The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Living Books in the Teaching of History.

By R. C. Lehmann.
Volume 15, Number 1, January, 1904, pg. 25-32

[Rudolph Chambers Lehmann, 1856-1929, was a finishing coach for Oxford and Cambridge and an expert rower. His wife was American and when this paper was read in Oct. 1903, they had three little girls, aged 4, 2, and 3 months; a son was born in 1907. Lehmann was elected to Parliament in 1906.]

Read at the P.N.E.U. Conference, October, 1903, but not ready for publication in the December number.

I cannot pretend to speak to you as an expert, but I think I may say that anybody who has taken a great interest in, and has been constantly in the society of children, as I have been, unconsciously obtains a certain amount of knowledge of what is moving in the child's mind; and, further, anyone who has spent much of his time, as I have, with young men, must be able to realize the results of teaching as shown by the actual knowledge displayed by the taught when they come to manhood. That kind of knowledge I do pretend to, and it is the results of it I propose to lay before you to-day.

I should like to say, in the first place, that I was not able to hear the whole of Mr. Garstang's paper [vol 15, pg 572], but I did hear enough to show me that he, in regard to mathematics, has displayed that kind of noble enthusiasm which must teach children and inform them and make them useful citizens. I shall try to some extent to follow on the lines that he has indicated in his paper. If what he said is true with regard to the science of mathematics, still more true is it with regard to the teaching of history: in fact, you have a larger and a surer foundation to go upon in the teaching of history than in the teaching of mathematics. History is only a very human story, and as such it appeals in an extraordinary degree to children.

Now let us consider what is the nature of children. Take the case of very young children before they have learnt to read or write:--

(1) They are eagerly interested, no doubt, in their surroundings; flowers, trees, dogs, horses, clouds, sun, moon and stars -- everything they can touch and everything they can see excites their attention. Their minds are incessantly active in acquiring and storing information.

And they have, too, a great interest in stories as stories. You can tame the wildest child, you can withdraw it from the most engrossing occupation by offering to tell it a story. They do not demand to know by means of questions -- that characteristic begins to develop a few years later -- but they receive simple knowledge in a gracious spirit of condescension which is very agreeable until one fine morning they discover in your latest piece of information some variant, possibly quite unimportant, from a previous tale. Then, if I may use the term, they are up in arms at once, and you may consider yourself lucky if you escape without loss of reputation from the painful cross-examination that is sure to follow.

(2) And this leads me to the second great characteristic of children at this early period, namely, the extraordinary activity and retentiveness of their memories.

Contrast the vagueness of grown-up memories, ruined by reading and writing, with the quick and powerful memory of children. For the most part your adult is vague and slatternly in memory. He has learnt to rely on books, pigeon-holes, annotations: the bright panoply with which Nature has endowed him has been allowed to rust. The point of his spear and the edge of his sword are dulled by disuse rather than by use.

I should like to put before you two examples as showing the extraordinary way in which the memory can be cultivated. The first case is that of an American clergyman whom I met when crossing the Atlantic for the first time. His name was Milburne, and I think he afterwards became chaplain to the Congress of the United States. We had on the White Star Liner, by which I was traveling, a Sunday service, and the service was read for the most part by the purser. Suddenly, this American clergyman, who was quite blind, got up and began to recite the first lesson. At first it did not strike me as anything peculiar to see a clergyman standing and delivering the lesson, but when I remembered that he was totally blind, I opened my Bible and followed him with the greatest possible interest. He recited the whole of both lessons from beginning to end without a mistake. I was very much interested, and spoke to him afterwards. "How comes it," I said, "that you can recite without a single verbal mistake two chapters of the Bible in this way?" "Oh," he said, "I became blind when I was eighteen and have developed my memory to such an extent that I now know the whole of the Bible by heart. My secretary has only to read to me the two chapters before I go in and I can manage to say them without a mistake."

