Why do most of us dislike history? Why do our children cringe when it's time to do a history lesson? Most of the blame can be placed on the government schools and the textbooks they use. To put it bluntly, they are full of "twaddle." "Twaddle" is stuff that insults children's intelligence and bores them to tears. An example of "twaddle" is a 6-week unit on "community helpers" communicating such profound truths as "the fireman is our friend."
When they are not wallowing in "twaddle," the current crop of textbooks is overbearingly politically correct. The twin siren songs of feminism and multi-culturalism have bewitched textbook committees. Thankfully, there are alternatives. Books that children enjoy reading, and that teach them what they need to know, have been right under our noses.
The Biography Bonanza
Children enjoy books about people. That's why biographies and historical fiction are two categories that remain perennial favorites. Each year the Newbery library in Chicago awards a prize for the best new children's book. A cursory glance at the list of winners will reveal that the a substantial portion of them (about a third by my count) are either biography or historical fiction.
So, if some books bore children to tears and other books thrill them - and each covers the same material - which should we use to teach our children? Is this a hard question?
As an example of this principle, look at how the Bible presents history. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Old Testament is not boring!
Please don't assume that the Old Testament is too difficult for your children to really understand or appreciate. Actually, the Old Testament is the portion of the Scriptures which God commanded fathers to teach to their children. Old Testament stories are rich - full of life.
Especially for younger children, the Bible stories that hold their interest and stick in their memories are those stories that focus on a key individual. This confirms our first observation 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 God'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.
Lifestyles of the Dead and Famous
When you read stories about real people, you are forced to slow down and let your children live with some of the most important figures of history. When you slow down, you enter past ages and countries around the world through the eyes of the people you are studying. By integrating your history studies with a study of art, 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?
World History First
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 Christian and homeschool 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 (better yet, pull out your 15-foot fold-up 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 focusing on 12 inches of the timeline and do the other 14 feet in one year. There's something wrong with this picture!
We bring you 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 rediscover better ways to teach history - ways that are better for our children, better for us, and better suited to the subject matter.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
We would like to encourage homeschooling parents to rediscover the joys that come when history is no longer 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. 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 the Shearers and they'll try to provide answers in future columns. You can contact them through Greenleaf Press.