What is history, and why do we teach it?

The study of history in a Charlotte Mason education is so central and unmissable that, at one time, the novels and poems we now call "literature" were grouped under "history." And yet we find ourselves (at this writing) in the third decade of a century in which our world and national histories are, at best, questioned, and at worst, ignored or unknown. This page presents an explanation of what we think about history and how we teach it, along with a few links and recommended resources.

What kind of history outline does AmblesideOnline use?

Charlotte Mason taught the history of her own country alongside world history, doing both side by side chronologically. It hasn't been practical for AmblesideOnline to duplicate that because Charlotte Mason's country (England) had a longer written history than that of the United States. Rather, what AmblesideOnline offers is closer to a history of western civilization, with an emphasis on America's roots in Western/British history.

". . . the history of the United States is tied more closely to that of England than of any other country. You cannot know American history well without knowing something of the history of England, for they are parts of the same story." (Gerald Johnson, America is Born, from his "History for Peter" series, pg 49)

Every class in Charlotte Mason's schools followed the same period of history, covering that historical era for each level, every term. However, it simply isn't practical for the Advisory to schedule books for each historical period, for every level. Therefore, an equally satisfactory method was developed whereby each student will study history in a chronological sequence.

AmblesideOnline schedules two rotations of history in a child's 12-year school career, starting with the early middle ages (year one) and progressing chronologically until year 6. At this point Greek and Roman history are introduced. (Mythology and ancient history are covered throughout the years, beginning in Year 2, through books such as Tanglewood Tales and Plutarch's Lives.)

The chronological sequence is continued in the upper years. This, again, enables us to present the students with the complex material necessary to really grapple with the ideas involved.

History by Year
Year 1 -- early history, focusing on people rather than events
Year 2 -- 1000 AD - Middle Ages
Year 3 -- 1400 - 1600 (Renaissance and Reformation)
Year 4 -- 1700's up to the French Revolution and American Revolution
Year 5 -- 1800 to 1920 up to WWI
Year 6 -- end of WWI to present day, then 2 terms in ancient history
Year 7 -- 800-1400's Middle Ages (Alfred, King Arthur, Joan of Arc)
Year 8 -- 1400-1600's (Renaissance and Reformation)
Year 9 -- 1688-1815 including French and American revolutions
Year 10 -- 1815-1901 including the American Civil War
Year 11 -- 20th Century (1900-present)
Year 12 -- Today; an overview of ideas from ancients to now as an antidote to postmodernism

History by Term (these are loose dates; books and chapters sometimes overlap from one term to the next)
Year 1 Term 1: ?BC to 200AD; Term 2: 400AD to 574AD; Term 3: 849AD to 1066
Year 2 Term 1: 1066-1189; Term 2: 1189-1399; Term 3: 1399-1553
Year 3 Term 1: 1500-1580; Term 2: 1580-1600; Term 3: 1600-1700
Year 4 Term 1: 1636-1680; Term 2: 1698-1766; Term 3: 1765-1799
Year 5 Term 1: 1800-1840; Term 2: 1840-1869; Term 3: 1870-1914
Year 6 Term 1: 1914-1970; Term 2: 800BC-200BC; Term 3: 200BC-14AD
Year 7 Term 1: 800-1066; Term 2: 1066-1333; Term 3: 1327-1485
Year 8 Term 1: 1400-1605; Term 2: 1605-1649; Term 3: 1649-1688
Year 9 Term 1: 1688-1730; Term 2: 1730-1786; Term 3: 1786-1815
Year 10 Term 1: 1815-1860; Term 2: 1860-1865 America; Term 3: 1865-1902
Year 11 Term 1: 1900-1940; Term 2: 1940-1960; Term 3: 1960-present
Year 12 spans current times

These can be roughly correlated, and some parents with students 5 or more years apart in age have kept them in the same historical era by doing these Years at the same time:
Year 2 and Year 7
Year 3 and Year 8
Year 4 and Year 9
Year 5 and Year 10
Year 6 and Year 11

Note that we're not saying you should correlate your AO Years this way, or even that your students should be studying the same historical era at the same time. But for those who desire to do so, that is how some parents have done it.

