History is widely considered to be a core component of a proper homeschooling curriculum. In fact, according to homeschooling authorities Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, “history is the subject,” because it presents “the unfolding of human achievement in every area — science, literature, art, music, and politics.” Yet how many of us can say we were excited to learn history as a child, that we emerged from our own youth with a history education that actually empowered us to make our way through the world, and that we regularly engage the past of human civilization as a vital component of our lives?
There is no shame in admitting that you found history dull, that you thought it was a waste of time, or even that you hated it as a child. The way that it was taught, it probably deserved your disdain! Like Kevin Arnold, the young man of the TV show The Wonder Years, you probably remember history as mind-blowingly boring. I’ll never forget the episode in which Kevin’s history teacher, played by Ben Stein, begins a lesson: “The Hundred Years’ War…Year Four!” As a historian, I laughed and I cringed when I first saw that episode. It captures perfectly why for so many people the mere thought of attending a history lecture causes their eyes to roll to the back of their heads.
Honestly, if you like history (or, like me, you love it), you know you are one of only a few.
But if history is something almost everyone hated as a child, how can it be something we all believe we need to teach our kids? Is it because we want them to suffer as we did? Of course not. Still, the question remains: “Why history?”
In Wise and Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, the question is acknowledged, but not really answered. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is quoted as saying, “History is the study of everything that has happened until now. Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable.” Unfortunately, this answer just raises the question: why shouldn’t one live entirely in the present?
Indeed, comparing present-day American culture with others in history, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of the Dark Ages, there has never been a time in history in which a greater percentage of the population was so absorbed by their own personal sphere of concerns and so ignorant of the vast pageant of achievements and failures that is humankind’s past.
What of it?
The world demands that we get busy living. Modern life especially involves the most complicated set of challenges that people have ever faced. On a daily basis we have to adapt to the fast-paced changes of the professional world. We have to juggle our careers with the needs of our families and friends. We have to take care of our homes, service our cars, and upgrade our computers. We have to stay fit, watch our sugar and caffeine intake, and monitor our cholesterol and our trans fats.
Life is the subject, not history. How could anyone possibly argue that the past — a world that is long gone — deserves attention at the expense of the ever-more demanding present? This question deserves a good answer — especially if you are going to dedicate a significant portion of your energy as a homeschooling parent to making sure that your child learns history. Also, you better believe that your child is going to want to know why history is worth the effort, even if he or she does not ask the question out loud.
The first part of the answer is that there is no such thing as the present apart from the past.
The past is not a world long gone. It permeates the world around us. Indeed, it is the reason there even is a world around us. Without the past, the present would not have come into existence!
To grasp this point, sit down in your home school and pick an object — any object — from among your teaching tools and begin dissecting it. But do so historically. My favorite example is an analog clock. It has a clear plastic cover and a plastic casing, but I’m going to leave that aside, along with the dial and the amazing system of Arabic numerals that are inscribed on it. I’m going to focus on the electric motor that powers it, thanks to a current provided by a tiny battery.
Where does that come from? How did it come to exist?
Obviously it was made in a factory. But how did there come to be factories that make this kind of device? The type of motor in modern clocks was first created by Nikola Tesla, “the man who invented the twentieth century.”
Tesla’s inventions, however, were only made possible by the previous work of scientist Michael Faraday, who sixty years earlier discovered the relationships between magnetic fields and electrical currents. Suffice it to say that Faraday learned that magnets can create a current, and that a current can physically move a magnet. Of course, Faraday himself was building upon a foundation of previous scientific work stretching back to the investigation of magnetism by William Gilbert. Gilbert’s On the Magnet, published in 1600, was a milestone in scientific history.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the simple clock, which we all take for granted, would not exist but for the ingenious thinking and strenuous efforts of a host of incredible scientific minds going back over 400 years! Not to mention that Gilbert’s work relied on the previous use of the magnetic compass by European sailors, which itself was rooted in the centuries-old use of lodestone by the Chinese.
