The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
History as a Branch of Children's Education.

by G. Armitage Smith, Esq.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 205

[George Armitage Smith was the Principal of Birkbeck College in London from 1896-1918. He may have lectured in political economy.]

There are various ways of approaching the problem of how far history may be made a suitable subject of instruction for children. The plan which has suggested itself to me as most likely to be useful and at the same time most consonant with my own way of looking at things, is to ask what are the motives and principles which, consciously or otherwise, direct educated people to the study of history, and induce them to teach it to their children. This is rather an attempt to justify historical education, leaving the details of its application for each to fill in; the method has the merit of elasticity and of regard for individuality. One naturally asks of any proposal, cui bono? ["who benefits?"] What, then, are the special advantages which the study of history offers in this practical, hurrying age among the many competing demands upon time and labour? To what part of our nature does it appeal, and how is it profitable to us in the conduct of life; and granting that it is a profitable field of study, how can it be best introduced to young children? Commercial subjects, natural science, technical studies are advocated on utilitarian grounds as necessary for life to a manufacturing and business nation, their practical outcome is obvious and they appeal to all. Modern languages have also an application both in business and in travel, while they open up fields of enjoyment in the literature of other countries. Mathematics and logic are necessary for training the reasoning powers. The classics and literature contribute to culture and refinement. Art and music command attention for the pleasure they confer; but with which of these is history to be classed? Let us at once disclaim what is called the merely practical view of life, i.e., the money-making, utilitarian aspect, as all-absorbing. The wants of nature call loudly for satisfaction, they are primary, and our first duty is to qualify ourselves for meeting their demands; but the higher life properly begins only when these are satisfied, and it is to be deplored that the lives of so many are so fully absorbed in meeting the urgent demands for mere necessities, leaving no opportunity for the cultivation of the higher powers of enjoyment. Admitting fully the primary pressing claims of an education that fits persons for a useful and serviceable, self-sustaining life, yet this is not the whole aim; there is scope for more and the demands of our aesthetic and moral nature call for satisfaction, as the pleasures derived from art and literature are ever demonstrating. Now, it is not difficult to show that the study of history can claim a place in the utilitarian group, and also on the side which ministers to our intellectual pleasures, and, further, that it conduces moral progress. There are thus three aspects of history that make it a worthy and a necessary study, all of which the teacher should keep in view.

It has been much debated whether history should be regarded from the scientific or literary side, the answer is that both views demand consideration, nor are they necessarily antagonistic. History is scientific, for it records facts, observations and experiences, it unfolds laws and principles of conduct; generalisations are to be obtained from it capable of explaining the development and conduct of nations, and which are available for application for future guidance; we may learn its lessons and turn them to good account. It satisfies to the full the canons of scientific method; though it is less exact than chemistry and the physical sciences, yet generally it proceeds on the same lines, it affords both explanation and guidance, it is helpful in the affairs of national life, practical and utilitarian. Difficulties there are many, these are peculiar to each science. In the case of history they consist (1) especially in the getting at truth which is essential, hence the importance of accuracy and exactness in observation and collection of historic materials; (2) in the danger of erroneous interpretation of facts which occurred long ago; (3) in the misapplication of experience recorded of the past to the changed conditions of to-day.

These dangers are in some degree common to all sciences dealing with human conduct (economics, politics, ethics), the social sciences have their special difficulties in matter and in method of application. But none the less is history scientific in supplying reasons, in explaining causation, in expounding human conduct on a systematic and orderly plan, in relationing events to one another. In these respects, if "the proper study of mankind is man," the study of history is of the highest value, it helps us to understand present problems by the light of past experience. History is properly a record of evolution; it shews how the present conditions have emerged from the past, what forces have been at work gradually to change the condition of man in the social and political structure:--e.g., it illustrates to us how this country was affected by the introduction of Christianity, by the local government and social institutions of our Saxon ancestors, by the Crusades, the feudal system, the revival of learning and the reformation; how political freedom was gradually attained, how our present representative government grew up--it enable us to forecast and to predict, and to see what forces make for further development and what may tend to retrograde action. History also warns, for it is crowded with lessons from the blunders of nations and individuals.