Why We Do It This Way

There is some evidence that Charlotte Mason's PNEU schools may have done a four year history cycle, with all the grades/forms doing the same history at the same time. Why doesn't AO do it that way? This may be the single most significant difference between the way the PNEU worked and the way that AO works, and the reason is simple. Charlotte Mason wrote new programs for the entire school every single term, all her life; and after she died, the job was taken over by someone else. We (the Advisory and Auxiliary) love AmblesideOnline, and we love the families who use it, but we have other obligations and are unable to continually re-create AO, so we created a static program. (This also enables every Year's book to be re-used by succeeding children in the family.)

If you read Mason’s thoughts about teaching, her primary concerns were that it should be chronological and that literature should correlate with the period studied where possible. The only thing she said about "cycles" was that when you got to the end, you went back to the beginning. Our two six year cycles, linked by two terms on ancient Greece and Rome, have delighted families for over two decades. We know it works well, is consistent with CM's principles, and it violates none of them.

If four-year cycles are really important for you, you may prefer another program. We don't mind being the alternative to that, and offering people a more leisurely six-year option. Because, after all, education is the science of relations, and taking a little more time with each period of history gives you a chance to spend more time with it and get to know it a little better.

Starting in the Middle?

Don't get too flustered or worried if your child starts later in an AO year somewhere in the middle of history. It's less important where in history a child begins, and more important that he dig in wherever he happens to start. If the interest is kindled, children will have the rest of their lives to fill in the gaps. A Parents' Review article from CM's PNEU school in 1901 says, "Now the Parents' Review School is like all other schools in this, that it is impossible for new children when they join a class to begin at the beginning of every subject taught in that class; nor does it really matter. Historical and scientific subjects have only a nominal beginning, the important thing is that children should grip where they alight, should take hold of the subject with keen interest, and then in time they will feel their own way backwards and forwards."

Charlotte Mason said, "It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one's thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but, 'the imagination is warmed'; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are safe from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before." It is with that vision in mind that history books were selected, looking for books that make people and places come alive rather than textbooks that attempt to cram dates into a child's mind. Many history texts were considered with the goal of finding books that were well-written rather than too simplistic and not rigidly one-sided as well as widely available to members. Books that are out of print but still copyrighted (and whose texts, thus, could not be posted online) could not be used. This Country of Ours, which was selected as the spine for US history in the middle elementary years, was written by H.E. Marshall, who wrote the English history book that Charlotte Mason used in her schools. An Island Story, by the same author, is beautifully written for a younger child, and thus was selected for the early elementary years. AmblesideOnline members voluntarily scanned both books and made them available in e-text form for use in the curriculum, for which we are very grateful.

"History is integrated with literature to some degree, but not obsessively. Children need to make their own connections to what they are learning, and these connections are stronger when they occur naturally instead of being artificially constructed, as can happen with 'canned' unit studies where all literature and other material are integrated. Prepacking a time period for a child can stifle relationship building by being just a little too 'pat'. That is not to say that including literature, or poetry or music from a time period that is being studied is wrong - it certainly is not, and provides a richer understanding of the culture and times. I am referring to 'closed loop' programs, where little crafts are done and little poems are included with little to no regard for literary value than because they are 'relevant'." (Amy Toomsen, former moderator)

How do we handle concurrent history threads?
Can children follow two consecutive threads of history at the same time?

Children studying two different streams of history concurrently typically do not experience difficulty keeping the events and eras straight in their minds. Keeping a timeline (either on a wall or in a century book - see links below for descriptions) provides a visual experience with the progression of history that helps immensely in this regard. We recommend that the student should also mark events on maps. Merely showing a child a timeline or map is passive; Charlotte Mason wanted the child to be an active participant by placing events and people on a timeline and map himself. Children should start keeping their own timeline from about ten years of age.

