Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

From the foregoing it will be seen that the committee believes that history should be given in four consecutive years in the secondary school, and that the study should be developed in an orderly fashion, with reasonable regard for chronological sequence; in other words, that four years should be devoted to the study of the world’s history, giving the pupil some knowledge of the progress of the race, enabling him to survey a broad field and to see the main acts in the historical drama. While, of course, three years for such study are better than two, as two are better than one, a careful consideration of the problem in all its aspects has led us to the conclusion that we cannot strongly recommend as altogether adequate courses covering the whole field in less than four years.

We do not recommend a short course in general history because such a course necessitates one of two modes of treatment, neither of which is sound and reasonable. By one method, energy is devoted to the dreary, and perhaps profitless, task of memorizing facts, dates, names of kings and queens, and the rise and fall of dynasties; there is no opportunity to see how facts arose or what they effected, or to study the material properly, or to see the events in simple form as one followed upon another, or to become acquainted with the historical method of handling definite concrete facts and drawing inferences from them. The pupil is not introduced to the first principles of historical thinking; he is not brought into sympathy with men and ideas, or led to see the play of human forces, or given such a real knowledge of past times and conditions that he can realize that history has to do with life, with the thoughts, aspirations, and struggles of men. By the second method pupils are led to deal with large and general ideas which are often quite beyond their comprehension-ideas which are general inferences drawn by the learned historian from a well-stored treasure-house of definite data; they are taught to accept unquestioningly broad generalizations, the foundations of which they can not possibly examine, as they must do if they are to know how the historical student builds his inferences, or how one gains knowledge of the general truths of history. The first method is apt to heap meaningless data together; facts crowd one upon another; there is no moving drama, but at the very best, perhaps, a series of kaleidoscopic pictures, in which the figures are arranged with seeming arbitrariness. If the second alternative be followed, all is order and system; the pawns of the great game are folks and nations; the more effective chessmen are world-moving ideas. The experienced college teacher knows full well that students entering upon historical work will learn facts without seeing relationships; that “tendency ” is a word of unknown dimensions; and that his first task is to lead his pupils to see how definite facts may be grouped into general facts, and how one condition of things led to another, until they come to a realizing sense of the fact that history deals with dynamics, not statics, and that drifts, tendencies, and movements are to be searched for by the proper interpretation of definite data, and the proper correlation of definite deeds and acts, with special reference to chronological sequence. If college students must thus be led to the comprehension of historical forces and general ideas, what hope is there that a general history, dealing only with tendencies, will be adapted to high-school needs?

But while we do not think that a secondary-school pupil can be brought to handle large generalizations, we do believe that, if the time devoted to a period of history be sufficiently long to enable him to deal with the acts of individual men and to see their work, he can be taught to group his facts; and that a power of analysis and construction, a capacity for seeing relationships and causes, an ability to grasp a general situation and to understand how it came to be, can be developed in him; and that he can be brought to see that for the historian nothing is, but everything is becoming. In all such work, however, the teacher must begin with ideas and facts that are not altogether unfamiliar—with the activities, the impulses, the concrete conduct of men. We do not mean by this that constitutional and social questions can not be studied, that political movements can not be interpreted, or that the biographical system suitable for the lower grades should be continued through the secondary course. On the contrary, the pupil should be led to general facts just as soon as possible, and should be induced to see inferences and the meanings of acts at the earliest possible moment.4 He must not only have a well-articulated skeleton of facts, but he must see movement, life, human energy. And yet the average pupil will follow the course of Julius Caesar or Augustus, when he can not understand just why the Roman Republic was overthrown; he can know much of the work of Constantine, when he can not appreciate the influence of Christianity on the destinies of Rome and the world; he can see what Charlemagne did, when he can not comprehend the nature or character of the Holy Roman Empire; he is interested in Danton and Mirabeau, when he can not realize the causes, characteristics, and effects of the French Revolution. It is impossible for one who knows only of mayors, constables, and county clerks to reach out at once into a comprehension of the great motive forces in the world’s history.

