School and Society

Chapter 8: The Aim of History in Elementary Education

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If history be regarded as just the record of the past, it is hard to see any grounds for claiming that it should play any large rôle in the curriculum of elementary education. The past is the past, and the dead may be safely left to bury its dead. There are too many urgent demands in the present, too many calls over the threshold of the future, to permit the child to become deeply immersed in what is forever gone by. Not so when history is considered as an account of the forces and forms of social life. Social life we have always with us; the distinction of past and present is indifferent to it. Whether it was lived just here or just there is a matter of slight moment. It is life for all that; it shows the motives which draw men together and push them apart, and depicts what is desirable and what is hurtful. Whatever history may be for the scientific historian, for the educator it must be an indirect sociology-a study of society which lays bare its process of becoming and its modes of organization. Existing society is both too complex and too close to the child to be studied.. He finds no clues into its labyrinth of detail and can

(156) mount no eminence whence to get a perspective of arrangement.

If the aim of historical instruction is to enable the child to appreciate the values of social life, to see in imagination the forces which favor and let men's effective co-operation with one another, to understand the sorts of character that help on and that hold back, the essential thing in its presentation is to make it moving, dynamic. History must be presented, not as an accumulation of results or effects, a mere statement of what happened, but as a forceful, acting thing. The motives-that is, the motors-must stand out. To study history is not to amass information, but to use information in constructing a vivid picture of how and why men did thus and so; achieved their successes and came to their failures.

When history is conceived as dynamic, as moving, its economic and industrial aspects are emphasized. These are but technical terms which express the problem with which humanity is unceasingly engaged; how to live, how to master and use nature so as to make it tributary to the enrichment of human life. The great advances in civilization have come through those manifestations of intelligence which have lifted man from his precarious subjection to nature, and revealed to him how he may make its forces co-operate with his own purposes. The social world in which the child now

(157) lives is so rich and full that it is not easy to see how much it cost, how much effort and thought lie back of it. Man has a tremendous equipment ready at hand. The child may be led to translate these ready-made resources into fluid terms; he may be led to see man face to face with nature, without inherited capital, without tools, without manufactured materials. And, step by step, he may follow the processes by which man recognized the needs of his situation, thought out the weapons and instruments that enable him to cope with them; and may learn how these new resources opened new horizons of growth and created new problems. The industrial history of man is not a materialistic or merely utilitarian affair. It is a matter of intelligence. Its record is the record of how man learned to think, to think to some effect, to transform the conditions of life so that life itself became a different thing. It is an ethical record as well; the account of the conditions which men have patiently wrought out to serve their ends.

The question of how human beings live, indeed, represents the dominant interest with which the child approaches historic material. It is this point of view which brings those who worked in the past close to the beings with whom he is daily associated, and Confer, upon him the gift of sympathetic penetration.


The child who is interested in the way in which men lived, the tools they had to do with, the new inventions they made, the transformations of life that arose from the power and leisure thus gained, is eager to repeat like processes in his own action, to remake utensils, to reproduce processes, to rehandle materials. Since he understands their problems and their successes only by seeing what obstacles and what resources they had from nature, the child is interested in field and forest, ocean and mountain, plant and animal. By building up a conception of the natural environment in which lived the people he is studying, he gets his hold upon their lives. This reproduction he cannot make excepting as he gains acquaintance with the natural forces and forms with which he is himself surrounded. The interest in history gives a more human coloring, a wider significance, to his own study of nature. His knowledge of nature lends point and accuracy to his study of history. This is the natural "correlation" of history and science.

This same end, a deepening appreciation of social life, decides the place of the biographic element in historical instruction. That historical material appeals to the child most completely and vividly when presented in individual form, when summed up in the lives and deeds of some heroic character, there can be no doubt. Yet it is possible to use biographies so that they become a collection of

(159) mere stories, interesting, possibly, to the point of sensationalism, but yet bringing the child no nearer to comprehension of social life. This happens when the individual who is the hero of the tale is isolated from his social environment; when the child is not brought to feel the social situations which evoked his acts and the social progress to which his deeds contributed. If biography is presented as a dramatic summary of social needs and achievements, if the child's imagination pictures the social defects and problems that clamored for the man and the ways in which the individual met the emergency, then the biography is an organ of social study.'

