Monday, January 30, 2017

In Response to "The Perils of Teaching History Through Literature"...

Last week, I read The Perils of Teaching History Through Literature, written by John De Gree. The article was posted on The Hovel, Center for Lit's blog.  I don't normally write responses to other blog posts, however, after a week's time, I'm struggling to get this out of my mind. I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on teaching history through literature. Go read The Perils of Teaching History Through Literature and come back. I'll wait :)

First, I must confess after traveling to a variety of homeschool conventions and networking with thousands of homeschooling families both in person and online, I have never encountered a homeschool family who has used Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell to teach history. I believe Mr. De Gree's example of teaching history through literature using Gone with the Wind was an exaggeration to make his point. Mr. De Gree did make a good argument against the use of Gone with the Wind and had it stopped there, I would not be writing this post. However, his final blanket sentence in paragraph one gave me much food for thought.
"However, any novel could be used to show what is wrong with teaching fiction as if it were fact."
I couldn't disagree more!  Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, The Aeneid, the bible, Herodotus' Histories, History of the Peloponnesian War, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Augustine's Confessions, and Plutarchs' Lives, are a few pieces of literature that come to mind when I think of teaching history through literature. As a matter of fact, I believe literature, biographies, autobiographies, historical fiction, and primary source documents are the best way to teach history, not textbooks. Historically speaking, epics, poems, parables, and stories have been passed down for generations. The first histories were all in story form often told by traveling minstrels. These stories brought people knowledge of the past.

Now let us turn to Charlotte Mason who said,
...the study of Literature goes pari passu with that of History. (A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pg. 180)
I do not know better how to describe the sort of books that children's minds will consent to deal with than by saying that they must be literary in character. (A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pg. 248)
Literature is hardly a distinct subject, so closely is it associated with history, whether general or English; and whether it be contemporary or merely illustrative; and it is astonishing how much learning children acquire when the thought of an a age is made to synchronize with its political and social developments. (A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pg. 274)
The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn 'outlines,' or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, 'the truth-teller,' with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V.––Shakespeare's Henry V.––and his victorious army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus. If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him.
So are most History Books written for Children––For the matter for this intelligent teaching of history, eschew, in the first place, nearly all history books written expressly for children; and in the next place, all compendiums, outlines, abstracts whatsoever. For the abstracts, considering what part the study of history is fitted to play in the education of the child, there is not a word to be said in their favour; and as for what are called children's books, the children of educated parents are able to understand history written with literary power, and are not attracted by the twaddle of reading-made-easy little history books. (Home Education, Vol. 1 Part XVIII.–History, p.280-281)
In the same way, readings from Plutarch's Lives will afford the best preparation for the study of Grecian or of Roman history. (Home Education, Vol. 1 Part XVIII.–History, p.286)
History Books––It is not at all easy to choose the right history books for children. Mere summaries of facts must, as we have seen, be eschewed; and we must be equally careful to avoid generalisations. The natural function of the mind, in the early years of life, is to gather the material of knowledge with a view to that very labour of generalisation which is proper to the adult mind; a labour which we should all carry on to some extent for ourselves.

As it is, our minds are so poorly furnished that we accept the conclusions presented to us without demur; but we can, at any rate, avoid giving children cut-and-dried opinions upon the course of history while they are yet young. What they want is graphic details concerning events and persons upon which imagination goes to work; and opinions tend to form themselves by slow degrees as knowledge grows. (Home Education, Vol. 1 Part XVIII.–History, p.288)
Textbooks are "cut-and-dried opinions". They offer snippets of history. Often times, textbooks are written by a board or group of people with an agenda, namely a set of standards, and the authors are far removed from those time periods of which they are writing. Whereas literature and biographies are usually written by one person who is passionate about their subject. I advocate for literature written in or around the historical time period being studied. The closer the author is to the events in time, the better.

I realize Mr. De Gree is a history textbook writer. I have not personally seen his program or read his text. However, I have watched the vendor sales pitch video on The Classical Historian website, which I believe to be Mr. De Gree himself explaining his program. Interestingly, I did notice that Mr. De Gree's American history course used The Patriot's History, a literary piece written by Larry Schweikart, Dave Dougherty, and Michael Allen which shows a pageant of history from their understanding.

About half way through the post, Mr. De Gree does mention the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. I agree that these are excellent sources for studying history. First hand experience and/or knowledge is far superior to textbooks.

I also agree that "teaching history and literature are not two completely separate academic subjects, and many of the analytical tools used in understanding history are found in literary analysis." However, I disagree with the very next sentence, "However, when parents try to teach history through literature, their children learn falsehoods, create wrong images of the past, and become prey to their emotions in understanding the meaning of history." Rather, I believe this is dependent on the literature that is chosen and whether or not you are using the analytical tools Mr. De Gree speaks of. Again, Gone with the Wind is not a good historical source. But, I would argue that Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, and Plutarch have given us excellent literary histories of which to teach and learn from.

