How to Teach History in Schools (or At Home)

Originally published as "Teaching History as Self-Doubt" by "Rhetor" in The Dorchester Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2011 (print edition)


"A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."

– Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”


It is heartening to see national history curricula for schools the subject of lively debate in Australia and the United Kingdom. This is not happening in Canada, where interest is confined to a few enthusiasts: Canada’s History dedicated a special issue to teaching last year, but many educators are not well-trained and the provinces consign history to the muddle of social studies.

Australia, by contrast, has made history one of four mandatory pillars (math, English, science and history) nationally from K to 12 — a status achieved largely by one man’s passion: John Howard, the former prime minister, relaunched the “history wars” in 2006, calling for a “root and branch renewal” and systematic teaching of Australia’s proud story. Since 2007, the Labor government has decided to proceed with a national history curriculum, but one that is built around “complex environmental, social and economic pressures, such as climate change” — a theme the conservative opposition has already vowed to “scrap.”

In Britain the debate is driven by history buffs in the centre-right coalition government, including its education secretary, Michael Gove, and by the Tory press. Like Howard, Gove wants students to master a patriotic narrative, in part to shore up an eroding sense of national identity in a realm formerly renowned for its Churchillian pluck. Gove invited television-savvy historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama to enliven the curriculum.

Their efforts have been opposed with bemused condescension by the liberal-left. Richard J. Evans in The London Review of Books mocked Gove’s enthusiasm for Britain in an article called “The Wonderfulness of Us: the Tory Interpretation of History.” Evans is correct that a heroic narrative already comprises the set curriculum that is compulsory to age 14, but he misses the point. Likewise for Bernard Porter, writing in The Guardian, Ferguson’s gung-ho punditry is exactly why narrative is the wrong approach: “Children need to be taught analytical skills, more than ‘big stories’ or facts ... to be taught to be critical, before anything else,” Porter believes.

The Australian left’s agenda is similar: under Stuart MacIntyre, a former communist appointed by Labor to rewrite Howard’s curriculum, a morally critical approach has trumped Howard’s colonial and military narrative. Instead, Labor has substituted a relativist “world history” that is light on facts and heavy with guilt about aboriginals and immigrants. One right-of-centre blogger wrote that, according to MacIntyre’s curriculum, “the struggle for individual liberty started in 1945. Because that’s when the United Nations was founded.”

Most agree that history teaching should consist of more than just unreflective memorization. How to think and to learn, how to follow an argument, draw distinctions and make reasonable deductions from facts, should be the foremost objectives of education.

However, the left has lost sight of this and puts the cart before the horse. What Evans, Porter, and MacIntyre call “actual skills” and “specialized topics” means in practice is a roomful of adolescent reflexive moral relativists with a weary contempt for learning. Indeed some university lecturers find their students proud of their lack of knowledge and reading. Referring to schools, Evans quotes Acton’s maxim to “study problems, not periods” — forgetting that Acton taught undergraduates, not children. To inculcate cynical questioning and anti-patriotic attitudinizing too young is a medicine worse than the disease; it breeds ignorance not wisdom. Students need no encouragement to be critical.

Gregory Melleuish, an associate professor at the University of Wollongong, has panned MacIntyre’s revised curriculum for overemphasizing ethical criticism: “The moral judgment and empathy element demands a level of sophistication that is in excess of what might be expected of teenagers,” Melleuish told The Australian newspaper. “That is something the professional historian may engage in, but you are talking about kids aged twelve to sixteen. That’s always been the issue: whether kids of that age can do much more than get the facts right.”

The tendency on the left, as Evans, MacIntyre, and Porter’s remarks reveal, is to reduce history to an exercise in condemning past wrongs; that is what “critical skills” amount to in practice. MacIntyre’s colleague, Tony Taylor, thinks the point of studying the middle ages is to condemn the Crusades and the Conquest of the Americas; a presentation of Christianity that is “not only unhistorical” but “dishonestly antagonistic,” says conservative blogger Chris Berg.

Never mind that the greatest renaissance in world history began in twelfth-century Italy and France and the concept of limited executive government in thirteenth-century England. Here in Canada the preoccupation with victimhood has mostly centred on Japanese Canadians and residential school “survivors.”

Peter Seixas in Teaching Canada’s History (pp. 18-21) thinks children should be encouraged to condemn Caucasian writers who used terms like “Eskimo,” “primitive,” and “pagan.” What Seixas, a professor of education, seems not to appreciate is that schoolchildren are too young for this kind of academic pseudo-complexity and that their worldview is warped by pretentious classroom efforts to “heal the wounds.” Indeed what he advocates is what we have already had in many locales for a generation and counting.

Experts who want students to “be engaged” forget to distinguish among different age groups. Children learn differently at different stages. Students can only properly discuss things that they know something about.

