Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

If history is to take and hold its proper place in the school curriculum, it must be in the hands of teachers who are thoroughly equipped for the task of bringing out its educational value. It is still not very unusual to find that history is taught, if such a word is appropriate, by those who have made no preparation, and that classes are sometimes managed-we hesitate to say instructed-by persons who do not profess either to be prepared or to take interest in the subject. In one good school, for example, history a short time ago was turned over to the professor of athletics, not because he knew history, but apparently in order to fill up his time. In another school a teacher was seen at work who evidently did not have the first qualifications for the task; when the examiner inquired why this teacher was asked to teach history when she knew no history, the answer was that she did not know anything else. As long as other subjects in the course are given to specialists, while history is distributed here and there to fill up interstices, there can be no great hope for its advancement. Fortunately, however, this condition of things is disappearing as history gradually finds its way to a place beside such subjects as Latin and mathematics, which claim a prescriptive right to first consideration.

Doubtless to teach history properly is a difficult task. It requires not only wide information and accurate knowledge, but a capacity to awaken enthusiasm and to bring out the inner meanings of a great subject. Accuracy and definiteness must be inculcated in the pupil, and he must be led to think carefully and soberly; but he must also be tempted to range beyond the limits of the text and to give rein to his imagination. Pupils often complain that, while in other studies a lesson can be thoroughly mastered, in history every topic seems exhaustless. Teachers are constantly confronted with just this difficulty. So many problems arise and demand attention; so difficult is it to hold the pupil to definite facts, and yet help him to see that he is studying a scene in the great drama of human life which has its perpetual exits and entrances; so hard a task is it to stimulate the imagination while one is seeking to cultivate the reason and the judgment, that the highest teaching power is necessary to complete success.

The first requisite for good teaching is knowledge. The teacher’s duty is not simply to see that the pupils have learned a given amount, or that they understand the lesson, as one uses the word “understand” when speaking of a demonstration in geometry or an experiment in physics. His task is to bring out the real meaning and import of what is learned by adding illustrations, showing causes, and suggesting results, to select the important and to pass over the unimportant, to emphasize essentials, and to enlarge upon significant facts and ideas. A person with a meager information cannot have a wide outlook; he can not see the relative importance of things unless he actually knows them in their relations.

But knowledge of facts alone is not enough. In historical work pupils and teacher are constantly engaged in using books. These books the teacher must know; he must know the periods which they cover, their methods of treatment, their trustworthiness, their attractiveness, their general utility for the purposes of young students. He must have skill in handling books and in gleaning from them the information which he is seeking, because it is just this skill which he is trying to give to his pupils. No one would seriously think of putting in charge of a class in manual training a person who had himself never shoved a plane or measured a board. To turn over a class in history to be instructed by a person who is not acquainted with the tools of the trade and has had no practice in manipulating them is an equal absurdity.

A successful teacher must have more than mere accurate information and professional knowledge. He needs to have a living sympathy with the tale which he tells. He must know how to bring out the dramatic aspects of his story. He must know how to awaken the interest and attention of his pupils, who will always be alert and eager if they feel that they are learning of the actual struggles and conflicts of men who had like passions with ourselves. Though stores of dates and names must be at the teacher’s command, these are not enough. He must have had his own imagination fired and his enthusiasm kindled; he must know the sources of historical knowledge and the springs of historical inspiration; he must know the literature of history and be able to direct his pupils to stirring passages in the great historical masters; he must know how to illumine and brighten the page by readings from literature and by illustrations from art.

“It were far better,” says Professor Dicey, “as things now stand, to be charged with heresy, or even to be found guilty of petty larceny, than to fall under the suspicion of lacking historical-mindedness, or of questioning the universal validity of the historical method.” To cultivate historical-mindedness, to teach pupils to think historically and to approach facts with the historical spirit-this is the chief object of instruction in any field of history. But unless the teacher has had practice in dealing with facts, unless he has acquired perspective, unless he has become historical-minded and knows himself what the historical method is, he can not instruct his pupils. These characteristics cannot be absorbed from a text-book in an hour or two before the recitation; they are the products of time and toil.

Possibly the day is far distant when all teachers in this country will be prepared for their duties by a long course of training such as is required of a teacher in European schools; but there are a few evidences that this time is slowly approaching. Beyond all question, some of the best teachers in our secondary schools are almost wholly self-trained; some of them are not college graduates. But these exceptions do not prove that advanced collegiate training and instruction are undesirable. In teaching a vital subject like history, much depends upon the personality of the teacher, upon his force, insight, tact, sympathy, upon qualities that cannot be imparted by the university courses or by prolonged research. Though all this be true, every teacher should have had some instruction in methods of teaching, and should have learned from precept what are the essentials of historical study and historical thinking; and-what is of much greater importance-he should have so worked that he knows himself what historical facts are and how they are to be interpreted and arranged. The highly successful teacher in any field of work needs to be a student as well as a teacher, to be in touch with the subject as a growing, developing, and enlarging field of human knowledge.

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