(For a far more engrossing story about the wonders of another ordinary object, I recommend the essay, “I, Pencil,” by economist Leonard Read, which details the mind-boggling complexity of a pencil’s creation, told very humorously from the point of view of the pencil. Read it at www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html .)
Applying this method of thinking to an everyday thing is a way of understanding how the world we live in was made. It is an example of how one can gain an essential perspective I call historical-mindedness.
Historical-mindedness is the ability to engage the past as a productive aspect of living in the present. It is the capacity to draw on history as an intellectual resource for living.
There is a big difference between having such a capacity and merely knowing a lot of facts. The most brilliant people are not those who retain everything, but those who have the instinctive ability to discard anything that isn’t relevant.
Regarding history, the real power lies not in piling up more facts, but in being able to see relationships between them. When one can grasp fundamental similarities between past and present, despite circumstantial differences, one can learn and apply the “lessons of history,” i.e. the principles applicable to all human life. If one can grasp the connection between the actions of people in the past, and the world that those actions produced, one can develop a proper appreciation for the man-made values around us.
Let us look more closely at these crucial values.
When the Founding Fathers created the United States, they realized that many of the problems they faced were unique and required unique solutions. Unquestionably, however, they also looked back on the history of Western civilization, and drew momentous lessons from it, including the fact that the separation of church and state is an objective requirement of progress. Thomas Jefferson, drawing on history, noted, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” In a previous correspondence, Jefferson remarked, “History… furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” His great collaborator in the project of American secularism, James Madison, commented in a letter to a friend that “Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
Two more historical-minded individuals than Jefferson and Madison one cannot find in all of history. But what of Americans today? Can it be said that our politicians, let alone the bulk of the citizenry, are able to glean the lessons to be learned from the past? How many people have an understanding of the defeat of the Zoroastrian theocrats of Persia by the freedom-loving Greeks deeper than the comic book-like depiction of it in the movie “300”? Do Americans carry the lessons of that era with them when directing the destiny of their own country? Do today’s voters think back to the stagnation of the European Dark Ages and compare it to the dynamism of the Islamic Golden Age? Do they think of the regression of Spain under the Inquisition compared to the tolerationist Dutch Republic of the same period? Far too few have such considerations in mind. Consequently, American secularism, and thus the American way of life, is constantly under threat.
This historical example can also serve to illustrate the point that historical-mindedness involves being able to better appreciate the values we enjoy and the people who created those values. No one who has made a proper study of history can deny that the founding of the United States and the institutions that buttress its civilization is the most remarkable accomplishment in human governance ever devised. Whether one is drawn to the noble premises of the Declaration of Independence, to the intricate workings of the “separation of powers,” or to the key articles of the Bill of Rights, one finds everywhere the distilled essence of every truth that came before. Of the many things that can be said of the Founders, including an account of their personal flaws or their failure to jettison the legacy of slavery, historical-mindedness demands that one recognize that fundamentally, they were the Founders, and their work is the greatest advance for individual rights and for secularism in history. For the historical-minded American, the 4th of July is not merely a day for fireworks, but a day of most solemn reflection and thanksgiving. It is a way of appreciating the living past.
That’s why history is so important. For the historical-minded individual, the same clarity of perception and passion that so many feel towards American rights and freedoms permeates every part of life. It renders the seemingly mundane — an analog clock, or a pencil! — into something wondrous. It gives one the ability to see and enjoy the present on a whole new level.
Sadly, the most recent generations of students have been weaned off of history. They’ve been fed the replacement pablum of social studies. Can anyone doubt the tragic results of this substitution when considering the new depth of ignorance to which these students have sunk? Young adults emerge from twelve years of education, and indeed from college, without a meaningful awareness of the Magna Carta, the subsequent development of the English Parliament, and the fact that the English brought these great advances with them on board the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant in 1607. Many Americans thus have no idea that representative government in America, in the form of the Virginia House of Burgesses, which first sat in 1619, predates the arrival of the Mayflower by a year!