A consciousness of the social aim of history prevents any tendency to swamp history in myth, fairy story, and merely literary renderings. I cannot avoid the feeling that much as the Herbartian school has done to enrich the elementary curriculum in the direction of history, it has often inverted the true relationship existing between history and literature. In a certain sense the motif of American colonial history and of De Foe's Robinson Crusoe are the same. Both represent man who has achieved civilization, who has attained a certain maturity of thought, who has developed ideals and means of action, but suddenly thrown back upon his own resources, having to cope with a raw and often hostile nature, and to

(160) regain success by sheer intelligence, energy, and persistence of character. But when Robinson Crusoe supplies the material for the curriculum of the third- or fourth-grade child, are we not putting the cart before the horse? Why not give the child the reality with its much larger sweep, its intenser forces, its more vivid and lasting value for life, using the Robinson Crusoe as an imaginative idealization in a particular case of the same sort of problems and activities ? Again, whatever may be the worth of the study of savage life in general, and of the North American Indians in particular, why should that be approached circuitously through the medium of Hiawatha, instead of at first hand ? employing indeed the poem to furnish the idealized and culminating touches to a series of conditions and struggles which the child has previously realized in more specific form. Either the life of the Indian presents some permanent questions and factors in social life, or it has next to no place in a scheme of instruction. If it has such a value, this should be made to stand out on its own account, instead of being lost in the very refinement and beauty of a purely literary presentation.

The same end, the understanding of character and social relations in their natural dependence, enables us, I think, to decide upon the importance to be attached to chronological order in historical instruction. Considerable stress has of late been

(161) laid upon the supposed necessity of following the development of civilization through the successive steps in which it actually took place-beginning with the valleys of the Euphrates and the Nile, and coming on down through Greece, Rome, etc. The point urged is that the present depends upon the past and each phase of the past upon a prier past.

We are here introduced to a conflict between the logical and psychological interpretation of history. If the aim be an appreciation of what social life is and how it goes on, then, certainly, the child must deal with what is near in spirit, not with the remote. The difficulty with the Babylonian or Egyptian life is not so much its remoteness in time, as its remoteness from the present interests and aims of social life. It does not simplify enough and does not generalize enough; or, at least, it does not do so in the right way. It does it by omission of what is significant now, rather than by presenting these factors arranged on a lower scale. Its salient features are hard to get at and to understand, even by the specialist. It undoubtedly presents factors which contributed to later life, and which modified the course of events in the stream of time. But the child has not arrived at a point where he can appreciate abstract causes and specialized contributions. What he needs is a picture of typical relations, conditions, and activities. In this respect, there is much of prehistoric

(162) life which is much closer to him than the complicated and artificial life of Babylon or of Egypt. When a child is capable of appreciating institutions, he is capable of seeing what special institutional idea each historic nation stands for, anal what factor it has contributed to the present complex of institutions. But this period arrives only when the child is beginning to be capable of abstracting causes in other realms as well; in other words, when he is approaching the time of secondary education.

In this general scheme three periods or phases are recognized: first comes the generalized and simplified history-history which is hardly history at all in the local or chronological cease, but which aims at giving the child insight into, and sympathy with, a variety of social activities. This period includes the work of the six-year-old children in studying typical occupations of people in the country and city at present; of the seven-year-old children in working out the evolution of inventions and their effects upon life, and of the eight-year-old children in dealing with the great movements of migration, exploration, and discovery which have brought the whole round world into human ken. The work of the first two years is evidently quite independent of any particular people or any particular person-that is, of historical data in the strict sense of the term. At the same time, plenty

(163) of scope is provided through dramatization for the introduction of the individual factor. The account of the great explorers and the discoverers serves to make the transition to what is local and specific, that which depends upon certain specified persons who lived at certain specified places and times.

This introduces us to the second period where local conditions and the definite activities of particular bodies of people become prominent — corresponding to the child's growth in power of dealing with limited and positive fact. Since Chicago, since the United States, are localities with which the child can, by the nature of the case, most effectively deal, the material of the neat three years is derived directly and indirectly from this source. Here, again, the third year is a transitional year, taking up the connections of American life with European. , By this time the child should be ready to deal, not with social life in general, or even with the social life with which he is most familiar, but with certain thoroughly differentiated and, so to speak, peculiar types of social life; with the special significance of each and the particular contribution it has made to the whole world-history. Accordingly, in the next period the chronological order is followed, beginning with the ancient world about the Mediterranean and coming down again through European history to the peculiar and differentiating factors of American history.


The program is not presented as the only one meeting the problem, but as a contribution; the outcome, not of thought, but of considerable experimenting and shifting of subjects from year to year, to the problem of giving material which takes vital hold upon the child and at the same time leads on, step by step, to more thorough and accurate knowledge of both the principles and facts of social life, and makes a preparation for later specialized historic studies.


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