Parents Review articles that might be helpful include:
The Teaching of Chronology (making and using a century chart)
The Correlation of Lessons
The Book of Centuries
Teaching English and French History Concurrently

How-tos about timelines and Book of Centuries

Laurie Bestvater's book The Living Page details timelines; she also sells a sturdy Book of Centuries.
JoyfulShepherdess blog post
Brandy Vencel's Afterthoughts blog
Timeline Instructions at DonnaYoung.org

But I have all these extra books!

Some parents like to supplement with books such as the Landmark books, but AmblesideOnline's schedule is full enough that users find little or no need to enhance the historical period being studied with unscheduled books. We do not officially recommend supplementing more than two stories or biographies in a term, if at all. (You can see listings of Landmark book titles in historical order at this link or this link.

Let the Authors Speak by Carolyn Hatcher has listings of CM-friendly books for supplementing history.

Why not more World History?

The question of US/western vs world history comes up frequently among newer AO moms: The U.S. isn't a perfect country, and there's more to history than Western Civilization. Shouldn't more World History be included to balance out AO's focus on US/British history?
And here are three responses from AO Forum members:

We aren't actually studying just British history every year. We study the French Revolution, Marco Polo, the World Wars, DaVinci and Michaelangelo, world history via George Washington's World and Abraham Lincoln's World, the Romans, the Greeks, the Crusades, Joan of Arc, Spain (the Armada), Marie Antoinette, Napolean, plus many others in Year 11. And that's not to mention all of the Geography.
Yes, the curriculum is skewed toward Western civilization, but it is more well rounded than anything else I personally have seen. It certainly isn't the "America is the perfect, chosen people" concept that's out there. -- MaryEllen

I thought we needed a world history book too . . . until I read one and realized it was basically a disservice to everyone's history. People thought the book I was reading was better because it incorporated Asian and African history . . . and then I realized there were a handful of short chapters on each and I didn't feel like I knew any more about their history really.
But certainly, covering another history stream is a reasonable idea. Many others have figured out how to add history streams. You could certainly consider what makes the most sense for your family and then do some digging into how to incorporate more of that history.
As for the British history, I find it helpful to recognize we're doing the history of English-speaking people . . . and then following the U.S. stream of that. British users of AO have to add more British history and cut back on some of the U.S. history. -- amerebreath

I thought I was learning world history as a kid, but it was mostly American with scattered ancient and European history that I struggled to put together in any meaningful way. I wanted to include lots more history for my children. I had a similar thought, that we should be learning Spanish, French, Dutch, African, and Chinese history because of the melting pot of America. As I looked into doing that, I realized it wasn't possible to be as broad as I wanted because it would overwhelm the child and not give enough depth of history. I realized I don't have to teach my child everything in 12 years (it isn't possible) because the child will continue to learn as an adult, as I have done. If my child knows there is more history to learn, that is a huge thing.
Then I researched and discovered that AO is the most well-rounded history I could find, and I've looked at lots of curriculum. My daughter knows so much more about the world than I did at her age. We also have lots of informal talks at meals about current event, which ultimately leads to history--why are people acting this way? Because of history. I have a very knowledgeable history buff husband, which makes those conversations very organic.
We did start Year 1 with state history, beginning with the tribes that lived here before European settlement, and that was so fun! We caught up with Our Island Story over the summer as a free read. She has learned some European and Asian history at an excellent co-op geography class that we did in place of AO geography for Year 2 and Year 3 (not because AO was bad. Just because we needed the interaction of co-op, which necessitated dropping something at home. )
Some people do add a second history stream slowly, which I have considered doing, or add free reads. I haven't found it necessary yet. -- Sammie2

Advisory member Wendi Capehart addressed the question of AO's focus on British history:

