When Should I Teach Ancient History?
Approaching the Debate with Common Sense
by Rea C. Berg
Since the current popularization of the classical method of education in both private Christian schools and home schools, a number of voices have begun advocating teaching history to young children by "beginning at the beginning." In other words, some proponents of the classical approach insist that the only sensible way to teach history is to begin with the ancient civilizations in first grade. This methodology with some variation is based on four one-year cycles concentrating on ancient history for one year, then medieval and renaissance for another year, then late Renaissance to early modern, and in the fourth year modern history to contemporary times. Proponents suggest that this approach offers students distinct advantages including:
1. A better sense of the chronology and flow of history
2. A broader knowledge of the world
3. Protection from both a near-sightedness of a nationalistic approach as well as a selfreferential
view of history
4. A more realistic sense of America's very small part in the larger scope of the human
Theoretically the above points seem valid and might be acknowledged by some educators as appropriate goals in the overall tautology of the history curriculum. But upon closer inspection these points contain inherent weaknesses in both their pedagogical approach and application. This essay will attempt to address these weaknesses of philosophy and methodology. Classicists and advocates of teaching history through literature, as well as educational reformers, all agree that what is to be strictly avoided in the curriculum is the introduction of "twaddle" or more clearly, the banal presentation of facts in the form of textbooks, workbooks, and poorly written, inexpertly crafted historical works. As Ruth Beechick notes in You Can Teach Your Child Successfully
, the "very nature of textbooks is to present information that is 'predigested, prethought, preanalyzed, and presynthesized' . . . depriv[ing] children of the joy oforiginal thought" (297).
The damaging effects of a textbook approach to history are elucidated clearly in Neil Postman's excellent treatise, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
in which he advocates the removal of all textbooks from the classroom noting that most textbooks are badly written and, therefore, give the impression that the subject is boring. Most textbooks are also impersonally written. They have no human "voice," reveal no human personality. Their relationship to the reader is not unlike the telephone message that says, "If you want further assistance, press two now." I have found the recipes on the backs of cereal boxes to be written with more style and conviction than most textbook descriptions of the causes of the Civil War. Of the language of grammar texts, I will not even speak. To borrow from Shakespeare, it is unfit for a Christian ear to endure. But worse than this, textbooks are concerned with presenting the facts of the case (whatever the case may be) as if there can be no disputing them, as if they are fixed and immutable. And still worse, there is usually no clue given as to who claimed these are the facts of the case, or how "it" discovered these facts (there being no he or she, or I or we). There is no sense of the frailty or ambiguity of human judgment, no hint of the possibilities of error. Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward truth. Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning. They may save the teacher some trouble, but the trouble they inflict on the minds of students is a blight and a curse. (116) What both classicists and proponents of literature agree upon is that a lifelong love of history can only be inculcated in students through the use of what Charlotte Mason appropriately called "living books." Living books include original source documents (documents written by eye-witnesses of historical events—also referred to as histories), historical biographies, historical fiction (fictional narratives of invented and sometimes actual historical figures set in a distinct historical period and based upon actual or invented events), classic literature (literature deemed part of the canon of English literature) and myth and fairy tale. An example of the above categories as they relate to ancient history might appear as follows:
• Original source document—Anabasis
or The Persian Expedition
• Historical biography—Plutarch's Parallel Lives
• Historical fiction—Quo Vadis?
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
• Classic literature—Julius Caesar
• Myth—The Golden Fleece
While definitions can be illusive—some of the above titles could be included under more that one of the categories--each of the above examples represents works that are acknowledged for their enduring value by scholars of history, literature and classic myth. Xenophon's Anabasis
is not only an original source document, since Xenophon was an eye-witness of the events, but it is also the historical account of an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who were hired by Cyrus the Persian to help him overthrow his brother, the king. Xenophon rose to leadership over these thousands of Greek soldiers, and thirty years later, recorded these events. Julius Caesar
by Shakespeare is considered part of the canon of English literature and therefore a classic, but it also falls under the category of his historical plays as it dramatizes and immortalizes the events surrounding the assassination of Caesar. While Quo Vadis?
is an historical fiction—set in the times around the reign of Nero and the persecution of the Christians--some would also consider it a classic.
