When Did You Start To Enjoy History?

When Did You Start To Enjoy History?

When I’m trying to explain the Charlotte Mason method to friends and co-workers, this is a common question I ask. The question itself makes two assumptions:

  • That they do enjoy learning about history, and
  • That they didn’t enjoy history until they were an adult.

In other words, that they enjoy learning about history, but did not enjoy being taught history. The answers I get continue to confirm the premise of the question — that most of us started to enjoy learning about history in our 20’s — in other words, after we were out of academia.

So why is that? And what’s the solution for our kids? And why is my seven-year-old son asking another boy at swim lessons “Who’s your favorite president?” (Response: Deer in headlights. On a side note, this made me chuckle because I’m proud of him, but need to work on finding topics that may be of interest to his peers!)

Charlotte Mason, in A Philosophy of Education, says:

The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs… (p. 248)

I’m going to suggest that the problem and the solution go together, and I’m not going to give you a list. One problem (textbooks), one solution (good literature). Also, I acknowledge that this article is based on my story, and, as such, is more of an anecdotal approach than a research-based approach.

As you’ll see, this article was largely informed by A Philosophy of Education (Home Schooling Series, Volume 6), and motivation for this article stemmed from this idea in particular: “Perhaps the gravest defect in school curricula is that they fail to give a comprehensive, intelligent and interesting introduction to history” (p. 178).

Spoiler alert — here is the point of this article: a literature-based approach to history provides children with a passionate knowledge of history, by leveraging the curiosity and desire for knowledge that they are born with. As the PNEU proposed in Principle 13.(c): “Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (p. xxx).

Let’s start with my story. I was a good student. More specifically, I was a good memorizer and a good test-taker, who had learned how to play the game of the school system to get what I wanted — good grades. Or was that even it? Maybe scholarships, or to impress my parents. Whatever my aims were, they certainly didn’t include the one objective everyone assumed I was in school to obtain: knowledge.

Charlotte says:

We err when we allow our admirable teaching to intervene between children and the knowledge their minds demand. The desire for knowledge (curiosity) is the chief agent in education: but this desire may be made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene, such as the desire for place (emulation), for prizes (avarice), for power (ambition), for praise (vanity). (p. 247)

Mason expounds on the idea of substitute motivators in other places, but this is a nice summary.

Charlotte often quotes John Ruskin: “They cram to pass, and not to know; they do pass, and they don’t know” (Home Education, p. 155). Let me tell you about senior year American Government. I really did my best to learn as little in this class as possible, until the test was looming on the horizon. About two days before the test, it’s cram-time! Catch up on reading and jam the facts into the memory bank. The result? Over 100% on every test. (I would get the extra credit, too.) Parents happy. Teachers impressed.

A close observer could have pointed out at least two deficiencies of this faux learning:

  • I didn’t really care about what I was “learning.” Want to have an interesting conversation with me about these topics? Forget about it — all I can do is spew dry facts.
  • Want to have a rather dull conversation with me about these dry facts at a later date? (Say, two weeks after the test?) Forget about it — those facts have been purged.

What happened to me? As a youngster I used to spend hours drawing battle scenes from the Revolutionary War, or knights laying siege to castles (after reading a library book on King Arthur and his knights). What became of the awe, wonder, and curiosity of that little boy? My theory is that textbooks (and later, lectures) girded me with all of the demotivation I needed to avoid that contemptuous type of learning. Grades and people-pleasing lifted my sights to bare minimum, and simply replaced the awe, wonder, and curiosity with substitute, artificial aims.

Charlotte nicely summarizes my mentality at the time:

And curiosity is satisfied by incoherent, scrappy information which serves no purpose, assuredly not the purpose of knowledge whose function is to nourish the mind as food nourishes the body. But so besotted is our educational thought that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food. Hence our dependence on marks and prizes, athletics, alluring presentation, any jam we can devise to disguise the powder… This atrophy of the desire of knowledge is the penalty our scholars pay because we have chosen to make them work for inferior ends. Our young men and maidens do not read unless with the stimulus of a forthcoming examination. (pp. 88–89)

Which brings us back to the question: why have so many adults, including me, rediscovered a love of history? We have whole cable channels devoted to history, podcasts (Hardcore History® anyone?), and an explosion of lofts in historic downtown buildings that attract millennials eager to preserve and live in a historic setting. My wife is a good picture of the transition that often occurs. Prior to our marriage we visited my grandparents, after which she said “I like your grandparents, but all they seem to talk about is history and bird-watching.” (Ironically, those are now two of her favorite topics.) The famous Winston Churchill quote — “I love learning, but hate being taught” — is, perhaps, part of the answer, but I would argue that this attitude is a symptom of how history is taught.

