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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Teaching of Contemporary History

by R. A. Pennethorne
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 272-277


We hear nowadays of the value of historical study, and of the best methods of interpreting the chronicles of the past. I suppose that at no time was research more thorough, students more numerous, nor our connection with the past more widely recognized, than at the present. In short, the material at our disposal, and the method in which it is treated, are worthy of "the heirs of all the ages," and if no great master of style, like a Gibbons or a Froude, now upholds the torch, at least we have many lesser lights to honour. The average man's knowledge of history is also greater to-day, and more intelligent than that of many past generations. We are, perhaps, less saturated with the doings of the Roman Consuls, but most educated men and women know something of Pitt's struggle against an armed Europe, or the causes of the Reformation. And yet I do venture to say that black ignorance of events which are too recent to be embraced by text-books, and occur before we have ourselves arrived at years of discretion, is as widespread to-day as ever.

My own generation, those who have seen on an average a quarter of a century, and who have studied "periods" diligently, and maybe even taken the "Historical Tripos," will look blank at the mention of Ulundi, and be altogether at sea if someone quotes "Well done, Condor." The following questions are examples which have come in my way of the ordinary individual's bewilderment--"Who was Pigott? what did he do?" "Lord Chelmsford--when did he live" "Why was Rhodesia called after Mr. Rhodes?" "What on earth did we bombard Alexandria for?" These specimens are mostly culled from the lips of fellow-women, for men naturally in after-life hear more of these things, and the reading rooms in most public schools do something towards keeping boys in touch with contemporary history--always provided that they wish to keep in touch.

Now every argument for the teaching of history as a whole applies doubly to the history of our own times. We who are taking our part, however humbly or obscurely, in the "edifying" or building up of this world in any direction, cannot do so except on those foundations and beginnings made before us. Consequently if we do not see these and are profoundly ignorant of them, how can we expect our work to fit in to the general scheme of things and be accepted by the Master-Builder? No great movement, no convulsion of nations or of society is sudden; the causes of to-day's events must be sought, not only in last year's, but in yesterday's, and to-day's doings are profoundly affecting to-morrow.

That delightful expounder of social truth, Charles Kingsley who was also no mean historian, tells us how Tom, the "Water Baby," was told by Mother Carey, "if you look forward you will not see a step before you, and be certain to go wrong, but if you look behind you and watch carefully everything you have passed . . . then you will know what is coming next as plainly as if you saw it in a looking-glass."

If history is the recorded experience of past ages of humanity, and as such our heritage, how much more have we a right to events which are in a measure our own experience? but from which we shall derive little or no profit unless we take Mother Carey's advice and "watch them carefully." God who directs the Earth has so often to draw our attention forcibly to his dealings with us; so often might the prophet cry, "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?" Yet God has so made His world that our lives must be modified by doings which may seem utterly remote from our province or our interests.

How much better too can we understand the full meaning of past events when we study present results. To the seeing eye, the story of England's loss of her American Colonies is not complete without some study of the McKinley Tariff Acts or the present Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. Peter the Great is a much more explicable character in the light of the Russian seizure of Port Arthur. But it were tedious to multiply instances; the great principle remains. No deed or event is an end in itself, no settlement is final; all are progressing towards some end and are means by which it may be attained, but--"the end is not yet."

We realize the continuity of human influence in our unavowed hero-worship. Joan of Arc, or Bertrand du Guesclin have been responsible for a noble army of followers, but the narrowness of our human nature, which fears to accept a man as a hero with his marring faults and limitations, makes us wrap our heroes up in the mists of antiquity when a fog of intervening years has obscured their faults, and made them loom large as demi-gods.

The populace is, however, occasionally too strong for us, and Gordon, Jameson, and Baden Powell did not have to wait for years to pass before they became beacons upon the hill-top. Whatever subsequent events and further knowledge may have led us, or may yet lead us, to think of these men, that which their countrymen held them to be in their hour was what their age needed of them, and what even their contemporaries could not choose but to acknowledge them as.

The right man at the right moment will always have the opportunity of enriching the heroic annals, but on a larger, if on a lower, plane the right men for the right moment are also needed. In other words, at different times there will be especial need of some particular class or profession. The choice of a boy's (and in these days, of a girl's) vocation is a very serious matter. The talents and inclinations of the individual are not, however, the only points to be taken into consideration, for the outlets for maturing energy must largely depend upon contemporary history. Hence the paramount importance to a boy of acquaintance with the history of his own time. A boy instructed in the events of the last twenty years would not go out to the colonies to end as a "remittance man" nor enter the army to "pay his way." But on the other hand, he might see the need for men with private means and a studious disposition to enter the church, and he might see that private secretaryships are stepping-stones to parliamentary power and place.

In another grade of society, the need for properly qualified assistant mistresses in voluntary schools is crying, and men as stokers for the navy are but hardly to be come by. We all know that one may look in vain for good and original craftsmen, but then how many boys ever hear of German competition during their so-called education? How many know that the whole glass-bottle trade has left England for Austria? How many have ever heard of "Coxeyism" in the States and the condition of the labour market there? And yet all these things spell "Bread" to our people, and it is but a poor education, as Herbert Spencer says, which does not make for self-preservation.