One compelling model that appears to have a small but significant following is championed by the classical education movement. Educators who disdain this vibrant subculture would learn much from a robust online guide such as “What is Classical Education?” by Susan Wise Bauer, co-author of The Well-Trained Mind. Or from Laura Berquist’s Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, among many such books. Prescribing solid intellectual formation more adequately than most public and private curricula, these educators generally propose three stages of learning:  grammatical, logical, and rhetorical — a modern version of the trivium that was once partially embraced by Marshall McLuhan.

In its more recent form, the classical model proposes that various integrated fields from science and math to English and second or classical languages should be covered at three stages (hence “trivium”), each time to a deeper, more systematic and engaging degree. For example, one approach for history could look like this, in four fields: (1) classical antiquity, (2) medieval-renaissance, (3) modern history, and (4) national, regional, and local history. Taught as a trivium, each of these four fields would be covered three times between grades one and twelve.

Students today complain about repetition, but that is because they are tortured repetitively with the same introductory material by different uncoordinated teachers — rather than going into the subject more deeply and systematically as they grow older and more capable.

As Anna Clark wrote in her 2008 paper on history teaching in Australia and Canada, “There is little point mandating the subject if it does not engage students and teachers.” Textbooks should be used as a guide not a crutch, as classical educators have long maintained. According to the classical model, in the grammatical stage song, poetry, and literary prose such as Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books enable children to memorize far more names, dates, and quotations (as well as times tables) than they are given credit for. Narrative historical chronology can be established quite solidly by means of time-charts, maps, and captivating folklore.

Retained together with stories and legends integrated in school plays and with other subjects, history comes alive for the young and becomes a lifelong romance. (It does not matter what academics and journalists believe about the inaccuracy or datedness of such folk tales; Porter’s “critical analysis” and Seixas’s “questioning” can follow at a later stage.)

On this model, grades one through four would mark children’s first exposure to history from ancient times to more recent, enriched by substantive literary treasures.

Pupils at the poetical stage in Britain, for example, should learn what Michael Gove presumably has in mind: the traditional Protestant narrative of blue woad, Caesar, Arthur, St. Augustine, Alfred, William the Conqueror, Becket, Magna Carta, the Armada, Guy Fawkes, Cromwell, Waterloo, the Blitz.

There is plenty of time later to weigh Bernard Porter’s pros and cons of whiggish history but not in grade two. Catholics, for example, view Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in a completely different light, a goldmine for debate in later years.

Many on the left disapprove because they are antagonistic to traditional culture, from which they would prefer the young to be alienated; hence their preference for vaguely-defined “critical approaches” that generate angst and self-doubt.

The odd thing is that the left should agree with teaching the Protestant narrative and its rich folk tradition in elementary school — because it would provide a substantial architecture for consciousness-raising teachers to undermine later on.

In the classical model, continuing to build their knowledge base in junior high school, students in the logical stage learn to define and distinguish concepts and systems such as tyranny, oligarchy, democracy, and related institutions and positions – which belong in a historical and literary context. They can make sense of kingship, the growth of parliaments in France and England, basic military strategies and political decisions, and the concept of law vs. blood feud or anarchy. 

A systematic, integrated curriculum would have students reading fiction in English class and in a second or classical language that synchronizes with the historical period under study. This "logic" stage would mark the second time students covered the four survey periods from ancient times to the present, including national and local history in a more challenging way.

Thus in grades six through nine, students would learn about systems and concepts while retaining and deepening the chronology and beginning to understand the life of ideas and to ask “how” and “why” such-and-such occurred. Grade ten through twelve students are then ready to develop critical and expressive skills: the rhetorical stage.

Tracing the survey periods systematically a third time with greater sophistication and depth, students can now study different versions of the same event — because they are already aware of the events and concepts in the first place. They can develop an informed critical perspective and learn to present and exchange arguments (hence “rhetorical”).

If the goal is genuinely to equip grown-up students with critical skills, the beginnings of political judgment, and the ability to form and express sound opinions, teachers must have laid the foundations beforehand, and schools must both start and finish properly, not get priorities backwards.

A threefold approach makes sense if students are to be given the chance to “drink deep”  rather than bounce over the same dreary material several times lightly. It is generally accepted that effective teachers are a key to success: if the teacher is not classically-trained, even a solid curriculum cannot compensate.

However, if the poetical and logical groundwork have been properly done, the senior teacher can “teach the whole story, not just ‘warts and all’ but as an inquiry or an argument,” as Christopher Hitchens put it in his 1998 Harper’s essay, “Goodbye To All That: Why Americans Are Not Taught History.” 

“When there is a basic grasp of narrative and evolution, and a corresponding grasp of the idea of differing views of the same story,” Hitchens writes, “it will become apt to consider theories and interpretations. ...

