Monday, October 18, 2010

No More Ho-Hum History!

I couldn't stand history class growing up. It seemed so meaningless to me. I had no interest in learning about the Battle of Waterloo or Eli Whitney or the Archduke of Ferdinand. I took copious notes in class and inhaled the information only to regurgitate it on a test or essay a few weeks later.

My experience leads me to ask, "Why do we teach history? Is it merely because it is a mandatory subject in primary and secondary education? How do we choose which parts of history we teach? Is mastery of history the ability to simply memorize and rattle off names of people, places, and dates?"

Charlotte Mason, from A Philosophy of Education, writes, "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" (p.178).

One reason we teach history is to warm the imagination, igniting an interest through a person in history or an event. That means there is great importance to learning the pageantry of the past. As we build a framework of history in our minds, we can shape who we are in the present as well as the future. Isn't that truly the purpose of learning history? To become better informed? To learn how to accept and reject ideas based on what someone did well or not well? Doesn't that lead to learning how to become more responsible citizens, which ultimately shapes character? One could argue that the study and understanding of history is critical to the knowledge of one's will and the power to influence others.

I have discovered this year that one of the most effective ways to learn character development through the study of history is to see "His Story" in history and the events in the Bible. Take for example the story of Joseph. He was a man who despite terrible circumstances, forgave those who hurt him the most. You can read about him in chapter 9 of Hillyer's book "A Child's History of the World" or in Genesis 37-50, or you can even watch the musical Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat for a modern take on the story.

After reading Hillyer's account of the time period surrounding Joseph and then the story of his life, we had an important discussion about forgiveness versus holding grudges. It was a tough conversation, because I have a hard time with that myself! Would I have forgiven my brothers if they had thrown me down a well and sold me to slavery with the original intention to kill me? Would I have shown them kindness years later when they begged in my presence for food? Would I have had the faith to say of all the negative circumstances in my life, "What you meant for evil, God meant for good?" We talked at length about the difficulties in Joseph's life and how his faith helped him to overcome bitterness.

But here was the icing on the cake: the movie "Joseph" came on TV late that very night as I was flipping through channels! I recorded it and then the next day we watched certain segments of Joseph as a young boy, the dynamics of his family (being a favorite of many brothers), the common dress and living quarters of that time, the Egyptian's extravagance and treatment of Pharoah, Joseph's dreams, his life of slavery, his rise to 2nd in command of all Egypt, and the final reconciliation with his family. It not only made the story come alive, but it also created a visual picture for the girls to view life circa 1850 BC. Perfect timing! So whether Ellie and Chloe will remember exactly what century these stories took place or what countries were involved, I know they will have an indelible memory of Joseph, his life, and the character he possessed.

Going one step further, however, we see that history also lends accuracy to the Bible as well. In my previous post I mentioned that we are studying the book of Daniel in CBS. Last week we read in Daniel chapter 5 about the Babylonian king Belshazzar who was entertaining 1000 guests with a big feast and much wine. The party was interrupted by a miraculous hand writing on the wall telling of his kingdom's demise, as interpreted by Daniel. That very night, his kingdom is handed over to Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30-31). (Incidentally, we also viewed Rembrandt's rendition of the hand writing on the wall as a visual to the story.)

In class we learned that the secular ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century B.C., records that the Persians captured the city while during a festival, with revelry and dancing; the Babylonians were completely unprepared for what happened. In addition to Herodotus, an ancient archeological inscription states that the city of Babylon fell to the Persians quickly and without a battle. Both of these sources agree with the Biblical account of Daniel 5, and the girls are starting to see that the Bible stories we read are not just stories but are grounded in history.

Am I saying that every history lesson should center around the Bible if it is of value? Of course not. However, when history overlaps with literature, the Bible, poetry, and art, it truly "warms the imagination" and I can see their faces light up with excitement to see the connections. And when the history lesson centers around a desirable or undesirable character trait based on the people we have read about, history becomes more than just a list of names and places. It becomes a part of their intellectual, spiritual, and social development. It is a huge privilege for me to be involved in that process with my kids this year, and to change my own view of what studying history entails. I no longer dread history class!

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