The final decision of how to parcel out history studies and which country to focus on is, of course, up to each member. For some of us who do not live anywhere near North America, of course, the discussion is going to be a bit different. However, let me share my perspective. I am a US American. I believe that England's history is our history as well--whether we are of western European heritage or not. The U.S. was settled by English settlers (French, Spanish, and other nations as well, but it was English settlers in the end who primarily colonized this country). The pilgrims were English, they didn't think of themselves any other way. England's History is America's history. Our founding fathers and mothers were English, with English ideas, English traditions, and English history behind them. Since we were an English Colony, King George was once the king of most of the Europeans then on this continent, so the events leading up to his reign would also be our history. Our founding fathers thought of themselves as English right up until the final break (I think I read somewhere that many of those who signed the Declaration were writing articles insisting on their rights as English citizens up until months and even weeks before they felt forced into taking a stand for independence). Their culture, their history, their worldview were all roooted deeply and in and nourished by English history, thought, and culture. This means that their writings, their laws (our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact), and their institutions developed out of English culture. Our system of government, our legal institutions, much of our culture, are direct descendants of the ideas and thoughts and designs of Englishmen.

There's also quite a bit more of English history than there is of strictly American (over 2,000 years vs 350 years, and a chunk of that 350 years overlap still falls under English history!), so I think it's a good idea to devote more time to English history than strictly American, just so we can cover it all.

And, of course, in many ways, English history is also world history, as England was once the empire where the sun never set. I think it's especially important for US Americans not to be too insular in our thinking. This is all too easy to do since we are a large country borded by two oceans and two friendly nations, and we share a language, more or less, as well. Europeans can drive into the next country in less time than many of us can drive into the next state. These geographical and political realities make it a little harder for us to pick up the kind of knowledge of other countries, cultures, and history that many citizens of other nations pick up as easily as the air they breathe. For this reason, I do think it's important to devote some time to the history that we all share to some degree, and that is mostly English history.

"We have been following AO since my 14 y.o. was a toddler. We just finished our 4th week of Year 9. As my son is reading about the lives of Ben Franklin, George Washington, the Salem witch trials, the making of the U.S. Constitution, etc., after having spent time in Year 8 with Elizabeth, the Jameses, the Charleses, and Cromwell, and before that, the Lancasters and Yorks, bad King John and his Magna Carta, etc., I am reminded of why we start with British History. You understand the Washington family of Virginia's ancestry if you know who the Cavaliers were. How weird it would be to read about the colonists grieving against George III if you didn't know the history about the monarchy of Britain. I know the question comes up often about why start with British History (for those on the North American continent). Being on this side of it (now going through the American revolution for the second time in the AO cycle), it's crystal-clear why. Trust it, American AO users." -- Kay Pelham

Advisory member Donna-Jean added: I can't expand on Wendi's thoughts at all, she said it so well. I just remembered one or two things, and thought I'd throw them in ;-)

Wendi mentioned England's contributions to our Mayflower Compact and Declaration of Independence. It got me thinking of the Magna Carta, which is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., right by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights . . .

Anyway, I pulled out a little booklet I have on the constitution "About the Constitution of the United States of America"--and it says this:

"Actually, the United States Constitution is the fruit of centuries of ideas and experience. Sources include:
The Magna Carta (Great Charter): In 1215 A.D., the English King John was forced to agree to trial by jury, due process of law, no taxation without representation
English Parliament: This body of government gave ideas for form and method of both state and national legislatures
English Petition of Right (1628) and English Bill of Rights (1689): These two documents gave ideas for our own Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, Charters of Colonies and Articles of Confederation.
These offered the experiences of American colonists themselves--ideas came from many philosophers, lawyers, and writers, including John Locke, Sir Edward Coke, Montesquieu, Sir William Blackstone. Some of the ideas borrowed were common law, limited government, religious tolerance, consent of governed, separation of powers, rotation in office, written constitution."

So to really understand America (if you are an American), it is vital to understand the foundation it is built upon.