For the purposes of this discussion, what this demonstrates is that for the primary student just being introduced to the ancients, no comparable body of literature exists that would acquaint him with this period in a "twaddle free" fashion. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough stated in a recent speech, "there's no secret to teaching history or making history interesting. Barbara Tuchman said it in two words, 'Tell stories.' That's what history is: a story. And what's a story? E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: 'If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story. That's human. That calls for empathy on the part of the reader or listener to the story'" (4). A cursory look at the ancient history section of even well-stocked public libraries will turn up very little that can be considered story. Shelves are full of the generic Eyewitness or Usborne style books as well as numerous textbook style works on the ancient times. Even the best of these—those that happen to be well written and sometimes appealingly illustrated--will seldom be written for the primary level child. Historical biography and historical fiction about ancient times written at a primary comprehension level are virtually non-existent. Therefore, the notion that the enthusiastic teacher can, armed with a library card, a list of notable events and historical figures, march into his or her local library and find there a plethora of wonderful literature to introduce the ancients to their primary student is disingenuous. What this teacher may learn is a lesson in frustration. Essentially what the study of ancient history becomes at this level is cultural studies—looking at how the ancient Egyptians lived, the clothes they wore, how Egyptian women applied their make-up, how the pyramids were built, mummification, and "make-your-own" hieroglyphics. While cultural studies have their place, and encourage the development of respect for different customs and traditions, this does not qualify as the study of history. Historical studies must include the larger geo-political events, the important figures that moved nations and the beliefs, traditions, and passions that motivated those individuals. Any other approach becomes an exercise in gathering facts disassociated from cause and effect, devoid of the drama behind those facts. Simply put, to call cultural studies "history" ascribes what is a mere subset of this subject, the importance of the whole.
For teachers and parents desiring to introduce the ancient world to their students with the richness and beauty of fine literature, the situation improves considerably for the middle-grade and upper elementary student. Due to the distinguished work of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars like Pedraic Colum, Roger Lancelyn Green, Olivia Coolidge, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, many of the ancient histories and myths have been delightfully adapted for children. Pedraic Colum's The Children's Homer: the Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy
and The Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles
are classics in their own right, as they have earned their place in the canon of children's literature for their retelling of the classic myths in a readable style while maintaining the original poetic nature of the stories. Colum—an Irish poet and man of letters--received the Newbery Honor for The Golden Fleece
upon its publication in 1921 and this book is still considered the definitive adaptation for youthful readers. This book and his equally popular The Children's Homer
are both evocatively illustrated by Willy Pogany. Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Ancient Egypt
is the only complete and unabridged retelling for a youthful audience of the Egyptian myths. Green, a British author and historian of children's literature did adaptations of the Greek tales as well as a joint biography with Walter Hooper of the life of C.S. Lewis. Modern readers can thank Olivia Coolidge for her wonderful work in adapting Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars for the student reader in her book entitled, Caesar's Gallic War
. She also adapted Plutarch's Parallel Lives
for the same audience in her Lives of Famous Romans
. A scholar with B.A. and M.A. degrees from Oxford, she has also written numerous other engaging books that will be of interest to the middle and upper grade student (ages 9-12) studying ancient history. Though some are out-of-print, a search at the library will turn up many of her treasures.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, chiefly known for The Scarlet Letter
and The House of Seven Gables
also devoted some of his talents to writing for children. In his Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys
he presents a bowdlerized edition of the Greek myths, since as he notes in his introduction the originals are "so brimming over with every thing that is most abhorrent to our Christianised moral sense" that they needed this dramatic editing (qtd in Carpenter 516). This of course, brings up an important point for the Christian parent seeking to do a literature approach to history. While the Greek myths have been retold for children in numerous editions, it was Hawthorne who set the precedent in the mid-nineteenth century for Pedraic Colum, Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire and other retellers of the Greek myths to follow -- presenting sanitized editions for the juvenile reader. Thus the sexual improprieties of the gods, including the rapes and seductions as well as other distasteful elements, like infanticide, are appropriately glossed over. It is rather ironic that the Greek gods have subjected themselves to this imposition of Christian mores! Regardless, thanks to these adaptations, English-speaking children can have the Greek myths without the depravity. Even Shakespeare has been adapted for a youthful audience in the wonderful work of Charles and Mary Lamb—children's authors commissioned for this work by William Godwin, an early nineteenth century publisher of children's books. Two of these, Cymbeline
Prince of Tyre are set in the ancient times and appear in Tales From Shakespeare
by the Lambs— a book all educators should use to introduce their students to the works of the great bard. Another important consideration of teaching ancient history to a very young audience ought to be addressed in the general debate. For parents and teachers who desire to establish a solid biblical understanding of the world to their primary grade child, the study of the pagan cultures presents conflicting worldviews beyond the discretion and discernment of the typical first grade and even some middle-grade students. To emphasize ancient mythology for a full year in the first grade, when few children are really well grounded in biblical studies may become confusing to the average child. When the story of Moses parting the Red Sea is taught alongside King Midas and the Golden Touch, young children will see this as a whole. The lines between myth and miracle will be blurred in young impressionable minds. Of course, a logical way to avoid this dilemma is to delay ancient studies until the middle grades and then utilize appropriate adaptations to introduce classic literature to students. What the above exercise demonstrates is that while the notion of "beginning at the beginning" seems reasonable, in pragmatic terms it can be seen that it places an undue burden upon teachers who desire to present their students with high quality literature that will inspire a love of history. A body of literature that meets the requirements listed above—classical, historical, biographical and original source documents--simply does not exist at the primary comprehension level. Concerns that establishing a true sense of the chronology of history can only be met by teaching first graders ancient history are not borne out by tradition or experience. One proponent of this methodology likens any other approach to history to the act of telling a fairy tale starting in the middle, then skipping to the end and then eventually coming back to the beginning—this being self-evidently ludicrous. But while a fairy tale is a self-contained narrative with a clear beginning and end, the written history of mankind is a compilation of countless narratives, and narratives within narratives, any of which can stand quite independently of each other. As Ruth Beechick notes in regards to teaching history, "Since there is no widespread agreement on what should be taught in each grade, you can be assured that you will do no damage to your curriculum by making adjustments that fit your situation" (ibid 298). Children are quite capable of understanding chronology as their knowledge of history increases and expands. Any young child who is regularly read Bible stories, folktales and the fables of Aesop will very naturally begin to gain a sense of other times and places. Beautifully illustrated Bible storybooks like Bible Stories for Children
by Geoffrey Horn and Arthur Cavanaugh will establish clearly the sense of "long ago" and illuminate the mind and heart with the richness and mystery of God's word. Another purported advantage of teaching first graders ancient history is that they will, from the very earliest age, understand and appreciate what a small part America has played in the history of the world. This approach will also prevent any overwrought feelings of national pride that might come with teaching young ones the history of their country first. According to advocates of this methodology, teaching American history to the primary student encourages a narrow, self-referential understanding of the world. This notion is of a piece with a highbrow academic suspicion of all things American and particularly love of one's own country. It also implies that the extraordinary flowering of liberty that culminated in the establishment of the United States of America has no salient importance in comparison to other historical events. Neil Postman addresses this tendency in modern academia succinctly, noting that these educators in their reluctance to include patriotism as a "value" reflect a tendency throughout the country, a certain uneasiness about where patriotism might lead . . . this uneasiness about patriotism is at least understandable, since the idea of love of country is too easily transmogrified into a mindless, xenophobic nationalism, as in the instance of patriots in Florida who insist on student's learning that America is superior to all other countries. I suspect that still another reason for steering clear of patriotism is the recent prominence of "revisionist" history, which has led to increased awareness of the uglier aspects of American history and culture. Teachers are likely to think that self-love or, indeed, love for cultures other than America is a safer and more wholesome route to take. But in steering clear of patriotism, educators miss an opportunity to provide schooling with a profound and transcendent narrative that can educate and inspire students of all ages. I refer, of course, to the story of America as a great experiment and a center of continuous argument. (131-132)
