Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

It may seem to be unnecessary to consider the value of historical study in itself, or to show how history may be related to other subjects in the school curriculum. As a matter of fact, however, the educational value of every other subject has received more attention than that of history; indeed, only within the last few years has there been anything like a thoughtful discussion by practical teachers of the worth of history as a disciplinary study. When so much has been said of the necessity of studying the natural sciences, in order that one may come to some realization of the physical and vital world about him, and may know himself better as he knows his surroundings more thoroughly, and in order that his powers of observation may be quickened and strengthened, it seems strange indeed that the same method of argument has not been used in behalf of historical work. If it is desirable that the high-school pupil should know the physical world, that he should know the habits of ants and bees, the laws of floral growth, the simple reactions in the chemical retort, it is certainly even more desirable that he should be led to see the steps in the development of the human race, and should have some dim perception of his own place, and of his country’s place, in the great movements of men. One does not need to say in these latter days that secondary education ought to fit boys and girls to become, not scholastics, but men and women who know their surroundings and have come to a sympathetic knowledge of their environment; and it does not seem necessary now to argue that the most essential result of secondary education is acquaintance with political and social environment, some appreciation of the nature of the state and society, some sense of the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, some capacity in dealing with political and governmental questions, something of the broad and tolerant spirit which is bred by the study of past times and conditions.

It is a law well recognized by psychologists, a law of which the teacher in school or college sees daily application and illustration, that one obtains knowledge by adding to the ideas which one already has new ideas organically related to the old. Recent psychological pedagogy looks upon the child as a reacting organism, and declares that he should be trained in those reactions which he will most need as an adult. The chief object of every experienced teacher is to get pupils to think properly after the method adopted in his particular line of work; not an accumulation of information, but the habit of correct thinking, is the supreme result of good teaching in every branch of instruction. All this simply means that the student who is taught to consider political subjects in school, who is led to look at matters historically, has some mental equipment for a comprehension of the political and social problems that will confront him in everyday life, and has received practical preparation for social adaptation and for forceful participation in civic activities.

We do not think that this preparation is satisfactorily acquired merely through the study of civil government, which, strictly construed, has to do only with existing institutions. The pupil should see the growth of the institutions which surround him; he should see the work of men; he should study the living concrete facts of the past; he should know of nations that have risen and fallen; he should see tyranny, vulgarity, greed, benevolence, patriotism, self-sacrifice, brought out in the lives and works of men. So strongly has this very thought taken hold of writers of civil government, that they no longer content themselves with a description of the government as it is, but describe at considerable length the origin and development of the institutions of which they speak. While we have no desire to underestimate the value of civil government as a secondary study, especially if it is written and taught from the historical point of view, we desire to emphasize the thought that appreciation and sympathy for the present is best secured by a study of the past; and while we believe that it is the imperative duty of every high school and academy to teach boys and girls the elementary knowledge of the political machinery which they will be called upon to manage as citizens of a free state, we insist also that they should have the broader knowledge, the more intelligent spirit, that comes from a study of other men and of other times. They should be led to see that society is in movement, that what one sees about him is not the eternal but the transient, and that in the processes of change virtue must be militant if it is to be triumphant.

While it is doubtless true that too much may be made of the idea that history furnishes us with rules, precepts, and maxims which may be used as immutable principles, as unerring guides for the conduct of the statesman and the practical politician, or as means of foretelling the future, it is equally true that progress comes by making additions to the past or by its silent modification. All our institutions, our habits of thought and modes of action, are inheritances from preceding ages: no conscious advance, no worthy reform, can be secured without both a knowledge of the present and an appreciation of how forces have worked in the social and political organization of former times. If this be so, need we seriously argue that the boys and girls in the schoolroom should be introduced to the past, which has created the present- that historical-mindedness should be in some slight measure bred within them, and that they should be given the habit, or the beginnings of a habit, of considering what has been, when they discuss what is or what should be?

Believing, then, that one of the chief objects of study is to bring boys and girls to some knowledge of their environment and to fit them to become intelligent citizens, we need hardly say that, if the study of history helps to accomplish this object, the public schools of the country are under the heaviest obligations to foster the study, and not to treat it as an intruder entitled only to a berth in a cold corner, after language, mathematics, science, music, drawing, and gymnastics have been comfortably provided for. “It is clear,” as Thomas Arnold has said, “that in whatever it is our duty to act, those matters also it is our duty to study.” It is true that any subject which aids the pupil to think correctly, to be accurate and painstaking, which awakens his interest in books and gives him resources within himself, in reality fits him for good and useful citizenship; but what other subjects do in this direction more or less indirectly, history does directly; and moreover, if properly taught, it is not inferior to other subjects as a disciplinary and educational study. Fortunately, an examination of school programmes, educational periodicals, and like material will now convince any one that educators are coming to the conclusion that history must receive more attention, and must be taught wisely and well.