Why do they have virtually no knowledge of the story of American government? Because social studies presents the spectrum of human experiences as disconnected bits, in no particular order. As so many parents have relayed to me over the years, social studies classes jump from continent to continent, from culture to culture, from theme to theme, quite randomly. The result is that children don’t know which came first, the American Revolution or the Civil War, and they certainly can’t understand why slavery was so hard to abolish in between the two milestones.
Only history can weave the myriad and disparate elements of the past together. History shows the sequence of events and uncovers the causes — both of which are forms of integration that render each detail intelligible and more retainable. It is thus only history that can give young minds a complete picture of the past and connect that picture to the present. It is only history that can provide both a proper knowledge of the past, and the ability to deploy that knowledge to improve one’s life in the here and now.
I hope that in this closer study of the question of the purpose of history, you feel a new resolve to pursue it. As a homeschooler, you have found the courage to reject the educational status quo, which so many people take for granted. This is in itself a demonstration of historical-mindedness, since it involves rejecting what everyone else accepts in the name of a historical model. Already you have immeasurably helped to remake your child’s educational world.
Now all you need is more history! The increased historical-mindedness it will bring can reinforce your appreciation of the freedom to homeschool, fortify your belief in the value of pursuing an independent course, and inspire you to continue being the kind of person who shapes the world, rather than merely lives in it.
Judging from the periodic discussions that arise on homeschooling forums, today’s homeschooling parents seem to be against memorization as a tool for learning, especially when it comes to history. For many parents, this negative perception of the value of memorization stems from their own experiences of memorizing historical facts in high school or college. Those few who do try to encourage their children to memorize historical information, following the recommendations offered by resources such as The Well-Trained Mind, find almost inevitably that their students rebel against the drudgery of it, and end by giving up. The result is that memorization is being stressed less and less in history education by homeschoolers.
If the goal of a proper education is to equip children with the trait of “historical-mindedness” (see “Why History,” in Secular Homeschooling, Issue 4), then this is a terrible mistake.
Memorization — the act of committing information to memory, so that it can later be recalled without referring to an external source — is crucial to all learning, including the creation of a useful body of historical knowledge. The purpose of memorizing facts in any area is to automatize foundational knowledge, and thereby to automate thinking.
Before looking at how this principle applies to history, it is useful to examine the manner in which memorized information facilitates learning in other areas such as math and language acquisition.
When it comes to math, there is a complex set of symbols and algorithms that students must memorize to perform even the simplest work. There is no alternative. A child must, for instance, memorize the numerals and the skill of counting. As my two-year-old son will attest, this a taxing process at first. But gradually, as the memorized information is married with experience, it becomes as natural to manipulate it as it is to move one’s fingers. To advance further in math, however, every child must eventually not only memorize the names of numbers like “11” and “111” but grasp the concept of place value notation, so that she can manipulate numbers such as these automatically when performing mathematical tasks. Naturally this requires considerable thinking, but then once the concept is grasped, it also necessitates extensive repetition, so that it becomes second nature. In addition, a child then has to learn and memorize the symbols representing arithmetic concepts (+, -, x, ÷) and the procedures and algorithms for performing them (such as the vertical alignment of addends, the process of adding by columns, and the method of “carrying” when the sum of a column exceeds ten).
In math, this is only the beginning. When such basic knowledge and skills are automatized and combined with still more knowledge concerning fractions and decimals and the use of alphabetic symbols in “missing number” problems, students become ready for more advanced mathematical work, such as algebra. Every stage of learning in mathematics consists of grasping and memorizing a certain mathematical concept or method, and then applying it in concert with other automatized knowledge in a new way; then, once one has grasped that knowledge, memorizing it through repetition, in order to advance still further.
