Fiddling While Rome Learns
It is not surprising to hear that our nation’s children are performing low on history proficiency tests. Our educational system has set us up for that result. For many years, the focus in elementary schools has been on math and language arts because the state testing standards hold the most weight in those subject areas. As a result, schools and teachers have made history a low priority beginning in the foundational years of elementary school. But this is only the beginning of the problem.
History has been replaced by social studies during the foundational years of elementary school. Social studies deals with the social aspects of our society, focusing on community and citizenship. Instead of using these foundational years to develop a strong understanding of our history, we focus more on our current society and culture.
When history is taught in schools, namely in the later middle school and high school years, it is taught through limited means, focusing only on certain key historical figures and events and addressing issues through the lens of our current culture. Our attitude toward our nation’s history these days is a negative one that dwells on the mistakes of our past. We take less pride in our nation’s historical accomplishments and put an emphasis on its shortcomings.
The result of this approach is disappointing. We shun our past and attempt to erase any negative reminders of that past by tearing down statues and changing the names of buildings. This selective approach to history not only limits us in our understanding of our past, but creates in us a resentment of it.
Our nation is losing its memory and, as a result, we are losing our future. Our future comes from our past, both our successes and our failures. When we minimize what we teach in history and ignore parts of our past, we do not have the means to lay a proper foundation for our future based on the experiences of our past. We do not see the full picture or understand both sides of each story to help us to fully interpret what happened and why. We have a divided approach to history and, therefore, we lack the benefits of a shared history.
In his essay "On History," President John F. Kennedy wrote, “History, after all, is the memory of a nation. Just as memory enables the individual to learn, to choose goals and stick to them, to avoid making the same mistake twice—in short, to grow—so history is the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose. The future arises out of the past, and a country’s history is a statement of the values and hopes which, having forged what has gone before, will now forecast what is to come.” We learn the collective history of our nation because it helps us to understand the timeline of events that lead us to our present and continues to pave the way for our future.
Our classical Lutheran education at MLS does not follow the common educational approach. Instead of social studies, we thoroughly teach history from kindergarten to eighth grade. We begin with our nation’s history in kindergarten, setting the timeline of events of our country from before its beginnings to the present. The students at this age drink up all of the knowledge they learn about historical people and events of our country and are excited and curious as they learn about them. They discover common traits of some of our great leaders and learn about both accomplishments and losses in our nation’s history. They learn about symbols and monuments that were created to honor our nation and its leaders.
In first through fourth grade, our students study history from the beginning of time to the present, establishing a timeline of events, incorporating the geography of places where these events occurred, and gathering information about people and events significant to each of the time periods. We continue to set the foundation of both our nation’s history and the history of the world through these formative years through a gathering of knowledge.
By the time this foundation is set by middle school, our students are ready to take what they have learned to the next level. Understanding the timeline of events and drawing from their knowledge of history, students at the logic level study history through a variety of ways. Through the use of primary sources, they delve into the writings and thoughts of different leaders of a particular period of history. Rather than a textbook, students choose a variety of sources on the different topics being studied and research these events, eventually writing about them.
As our students continue to study history and discover our rich past, they are better able to understand the workings of their world and make connections between current events and events of our past. The study of history helps to preserve our nation’s memory and provide an account of our past, an understanding of our present, and a direction for our future.
*This blog is inspired by “A Nation with No Memory Has No Future” by Joseph Pearce, The Imaginative Conservative, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/01/nation-with-no-memory-has-no-future-joseph-pearce.html, and “On History” by President John F. Kennedy, American Heritage, https://www.americanheritage.com/history.