History is the Study of Lives, not Events

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana, also invoked by Winston Churchill

Napoleon, Empereur de francais…

A typical history course is one which follows a fairly straight forward, chronological, path through a series of wars and various social and cultural upheavals. This approach to the subject of history can be uninspiring to the young student. When I first began homeschooling I searched for a good history curriculum and was surprised (not really) that the textbooks where dull and the "story" moved intractably from one violent event to the next with little human empathy or emotion being imparted to the reader.

Inevitably I found that I needed to create my own curriculum if I wanted to get my students' attention. In the past 6 years we have studied the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the history of China from 1000 b.c. through Mao and the Cultural Revolution to the present, the history of Japan, the American Revolution, slavery and the Underground Railroad, World War I, the inter-war years and World War II, and at least another dozen sub-topics.

I have found that the best approach is to start with a simple skeleton or outline of the basic facts. This is reinforced by having my students create their own timelines of the key events. For this we have used long rolls of paper that stretch across the room. The timeline can be marked with measurements reflecting the desired time intervals. The students then write draw and create a collage of events, images and accomplishments from that section of history. We have also used printed book timelines that allow multiple timelines to be created on the same page so that various events from around the globe can be compared and the student can appreciate the different events that were occurring simultaneously. We have also used digital timelines that create the same effect but allow for uploading images and films to create a newsreel effect.

I have found, not surprisingly, that the best materials are the primary sources. When we are able to read a first person account of an event then the moment truly becomes "alive." Suddenly it is apparent that real people have lived and thought and tasted these events. We care about the event because we care about the people. Wasn't that the whole point anyway?

We have also had great success reading literature, seeing theatrical pieces and visiting museums. All these resources give a sense of how the past is both similar to and different from the present. We always consider the questions, "How is this similar to today?" and "In what ways are these issues still affecting our society?" also, "Is our culture really different or have these driving forces just manifested themselves differently?"

Ultimately we still turn to respected historical resources for information and analysis. After doing so much of our own research these texts provide real benefit. The student can discern from what viewpoint the text has been written and can evaluate which information has the most value. The study of history becomes the study of our lives and our predecessors, and as such, the study of history becomes indispensable to our study of humanity.

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