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Put the "Story" Back in History

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #1, 1993.

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Rob and Cyndy Shearer


  • What do Michaelangelo, Luther, and Columbus all have in common?
  • What do Genseric the Vandal, Alaric the Visigoth, and St. Augustine all have in common?
  • What do Cincinattus and George Washington have in common?

If you breezed through those three questions (and your children would as well) then you can skip this article. The answer to the first two is that each set of three are contemporaries whose lives overlapped and influenced each other. And Cincinnatus, like Washington, was called upon to be a general and after winning, was offered the office of king. Like Washington, Cincinnatus wanted nothing more than to return to his farm and live in peace.

Why do most of us not know these things? Why do our children not know them? Primarily, it's because the public schools have traded away the study of history for a mess of pottage. Actually, they've made several poor trades. First, they traded History for "Social Studies" (an inferior substitute). Second, they traded Western History for World History (a confusing and inferior substitute). And last, and worst of all, they traded History Teachers for Football Coaches (a boring and inferior substitute).

Most of us know it's important to teach history. If you need to be convinced, take a brief review of the Bible and observe what percent of its lessons are presented in the form of history! But few of us are sure that we will be able to stay awake while we try to do it.

We wish we could say that the Christian and home school curricula publishers have a solution, but sadly, they don't. To illustrate this, imagine a 15-foot timeline representing world history from Adam to the present (e.g., the Wall Chart of World History). The period of the American Republic (from George Washington to the present) begins on the very last panel, only 12 inches from the end of the 15-foot chart. Now, examine the scope and sequence of any selected elementary (or high school) history curriculum. You will invariably discover that they spend on average five or six out of seven years on American History. Or to put it another way, we're going to spend six years focussing on 12 inches of the timeline and do the other 14 feet in one year. There's something wrong with this picture.

There is good news however. So far as we know, there is no eleventh commandment which says, "Thou shalt do World History in ONE year." As homeschoolers we have the freedom to do rediscover better ways to teach history -- ways that are better for our children, better for us, and better suited to the subject matter.

We would like to encourage home schooling parents to rediscover the joys that come when history is no long a dreary list of dates, battles and principal imports and exports, but the stories of real people who have real problems and real gifts.

History is the ideal place to teach our children about the practice of morality -- to help build them up into godly men and women. Through history our children can examine men's lives and the choices they made and see the consequences of good and evil -- without having to pay the bitter prices charged for those lessons by experience. The place to begin doing this is with the history contained in the Bible.

A substantial portion of the Bible is, after all, history. Genesis and Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Ruth as well as The Gospels and Acts are books of history. Not only do we learn something about God from studying His history books, but we also can learn about the way history ought to be presented. That is one reason we recommend that parents consciously make the study of Old Testament history their children's first history course. And we would encourage parents not to assume that the Old Testament would be too difficult too boring for their children to really understand or appreciate. Remember that it is this portion of the Scriptures God commanded fathers to teach to their children. The stories are rich -- full of life.

Especially for younger children, the stories from the Bible that hold their interest and stick in their memories are those stories that focus on a key individual. And this is the first lesson we can learn about teaching history -- focus on people. The Old Testament does not contain essays on "Conflicts Between Egyptian and Semitic Culture," but rather the stories of Joseph and Moses. The key lessons of the history of Gods's people are communicated by telling the stories of Samuel, David, Solomon, and even the lives of the wicked kings of Israel. So when we teach our children, it is entirely appropriate to teach them in this same way. All through the elementary grades, we think the study of history should be built around biography.

After your children have spent time with the historical characters from the Bible (and many of them are very colorful characters) you can move on to study famous figures from other times and places. By always focusing on stories about real people, you will captivate them to the point that history will be "story time" and something they look forward to, not something they dread. You will be forced to slow down and let your children live with some of the most important figures of history. And when you slow down you are able to take a deeper look at the world the people you are studying knew.

By integrating your history studies with a study of art and music and literature of the time period, you are able to "live with" the men and women you are studying and understand more of the influences that shaped them. Which would you find more interesting, memorizing the names and dates for the important stages of Roman history (kingdom, republic, empire) or reading short stories about two or three famous men from each era? Which do you think your children would find more interesting?

Unless you make biographies the centerpiece of your study of history, a one-year world history course will whiz through Ancient Greece simply burying you and your children with lists of names to memorize: Homer and Aeschylus were writers, Solon and Pericles were rulers of Athens, and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were important philosophers. And yes, you will have to spell the names correctly on the test. If you're lucky the text will allow you to spend a week on classical Greece. Is it any wonder we're frustrated and our kids are frustrated?

We encourage you to take advantage of the freedom and opportunity we have as homeschoolers to think anew about how to present material to our children. History is important, and it can be fun. It doesn't take multiple degrees or lots of time devoted to a complicated course outline. But it does take a little thought and reflection. If you have questions about how to teach history, or how to deal with key topics (like evolution and mythology), write to us and we'll try to provide answers in future columns.


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