To know God and to make Him known.

History Lessons

History is where I have learned the most about classical education—well, that and Latin, math, science, literature, and music. Every subject, I suppose, teaches us about classical education, if we study it classically. Every subject becomes an example by which we can compare our different learning experiences. If I grew up with a modern education but have had the opportunity to homeschool my children with a classical education, I can learn something about classical education through comparison. As I have compared my own study of history to the way my children study it, I have learned some things about the classical approach to history, but what?

I learned to integrate. When my daughter was in Foundations, I would overhear her memorizing the history timeline and sentences. Once, I heard her say something about the prophet Isaiah being born and the Roman Empire being founded around the same time period. I was flummoxed. I had only ever thought about the Roman Empire being founded in Italy and Isaiah living in a galaxy far, far away. My brain was divided. One side had learned all of the facts about this world, while the other side had learned all of the facts about the Bible, and never the twain did meet. Listening to my daughter recite her timeline taught me that there is only one timeline, and God is the author of all of it. Deep down inside, I probably knew that, but no one had ever asked me to think about it that way, no one. This is a far greater problem than I had imagined, though.

History was only the beginning. One side of my brain had also learned about science and nature, while the other side had learned all about creation and God’s participation in it. And I had no way to even begin to make sense out of that. Again, one side had learned a specific set of -isms, while the other side had learned about truth, goodness, and beauty. Goodness, we must remember, is a conception of ethics, morality. Even my understanding of right and wrong was fragmented. I was in a constant struggle not just to do right and not wrong but also to discern right and wrong. I had to train myself to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Then I had to train myself to agree to do it. All of this happened because my study of history had taught me to compartmentalize the world’s history from the Bible’s. Once I had done that, I could very easily compartmentalize everything else, including truth, goodness, and beauty.

I learned that there is no place for “cram, test, and dump” in a classical education. Listening to my daughter recite the timeline, then comparing that with my eldest son’s history conversations in Challenge taught me this. The classical approach to history is far different from the modern approach. History was always something I simply memorized. My children memorized history facts as youngsters in order to prepare them for deeper conversations when they were older, but I was never old enough, in modern education, to have those deeper conversations. Even in high school, I simply continued to memorize facts. What happened on this date? What happened in this city? What did this person do? Who was the sixteenth president of the United States? Even in college, my professors didn’t engage me in deeper conversations. Sure, we moved beyond merely memorizing facts, insofar as my professor gave me opinions about historical people and events, but now I was simply being tasked with memorizing his opinions. In high school, I crammed historical facts, tested on them, and dumped to make room for the next round of facts. In college, I crammed my professor’s opinions, tested on them, and dumped to make room for more of his opinions. The best thing about this process was that I had already learned to dump the opinions he was imposing on me.

I learned that modern education has reversed the classical model. It wants little children to practice creative writing and wants older children to memorize facts and opinions. What it misses, and what classical educators knew, is that memoria (that body of knowledge we carry around in our memories) is the mother of the muses, of creativity. It is from our memoria that we draw out ideas and truths. Then we embark on the task of creative writing. This is where the study of history becomes a true study of history. We add the stories of history to our memoria in order to discover truths and judge the events.

I learned that history and music should be studied together. In classical education, history is connected to the Quadrivium art of harmony by this very idea. In the Quadrivium, harmony is the study of music because music is harmony. Regular interaction with harmony teaches us that harmony is possible, that harmony is desirable, that harmony is worthy of pursuit. Continued interaction with harmony begins to actually harmonize our souls. The ordered, harmonized soul desires to live an ordered, harmonious life with God, with self, with creation, and with neighbor.

When a child has been taught that harmony is possible and desirable and has had his soul ordered by harmony, he can then study history, looking back at all of the history he has memorized, and judge it for its harmony or lack thereof. We often hear the refrain, “He who has not studied history is doomed to repeat it,” but simply knowing the events of history is not enough to prevent that. We must also be able to judge whether a particular event in history is an example of harmony or discord. If it is an example of harmonious living, why? If it is an example of discordant living, why?

This is where I’ve learned so much about classical education. History is not a mere collection of facts and opinions that I memorize so I can do well on a test, whether it is a test for a high school teacher, a college professor, a CLEP, or an SAT II. History teaches me how live in harmony with others by its examples, positive and negative. To learn from this, though, I need to understand harmony and discord and I need to ask of history whether its examples are of harmony or discord. A modern study of history is like memorizing a pop song simply because it is catchy. A classical study of history is like listening to a Bach piece in order to hear the harmony, the resolution, and the motif.

Classical education is an education that is integrated, seeing the subjects as unique but also as interconnected. Christian education is an education that embraces God as the unifying principle of all knowledge: physical, historical, true, good, and beautiful. Classical, Christian education is an education that trains people not only to be free, through the liberal (liberating) arts, but also to live in harmony with God, self, creation, and neighbor. This is what I want for my children more than any perfect test score: the ability to live free, harmonious lives.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Homeschooling Life, Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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