Now something or other of what is passing around them must come to the ears of even the most callous, and here and there a certain amount of hap-hazard information may be given, but one wonders whether this is not an evil in itself. Partial explanations and casual allusions are apt to breed ideas and terrors in the minds of children which seem absurd and impossible when discovered and dragged to the light of day and reason. This war which has come home to us all and awakened our interest in larger things in spite of ourselves, was a nightmare at first to some poor children who, having been vaguely told its general outlines in a manner held "suitable for the young," fully expected to be murdered by the Boers in their beds some fine night.

It must, however, be acknowledged that there are difficulties to be taken into serious consideration if we decide upon giving definite instruction on the course of current events. To go no further than the effect upon the child's nervous system; everyone knows that the remote horror which happened "hundreds of years ago" is much less alarming to children than something which happened "only yesterday," for their ideas of time and space are vague and if tragedies befell somewhere yesterday, why not here "to-day?" argues the child.

We can only plead again that partial knowledge and ignorance breed fear, where true comprehension and sufficient pains in explanation would cast it out. But there are other dangers. The candour and broad mindedness of young people would be injured, some think, by the study of events of which in the nature of things they will only hear one side. The nationality, politics, and even religion, of their parents or teachers will so affect the view taken of the passing day that in recording its events to the child, only one narrow aspect will reach them.

Well, better that than none at all; though where children are allowed to listen to rational conversation on current topics instead of having all the talk brought down to their level, they may on the contrary learn to respect many points of view, like the child who gravely said apropos of the General Election, "I see, Father is a true-born Conservative and Uncle John is a true-born Liberal, but Mother is a cross-bred!"

Another danger that presents itself is the difficulty of arriving at the truth, and to teach children what is not true is manifestly wrong. We never hear the whole truth about some things. The South African Commission, the true fate of Tipoo Sahib, the true inwardness of the Triple Alliance--all these subjects bristle with popular delusions and unanswered questions. What we have to do, however, is to give our children what is generally believed to be true, but at the same time never let them think that the judgment of the moment is necessarily final or infallible. We must refrain from the tempting wiles of gossip, especially about living persons who occupy great positions, either from worth, genius or inherited power. Spicy rumours and dark tales (about affairs like Sanna's Post) told in whispers are not history; applied to private individuals they would be libels. To cheapen genius by laughing at its foibles is not likely to give children the heroic idea. This is especially needful when we consider the children of the governing classes who live among the people who move the machinery whereby history is made, and who will perhaps by-and-by meet in the flesh people we glibly traduce to them. "Causes cèlébres" and the wire-pullings behind the scenes nobody would wish children to know anything about, for their knowledge of the world would not be sufficient to enable them to digest any such knowledge wholesomely.

We need not, however, imagine that "la haute politique" is either foreign to a child's mind or unsuited to it. The following example of crude English and partially understood fact came from the lips of an ordinary boy of seven, but it shows an extraordinary grip of the essentials of the moment:--

"And our soldiers shall hear the Boers repenting one by one, and then we will take and govern South Africa, but not so well as we govern England, because they have behaved so badly . . . and that is all I have to say about China and South Africa, but to make peace with all the other nations we must have a great war!"

Now there are obvious reasons why the ordinary newspaper cannot be put into the hands of children--war telegrams, leaders [headlines] full of innuendoes they would not understand, and the latest murder or divorce may be all on one sheet. It is at once a puzzle and a temptation to a child to be told, "Read this and no more," especially if he is told that the rest is "too old for him," for then he naturally imagines that it is something delicious but bad for him, like "crab for supper." What then are we to do? Much may be done by rational conversation and by letting the children listen to their elders when they are talking of affairs of the moment. Much, too, might be done by even one lesson a week in school or at home, if time could not be spared for more. Yet one would be unwilling to let the world's progress become narrowed down in the child's mind to "just a lesson." We can only hope that some day an illustrated children's newspaper may be founded, issued weekly if the demand did not justify a daily issue. The illustrated papers at present published are, of course, great helps to parent and teacher, but even they are not always to be handed gaily over to the little people; for pictures of the veldt strewn with dead animals are apt to bring on nightmares.

It would be a great help to many homes if each branch of the P.N.E.U. would establish a "Children's Album," in which each household should have a page or two on which to insert suitable cuttings and pictures, the whole circulating among such families as were interested and took the matter up.

Then, by trying to give the right point of view to the children whom we hope to interest in the "possession of humanity," we may find ourselves disabused of many ancient prejudices and errors, while we shall no longer feel that we have to reproach ourselves that it may be said of our children as of the Jews of old, "We have piped unto you but ye have not danced, we have mourned unto you but ye have not wept."


Proofread via iTouch by Leslie Noelani Laurio, May, 2011