The principle that memorization is key to cementing foundational knowledge is also evident in language acquisition. A toddler, in the earliest stages of learning to speak, first mimics the sounds his parents and siblings make, and gradually learns to associate the sounds he hears with the objects or events in the swirl of his early existence. At a later stage, he begins to memorize the names of the letters of the alphabet. Still later, he memorizes that “A is for Apple, B is for Bat,” etc., and he may begin to recognize the presence of certain letters in words he encounters often in his own personal context, such as his own name. (Interestingly, in this case various kinds of memorization usually precede understanding.)
At this point, the process becomes more complicated. One task involves the learning of phonics, i.e. learning and memorizing the sounds of letter groups. Another process is vocabulary acquisition — learning and memorizing words, their spelling, and their definition. This is a lot of work. Vocabulary and spelling are usually taught as distinct classes in a school day, and usually repeated at least twice within the school week, for the duration of an elementary education, if not through middle school. This is the only way to provide the constant repeated exposure to the language components that we require in order to become literate. A grasp of phonics paired with an ongoing effort to expand a child’s vocabulary also puts him in a position to move to the next level: to acquire an automatized knowledge of the rules for using words together, which becomes more and more important as the compounding of her previously memorized knowledge facilitates more advanced language usage.
The end of this process is fluency. Sadly, when people achieve this level, it is all too common for them to forget all the effort to memorize that went into achieving it. How often do we stop to reflect on the fact that the only reason we can read a sentence like this one (let alone this entire article) and understand it is that we have memorized and automatized the use of the 26 alphabetic symbols, the more than forty phonemes of the English languages, as well as somewhere in between 10,000 and 20,000 words, and the grammatical rules necessary to integrate them into conceptual propositions?
Of course understanding the applicable mathematical and linguistic concepts involved in the foregoing progressions is indispensable. But just as indispensable is memorization. Without being able to retain what we understand and summon it without reference to external material, every adult would have to carry around a copy of Saxon Math54 just to find the percentage equivalent of a fraction, and a copy of Easy Grammar to achieve consistent subject-verb agreement (which a spelling checker won’t help you with!)
Let us now turn to history, where the same general idea applies. There is no way to productively think about the past — as a practical issue related to successfully navigating through life in the present — without memorized knowledge.
When it comes to history, however, homeschooling parents can certainly be excused for thinking otherwise. There are good reasons for thinking that memorizing historical facts does not yield real knowledge, or for thinking that historical “fluency” does not matter.
The most important reason people dismiss the memorization of history is that they once memorized some considerable array of historical information as children, but did not experience any real benefits from it. Unfortunately, the type of memorization most people perform when studying history, and thus what they inevitably come to associate with memorization in general, is so-called “rote learning.”
Anyone who has ever taken a high school or college history — or biology, or economics, or just about any other class — probably knows what it is to “learn” something by rote. Rote memorization is a form of memorization in which intensive repeated exposure to material — usually without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in that material — is used to acquire a semblance of knowledge in a short period of time. The reason why rote learning usually proceeds without understanding is a combination of poor teaching and poor learning skills and habits on the part of students. Students who prepare for tests by rote often do so because they didn’t put out a continual effort to learn over the course of the year or semester.
Rote memorization is probably the most-used skill by students “cramming” for tests. You see them lining the hallways of schools quizzing each other with index cards about the five causes of the decline of the Yuan dynasty, the eight phases of cell mitosis, or the formula for calculating gross domestic product.
In a sense, rote memorization works. Many students, myself among them, have achieved excellent grades by employing such techniques for test preparation. The problem is that rote memorization by itself is not learning. It is little more than a temporarily convincing facsimile. “Learning” this way to pass tests is almost never learning for life.
When I think back to all the material that I once memorized for tests, I am astounded by how little of it I know now. As a former engineer, I can remember studying non-linear differential equations for an entire year and scoring well. Returning to that type of material now, after over fifteen years, and looking over the “Navier-Stokes Equation” that describes fluid motion, I realize that I might as well be looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs for all that it means to me.