A very practical aim in dealing with young minds is to make them learn to profit by the experience of others; all knowledge is the fruit of such experiences. In matters of applied science, this is readily enough accepted, much more difficult is it to induce the young to accept the results of older experience in social and political affairs. Every fresh generation as it grows up is ready to put the world right, and to solve all social perplexities by some ideal measure, which has probably been again and again demonstrated fallacious. Early training in history, regarding it as the storehouse of experiences able to afford guidance and warning, must accustom youth to refer back and seek for light upon the present problems in the teaching of the past. The children of to-day are the men and women, the citizens of the future; how can good citizens be created without instilling into them a love of country, and how can patriotism be better strengthened than by teaching men that their country is something with a history and traditions of which they may be proud, something to cherish and to improve, to hand on. What a miserable picture of selfishness was that of the man who when asked to undergo some self-denial for the benefit of a future generation said, "What has posterity done for me?" Such a man fails to realize the extent to which we are indebted to past generations, he surely knew nothing of the struggles and sacrifices which built up our great institutions and enabled him to start life in a world of civilization, comfort and material possessions. If every generation learned to appreciate fully what they owe to the society which preceded them and rendered so much possible to them with so little effort, they would feel the duty of passing on the inheritance not only undiminished but enlarged and improved. The destructive spirit so common in our age would be curbed by that reverence for the past which the historic sense produces, by the respect for ancient buildings, institutions, ceremonies and forms, etc., which help us to realize in some degree periods antecedent to our own, and men would come to regard them as arches in the bridge of progress which have made our present condition of life attainable.

The teaching of history as a mere burdening the memory with a string of events, dates, battles, etc., is not a very intellectual proceeding and does little towards mental training; of course it is important that the memory should be strengthened, and without retention progress in knowledge would be impossible. But there is no necessity to devise history lessons for that end. There is little practical utility in an exercise which does not call forth any of the higher powers of the mind, and it is but a barren result to be able to repeat dates, facts and names with no sense of their important relations.

Knowledge has been said to consist largely in relationing. By this is meant that to know an event is to know it in all its bearings, in its relation to other events in time, place and circumstance; to know the causes and effects in the sequences of which it forms a part, and to be able to put it in its true place in the complex series of which it may be only a small item. Permit me to illustrate. The year 1688 marks the date of what is called the English Revolution, that is the expulsion of the dynasty of the Stuart kings and the accession of William and Mary of Orange. But if this be most of what a student knows of it, his knowledge is of but little value and has made small demand upon any mental powers other than memory. If, however, the date comes up to recall the climax of the long struggle between sovereign and people for power, the claim on one side for absolute authority, and on the other for constitutional government according to principles derived from the earliest times through the Witan, the great Council, the great Charter, the confirmation of Charters, the Parliaments, Petition of Rights, and the Declaration of Rights to its embodiment in the Bill of Rights; if it reminds us what the people had suffered in their struggles to maintain their right to a share in the government, that it produced a civil war and cost the life of Charles the First, that as a result of this event, William the Third ruled only as an elected king, as chief magistrate controlled by laws as fully as his subjects, that it was then the English constitution took more definite shape, and from that date England has been a "crowned republic," that Cabinet rule soon grew up from this system, and that William was really an instrument in finally closing the long controversy as to the character of the government of this country and the true functions of the sovereign; then, indeed, the date and event imply a larger grasp and indicate fuller exercise of the mental powers. There is a grouping of many facts by their relation to one another, through the unity conferred by a cause underlying and running through all: there are many effects involved--to the people increased freedom, self-rule ultimately extended to all classes by successive reforms--as well as the minor effects to the Stuart Dynasty and the settling of the Hanoverian succession, all are relationed, harmonized and grouped, and the English Revolution (1688) is the central fact which connects them all; history of this kind has a reality and a meaning and is not likely to be forgotten, for, above all, it has a relation to ourselves, to the form of government under which we now live, to our freedom as individuals; it is part of the stream of events and forces, large and small, from which the present form of government and condition of the people is derived.

This method of regarding history is one which gives unity, it appeals to and cultivates the generalising tendency, by bringing out the characteristic features of an age or the prime causes which underlie its workings; the acquisition of details is simplified, for it provides a centre round which they circle, a point to which they gravitate.

The generalising process in history is of comparatively modern growth, and is a product of a scientific age. Professor [John Robert] Seeley's Expansion of England, which is a good example of this method, was a kind of revelation to many, and yet its great popularity is due to its generalisations. His essay provided a principle of action which cemented the details of the foreign policy of a century; it explained the wars of France and England in the 18th century by the struggle for expansion in distant parts of the globe. The contest for colonies, for the possession of India, and the wars carried on in Europe, are all seen to have a common basis, the same motive and ultimate cause by the aid of the combining forces of a dominating idea.

