story of Christian's perilous journey. Reading the original last year was enriched by the images I carried with me from that children's version read so long ago. And through the ups and downs of life I take comfort in the fact that just as Christian faced obstacles, he was also granted periods of rest and renewal. Even in the darkest points of life, I am reminded by Bunyan's poignant tale that this too shall pass and while I do not have the ability to see beyond the next moment, Christian's faithfulness in a multitude of challenges and situations reminds me that a single period does not define a life. It's now an overused cliché that life is a journey but it's also true and I know of no other piece of literature that illustrates that point more clearly. Pilgrim's Progress reminds me to cherish the sweet days, persevere through the difficult ones, and give thanks throughout. And that is the power of great literature.

We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.
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1st image source: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hansel-and-gretel-rackham.jpg

2nd image source: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/henri-martin/young-girl-reading

Friday, February 28, 2014

Fun Links for the Weekend


Here at BFB we love reading articles, books, and other blogs relating to history, education, and social studies. We would love to be able to write full blog entries on every interesting article we come across but that just isn't possible! So, we're going to provide a weekly roundup of interesting articles and post it each Friday. We hope you enjoy reading these links as much as we have! It's always good to have a reminder that history is the fascinating story of people just like us!


Historical menus - anyone feel like trying boar's head? 


Encouraging reminders for homeschooling moms.  

Letting kids run free may have some unexpected benefits!

Hugely popular historical twitter feed is run by two teenagers.

Can quitting actually be a beneficial skill?

treasure trove of photographs of Queen Victoria will go on display at the Getty Center.

Children should be allowed to lose.

Today in history.

A suggestion for one of our favorite read-alouds.

Have a fantastic weekend.


We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.
And if you've enjoyed this, please feel free to share using the buttons below! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Is BFB Classical?



This is Part IV in our BFB Fundamentals Series. 
Click on the links to read Part IPart II and Part III

By Rea C. Berg
Dear Friends,
In Part IV of our series BFB Fundamentals, we are exploring the question of whether or not Beautiful Feet Books is classical in nature. As we noted in the previous post, until the definition of classical is clarified, the question can become one of semantics and may lead to simplistic conclusions.  Because classical is currently the homeschool paradigm de jour, examining some of its well-accepted tenets should prove helpful as you determine which path is right for you and the students you serve.

What does contemporary classical homeschooling mean?

Classical education as a home schooling model first became popular as the 20th century gave way to the 21st and has remained so since. For those of us who began home schooling in the 1980s, classical education was the new kid on the block.  As with any fad, it swept many in its wake and provided some folks with solutions to the failing standards they saw in public education as well as in the more relaxed homeschooling model.  Its emphasis on a rigorous academic approach seemed to guarantee the creation of scholars who would take positions of leadership in law, medicine, government and so forth.  This would be achieved through implementing the trivium as we noted in our previous post.

Stage One: The Grammar Stage

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages, but as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.
Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages; as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.
Modern classical proponents ascribe to the notion that learning takes place in three distinct 4-year phases of a student’s life. While these phases may seem to correlate to the physical and intellectual development of the child, the bland acceptance of them can prove problematic. In the grammar stage of the classical approach (also known as the poll-parrot stage), emphasis is placed on pouring into the student facts (indeed “masses of information”-as one promoter put it) as children are supposedly sponges ready and willing to soak up facts of every kind, and can easily memorize these facts. Theoretically, later on, in the logic stage, these facts will be drawn upon as the child begins to reason. While this approach fits some students well, especially those gifted in memorization, other students, particularly those not gifted with the ability to retain masses of disparate facts, flounder. The focus on pouring information into a young child is based on the notion that in the grammar stage children will unquestioningly accept what is offered.
But is this 4-year cycle based upon a truly classical approach to education?  Did the ancients view education through this 12-year paradigm to which modern classical proponents ascribe?  As Diane Lockman points out in her helpful article “Classical Education Made Easier“, the ancient Greeks did not separate the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Students became proficient in reading, reasoning and speaking as they studied the classic texts of Greek literature with an emphasis on copy work and reading and reciting aloud.
An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society.  Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.
The Charlotte Mason approach asserts that all children, regardless of age, are capable of reason, delight, appreciation of beauty, and  that “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). Pouring information into a child for the mere goal of “filling the brain with facts” defies the essential nature of classical education–the desire to teach children to think. True education cannot ignore the spirit of the child, his basic need to feel connected in some way to the studies at tumblr_moe00wJ7U91rrs6fio1_500hand.  At Beautiful Feet we believe this is done through literature’s emotional connection–the ability to identify with others through the power of stories of literary beauty and historical import.  A quick narrative read of historical facts (standard fare in most classical approaches) that offers no literary beauty and no connection to the great questions of the human condition, fails to meet the standards of a truly classical education.

Begin at the beginning: the four-year cycle of history study?

Additionally, the current classical notion that history studies must begin at the beginning (with ancient history in first grade) is another layer of artificial construction upon an already artificial 12-year model.  Classical education’s promotion of a four-year cycle of history instruction seems reasonable and the repetition (“what we don’t get the first time around, we’ll be sure to pick up next time!”) provides reassurance.  While the four-year cycle approach does provide that revisiting, it doesn’t consider the question of age and developmental appropriateness for subject matter. This concern is dismissed by promoting the notion that while studying ancient history with your first grader, one can just focus on mummification, gladiators, and chariot races; in effect this belies the basic notion that ancient history can be taught to a first grader.  The resultant “classical” studies are cultural in nature, not historical. Indeed, Oxford Reference defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”–the study of history necessitates the focus on events.

