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The Case for Ancient History

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #5, 1994.

The Shearers think it's time to study Greece, Rome, and Israel.
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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

Anyone out there remember ancient history as far back as the 1960s? That was the decade of Chants and Slogans. So, for a lifelike historical experience, repeat after us:

"History -- not Social Studies!"
"Western History -- not World History"!
"Ancient History First -- not American History First!"
"All We Are Saying . . . Is Give History a Chance!"

Why should we study ancient history? (Answer: Because he who does not remember the Sixties is doomed to repeat them.) Why should we teach it to our children? (Answer: Because if we don't, they'll find out about Janis Joplin by hanging around street corners with dubious characters.) Shouldn't we start with history that is more familiar and closer to home, then work outward? (Ah, now we are getting to the questions that let you know this is a serious educational magazine!) Isn't U.S. history more important than things that happened thousands of years ago in some other part of the world? (In other words, are the Monkees more important than Moses and Aristotle?)

If you've read our earlier columns, you know that we advocate a delayed introduction to modern and U.S. history. This is radically different from the scope and sequence of almost all current history (oops -- social studies!) programs. Almost all current publishers' programs begin with an introduction to a student's local community and a study of "community helpers" where the children are taught such insights as "the fireman is our friend."

While we certainly think that a field trip to the local fire station makes a great outing, we're not convinced that it takes a year-long study in order for students to learn these things.

In order to evaluate the usefulness and appropriateness of current history (I hate saying "social studies") curriculum, we need to examine the underlying assumptions of the textbook publishers. The modern preoccupation with self, cultural diversity, and political correctness permeates social studies texts. A program of cultural and historical study which starts with self and moves gradually outward (family, community, state, country, world) may make logical sense, but it also communicates perfectly the preoccupations of the "me generation." It teaches children that they are the center of the universe, that everything revolves around them. It teaches them that things are important only to the extent that they touch their personal world.

"Me-centered" history may cover the same material as the more traditional chronological approach, but its focus is very different. It implies that things that are far away (either in time or distance) are less important. It also feeds the parochial prejudice of American civic religion. American history has traditionally suffered from an exaggerated sense of self-importance. "Me-centered" history only makes this tendency worse. With apologies to the revival of "the providential view of American history," the Bible does not teach anywhere that God has been at work through all of history just so that he could bring forth a God-fearing republic on the continent of North America.

This is not to deny that God has bestowed a number of blessings on America. As those who founded this country acted in obedience to God, He honored their obedience and the nation has prospered. Blessings always follow obedience. But God promises to honor all nations who obey Him. Those who assert that God has some special relationship with the United States of America that He is not willing to have with any nation that obeys Him skate dangerously close to the heresy of proclaiming that the United States is the new Israel. We need to guard against dressing "me-centered" history in Christian vocabulary -- it's a form of spiritual pride.

It is important to teach children that God is the author and director of man's history. This applies to all of history, not just American. History is not just a series of random happenings. God is the arbiter of the fate of nations. He raises nations up and he judges them. It is true that America has received many blessings from God. So have other nations in history. And other nations (as they have abandoned God and his laws) have been judged by God as well.

One of the best ways to give children a more detached, objective view of history, and an appreciation of God's lordship over nations, is to study the great civilizations of the past. In studying Egypt for example, or Greece, or Rome, children can learn principles of judgment and discernment as they apply God's standards to the actions of men and nations.

We recommend the study of Western history for several reasons. First, although there were important civilizations in Asia, India, Africa, and the Americas, they are less important than the Western tradition. We make that statement not judgmentally so much as historically. Good or bad, it is Western civilization which has come to dominate all others. Other civilizations may have cultural achievements worth studying, but the achievements of the West in art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, and theology are not just different; they are demonstrably superior. One must put blinders on in order not to see this.

Second, especially for younger students, it is very difficult to locate enough good "living books" (biographies and historical fiction) on which to build a course of study.

Third, studying Western history involves a study of the nation of Israel in ancient times and the history of the Church in more recent days. The history of the Church has been so flagrantly neglected in the last 60 years that we strongly believe that students should be introduced to it first and given the opportunity for frequent and detailed contact with the giants of the church.

As a method of study, we encourage you to introduce the ancient Western civilizations to your students at an early age by using "living books" rather than textbooks, or at least along with textbooks. You will be astonished at how interesting children find the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans. You will also lay a foundation for them that will make their later study of history a return visit to familiar friends.

Above all, we think the study of ancient cultures can be used to communicate the important truth that God is involved in all history. Because God is involved in all of life, Scripture is relevant to all of life. All things can and should be evaluated in light of Scripture. As we look at how men and women in our history have made choices, we have a unique opportunity to evaluate those choices as we see their outcomes. We can then consider what kind of lives we are building for ourselves and modeling for our children. In this way we can use history as a means by which God can teach us to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom.

By introducing your younger students to the history of Greece and Rome, your students will have an advantage when they begin to study history in advanced courses. They will not be starting from scratch, but will be building on a well-laid foundation. They will have a general knowledge of important people and events and have a good feel for what happened in what order.

We do not expect a second-grader to remember years later everything we taught about Egypt, but when he studies the material again later, he will find himself in familiar territory. Thus, he will have to memorize less because he will have some familiarity with the people and places involved.

In general, high school level history material is written in a way that assumes some prior knowledge of the stories. If you already know the basic facts about, say, Charlemagne, you have less to memorize when you study him in high school. You can simply add additional information to what you already know. (One of the things that makes history classes so boring is that very few students come to them with such a background. Because everything is new, everything must be memorized.)

Remember to include a generous dose of living books. Textbooks, by themselves, teach facts; they do not introduce you to real people. Teaching history to elementary school students should be like calling a child to storytime. Find a snug comfortable place, curl up together, and start with "Once upon a time . . ."

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