Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

As a thorough and systematic course of study, we recommend four years of work, beginning with ancient history and ending with American history. For these four years we propose the division of the general field into four blocks or periods, and recommend that they be studied in the order in which they are here set down, which in large measure accords with the natural order of events, and shows the sequence of historical facts:

  1. Ancient history, with special reference to Greek and Roman history, but including also a short introductory study of the more ancient nations. This period should also embrace the early Middle Ages, and should close with the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (800), or with the death of Charlemagne (814), or with the treaty of Verdun (843).
  2. Mediæval and modern European history, from the close of the first period to the present time.
  3. English history.
  4. American history and civil government.

No one of these fields can be omitted without leaving serious lacunæ in the pupil’s knowledge of history. Each department has its special value and teaches its special lesson; above all, the study of the whole field gives a meaning to each portion that it cannot have by itself. Greek and Roman civilization contributed so much to the world-the work which these nations accomplished, the thoughts which they brought forth, the ideas which they embodied, form so large a part of the past-that in any systematic course their history must be studied. The student of modern politics cannot afford to be ignorant of the problems, the strivings, the failures of the republics and democracies of the ancient world. We speak of these nations as belonging to antiquity, but we have much of them with us to-day. The law of Rome has not gone; the highest thought of Greece is eternal.

We might justly insist that mediæval history is worthy of a place in the school programme for its own sake, recounting as it does the development of the papacy and the Church, the establishment of feudalism, the foundation of modern states, the Renaissance, and the beginning of the Reformation. But, if for no other reason, the history of the Middle Ages deserves study because without it Greece and Rome are isolated and seem to dwell in a world apart. On the other hand, the character of the forces of modern times cannot be understood by one who examines them without reference to their mediæval origins.

Nor will any one seriously maintain in these latter days, when men are studying world movements-when, as we are told, America has become a world power-that the intelligent citizen has no concern with the chief events and leading tendencies of the last four centuries of European history. It is especially desirable that American pupils should learn something of European history, since, by seeing the history of their own country in its proper perspective, they may appreciate its meaning, and may be relieved of a temptation to a narrow intolerance, which resembles patriotism only as bigotry resembles faith.

English history until 1776 is our history; Edward I. and Pym, Hampden and William Pitt belong to our past and helped to make us what we are. Any argument in favor of American history, therefore, holds almost equally true for the study of English history. A realization of present duties, a comprehension of present responsibilities, an appreciation of present opportunities, can not better be inculcated than by a study of the centuries in which Englishmen were struggling for representation, free speech, and due process of law.

The orderly chronological course which we here advocate has its marked advantages, but it should be so arranged that the pupil will do more than follow the main facts as he traces them from the earliest times to the present. The work must be so developed and widened, as time goes on, that in the final years the pupil will be dealing with broader and deeper problems than in the early years, and will be making use of the skill and scholarly sense that have been awakened and called into action by previous training. By a course of this sort, pupils will obtain a conspectus of history which is fairly complete and satisfactory, will follow the forward march of events and will come to see the present as a product of the past; while the teacher, at the same time, will have opportunity to unfold the problems and difficulties of historical study.

The desirability of arranging historical fields of work in their natural chronological order will probably appeal to every one, and need not be dwelt upon. Some persons, however, may object to the arrangement as unwise, in the light of other considerations. It may be contended that pupils should pass “from the known to the unknown,” from the familiar to the unfamiliar and strange. This precept we do not care formally to accept or to reject; but it will be remembered that in all primary and grammar schools some historical work is given, and that we can take for granted the probability that all pupils know something of American history, and perhaps of other history, in addition. As a matter of fact, therefore, we are not running counter to the doctrine above referred to, or violating the law of apperception.

A like objection may be met with a similar answer. American history, some will say, should come the first year in the high school, because many pupils leave school before the later years. But this objection proves too much, for a large percentage of boys and girls do not enter the high school at all. American history should therefore be given in the grammar school. In fact, it is given in the eighth and lower grades in probably the vast majority of schools; to repeat the course therefore in the first year of the secondary course is almost a waste of time, inasmuch as any marked development in the method of treatment is impossible. On the other hand, by putting the study late in the course, the pupil can work along new lines and attack new problems; the development of American institutions can be studied; new and more difficult books can be read, and more advanced methods used.