History, taught classically  . . .

So how does one approach historical studies with a truly classical view to nurturing in young students reading, reasoning, and speaking skills? In essence, this can be accomplished in much the same way as the ancient Greeks did it–by exposing children to the best age-appropriate literature which is relevant to their times and culture.  For a young American child this means the best children’s books on the early saga of America’s great story, much as the Greeks read Homer and studied Plato–the stories of their ancestors, the history of their nation.  A child gifted with the knowledge and appreciation of his own historical heritage better understands his or her place in the world and from that foundation can embrace the beauty and the heritage of other nations and cultures.


So, how does this answer our question, “Is Beautiful Feet Books classical?”  If one looks at some contemporary notions of classical, then the answer would be, “No.”  On the other hand, if one perceives classical as incorporating Socratic reasoning and discussion, engaging with timeless literature (age appropriate), eschewing the use of textbooks and bland narrative works, and involving students in the Great Conversation about the important issues of the human heart, then yes, Beautiful Feet Books is classical.

We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.
And if you've enjoyed this, please feel free to share using the buttons below! 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

BFB Fundamentals: What is Classical anyway and who was Charlotte Mason?



This is Part III in our BFB Fundamentals Series. 
Click on the links to read Part I and Part II

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past.  Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.  A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” –C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

What is Classical?


The term "classical" is one that has been bandied about the homeschooling movement for years and we are often asked if our curriculum is "classical". Answering this seemingly simple question has proven difficult as we find that there are as many definitions of the term "classical education" as there are curricula. People can purchase curriculum to teach "classical handwriting" and "classical science." This poses a challenge as it seems that everyone has their own conception of what it means to adopt a "classical" education approach.

The Modern Classical Movement


Classical education, in its modern use of the term, refers simply to an educational approach built around the trivium, or three-part process that aims to train the mind. The three parts refer to three stages: the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage. Each of the three stages corresponds to four years, so during grades 1-4 the student is in the grammar stage and studying the basics, laying a foundation for the next stage. This approach to the four year cycle is relatively new, a product of educational bureaucracy at the turn of the 20th century when it was determined that public schools would be required to provide twelve years of education. While the idea of "classical" education has existed from the early Medieval period, its proponents argue that it is rooted in ancient philosophy, employing the methods used by Socrates and Plato. The modern classical movement also takes much from the "Great Books" movement, advocating that students and parents take part in the "Great Conversation" that has existed between the premier thinkers of all time. This is accomplished through exposure to the best literary works of the West.

Teaching History "Classically"


As we at BFB are primarily concerned with teaching history, let's take a look at how the trivium impacts the teaching of history. First, a classical approach advocates that all of world history be taught in four years. So from grades 1-4, a student is presented with a chronological world history. This four year pattern is repeated three times before the student graduates from high school. Obviously, this means that the history of the ancient world including Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, China, and more is presented in 1st grade. The Medieval period is generally taught in grade 2, the age of exploration and discovery in grade 3, and modern/contemporary history in grade 4. The cycle then begins at the beginning with the ancient world being taught again in grade 5, and so on and so forth. During the grammar stage memorization is emphasized. This is where classical education advocates argue that a student is most readily able to absorb facts. During these years students are often taught chants in which they memorize historically relevant trivia such as the names of the US presidents or the dates of key events. It is not until the later years that students are exposed to the great literary works of Western culture.

Charlotte Mason and Classical Education


Now that the trivium and "classical" education has been very basically defined, let's take a look at another educational approach that has been hugely influential in our own educational journey. Charlotte Mason, a British educator who lived during the late 1800s believed education was an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Boiling Mason's pedagogy to its very basic elements reveals an educational approach designed to create a pleasant environment that would encourage the development of life-long learners, and cultivate curiosity and discovery. This required wide exposure to literature, conversation, exploration, and the arts. 

Charlotte Mason fervently advocated the use of "living books" to teach history, eschewing the dry textbooks that were being promoted at the time. These living books relayed information in a story form, allowing children to begin seeing history in terms of a human story and not simply a collection of facts. 

Hopefully we have helped clear up some of the confusion surrounding the terms "classical" and "Charlotte Mason". In our next entry we will answer the question we are most often asked, "Is BFB classical?"

We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.
And if you've enjoyed this, please feel free to share using the buttons below! 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

BFB Fundamentals: Why Teach History Through Literature?


 Hello! Today we bring you Part II in our series BFB Fundamentals. Rea is answering the question, "Why teach history through literature." For Part I, Why Teach History, click here
History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle

Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg

In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching  history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1.  How has history been taught through the ages?  2. Why use literature to teach history?  3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?

How has history been taught through the ages?

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators
Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators
In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force.  Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved.  Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce.  These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.
Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It alparisso flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries.  From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history.  In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s.  In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English.  An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s.   This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.

Why use literature to teach history?

Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature.  There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times.  Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook.  As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116).  Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder.  A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.

Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?

Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature.  Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind.  David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”9780684813639_p0_v2_s260x420
That’s what history is: a story.  And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.  That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)
The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”.  She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.

Works Cited:
“Knowing History and Who We Are.”  David McCullough.  Imprimis.  Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1984.

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