When selecting literature to teach history, one must choose books with real/realistic characters. These characters must also develop morally over the course of the story. There should be content that adds to the reader's cultural and geographic literacy. The literature should use beautiful language and portray historical accuracy.

Part of the classical tradition is seeking that which is beautiful. Literature based on fact, written poetically, which appeals to emotion is a worthy teaching resource that will aid in retention. Too often, the dry, boring facts of a text are only memorized long enough to regurgitate on a test and then long forgotten to move on to the next thing. If we are to educate classically, we must seek that which holds truth, beauty, and goodness.

Regarding appeal to emotion, I agree that literature used for teaching must be based on fact and should not be romanticized. On the other hand, I caution against being too utilitarian in our approach. Being made in the image of Christ, we are designed to be relational. Relational with God as well as our fellow man. We were also given an emotive ability to love and experience intimacy with our Father and fellow man. Jesus himself spoke in parables. A parable is a short fictitious story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. Jesus spoke in parables/fictitious stories because that is how we are designed to best learn and remember. Parables appeal to our emotional and relational being. We come to better understanding through this appeal. Like parables, great literature makes the perils of history easier to learn, retain, synthesize, and apply.

Mr. De Gree is correct when saying, "Some teachers who use literature to teach history were never taught what history is and do not have an appreciation for it. Many have learned that history simply means memorizing names and dates, when actually it means applying the tools of historical analysis, using sound judgement, discerning fact from fiction, and making connections." I believe teaching history through literature is the best way to the wisdom of which he speaks. During my young years of academia, I despised history. Through the use of classroom textbooks, lectures, and required memorization of dates for tests, the study of war and dead people appeared to be a waste of my time. It was not until I began home educating my children that I started to see the importance of studying history. In ten years of homeschooling, we have always studied history through a literature approach. In doing so, I have not only developed my own affinity toward history, but each and every one of my children will tell you history is their favorite subject. They have a wonderful understanding and appreciation for the people and events of our past. I now believe history to be one of the most important subjects that we teach.

If we are developing the tools of historical analysis of which Mr. De Gree speaks, there is no reason not to use literature in our history teaching. I hope I have made a case here to show there are many literary pieces worthy of aiding us in the teaching of history and that not every piece of literature or "any novel could be used to show what is wrong with teaching fiction as if it were fact."

I will leave you with more wisdom from Charlotte Mason:
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education, Book 1, Chapter VI, p. 109)
BOOKS MUST BE LIVING - We recognize that history for him is, to lie in the lives of those strong personalities which at any given time impress themselves most upon their age and country. This is not the sort of thing to be got out of nice little history books for children, whether 'Little Arthur's', or somebody's 'Outlines.' We take the child to the living sources of history - a child of seven is fully able to comprehend Plutarch, in Plutarch's own words (translated), without any diluting and with little explanation. Give him living thought in this kind, and you make possible the co-operation of the living Teacher. The child's progress is by leaps and bounds, and you wonder why. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 2, Parents and Children, Chapter XXV, p. 278)
Let a child have the meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers round this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours; the child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint. (Home Education, Vol. 1 Part XVIII.–History, p.295)


  1. I read that article and pondered it too. You make excellent points. I kept coming back to personal experience--as a child, the reason I wanted to know more about pioneer times was because I had read the Little House books. As an adult, the reason I checked out books from the library about The French and Indian War and WWI was because I read The Last of the Mohicans and Rilla of Ingleside. And I think this is a great way to think about it--I don't want to "teach content." It won't stick. I want to stoke interest. When there is interest, then any facts, dates, or text-book style content the child comes across will stick. I'm not sure it's possible for children--or even adults--to care much about an abstract concept such as a world war or a phenomenon like the Gold Rush until, through living historical fiction, they truly realize actual people lived these events. When Laura Ingalls says she looked out of her window and saw two deer hanging in the tree outside, the child understands far more vividly that real people once did not have stores or refrigerators. Then they almost can't help but start being interested.
    Thanks for bringing up this discussion!

  2. Thank you for your kind words Ivy Mae. I love what you said,

    "I don't want to "teach content." It won't stick. I want to stoke interest. When there is interest, then any facts, dates, or text-book style content the child comes across will stick. I'm not sure it's possible for children--or even adults--to care much about an abstract concept such as a world war or a phenomenon like the Gold Rush until, through living historical fiction, they truly realize actual people lived these events."

    It ties very well to that relational piece. As Charlotte Mason said, "Education is a science of relations." If the student is not relating to the content, a wall goes up and they cannot learn. If story form helps that relation and builds interest rather than a wall, then by all means read the story!

  3. Thank you for this. I just came across the same article and love your response.

  4. Wonderful article Melissa! You make many excellent points. I couldn't agree more with what you said and your rebuttals to the original article. Thank you!