Also, I seem to recall in school studying "The History of Western Civilization." I think today we live at a time when people (that is, people who decide public school curriculum) think we must view all cultures as the same in terms of importance to our own. I believe that is erroneous--all cultures have importance, but not all cultures have the contributory and foundational importance to America as those studied in a course on 'western civilization.'

I think American homeschoolers, in reaction to multiculturalism and 'diversity', are very concerned about American history, and giving it a significant place in their schools. This is good--but we need to remember that American ideas began before American history.

Donna-Jean again:

About the inclusion of British history in the curriculum. Those of us who are Americans on this list may wonder about the wisdom of this. The more I think about it, the more I realize that what we are offering our children is, in actuality, the History of Western Civilization. From the beginnings in ancient history (Greece and Rome), through England and then into the New World, the story of western civilization is the cradle of the freedoms we value today.

I am someone who treasures the diversity of this country. On any given sunny morning, I can hear my next-door neighbors outside, speaking Chinese to one another. During our Heritage Day parade Saturday morning (our town celebrates the 4th of July on the weekend before the 4th, for reasons which totally escape me :-) several groups participated (with floats, special costumes, etc.) that represent large numbers of people who came from other countries, such as an Indian group, and a Chinese group. A large section of our public library contains magazines and books in Chinese. Our church has members whose accents denote growing-up years in places like the Philippines or Guatemala.

But if my children came from any of those countries (which at one point seemed a strong possibility), I would still emphasize to them their roots in British history. As Americans, those are the roots we must understand to understand our democracy.

So much is taking place in recent days in challenging our form of government--and the fact that it is derived from a Judeo-Christian Biblical basis--that I feel we must be strong against a teaching of equivalence of cultures. I want my children--no matter their ethnic origin (two of my three children came to us via adoption, and therefore have different backgrounds than I do)--to recognize the uniqueness of a government founded on Biblical principles . . . and to realize that there is a 'line' for that that predates 1776, or even the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1638 and the Mayflower Compact in 1620. They go back to the Magna Carta of 1215 (which can be viewed, by the way, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.! . . . a fact which I never knew until last summer!) . . .

Diversity teaches that every culture is equivalent. I disagree. Every person is equal, and every person is of equal value--loved and died for by Jesus Christ--but every culture is not equally important to those of us who embrace freedom and liberty, and the virtue that the Founders knew must accompany it.

As a member of the Advisory, I have pondered much about this shift toward British history and the 'why' behind it. I am now confident that it is the right approach for those who embrace the importance of Western Civilization.

Wendi's and Donna-Jean's comments came from three posts taken from our archived page of answers to history questions taken from our old Yahoo email list.

If you live in another country

Be sure to check the international sections of the AO Forum to see whether users have already made suggestions for your part of the world.

The British users of AO are currently compiling an alternative version of the curriculum--watch the U.K. section of the Forum for updates on this project. If you wish to read additional English history, AmblesideOnline recommends Dickens' A Child's History of England, although, as a caution, Dickens tends to be one-sided in his anti-Catholic opinions.

Canadian users can find alternative suggestions here.

A note about This Country of Ours

[Note that This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall has prompted some negative reviews challenging its accuracy. The reviews do not offer much on which to base their complaints; and in the opinion of the Advisory, who reviewed many possible books on this topic, This Country of Ours is accurate and well written enough to make it our top choice for American history at this level. You may take note of the Advisory's letter regarding This Country of Ours.]

Recommended Resources

Should history be learned in two 6-year cycles, or three 4-year cycles? Should students memorize a timeline? What does it mean to "know" history? What is the point of learning history? How does Charlotte Mason's approach to history reflect her push againt mechanism? Brandy Vencel and Karen Glass did a podcast on all things history at Afterthoughts. Listen here.

Additional history links:
History Place
U.S. Documents Archive
U.S. History and Historical Documents
Responses from the old AO email list about chronological sequence, AO's focus on British history, why we chose the books we did, and more.

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