The notion that in teaching children the history of their own country first, they will become narrow-minded nationalists, unable to view the world without prejudice and intolerance is simply not true. It denies the concept of transcendent narratives—what Neil Postman refers to as "big stories" that are "sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and future of a people; stories that construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and in doing all this, provide a sense of continuity and purpose" (Building 101). The narrative of the founding of the American republic is certainly one of these transcendent stories. As the contemporary British historian Paul Johnson has noted in his History of the American People
, the creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national history holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind. It now spans four centuries, and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening. (3) For the Christian teacher or parent who seeks to teach history through literature, one of the goals is to produce broad-minded individuals who love their God, their family and their country as the foundation for a biblical worldview that enables them to love all peoples in all times and places. They hope to instill a love of country defined by the noted American journalist Sydney Harris when he stressed that the right kind of patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims to be, "the greatest," but greatness in not required of a country; only goodness is. (Pieces) The goal in a literature approach to history is to present students with what Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century man of letters, defined as "the best that is known and thought in the world" (586). Delaying the teaching of ancient history until students have a solid foundation in biblical studies and in the history and literature of this country, will enable them to better understand and appreciate the contributions of the Greeks and Romans to our form of government, literature, drama, architecture, art, and history. Students who understand the concepts of democracy can better appreciate why our Founders rejected Athenian democracy for Roman republicanism. Students who understand the biblical story of Moses' division of power will more readily grasp why the Founders were committed to the notion of three separate branches of government. Having learned that the Founders believed liberty could only be maintained by the dual supports of religion and morality, students will understand why Anacharsis (600 B.C.) laughed at the lawgiver Solon when he insisted that the dishonesty and covetousness of his countrymen could be restrained by written laws. They will know why the Founders were so cognizant of the importance of the inward law engraved upon the heart. Finally, teachers endeavoring to introduce the history of the ancient civilizations to middle-grade and older students will find available a rich treasury of historical fiction, biographies and classic literature that has found its place into the canon of children's literature. Children's authors like the ones mentioned above as well as Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Rosemary Sutcliff, Elizabeth Payne, G. A. Henty, Genevieve Foster, Jeanne Bendick, Elizabeth George Speare, and Mary Ray, have all devoted their gifts and scholarship to bringing to life the histories of many of the most notable ancients. Students fortunate enough to be introduced to this period through the above author's works will take away a deep respect, appreciation, and understanding of the lasting contributions of the ancients to nearly every aspect of our lives including our art, architecture, literature, history, science, drama, government, and philosophy. In the following guide, Rebecca and I have endeavored to select the best literature available for teaching this fascinating subject to your students. It is our hope that you enjoy discovering the treasures here as much as we have.
Arnold, Matthew. "On Translating Homer." Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Ed. John Bartlett.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.
Beechick, Ruth. You Can Teach Your Child Successfully
. California: Arrow Press, 1992.
Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Pritchard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Harris, Sydney J. "What's Wrong With Being Proud?" Pieces of Eight. Boston: Houghton
Johnson, Paul. History of the American People
. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
McCullough, David. "Knowing History and Who We Are." Hillsdale College National
Leadership Seminar. 15 Feb 2005. Reprinted in Imprimis April 2005, Vol.34, No.4.
Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
. New York:Vintage
Books, 1995. ---. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future
. New York:
Random House, 1999.
Ravitch, Diane and Chester E. Finn, Jr. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the
First National Assessment of History and Literature
. New York: Harper and Row,