That history repeats itself is true to this extent, that parallels are continually arising, difficulties which, in some respects, resemble what has occurred before; we never get exactly similar conditions, but we get circumstances to which former lessons are applicable and by which they can be interpreted. The intelligent study of history and the scientific habit of looking for guidance in experience renders the records of past experiments fruitful as warnings or models for imitation. If young people are taught history in a manner which cultivates the understanding, if they get an intelligent, lively interest in the facts, and learn to interpret them and see in them great movements, religious, political, social, they will unconsciously acquire the habit of referring to such knowledge for light on current events, they will see the analogies and the differences, and will, as they grow old enough to take an interest in the movements of the day, be guided in their judgments by the accumulated stores of the past experience, they will not be at the mercy of doctrines accepted without thought or criticism, but will gain the capacity to test opinions by bringing them to the touchstone of general experience.

Much of early history is only mythical or poetical. When it began as a serious record of events, it consisted largely of annals, mere chronicles of facts; next we find it regarded from a literary stand-point which permitted the facts and descriptions to be treated artistically in their presentation, investigation into accuracy was subordinated to skilful arrangement for literary effect.

In modern times, men like [David] Hume found in history a vent for their literary skill and talent, their aim was rather to find a field for their cultured command of language, than to make a serious careful analysis of causes.

[Edward] Gibbon gives us a magnificent series of pictures of historic scenery, his work is a monument of literary power and style. The grasp of details and power of narration are marvellous, it is a gorgeous panorama, a kaleidoscope glowing with colour, wonderful in its extent and in mastery of facts. It has been regarded as the special characteristic virtue of Gibbon that he does not adopt the practice of generalising largely, but is content mostly with splendid representation and does not worry us with theories.

Most modern historians, however, attach much importance to theory, i.e., explanation; and one feels that while there is much enjoyment to be gained from the perusal of artistic and literary description of the past, the serious use of history is not in the mere gratification of intellectual curiosity or the aesthetic sentiment, but in the unfolding of order and cause in that most interesting and complex department of nature which consists of human affairs in a political organization.

History gives us object-lessons on a grand scale. The modern historian tries to analyse, interpret and seize upon the deeper meanings of things, to find in a series of apparently disconnected events something which unites and combines them and offers a rational explanation. This method is undoubtedly open to danger, it is liable to exaggeration by imaginative writers, and doubtless generalisations are made which are not worthy to be classed as more than possible hypotheses. On this ground the late Professor [James Anthony] Froude was an opponent of the scientific view of history; he regarded history rather as an instrument for moral teaching.

One lesson of history is certainly the mutability of all human institutions. All things change, and institutions must be adapted to new circumstances if they are to survive; many old institutions have done their work and are no longer suited to modern ideas or demands any more than are the clothes of our youth to fit us in later life.

    "The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
    And God fulfils himself in many ways.
    Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."
    [from Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur"]

The village community, feudalism, the manor, the monasteries, the guilds, the trading companies, have all served a useful purpose; they were stages in the development of the nation corresponding to the social, religious and economic ideas of the times; some of them can never return, some have undergone modification. The trade union represents the guild in altered surroundings, the joint stock company is the modern trading company, domestic manufacture has given place to a factory system, the pedlar to the store, the pack-horse to the goods-waggon, and the coach to the railway in an age of steam. There is continuity with the past but there is change, it is well when the change is not abrupt, but resembles the flow of natural life; as Bacon puts it, "Time innovateth greatly but quietly and by degrees scarcely perceptible." [adapted from Bacon's essay "Of Innovations"] So history records the successive phases of the evolution of the nation, its advances and regresses, its onward flow and backwaters.

It requires some imagination to interpret and connect the parts: the use of the imagination is not limited to the fine arts and literature, to poetry and painting, it has its place in science, without it no explanation of common facts would be made. We are always devising hypotheses, making suppositions, plans and schemes of action; so it is by the aid of this power of imagination and by its cultivation in history that we are able to detect resemblances with the past, and so to explain the past as to apply its truths in the present.

Again, we must remember that many problems are only capable of partial solution and the results of conduct can only be predicted as more or less probable. History is never as exact as science--no subject which treats of human conduct can be exact, for the motives of men are so various and so complex, that the conduct of any one man can rarely be predicted exactly. We lack the fulness of date necessary to exact foresight, but when we consider men in masses we can arrive at general principles of high probability. In such studies, we always have to consider carefully the new conditions: thus we must recognize that the service of history is to indicate the probable, not the certain, as regards the future. A large part of human conduct must always be regulated by possibilities. But there is much that is fairly constant in human nature in the mass, and it is for intelligence to note the degree of similarity and to make allowance for the change from the old order, from the old institutions to the new, to draw inferences by the light of all that observation can gather, that experience can tell, that reason can deduce.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by LNL, June 2020