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Thoughts on "The Informal Teaching of History"

As I republish articles of interest from The Parents' Review, which can be found at the Internet Archive, I hope to post my thoughts about each article here on this blog. Please feel free to share your thoughts as well in the comments section below.

My third article, titled "The Informal Teaching of History" by H. Johnstone, explored the topic of the informal teaching of history and what role it should play in the education of children. While I did not always agree with the way he presented his arguments, I did agree with the general premise of his points and I definitely felt that there were some valuable gems to be taken from it.

Much of what might be considered the problems or "dangers" in teaching history informally has more to do with the presenter or teacher rather than from the subject, the act of teaching or the child's interests. From my perspective, I felt that his dismissiveness of exposing children to inaccuracies in history informally taught was really more concentrated on the idea that one should not focus on the inaccuracy at the risk of losing or maintaining the child's interest. One should not be deliberately inaccurate or misleading. I do think that his attachment of the word "unimportant" to those dismissals may contribute to making some readers a bit uncomfortable. While you may not wish to disrupt the joy of the story or the event by overly concentrating on exactness of fact, you also should not allow your student to think that all great men (and women) throughout history were perfect. It should be clear that these historical people often contributed to many of the darker events and ideas throughout the course of it, but, again, not at the expense of presenting history as a dark and ugly subject. A balance between giving children heroes, but yet not inhuman ones must be struck.

...Inaccuracy of details, which we have dismissed as unimportant, provided the attitude of infallibility be avoided...(Johnstone)

Another important danger to the informal teaching of history is in causing a child distress by forcing the instruction upon her, assuming that the topic must be made more "interesting" or requiring the child to express what they have learned by means that are stressful or meaningless. We should assume that a child will want to take in the history learned by his own efforts and thereby make his own connections.

All informal teaching should be opportune, not thrust down a child’s throat when he is longing to play or make first-hand investigations for himself, and one should not attempt to ascertain how much a child has carried away from a given piece of instruction; what you have told him he will tell over to his nurse or his younger brother, but not so willingly to you; the promise is that the bread cast upon the waters shall be found “after many days.”(Johnstone)

While these may be concerns, they are not dangerous and there is much to gained from the informal teaching of history. His list of how to teach history informally is filled with examples that relay to the reader that one should experience history with their children; it should be a living, breathing part of our life with them. Just as we wish to impart wonder and delight in the natural world to build their interests in science and nature study, we should also impart the fascination and joy in learning about the people in our world before us.

He suggests that children visit or experience:

  • stories read to them or by them

  • churches, bridges, monuments, statues and more (museums too)

  • a study of artifacts, weapons, armor, objects of specific eras, paintings

  • plays (even the historically inaccurate plays by Shakespeare)

  • local historical places and travel, when possible, to places further away

  • commemorative events and parades, especially of and for notable people

  • the singing or listening to of folk songs, patriotic songs and poetry

  • combine as many of the above suggestions as possible

Here are a couple of quotes that I found striking:

Scott was doubtless right in deprecating the attempt always to “write down” or “talk down” to the capacity of children, who understand more than we think and remember more than they understand; such memories become valuable later on (Johnstone).

...give their dates, not in figures, but by association with known persons-the method of Pausanias: “that church was built in Walter Scott’s time”; “this house when your grandfather was a school boy”; “this bridge twenty years ago; a hundred years ago it could not have been built” (Johnstone).

...the weighing of historical evidence comes later (Johnstone)

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