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.

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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Monday, January 20, 2014

BFB Fundamentals: Why Teach History?

Hello! We are excited to introduce a new series on our blog called BFB Fundamentals. We will be answering questions like "Why teach history?" and "Is BFB classical?" and "What's the point of using literature to teach history when textbooks make it so easy?" We hope you find it useful and would love to hear from you so feel free to email us with questions ( and comments. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section. Let's get a conversation going! Without further ado, here we go!

Why Teach History?

For many who grew up and were educated in a traditional schoolroom setting the study of history may seem a bit pointless. How often have you been asked the date of the fall of Rome? Sure it was interesting to learn about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, but has that knowledge ever served you? And now you've decided to homeschool your children or are involved in teaching and history is a required subject. Or maybe your child is asking you, "Why do I need to know any of this anyway?" 

The fact that this question is now a common one points to an increasingly utilitarian view of education. In many ways the answer to the question of why to teach history comes down to one's educational philosophy. Is the purpose of education simply preparation for entering the workforce or is it something more? If you believe, as we do, that education goes beyond employee training, then like us, you probably believe in the importance of rich historical study. If you have a philosophy of education that includes training in critical thinking skills, reason, citizenship, and the formation of character, you probably have a great respect for the study of history. Unfortunately that educational philosophy, while ascribed to by many, is rarely held in conviction by educators and certainly not reflected in government mandates. Current statistics on student's knowledge of the basic facts of US history reveal a disturbing ignorance which belies any devotion to the study of history. Education is viewed as valuable in so far as it prepares young people to be good employees. And yes, education should prepare young people for adult lives, of which work is an important and valuable part, but it has a much deeper value in training young people to be compassionate, thoughtful, and engaged members of their communities. 

How did we get here? 

Over the past century the study of history has been increasingly isolated from the other disciplines. Beginning in the 19th century textbooks became the primary mode of teaching history. The drive towards standardization within classrooms drove the development of the textbook and it proved useful for subjects like math and science. Unfortunately for teaching a subject as vibrant as history, the adoption of textbooks stripped the subject of all its life. Where history was once the study of our human story and was filled with tales of adventure, heroic quests, stupefying failures, humorous dunces, and wicked villains, it became a collection of names and dates to be chanted over and over until they were firmly fixed in young minds. One can picture the one-room school houses with their strict schoolmarm, pointer in hand, drilling facts into the heads of students as they chant away the names of the presidents, dates of various battles, etc. Now, this approach, still employed by some educational approaches, is a great way to instill a knowledge of facts, but it's not so great for teaching students to engage with history, to form informed opinions, to discuss ideas. 

History as more than facts

From the beginning of time, we human beings have been storytellers. Long before people thought up the idea of "history" we were telling one another stories from the past, connecting our short lives with a long chain of others who came before us. Whether it was relating creation narratives or listing genealogies, whether it took place around a tribal circle or in the marble forums of ancient Greece, these stories were our first "histories". Often thought of as myths now, they provided ancient peoples with a context for the human story. Part of the human condition is the ability to question our place in this world and history provides part of the answer. In relating the human story and connecting ourselves with the vast pageant of people who came before us, we get to know ourselves a little better. We can see our lives within the context of something greater than ourselves. And history provides invaluable lessons in how to conduct ourselves. We can learn from the fascinating successes and failures of people who are not so different from us, but who lived in the centuries before us. This is the greater purpose of history–and it is lost when distilled down to basic names, dates, and "facts". 

But what about getting a job?

Now you may be thinking this is all great, but who is going to hire someone who isn't adequately prepared for a job? In our current economic climate the in vogue career paths are all about technology and medicine. Both of these career paths require specialized training and many education wonks are
advocating that we start teaching computer coding and advanced math in elementary school. This could be very short sighted. It is no longer a world where one can choose a career path and expect to work within that chosen field for the entirety of one's career. The average young person will change jobs/careers fifteen times in his or her lifetime. That's probably 12 times more than his parents and could be 14 times more than his grandparents. In a job market that is so fluid, the skills required are not necessarily highly specialized. Yes, it's a good idea to know how to write computer code, but it's more valuable to be able to think critically, to be creative and innovative, to understand human nature, make rational arguments, be an engaged reader, a thoughtful writer, and a thorough researcher. The study of history taught holistically provides these skills. And so you may find yourself asking, how do I teach history "properly"? That question will be answered in our next entry in this series. In the mean time, leave a comment below telling us about your experiences in learning and teaching history. 

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!