The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Conference: Our Relations with History

By Mr. W. M. Childs, M.A.
Volume 13, 1902, pg.633-640

[Dr. William Macbride Childs, 1869-1939, historian, was promoted to principal of Reading College the year after this article was published. He was married to Emma Catharine Pollard, and the father of four children. There's a photo of him at the National Portrait Gallery online.]

FRIDAY, May 9th, 10.30 a.m.


MRS. STEINTHAL said that it was with very great pleasure that she once more addressed the members of the P.N.E.U., and that as she looked back over the years in which she had been connected with the Union, she could not fail to recognise with a deep feeling of thankfulness the great help and inspiration that it had been to parents from the beginning. In the case of her own family, she could truly say that the P.N.E.U., had been everything. To belong to such a society and to have an opportunity of coming into contact with thoughtful earnest people, who take the education of their children seriously as all good parents should, was the greatest boon that a mother could have, and her children could not fail to profit by it. She, as an older mother, strongly advised all who had the opportunity to make use of the help that was offered them.

MR. W. M. CHILDS, M.A., Vice-Principal of Reading College, then delivered his paper on


As I interpret my task, it is my business to deal, not with the methods of teaching History, but rather with the question why we teach History at all. The title of my paper is derived from a definition given by Miss Mason, that "education is the science of relations"; that "it considers what relations are proper to a human being and how they can best be established." Miss Mason proceeds to argue that one of these educational relations is to be sought through the study of History. I need hardly say that this proposition has my entire concurrence.

Perhaps, however, I may be permitted to restate the same general idea in my own words. Education may be regarded as a preparation for life. Its purpose is to enable us to make the best of our life, and a particular education will therefore be good or bad in proportion as it fits the subject of it to live well and effectively. This must be the ultimate intention of all educational procedure which is same. When education fastens upon trivialities unrelated to life, as in China, and sometimes perhaps nearer at home, it stands convicted of having forgotten this fundamental principle.

If, however, we take this view of education, we must recognise that it is a process which continues from the cradle to the grave: that education, in fact, is commensurate with experience itself. The Home, the School, and the College are only the special agencies designed to effect during the most impressionable period of life the more significant parts of the process.

The question then arises, What is this special part of the process to include? Perhaps two principles may help us to an answer. First, we should not attempt to teach everything to everybody. In education, at least, mechanical uniformity is a vice, and it is essential that our preparation for life, if it is to be effective, should be able to adapt itself to varying circumstances. After all, the teacher is not a creator; he is rather a receiver of material which has varying tendencies. To some, Nature gives a tendency to music, to others to drawing, to others to calculation, and to not a few to nothing in particular. Variety of material postulates variety of procedure.

And yet, since every person, besides rendering the service for which he may be specially fitted, must also accept his responsibilities as a member of a common society, there must surely be a core of preparation which is the same for all, the intention of which is to provide a basis for worthy principle, that some things are for everybody. In the past, that idea has expressed itself crudely in such a phrase as "the three R's." These were the bare elements of knowledge indispensable to all. With them was to be associated a simple teaching of religion and morals; and more recently, hardly less stress has been laid on the care and development of physical ability.

Few people, however, would rest satisfied with this brief catalogue of fundamentals. A conviction grows that certain other studies which minister directly to the conception of education as a preparation for life must be included. Among these, I claim a place for History, and with History, Geography is of course implied. Those twain should never be put asunder. A new word should be coined comprehensive for school purposes of both. My claim is that History in this sense is a fundamental, and that no education can be regarded as an adequate preparation for life which does not include it.

This claim is made in no spirit of arrogance. There is certainly no wish on my part to depreciate the claims of other studies for which an equally good case can be established. The truth is that our educational practice would be in a better position than it is, but for the tiresome wrangling in the past of scholastic monomaniacs. How often has it been reserved for the highly cultured person to affright plain folk with the spectacle of his own unbalanced mind. Therefore I am not suggesting that History has a monopoly of intellectual salvation. History alone will not save the Empire any more than "civic instruction" alone will produce good citizens. Neither classical studies alone, nor scientific studies alone, whatever partisan clamour may assert, can make for us the men and women we need. All the forces of good--the whole aristocracy of educational studies--must converge upon the common object.