We ask, then, for a course in history of such length that the pupil may get a broad and somewhat comprehensive view of the general field, without having, on the one hand, to cram his memory with unrelated, meaningless facts, or, on the other hand, to struggle with generalizations and philosophical ideas beyond his ken. We think that a course covering the whole field of history is desirable, because it gives something like a proper perspective and proportion; because the history of man’s activities is one subject, and the present is the product of all the past; because such a study broadens the mental horizon and gives breadth and culture; because it is desirable that pupils should come to as full a realization as possible of their present surroundings, by seeing the long course of the race behind them; because they ought to have a general conspectus of history, in order that more particular studies of nations or of periods may be seen in something like actual relation with others. We think, however, that quite as important as perspective or proportion are method and training, and a comprehension of the essential character of the study.

In exact accord with the principles here advocated all work in natural science is now conducted: A pupil is taught to understand how the simple laws of physics or chemistry are drawn up; he is induced to think carefully and logically about what he sees, and about the meaning of the rules and fundamental truths which he is studying, in order that he may learn the science by thinking in it rather than by getting a bird’s-eye view of the field. We do not argue that secondary pupils can be made constructive historians, that a power can be bred in them to seize for themselves essential data and weave a new fabric, that the mysteries of the historian’s art can be disclosed to them, or that they can be taught to play upon a nation’s stops with an assured and cunning hand. But every study has its methods, its characteristic thinking, its own essential purpose; and the pupil must be brought into some sympathy with the subject. He must know history as history, just as he knows science as science.

Any comparison between history and science is apt to be misleading. The method of the one study, for purposes of instruction at least, is not the method of the other. We do not suppose that Richelieu or William the Silent can be treated with any sort of moral reagent or examined as a specimen under any high-power lens. And yet in some respects we may learn lessons from methods of scientific instruction. The modern teacher of botany does not endeavor to have his pupils learn a long list of classified shrubs, to know all the families and species by heart, or to make a telling synopsis of even any considerable section of the world’s flora; he examines a more limited field with care, and asks the students to see how seeds germinate and how plants grow, and to study with a microscope a piece of wood fiber or the cross-section of a seed. This he does in order that the pupils may see the real subject, may know botany, and acquire the habit of thinking as men of science think; not, let it be understood, that he may discover new laws of floral growth or develop for himself a single principle, rule, or system of classification. And so in history. While we do not urge that pupils be asked to extort their knowledge from the raw material, or to search through the documents to find the data which learned scholars have already found for them, we do ask that the old system of classification, and the old idea that one must see the whole field before he studies a part of it, be altogether given up, if an effort to know the outlines of the whole means that the pupil has not sufficient opportunity to study history as history, to see how men moved and acted, to know that history deals with the sequence of events in time. To insist upon a general comprehension of the world’s history before examining a part with care would be quite as reasonable as to ask a pupil to study the circle of the sciences before he analyzes a flower or works an air pump.

While we believe that pupils can advantageously use the sources, chiefly as illustrative material, we are not now arguing for the source system or insisting that he should be trained to handle original material. Skill in finding facts in documents or contemporary narratives, however desirable that may be, is not the sole end of historical instruction anywhere, and above all in the secondary schools. Even the historian is doing but a small part of his work when he is mousing through his material and gathering this fact and another from forgotten corners. One of his most important and most difficult tasks is to detect the real meaning of events, and so to put his well-tested data together that their proper import and their actual interrelations are brought to view. History, we say again, has to do with the sequence of events in time, and what we contend for is such a course in history as will enable one to see sequence and movement-the words are not synonymous. This simple essential of historical work-an essential, however, often lost sight of completely-must not be neglected. We believe that the pupil should study history, and not something else under the name of history-neither philosophy on the one hand, nor the art of historical investigation on the other.

Next section: How the Different Blocks or Periods May be Treated

  1. Let it be remembered that the course in history in the high school should have for its purpose the gradual awakening and developing of power. Pupils are often precipitated into general history, and asked to tax their powers of imagination and to grasp movements when they are entirely without experience or training. []