My second example is the late Professer Fawcett, who, owing to an accident when he was shooting, became blind when quite a young man. He determined that that accident should make, so far as lay in his power, no difference to his pursuits or his interests. I have seen him skating, riding, and rowing; I know that he was a skilful fisherman. His lectures he delivered, of course, without a single note. He had his secretary by his side, to whom he could refer, but he dealt with tangled rows of figures and statistics in the clearest possible way. Now, no man could have dealt as Professor Fawcett did with statistics and figures, unless he had been a man of very great determination and natural power. I quote him merely to show that even grown-up people, if misfortune forces them to the task, can restore the bright activity of memory that they possessed as children.

Now, take the child before the reading age. Read to him some nursery poem. Then read it again, omitting here and there a word or two, and I warrant the child will supply the word promptly; and after you have read the poem two or three times, he will be able practically to recite to you verses that you with your grown-up memory will not be able to remember.

Now, this state of keen and active intelligence which I have described as existing in young children continues for a long time. Indeed, there is no reason why it should not continue through their lives, so that the boy and girl, and afterwards grown man and woman, should carry on in this respect, at any rate, the traditions associated with early childhood. Yet how often do you find that the parents who delighted in the quick intelligence and supernatural precocity of their children complain a few years later that nothing can avail to drive knowledge through the thick crust of their skulls, that, in fact, the young child who was bright has grown into an older child that is dull and listless. I admit that this is more generally the case with boys than with girls, for girls are not so much subject as boys to the Procrustean system of schools, nor do parents as yet, even when girls do go to schools, urge her to membership of the hockey team rather than to a love of books and a delight in knowledge.

I was present at the reading of Miss Mason's paper on "Education by Books," and I could not help reflecting on the possible fate which awaited many of the children whose answers set forth by Miss Mason delighted the assembly by their wonderful brightness and spontaneity. Could they under our existing educational systems manage to maintain the freshness, the zest, the eager interest and the high level of capacity which they undoubtedly displayed under the system described by Miss Mason? Would they not rather be likely to fall into sloth and deadness, and that not because of their own fault so much as because the methods that might afterwards be applied to them would treat them rather as dustbins for the reception of the scattered sweepings of the scholastic broom -- the odd names, the disconnected dates, and the stray hard facts of knowledge -- rather than as living and breathing human beings dowered with an interest that only needs to be aroused by sympathy and insight? It is a large question and an important, too large and too important for me to discuss it here and now. I take only one aspect of it, and I urge the plea that in the teaching of history, at any rate, the teacher should remember the brightness of the young minds with whom he or she has to deal, and the advantages that will assuredly come of appealing to them in such a way as to stimulate and not to depress. How is this to be done? That question raises another:-- What do we mean when we speak of History? We know well enough by now -- it has become one of the platitudes of knowledge -- that in its broad aspect history is one and indivisible. From the dim and mysterious, when mankind first arose through self-consciousness to power, the great net-work is spread and all its parts are indissolubly bound together. A narrow view may trace a little line of meshes here and there and strive to separate the Jews, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Macedonians, the Gauls, the Goths, the Huns, the wood-stained Britons -- what are they with their rise, their development, their stagnation and their fall, their empires, their religions, their wars and their arts, and their literatures -- what are they but parts of one great whole. And even now, as we are sitting here, the great stream (if I may vary the metaphor) is flowing on, fed by a thousand rivulets, and bearing on its broad surface the pageantry of the human race.

That, I think, is the root-idea which every teacher and every faithful student of history must grasp. But I do not say that you are to enforce it in all its overwhelming majesty upon mere children. Bear it in mind when you teach and so direct your teaching that later on, when the child is growing to be a man or a woman, essential unity of history may be accepted, not with the shock of a sudden and disturbing revelation, upsetting all preconceived theories, but as the necessary and simplifying consequence of all that has been taught before.

Let me take, for instance, such a story as that of the Conquest of England. It is a story of the most engrossing interest; it can be told to children in such a way as to keep them and their minds fixed on it -- the determination to take the country, the crossing the water, the fall of the Conqueror as he landed, the battle, the tide of victory seemingly flowing in favour of the inhabitants, the final defeat and the death of Harold. That is a story which has its human interest and which must appeal to children, but I confess that in my early days it was summed up in a very few words, and those were -- William the Conqueror, 1066.