What, then, is the service which may be expected of History as an instrument in education? It is necessary to beware of exaggeration. History certainly will not suffice for everything. It is not the best gymnastic for the training of the memory--nor for the exercise of the reason. The study of it will not turn us into accurate prophets, since the past never exactly repeats itself: the force that makes events is never twice cast in the same mould. Nor will the study of History turn our children into statesmen, since indispensable though a knowledge of the past may be to a statesman, yet a knowledge of the past precedent is only one condition of wise action. The real service rendered by History is none of these things. It is something different and peculiar to itself. As one who, after climbing a commanding height, descends to his home in the lowland, bearing within him a new and juster vision of the land in which his lot is cast: so it is the high gift of historical study to fill the mind with the thought of human society as something more than a hubbub of ephemeral activities, rather as a living spirit, quickened long ago in the dim beginnings of time, pursuing its long course from age to age, now falteringly, now with glorious assurance, still before our eyes pressing forward into the unknown, aided or impeded by each one of us, towards a destiny which even the wisest of mankind can but uncertainly foreshadow. To enable us to see the life of civilization as one whole; to present it to us as an organism of continuous growth; to give a meaning to the forces seen in actual operation around us; to lift us to a point of view whence we may see events, whether near or far away, in their true proportion and perspective: these are the great services which justify the inclusion of History among the fundamentals in education. And of these services, perhaps the most valuable is the power, having regard to the average learner, to lend a new meaning and dignity to the public life around us. Precisely because it deals with the past, History helps us to an understanding of the present and an appreciation of the future. To some of the greatest teachers of History this has been an ever-present consideration. Arnold of Rugby so taught the histories of Greece and Rome that his boys turned with a new zest and interest to the events of the contemporary epoch of reform; and at Cambridge, Sir John Seeley had the gift of associating historical knowledge with the solution of high political problems. To all who have ever come under any such influence, History, far from being merely an indifferent memory-stretcher, has been at once a stimulus and a corrective: a stimulus, because, just as Science and Poetry, in their different ways, reveal the marvels and the power of Nature, so History invests with deeper interest the life of a community. The effect of such teaching is to produce, not precocious politicians, but rather intelligent observers, capable of relating the events which they behold with the known past. It is conceivable that if History were more rationally taught, boys might be less often submerged by athletics and an insipid lack of interest in public affairs might be less a characteristic of girls. Surely of all children, the free children of a free state should have a living interest in the chain of circumstances which has resulted in the acquisition of freedom.

Further, History so taught is a corrective. No boy or girl who has really felt the greatness of the Athens of Pericles, the Florence of Savonarola, or the England of Shakespeare, can ever permanently forget what makes nations great is neither abundance of wealth, nor extent of empire, but greatness of spirit. The extravagant admiration of material bulk, the fashion of measuring the greatness of a nation by its output of pig-iron or petroleum, the prevalent megalomania of an age of millionaires, can have no more effective antidote than the historical spirit which is accustomed to measure greatness by other and higher standards.

We shall not, however, obtain the best results from the teaching of History unless we can command imaginative and competent teaching. Not merely must Geography, which deals with man's home, be correlated with History, which deals with man's actions in that home, but it is necessary to demand further conditions of successful teaching. Two fatal fallacies have in the past destroyed, in countless cases, the value of History as a school subject. The first is that anybody can teach it; the second is that the learning of it merely means the memorising of facts. Many evils, arising from these and similar causes, still remain to be corrected, and the revolution which is slowly affecting the teaching of this subject is far from complete. To realize the truth of this, it is only necessary to refer to some of the manuals issued from the press designed, it would appear, simply for examination purposes; to the cram-work which continually reveals itself in examination papers; to some of the questions that examiners are content to ask; to the want of principle which frequently marks the choice of subject-matter for study; to the way in which History breaks out upon school time-table and curriculum in unrelated patches like a disease. Most of these evils arise from an inadequate conception of the dignity of the subject. We ought to feel more strongly than we do, that to teach History, especially the History of England, is a great trust. The teacher should approach his task with the feeling that it is his duty to interpret to the children before him the England of Shakespeare and Chatham; that he has to tell them of an England which is not dead, whose reputation throughout the world is still dear. Where there is imagination and conviction in the teaching, and not otherwise, it will be found that the imagination of the child will vibrate to the heroic stories of past ages; that he will see the past in long perspective and take a higher view of the present; that he will, consciously or unconsciously, be fortified against shoddy ideals, false standards and cheap philosophies. Much more may we expect this result if the influences of Home supplement the teaching of the School. Stories from Homer kindled the imagination of the Greek child. King Alfred first learnt the deeds of his forefathers from the lips of his mother. The story of the race ought to rank next to the story of the Faith. Again, it is impossible to exaggerate the value to boys and girls of a home life in which their elders will discuss with them the things that are stirring their interest. I have no sympathy with the code of domestic ethics which compels the reading of a famous piece of literature to be broken off in obedience to a cold-blooded sense of punctuality, because a bell has rung for tea, or which refuses to allow any discussion of any question because to argue is rude. Punctuality and propriety have their claims, but they have no right to strangle the emerging spirit of youth.

