19 Sep 2013

A broad sweep of history

This course of historical reading is valued exceedingly by young people as affording a knowledge of the past that bears upon and illuminates the present.

Charlotte Mason A Philosophy of Education p 177
As we approach the end of AO6, we draw to the close of our first chronological history cycle.  In the past six or so years we have made a broad sweep of World History, a concomitant broad sweep of British and then Australian History, and a third broad sweep of Church History.  And to what value? Our sweep was broad, but as a consequence, it was also shallow. Superficial, even.

As we look back through our books, there are certain events that we remember - Boadicea, King Alfred learning to read - and burning the cakes, Canute and those waves, Thomas à Becket in the Cathedral, John and the Magna Carta, the Battle of Bannockburn, and the War of the Roses. We remember some of the Godly men and women from the pages of Trial and Triumph - Patrick, Francis of Assisi, Peter Waldo and the Waldensians, William Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, the Two Margarets, Jonathan Edwards and the Chinese Christians during the Boxer Rebellion. We recall James Cook and Matthew Flinders, Governor Macquarie, Burke and Wills, Carolyn Chisholm, Ned Kelly, John Flynn, John Batman and that list - blankets, tomahawks, mirrors, eyeglasses, flour, scissors, beads.

Sadly, though, there are many, many more that remain just names.  Who was Bernard of Clairvaux?  Elizabeth of Hungary? John Huss?  David Brainerd? Why was Ethelred unready? What did Henry I do? Who was John Lackland? Which Henry was which? Was that James a good guy or a bad one? Who locked the two boys in the Tower? Where did Major Thomas Mitchell explore?  Who was Edward Eyre? There is just so much that we've forgotten.

Does that make our learning worthless?  Was the past six years of history just a waste of time?

When you read the introduction to Our Island Story, the 'spine' of AO history through the primary years, you find that the author's purpose in writing the book was to tell the story of the island that is Britain. Our Aussie book, The History of Australia describes itself as 'the story of this new country within an ancient land. Trial and Triumph calls itself a history of the church, but also a 'family history', the stories of the trials and triumphs of many...in our family of faith.

History is a collective memory.  It teaches us who we were, and how we came to be. It teaches us about the world around us. Our historical story defines our sense of national identity. It informs our attitude to ourselves, and that might be pride or shame, or sometimes both.  I believe that it is true that German students today continue to have counselling in schools to help them deal with the atrocities that their country committed during the Second World War. (Contrast this with Japan.) History teaches us how we come to be who we are.  It explains why I am more similar to the English than to Americans.  It teaches me how and why my country developed as it did.  It teaches us why my church is closer to the Presbyterian church than to the Roman Catholic, and why they are more similar to the Orthodox churches than mine is.

When I studied Australian History in school a million years ago, this broad sweep of superficial history had been replaced by an in depth look at three or four disconnected unit type themes.  During my final year we studied the Time Between the Wars, the Gold Rush, and Land Settlement.  When I finished school - and achieved an 'A' for history, I knew nothing about the exploration of Australia, nothing about the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government, and nothing much about anything in between. I had learned nothing about the things that make me who I am. It has taken AO, and its broad sweep to teach me all of that.

When I hear mums on the AO forum saying that they're replacing this chronological narrative with in depth studies on one or two areas - concentrating on American history, say, or replacing Trial and Triumph with an intensive study of two or three great men, I want to yell NO!  Isolated packets of knowledge do not do the same thing at all.  They don't tell the story.  The story is the superficial sweep of time.  It is the accumulation of lots of events that tells the tale.  It is the story of mankind.  It is the story of your country. It is the study of your church.  It is the story of you.

This doesn't mean we can't focus on two or three great men in addition to our story.  In the past years we've read biographies of Athanasius, Luther, Knox and Calvin.  We read about Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders and Burke and Wills and Ned Kelly.  We read books on Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I, of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.  All this reading adds to our knowledge.    Miss Mason tells us that it' amplifies and illustrates' history, and helps children 'individualise their heroes'. (Vol 6 p 174) It brings a period of history to life. All this extra learning is good, but it isn't history.  History is a story.