Of course, you would expect to lose knowledge that you haven’t used in fifteen years, but what about fifteen days? If you’ve ever crammed for tests and then performed the associated “brain dump,” think back to how long that “knowledge” stayed with you. Usually, only until you start preparing for the next test. It’s no wonder that if we were never taught any differently than to memorize by rote we would conclude that memorization is little more than a con.
The only time rote learning actually is learning is when the knowledge one is attempting to acquire can actually be acquired merely by observation. One can, for example, learn phone numbers by rote. (Is there any other way?) One learns the route to work by rote. One can learn the words to the national anthem or the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address by rote.
It is with examples such as these latter three, however, that the distinction between rote memorization and real learning starts to become evident. One might argue that you “know” the national anthem if you can recite it, but does the ability to recite something like the Declaration of Independence mean that one knows it?
Knowledge involves a meaningful grasp of reality, not merely an ability to parrot what others have said. To grasp the meaning of the Declaration of Independence means to know who wrote it and why, and what its place is in the annals of American history. It means to understand its relationship to the two other revolutionary documents of America’s founding: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It means to know that it is a statement of ideals and a justification for treason (against the British Empire), but also that it is not in any sense the law of the land. In other words, to know the Declaration of Independence requires understanding not merely the words that make it up, but their context and significance. Abstract knowledge, such as relates to the most important world-altering events in history, cannot be “learned” by rote. It can only be acquired by a process of conceptual learning.
Because this is the case, it has become increasingly common for educational authorities and cultural commentators to eschew memorization in learning, and to stress other conceptual skills. The two notable alternatives to memorization trumpeted today are the acquisition of research skills (especially involving the use of information technology) and the development of critical thinking skills. These two are closely related. Supporters of the former approach hold that the important thing is not to know the answer to any particular question, but to be able to find it. Proponents of the latter view also deny that answers to particular questions matter at all; instead they champion the development of a general ability to come up with well-reasoned answers — research being merely one tool that can aid in this process.
According to Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital, “Kids should learn about history to understand the world and why things are the way they are. But they don’t need to know all the dates. It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings, without having to memorize that it was in 1066. They can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google.” According to Tapscott (and many others), it’s “better to just have a general idea so you can focus on better understanding the context and meaning.”
Only someone who doesn’t take history seriously could hold such a view. One cannot focus on “better understanding the context and meaning” of historical events without being able to identify with exactness where, when, and by whom they were enacted. To use Tapscott’s example, to know that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 and not in 1065 or 1067 — let alone in 966 or 1166 — is part and parcel of grasping its meaning as a historical event. In specific detail, for instance, to know that this pivotal battle in English history occurred after the Battle of Stamford Bridge (also of 1066) is crucial to understanding its causes and specific outcome. Among other things, this succession of battles points to the tri-partite contest for the English throne involving Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada (who fought at Stamford Bridge) and William of Normandy (who then defeated Godwinson at Hastings after Godwinson had defeated Hardrada at Stamford Bridge).
More broadly, to know the specific actors and the motives that drove their conflicts in 1066 is to understand how William’s conquest is connected to pivotal events earlier and later in history. For instance, one of the critical facts about William’s life is that he was (and continued to be) the Duke of Normandy before he became King of England. This makes him a key player in the power struggle between the descendants of Rollo the Viking (the first Duke of Normandy) and the kings of France, to whom they were nominally enfeoffed. In one critical chapter of this story, King John (a descendant of William) failed to uphold his feudal obligation to the French king, Philip II, and when he raised taxes to campaign in France against his king in 1214, engendered a baron’s rebellion which culminated in the signing of the Magna Carta of 1215 (a rather significant precursor to the English Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence).
To be able to identify such connections, let alone think about them “critically,” requires an awareness of specific facts, names, and dates. It is not possible to focus on any supposed “context and meaning” without them. As one critic of so-called critical thinking education has explained, “the processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought.”
Still, one might argue that all the facts or “content of thought” can be collected by means of research, and that it isn’t necessary to memorize any of them in order to be able to identify their sequencing and causal relationships, and ultimately their broader significance. But what would it mean to take this approach seriously?