History cultivates the judgment by leading the pupil to see the relation between cause and effect, as cause and effect appear in human affairs. We do not mean by this that his attention should be directed solely to great moving causes, or that he should study what is sometimes called the “philosophy of history;” far from it. Nor do we mean that time should be consumed in discussing the meaning of facts when the facts themselves are not known. But history has to do with the becoming of past events, not simply with what was, but with what came to be, and in studying the simplest forms of historical narrative even the average pupil comes to see that one thing leads to another; he begins quite unconsciously to see that events do not simply succeed each other in time, but that one grows out of another, or rather out of a combination of many others. Thus, before the end of the secondary course the well-trained pupil has acquired some power in seeing relationships and detecting analogies. While it is perfectly true that the generalizing faculty is developed late, and that the secondary pupil will often learn unrelated data with ease, if not with avidity, it is equally true that history in the hands of the competent teacher is a great instrument for developing in the pupil capacity for seeing underlying reasons and for comprehending motives. In the ordinary class-room work, both in science and in mathematics, there is little opportunity for discussion, for differences of opinion, for balancing of probabilities; and yet in everyday life we do not deal with mathematical demonstrations, or concern ourselves with scientific observations; we reach conclusions by a judicious consideration of circumstances and conditions, some of them in apparent conflict with one another and none of them susceptible of exact measurement and determination.

The study of history gives training not only in acquiring facts, but in arranging and systematizing them and in putting forth individual product. Power of gathering information is important, and this power the study of history cultivates; but the power of using information is of greater importance, and this power too is developed by historical work. We do not ask that pupils should be required to do so-called “laboratory work”-we abjure the phrase-and create histories out of absolutely unhewn and unframed material; we simply say that if a pupil is taught to get ideas and facts from various books, and to put those facts together into a new form, his ability to make use of knowledge is increased and strengthened. By assigning well-chosen topics that are adapted to the capacity of the pupil, and by requiring him to gather his information in various places, the teacher may train the pupil to collect historical material, to arrange it, and to put it forth. This practice, we repeat, develops capacity for effective work, not capacity for absorption alone.3

History is also helpful in developing what is sometimes called the scientific habit of mind and thought. In one sense, this may mean the habit of thorough investigation for one’s self of all sources of information, before one reaches conclusions or expresses decided opinions. But only the learned specialist can thus test more than the most ordinary and commonplace truths or principles in any field of work. The scientific habit of mind in a broader sense means a recognition of the fact that sound conclusions do rest on somebody’s patient investigations; that, although we must accept the work of others, everybody is required to study and think and examine before he positively asserts; that every question should be approached without prejudice; that open-mindedness, candor, honesty, are requisites for the attainment of scientific knowledge. The thoughtful teacher of experience will probably say that, even in the earlier years of the secondary course these prime requisites of wholesome education may in some measure be cultivated; and that, when opportunity for comparative work is given in the later years, historical-mindedness may be so developed as materially to influence the character and habits of the pupil.

While we believe that power and not information must be the chief end of all school work, we must not underestimate the value of a store of historical material. By the study of history the pupil acquires a knowledge of facts that is to him a source of pleasure and gratification in his after life. If there be any truth in the saying that culture consists of an acquaintance with the best which the past has produced- a very insufficient definition, to be sure-we need not argue about the value of historical information. But we may emphasize that brighter and broader culture which springs from a sympathy with the onward movements of the past and an intelligent comprehension of the duties of the present. Many a teacher has found that in dealing with the great and noble acts and struggles of bygone men he has succeeded in reaching the inner nature of the real boys and girls of his classes, and has given them impulses and honorable prejudices that are the surest sources of permanent and worthy refinement. We may venture to suggest that character is of even greater value than culture.

A no less important result of historical study is the training which pupils receive in the handling of books. History, more than any other subject in the secondary curriculum, demands for effective work a library and the ability to use it. Skill in extracting knowledge from the printed page, or in thumbing indexes and fingering tables of contents, is of great value to any one who is called upon to use books. The inability to discover what a book contains or where information is to be found is one of the common failings of the unschooled and the untrained man. Through the study of history this facility in handling material may be cultivated, and at the same time the pupil may be introduced to good literature and inspired with a love for reading which will prove a priceless treasure to him. In this latter respect the study of history is second to that of English literature alone.

With these results of historical study two others of decided value may in conclusion be briefly mentioned: By the reading of good books, and by constant efforts to re-create the real past and make it live again, the pupil’s imagination is at once quickened, strengthened, and disciplined; and by means of the ordinary oral recitation, if properly conducted, he may be taught to express himself in well-chosen words. In the study of foreign language, he learns words and sees distinctions in their meanings; in the study of science, he learns to speak with technical exactness and care; in the study of history, while he must speak truthfully and accurately, he must seek to find apt words of his own with which to describe past conditions and to clothe his ideas in a broad field of work which has no technical method of expression and no peculiar phraseology.

Next section: Continuity of Historical Study

  1. A consideration of what is said in a later division of this report on the methods of teaching will show more fully how history may be used to this end. []