Do not imagine that I am trying to involve myself or you in the conflict between those who write what may be called picturesque history and those who bring to light charters and title-deeds and tabulate facts. Without the labours of this latter school, indeed, history could not be written; but for the mass of us, who cannot be specialists in historical study, it must remain true that the story that history has to tell us must remain more attractive and stimulating in its human interest than the discussion and settlement of all the drier questions that have agitated the minds of historical investigators. If this is so with adults, how much more must it be the case with children?

Take advantage then of the fresh and eager interest of a child, and especially of that perennial delight they feel in a story. You can make them realize that in days long past the world was inhabited by real men and women, and not by mere dummies with tinsel crowns and lath swords. If you keep this object before you, you will find that rows of dates and lists of dynasties and bald records of wars and revolutions are mere death-traps, and, what is more, you will not be able, thank heaven, to force the child into them, for he has a certain natural cunning of his own that turns him in disgust from the doom to which he is being driven.

I should like to quote to you one or two passages from the Letters of J. R. [John Richard] Green. The first is this:--

"The 'facts' are there, and the 'dates' are there, but the history isn't. When I was a boy I was as 'historical' as most boys, more so than most, perhaps, but writing of this sort used to simply paralyze me. I never could learn it, and I think from all I have seen, it is this sort of dry rattle of names and dates that sets boys against history. Moreover, isn't it beginning at the wrong end, and would it not have been better to have gone on in the style of the opening, to have said simply what Hellas and what Rome was to give to the modern world, and then with as few names and dates as possible to have shown how they give it -- Hellas, free manhood, literature, art, etc.; Rome, the city, law, government, humanity, etc?"

And here's another -- "[Another volume] is terribly dry and dull, just because it leaves out all that is really interesting in the Georgian history. Where is a word about John Howard or prison reform, or the Wesleyan movement, or the discoveries of Captain Cook, or Brindley's canals, or Watt's steam engine, or the revival of art under Reynolds and Gainsborough, or that of poetry under Burns and Wordsworth, or the colonization of Australia, etc., etc., etc.? 'No room,' says G. But she finds room for all the petty changes in the Georgian ministers, or such facts as the change of the 'royal style.' I do think what we want in history is to know which are the big facts and which are the little ones."

And again -- "At any rate there it is, a capital piece of work done by a clever woman, and as dull as an old almanack! I daresay governesses will find it 'useful,' but it will set every child against a study so absolutely without human interest."

My own view is, then, that by the use of living books as distinguished from musty records, history may be made the fresh and romantic part of a child's education. In all early education there are elements of repulsion to a child. Method and order are not at first necessarily congenial to the childish mind, and there must be method and order if he is to advance. And such studies as, for instance, arithmetic, however much you may strive to lighten them, are a hard and stony road over which the young feet must travel. Try as you will, you cannot make the multiplication table romantic. But you will make even that road lighter and easier for the young pilgrim if you occasionally refresh him by allowing him to stray into the green and flowery meadows that lie about it. Don't depress history to the level of the multiplication table; rather raise it for the child-mind to the height of a fairy tale. Teach him to browse amongst books. Later on the student can co-ordinate his stories, can set his living figures into their proper places in the great scheme.

Here, then, briefly set out, are a few of the pleas that I would urge upon this assembly, and, through them, upon the teachers who are engaged in the teaching of history, a few of the pleas for the use of living books, for knowledge applied in a bright and stimulating manner. Interest the child in history by making him believe that we are ourselves a part of history, and that history is developing under our very eyes. If once you make him appreciate that great and cardinal fact in all history, then you will have prepared his mind for receiving those lists of dates which some historians love. But do not, as you value your child's intelligence, do not afflict and oppress him by too much dry and dusty record. Rather, make him feel that history is part of his living environment, that he is here because there has been history, that he is here to live because he himself is part of the great scheme of history itself.

Typed by audreygreer, August, 2022; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023