Some teachers, believing that American history is essential in every course, will object to the curriculum here suggested, on the ground that the last year is already overcrowded, and that we are asking the impossible when we suggest that the study be placed in that year. In any argument on such a subject, history is at a disadvantage, because other subjects have from time immemorial been considered first, while history has been treated as a poor and needy relative; other subjects have their places, and claim at once nine full points in law. If it is more important that pupils should have knowledge of chemistry, solid geometry, physics, Greek, English literature, Latin, and what not, than a knowledge of the essentials of the political and social life about them, of the nature and origin of the Federal Constitution, of their duties and rights as citizens, and of the fundamental ideas for which their country stands, then of course American history need not enter into the contest at all. In making these recommendations, however, we are not acting upon merely theoretical grounds; an investigation of existing conditions leads us to believe that there is a strong tendency to place American history in the last year of the course.

It will be argued, again, that Greek and Roman history is too difficult for the first year. To this we may answer, (1) that a number of excellent and successful teachers give the subject in the first year, and (2) that it is not necessary to fathom all the mysteries of the Athenian constitution, or to penetrate the innermost secrets of Roman imperialism. It is not impossible to know the main outlines of Greek and Roman history and to see the main features of Greek and Roman life. If Caesar, a great source of Roman history, can be studied in the original in the tenth grade, with all the supplementary information on military and historical matters which recent editors present, can not secondary material in the vernacular be studied in the ninth? While we do not think that Greek and Roman history should be treated as a handmaiden of the Latin and Greek languages (to treat the subjects thus is to invert the natural relationship), we suggest that a course in ancient history in the first year will serve to give life and meaning to all the work in the classic tongues. The idea may come home to the pupil that Caesar and Cicero were real, living, thinking, acting men, and not imaginative creatures begotten by the brains of modern grammar-mongers to vex the soul of the schoolboy. If this basis of fact is in the pupil’s mind, the classical teacher can amplify it in the later years of the high-school course, and can with far greater assurance use the language that he is teaching as a medium for bringing his pupils into contact with the thoughts and moving sentiments of antiquity.

Some one may object that mediæval and modern European history is too difficult for the tenth grade, and that other subjects should come at that time. The answer to such objection is, of course, that any other subject is too difficult if taught in its height and depth and breadth, but that the cardinal facts of European history can be understood, interesting and intelligible books can be read, the significant lessons can be learned. How many boys, when they are 16 years old, can not understand “The Scottish Chiefs,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Twenty Years After,” “Ivanhoe,” “The Talisman,” “With Fire and Sword”? And is the simple, truthful historic tale of border conflict, the life and purposes of Richelieu, the death of Charles I, the career of Richard the Lionhearted, the character of Saladin, the horrible barbarism of Tartar hordes, harder to be understood than the plot of an elaborate, historical novel dealing with the same facts? Is truth necessarily more difficult, as well as stranger, than fiction? But the conclusive answer to this objection is the fact that European history in its most difficult form, “general history,” is now taught in the second year in the greater part of the schools which offer the subject.

The committee may be criticised for outlining a four years’ course at all, on the ground that no schools can devote so much time to history. This criticism is so important that the reasons which influenced us to take this action should be given seriatim:

  1. Some schools do offer history in every year of the high school, either as a required or as an optional study; and the delineation of what seems to us a thorough and systematic régime may be of service to these schools, and to all others that desire to devote considerable time and energy to the subject.
  2. If some schools cannot give all that is here proposed, that fact presents no reason why an adequate course should not be outlined. We are not seeking to induce schools to give history a great amount of attention at the expense of other subjects; but a course altogether complete and adequate needs to be outlined before one can rightly discuss the availability of anything else.
  3. An approach to an ideal course, in order of subjects, method, treatment, and time, is better than one that is constructed without any reference to the best and most symmetrical system.
  4. As a general rule, definite parts of the plan which we here outline may be taken as a working scheme. It is not necessary to draw up, on an entirely new theory, a briefer curriculum for schools that can not take the whole of what we here recommend; the simplest and wisest plan under such circumstances is to omit one or more of the blocks or periods into which we have divided the general field.

If only three years can be devoted to historical work, three of the periods outlined above may be chosen, and one omitted; such omission seems to us to be better than any condensation of the whole. But if any teacher desires to compress two of the periods into a single year’s work, one of the following plans may be wisely adopted:

  1. Combine English and American history in such a manner that the more important principles wrought out in English history, and the main facts of English expansion, will be taught in connection with American colonial and later political history.
  2. Treat English history in such a way as to include the most important elements of mediæval and modern European history.

Next section: Why No Short Course in General History is Recommended