I advocate History, therefore, not primarily as an intellectual gymnastic, but rather as a study which relates the learner to a worthy conception of life. It may doubtless be defended on many grounds. For example, the boy whose imagination has been strengthened by repeated effort to realize the great scenes of the past is, it has been pointed out, all the more likely to anticipate through the exercise of imaginative power the needs of customers in different parts of the world. Further, inasmuch as every citizen has received a trust,--the England for whom so many of the noblest in each generation have worked and died,--and since we cannot understand that trust if we know nothing of their deeds, the value of History to us must grow with the growth of our responsibilities as a race. It is only through History that we can rise to that high conception of the State which, as we have been lately told by Mr. Kidd, rests as much on scientific truth as on the imagination of the seer. "The State," said Burke, "ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest and to be dissolved at the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership, not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."


MRS. STEINTHAL said she was quite sure that everyone present would feel most grateful to Mr. Childs for his extremely helpful address. She thought that he had been much too polite to say that the whole of his paper was an attack upon their system of examinations. She hoped that some teachers present would perhaps be able to offer suggestions as to how this system might be altered, so that our children might develop the great power that they have for the love of history and romance.

The following question was handed up: "In teaching history, should we not be careful not to belittle other nations at the expense of our own sense of justice; but rather instil that true conception of the greatness of our foes? So shall we correct the insufferable arrogance of our average English schoolboy."

MRS. STEINTHAL said that such a system of history teaching did exist in Germany at the present time.

MISS STALLEY said she agreed entirely with the opinion that history and geography should not be separated as they have been in the past; both subjects suffered by the separation. Here, the examination system hampered the teacher to a great extent, but even where he was bound to teach the two subjects in different lessons, an attempt to link them in some way should be made.

MRS. STEINTHAL read the following questions: "At what age is it wise to begin teaching children history?" and "Should children be first taught a small period of history, or given a general outline of a long period?"

MRS. GLOVER here said that, in response to Mr. Childs' request for a suggested name for the two subjects combined, she knew of a school where the lesson was called "Hist-Geography."

MRS. GRANVILLE said that the whole business of teaching was made difficult by the present system of examinations, which cramped teachers in every direction, and urged upon parents to make some movement against it.

MR. CHILDS, in summing up the discussion, said that it was evident that the question of examinations stood in the forefront of teachers' difficulties, and he believed that in a paper given them by Dr. Gow, the question had been already ably dealt with. He was of opinion that examinations tended to become a great curse, and especially tended to act as a check upon the introduction of new methods of teaching. But if examinations were an evil, it was clearly a case where the parents should demand the measures of reformation, and they would find the masters only too glad to get rid of the incubus if they could do so. With regard to the teaching of history and geography, he agreed that the two subjects could not invariably be associated; it was not his wish to over-press the argument, but he would return with his plea for flexibility. What he wished to insist upon, however, was that history should never be taught without geography. The difficulty generally disappeared if the teaching of history were not limited to the teaching of English history only. In answer to the question of "How one should begin teaching history," he said that the view of history should be expanded with the knowledge of the learner, and he would divide the stages into three:--

I. In the first, history should present itself to the child simply as a series of stories. It should contain no dates except "Once upon a time." It should not be confined to any period or any one country; it should simply be stories of famous persons or famous events, and the choice of the stories should be guided by the predilection of the teacher. Only let the teacher be perfectly flexible; if a subject is started that does not interest, it should be dropped. The only object in this first stage is to interest.

II. The second stage, which lasts for some years, may be called the continuity stage, the great point of which is to give a connected view of history. If possible, let that connected view be not only a view of English history, but of the history of the world, which really means the history of the Western world, which started on the shores of the Mediterranean and spread over the world. This may seem a counsel of perfection, but more difficult things have been done.

III. The advanced stage, when the pupil approaches various other aspects of history such as constitutional history, or the history of special periods. Here again, not English history only should be taught; from the first the teacher should get rid of a sort of slavish insularity in this respect. With regard to the teaching of history in German schools, the lecturer questioned whether their methods were entirely superior to our own. History is too often looked upon as a mere basis for instilling patriotism into the children.

Typed by happi, Oct. 2020