What was the influence of Pericles’ funeral oration on the Gettysburg Address? This engrossing question, open to any mind of average ability, cannot even be asked if, as was recently discovered, the majority of America’s schoolchildren don’t know in which century the Civil War was fought.

With adequate preparation in earlier years, “The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open,” Hitchens continues,

They can handle questions such as, ‘Was the Civil War really fought to free the slaves? Why are Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points unthinkable without Lenin’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly? Was the Great Depression caused by too little government intervention or too much?’ ... Each of these questions admits of several answers, many of them equally ‘valid.’ In such cases, what matters is how you think and not what you think.

Some teachers, however, are still enthralled with their own undergraduate discovery of “deconstructing history.” Others are dazzled by the achievements of non-western cultures because they are only superficially acquainted with their own Western tradition. Either way they are too keen to transmit their sophistry to young children.

Critics tend to equate compelling and memorizable narratives and stories negatively and reflexively with “Boys’ Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives,” as Laurie Penny put it in the New Statesman, mocking Niall Ferguson’s apologias for empire. History, she said, “properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance.” That is “the entire purpose of history.”

But is the “entire purpose” of history really to instil anti-Western attitudes, a parlour partiality to the wretched of the earth? Should history be primarily a tutelage in self-doubt? Penny implies that any dissent from her preferred approach is “bigoted discourse.”


More sane was the response of historian Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College: “We have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective.”

How odd that the progressive-minded, such as Ms. Penny, do not see the value of examining more than one point of view. There is a time and a place to do this: in senior high school, not in grade four.

We all have far to go. First, the evidence suggests that effective historical memory work is haphazard and unsystematic in public and many private schools. Students arrive at senior grades fundamentally culturally deprived and ignorant of facts. Even if narrative history is “compulsory” in Britain to age 14, in practice pupils lack “chronological understanding,” according to Ofsted, the agency that inspects school standards. Teachers have failed “to establish a clear mental map of the past.” Students “knew about particular events, characters and periods but did not have an overview.”

In Canada, social studies curricula in the English-speaking provinces reveal a similar prevalence of disconnected, episodic case studies. In England (and presumably elsewhere), as Michael Gove’s critics admit, “The real problem is not with the curriculum, but with the schools’ failure to deliver it.” Secondly, “critical skills” are introduced too early.

“Where ignorance and scepticism meet, a course on British history becomes a course on running Britain down,” remarks one Financial Times writer: “By age 16, students will have as much cynicism and ‘distance’ as any educator could wish.” In Canada, a typical curriculum (Alberta’s) prescribes “historical thinking” in grade nine, “a process whereby students are challenged to rethink assumptions about the past.”

But how can students “rethink” something they haven’t learned in the first place? Regrettably, the British curriculum downgrades history to an elective after age 14, a premature cut-off that sabotages the three-stage process that classical educators promote. It reduces history to an elementary subject.

It’s similar in Canada: after children are immersed in relativist “traditions and celebrations” (grade two in Ontario), they jump around in grades three to seven social studies from settlement in Upper Canada backwards to the middle ages; backwards again to antiquity, followed illogically by first nations and explorers and a survey of Canada. After grade seven, as in Britain, history becomes an elective.

We have all seen the school-bus with some banal motto painted on the side such as “On the Journey of Learning.” Most parents may never realize what this really means: “On a Journey to Nowhere in Particular.” Writing in the Toronto Star, Rick Salutin ironically shares the same goal as Michael Gove: a collective understanding of a shared culture by the end of high school.

There is, of course, a difference: Gove wants traditional British patriotism, Salutin yearns for “community and democracy.” Apparently a convinced relativist, Salutin thinks it’s fine that children at a typical Toronto school observe

Gandhi Day, Dia de la Raza, International Women’s Day, name it. ... For the Remembrance assembly, students in hijabs and teachers in saris recited “In Flanders Fields” and sang “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” Thus does a sense of community expand to include national history. ... The kids will build all that, along with hockey, into their notion of Canadian, which is what they’re becoming. They’re cobbling together an innovative sense of community. (Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 2011)

Salutin’s summum bonum is post-Trudeauvian Canada. Would he feel the same if the “shared identity” in question were something more traditional and classically-grounded? Probably not.

Like leftists in Britain and Australia, Salutin wants students “developing their ability to think,” not memorizing facts or cramming for the test. As he puts it, “What you’re taught matters less than how you’re taught.” What is curious is that Salutin and his confrères believe that memorizing a traditional, relatively patriotic chronology and learning to think are mutually opposed.

Surely knowing and discussing are both stages of a good education.

Why not teach history as the classical revivalists suggest, in three waves between grades one and twelve: first memorize, then analyze, and (from grades ten to twelve) learn how to present arguments based on sound knowledge. Since the advent of quasi-universal public education in modern times, it’s the only approach that has never been tried.

Reproduced from The Dorchester Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2011.

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