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Teaching History the Classical Way

Updated on December 23, 2008
Photo by giopuo
Photo by giopuo

There are two things that I have NEVER understood about the American system of history education: first, why we wait so long to introduce history in anything resembling consistent fashion, and second, why we use such godawful textbooks to do it! It's no wonder history is widely considered the most boring subject on the planet by many students, and even college graduates are routinely incapable of placing, for example, the American Civil War in its correct 50-year period.

I prefer the classical method of history education, known as the trivium, which is based on medieval European theories of education and which has been advocated more recently by Dorothy Sayers, Susan Wise Bauer, and others. A real classical education teaches a lot more subjects than just history, but for this article I'll be focusing on how the principles of the trivium relate specifically to history education. The ideas in this article should be useful for homeschoolers, afterschoolers, and traditional educators alike. 

The classical trivium is divided into three stages: the grammar stage, the dialectic (or logic) stage, and the rhetoric stage.

Joan of Arc, Photo by pwbaker
Joan of Arc, Photo by pwbaker

The Grammar Stage

The grammar stage begins around the age of six, or even before, and focuses on filling young heads with as much information as possible. Considering that young children have minds like sponges, this is easy to do. This is the age to focus more on the boring names and dates side of history, because it's an age when children are most receptive to simple memorization. However, it should ideally be presented not as a dry list of things to know, but in the form of fun mnemonic devices, like the old rhyme "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," and of stories.

History is, in fact, one long story, and if it were only presented as such in schools rather than as, in the blunt words of a character in the popular play The History Boys, "just one f****** thing after another," I think many more people would enjoy the subject.

The grammar stage is an excellent time to focus on the lives of great heroes, heroines, and villains of the past. There are many, many excellent retellings of events in the lives of these great men and women available for the younger grades and they are a sure way to catch the attention of an age group that loves a thrilling story yet might still see the world in shades a bit more black and white than most adults and older children. My Squidoo lens History is a Story: Teaching History the Interesting Way offers an extensive list of biographies, historical fiction novels, and other historical materials from all eras and for all reading levels that my homeschool family found useful. I also highly recommend Greenleaf Press as a resource for history teachers, especially in the grammar stage. Though Greenleaf is Christian in philosophy, they offer a wide range of materials suitable for secular students as well. (Prehistory being a significant exception, as you would expect.)

Along with exciting biographies and historical fiction, the grammar stage is a great time to begin a timeline. Timelines are important because they help children make visual connections between events. My family purchased ours, but they are easy to make from scratch as well. Our timeline came with a large number of important figures already made, but we used these as a template to create our own whenever we learned about a new person or event. As we got older, our figures grew more and more elaborate, as we pored over historical and ethnic costume books looking for period inspiration. Eventually, my brother, sister, and I even organized an annual Oscars-like award ceremony for the best costumes, hats, shoes, hairdos, and more, as well as the most efficiently informative.

Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph

The Dialectic Stage

The dialectic stage begins anywhere from fourth to sixth or seventh grades, when children's powers of analysis are developing further and they can begin to look deeper into the whys and what-ifs of the story they've been piecing together in their heads for the last few years, and to examine more closely the connections between events, and how history builds on itself. At the beginning of the dialectic stage, a child might know that bad King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. She might know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the Constitution adopted in 1787. By the end, she'll be able to explain a bit more clearly why each of those events happened, and how they're connected.

The dialectic stage works by asking questions, seeking alternative viewpoints, and making connections. It is a good time to begin offering more in-depth materials, with greater shades of gray.

Edward Gibbon, historian of strong opinions
Edward Gibbon, historian of strong opinions

The Rhetoric Stage

Finally, the rhetoric stage, which begins around 9th grade, asks children to synthesize what they have learned and be able to create logical arguments and analysis.

The rhetoric stage depends very heavily on writing and speaking. Children learn to express their opinions and analysis with fluency, efficiency, and, hopefully, grace. Their skill in research, analysis, logical argument, and self-expression deepen and strengthen.

Primary sources and the study of the "Great Books" of the Western Canon and the world are the basis of history in the rhetoric stage.

Another fun thing suitable to try in the rhetoric stage (and for particularly advanced or creative dialectic students) is "alternative history." By the rhetoric stage, students should have a broad basis of knowledge in history, the ability to view it holistically, that is, to see connections between events that might not be clear to the casual observer, and the ability to analyze and extrapolate from their knowledge. Alternative history is a great way to put these skills together and do a little storytelling to boot. Basically, alternative history takes a "what-if" scenario, for example, "what if the South won the Civil War?" and tries to figure out how the world would be different. These can range from simple to incredibly complex and far reaching. For examples, I recommend visiting the AltHistory Wikia, which contains many people's alternative history projects. One of my personal favorites is the elaborate "Vegetarian World" project, in which the Cathars survive the Crusades and India becomes a major world power.


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      WildIris 8 years ago

      I am so glad I stumbled on this Hub. I agree, the way history is taught in American schools as a smorgasbord offering without presenting facts in a linear fashion leaves students wondering which came first the American revolution or the French revolution. The links you've included are an invaluable resource. Thank you.

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      JohnBee 9 years ago

      Great article!