In essence, it would mean starting from scratch at every turn, and researching one’s way, not to knowledge, evidently — because that’s something you retain in memory — but to some temporarily useful conclusion, presumably, which is then discarded after use, because it can always be reached by a process of research again.
Is that what history is? Just one research project after another — just busywork, or mental calisthenics for kids, which then becomes irrelevant for anyone other than ivory tower academics?
Sadly, many people think so. In any of life’s important pursuits, no one would uphold the idea that research skills or critical thinking are a substitute for actual knowledge. But they do feel free to propose that they are when it comes to learning history. This is because people don’t think knowledge of history really matters. In other words, they don’t believe that retaining facts about the past bears any essential connection to making one’s way successfully through life in the present.
Not only is this wrong, but history — appropriately enough — shows us how wrong it is.
The most elegant example of the power of history as a guide to life lies in the founding of the United States. When James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and their illustrious contemporaries assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, the critical question they faced was how to more effectively unite the Thirteen Colonies. That they correctly viewed this as the central issue of their deliberations in creating a viable nation dedicated to individual rights stemmed from the fact that they were all fluent in ancient Greek and Roman history.
References to these historical examples were constantly made during the Convention at Philadelphia and in the pamphlets and tracts that permeated the subsequent ratification debates. As John Adams explained, history provided “the knowledge of the principles and construction of free governments” demonstrated by the “the ancient seats of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome.” Based on these instructive cases, the Founders worked tirelessly to create not a “volcano of democracy” subject to the “tumult of the people” but a republic, wherein, thanks to a proper statement of the purpose of government and a constitutional apparatus entrenching a separations of powers, in the words of James Madison “security arises to the rights of the people.”
From history, the Founders sought crucial instruction and insight, and irreplaceable inspiration. They understood not only the danger of the majority violating rights, as through the example of the execution of Socrates, but through other examples such as the unjust ostracisms of Cimon and Aristides. They admired the individual virtue of Roman hero Cincinnatus, but avoided the aristocratic outlook inherent in creating an aristocratic order, the “Cincinnati.” They stood on the shoulders of giants like Solon, Gaius Licinius, and Cicero, in order to see further than anyone before. “Without the classical example,” states historian Hannah Arendt “…none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.”
Could they have done it without full command of the classical examples of Greece and Rome, including a vast array of memorized facts? Wouldn’t it have been enough for the Founders to be able to Google their history?
Let us imagine Patrick Henry, on the floor of the House of Burgesses, enunciating one of his most famous historical lessons — but without his automatized knowledge of history:
“Caesar had his Brutus, and Charles I his Cromwell, and George III … wait … was it Charles I or Charles II?…I know it was an English king some time, but I can’t remember which. And wait, was it Antony or Brutus? Anybody got a Blackberry? Anyways, you get my point,…right?”
Can anyone imagine Thomas Jefferson beginning his immortal Declaration with the following lines: “We hold these truths to be findable by means of checking Wikipedia…”
The self-evidency with which the Founders treated the most abstract political questions came from their automatized awareness of human history and political theory. Memorized knowledge of history was an indispensable asset to them, not for diversion or for the sake of being cultured, but because it gave them the tools to create a world worth living in.
Thomas Jefferson valued history so highly that he proposed a “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” by which he intended to legislate the study of Greek and Roman history. Like his peers, Jefferson believed that knowledge of history was necessary “that republican liberties be safeguarded.” This is part of what Ben Franklin meant when he was asked as he left the Convention, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” He answered “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Have we? Does the current generation of Americans even know that America is a republic, let alone what insights went into creating it and what historical lessons can help sustain it in the modern era? Politicians from both parties now regularly refer to America as a “democracy” and propose to champion this form of government around the world. The Founders must be rolling over in their graves. One wonders whether Americans would so morosely accept the state of modern politics, if they memorized and thus carried with them, a proper knowledge of the history of the Athenian Democracy, the Roman Republic, and their own country.