The broad sweep of history is not perfect, and all history has a bias, and the bias I choose is to present Australia in a positive light.  When I study history with my daughter, I want to show her that Australia is a great country, but that it is not perfect.  I want her to form an opinion about our treatment of Aborigines.  I want her to understand the sacrifices people made so that we can have a 40 hour week (ostensibly) and have a day off on Saturday.  I want her to realise that it is only through the actions of some pretty great people that she will have a right as a woman to vote.  When we study church history, I want her to realise that these great people were mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and that they are the people that have made Christ's church what we see today.

I am glad that in coming years we have an opportunity to cover the pageant of history a second time.  That we will be reintroduced to our old friends, and that we will relearn about people we have forgotten.  Maybe in another six years we will be able to tell you about Bernard of Clairvaux.  Elizabeth of Hungary, and John Huss.  Or maybe not.  At any rate, we will have a far better idea of who we are, and why we live like we do.

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'; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before.

Charlotte Mason A Philosophy of Education p 178


  1. Thanks Jeanne! A great read while I am sitting here recovering from a workout. :) I don't believe it is a waste of time, the history readings opens up wonderful discussions in our home, about morals and virtues, and the consequences to the countries livelihood. Looking forward to seeing your AO7 book choices. I can't WAIT for next year with closely following your Australian rotation for year 4.

  2. I'm excited that you're doing it too, Sarah. Let me know if I can help!

  3. Lovely. We have not seen some of the events and names you mention, and we remember some of your forgotten ones, and not remember some you DO, LOL, as it should be. But AMEN to what you say of not focusing on just a few things in depth... they are meant to forget much, so why to slice history thinking if you offer the whole banquet they will forget. In the broad scope, they still remember SO MUCH, and as you say, we go through this pageant twice.

  4. Jeanne
    I understand the dilema, it is one I have struggled with myself. In my early days of hsing my olders we did more indepth, currently we are reading 'Child's History of the World' (Hillyer) previously we have read some of the Story of the World. It can be superficial, it can skip, though I console myself with the thought that my children are huge readers and there are many, many living books in our home to flesh out any area.
    What changed my approach from indepth to overview was, I had my children undertake a learning styles test and discovered they are 'big picture' learners, so actually they needed the overview first before the indepth. (miss the indepth personally though)

  5. You're so right, I look back at my history education and despair at how little I covered. I'm reading Our Island Story for myself now, but I'm increasingly sure I want to use it as the history spine if and when I have my own children to educate. It's good to hear that there is time to go back and look a little more in depth at certain eras; can I ask at what point you started studying history? How old was Jemimah? I worry that if I start too early, my (hypothetical) children will not remember the beginning of the "sweep", but if I start too late we'll run out of time. As you can tell I'm planning quite far ahead here... May

  6. We started when she was six, May. She has forgotten a lot from that year, but not all. This next run through she'll get to meet everyone again. There will always we gaps in education, but remember, your kids have a lifetime to fill them!

  7. You state this position so incredibly well in this post Jeanne. Thank you. I am not one to doubt the wisdom of AO choices but I can not explain it as eloquently as you did here. You have given me yet another post to bookmark and share when this comes up in the future.

  8. Jeanne, we have that book too, the one in the photo at the top of the post. The Time Chart of Biblical History. Such a good book. We use it in our Bible study all the time. It really helps us with the genealogies. Sorry, I know this is not exactly on topic, but I got excited when I saw it.

  9. It works. I did a broad sweep of world history & almost no Australian history [mostly because so little of it interests me] BUT we also did major on the minors ~ obscure but interesting world history & Australian history through the family tree [which thankfully gave a broad grasp of Australian history]. I am still surprised at how much Cait is able to put in context & she has a better grasp of our politics than I do ~ mostly because she has interest plus cynicism not just cynicism. lol As for Whitlam ~ I am old enough to still be furious as it was one of the first elections I voted in ~ & they did that!

  10. Your sweet Jemimah has learned more history than an American student in AP history. When people such as "cultural icons" like Marilyn Monroe and "classic events" like Stonewall or tragedies like the death of a Beatle dominating classroom instruction (and let me say it's fine for kids to ALSO learn these events--just not at the expense of the point of the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence or....you get the point I hope) that broad swath of history has left Jemimah with a sense of the world and her place in it. So don't fret!


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...