This brings us back to the main point: children are born with a curiosity and desire for knowledge. History can feed both of these ends. Many adults have rediscovered this. My discoveries came through the avenue of historical fiction, although I have been warned by my friend Glenn, a history professor at a local university, against putting too much weight on the thin ice of historical fiction because “there is a lot of junk out there.” But why is it that my deepest dive into the French Revolution came through A Tale of Two Cities? Or that my first real interaction with Napoleon came through War and Peace? (Side note — if you’ve never read War and Peace, picture Downton Abbey… plus war.) It’s because this history was presented to me in literary form! It fed my curiosity, engaged me with (albeit mostly fictional) characters in history, and made me care for and become more interested in these chapters of history, and the places and people who defined these times.

Or take for instance Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, which I read to my son Nathan. Through reading this book, both Nathan and I were captured by the story of Squanto. Later I went to look for a date of a certain situation and found, to my amazement, that there were only three places where dates were listed (years only) in the entire book. So I would not have been well-prepared to pass a standardized test about Squanto. But the ideas were conveyed in a compelling, literary way — in other words, they were living ideas — and provided a “hanger rod.” Thus, the underlying facts were memorable and had “hangers” to organize them by. Squanto had crossed the ocean and learned English, and when almost home to his people, was the victim of a treacherous kidnapping, yet this proved to be his salvation from a local epidemic that decimated his tribe. It seemed that his life had been spared and he had been prepared, through suffering, for a short, critical time period during which he educated the pilgrims in order to help them survive life in the New World.

Charlotte says:

Like the body, again, the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food, that is to say, its pabulum should be presented in a literary form. The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang. (p. 20)

For my wife, it has been biographies that have inspired her and re-kindled her desire to learn history. Of particular note are the Landmark and Signature series, and biographies by Enid Meadowcroft and the above-mentioned Bulla. These used (and rather shabby-looking) books from our basement have become a great source of education and teaching inspiration for her. An unexpected side-benefit is that they have also transformed her writing. In school, her teachers regularly marked up her papers with red ink, giving criticisms like “awkward.” But through reading literary books written in beautiful language, her writing has become beautiful. Charlotte covers the topic of composition throughout her volumes; of particular interest may be page 190–195 of A Philosophy of Education. Again anecdotally, my friend Glenn (who has been known to complain about the quality of papers produced by his university students) has supported the theory of “teaching” composition through the reading of quality literature, as he has witnessed successfully with his own children. Guidance may be needed in forming persuasive arguments, but the quality of the writing need not be taught as a separate topic.

In conclusion, textbooks are summaries of summaries that are written to educate towards standardized tests by publishers who are interested in selling books. To maintain interest, grades, competition, and people-pleasing are substituted in place of the desire for knowledge. In contrast, literary history books, biographies, and historical fiction (asterisk) are written by authors who care deeply about the people and events of the time periods they write about, are experts in these time periods, and feed the curiosity and desire for knowledge that will satisfy our children — and ourselves.

So, for yourself, when did you start to enjoy learning about history? Let the answer to this question help shape how you introduce your children to this subject.

Rob Young lives just outside Des Moines, Iowa with his wife and four kids, and he works as a mechanical engineer at a data center by day. He enjoys fishing, playing bass guitar, and taking bird feeding a little too seriously. Since March, Rob has been working from home, like many of you. Some highlights have included listening to Andrew Peterson read Wingfeather Saga as a family, spending early mornings outside with a book and the birds, and working on house projects that he had promised his wife he would get to “when he had time.”

All page number references are to A Philosophy of Education unless otherwise noted.

©2020 Rob Young

3 Replies to “When Did You Start To Enjoy History?”

  1. I crammed and purged my way through 4 years of college. Literally, all I have to show for that time is a piece of paper that says I have a bachelors degree and a lot of debt. I’ve obtained more knowledge and grown more deeply as a person since I started homeschooling my children.

    1. Sadly, that is the truth for so many people! I’m so thankful to have found the Charlotte Mason method (of reading living books) not only for my own children, but for my own love of learning as well!

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