Critics of traditional American education have correctly observed that it focuses on the same 200 years of American history every year in K-8, and covers all the rest of the 6000 years of human history in one year of high school. Clearly this is a plan that has produced generation after generation of historically illiterate adults.
Classical education, however, has brought back history with a vengeance! In fact, classical educators have been at the forefront of reforming the history curriculum, emphasizing these principles:
• History should be taught chronologically and emphasize all of human history rather than just American history.
• History should be taught using real books and biographies.
A typical classical history curriculum might look something like this:
Grade 1: Old Testament and Egypt
Grade 2: Greece and Rome
Grade 3: Middle Ages
Grade 4: Renaissance and Reformation
Grade 5: American and the Modern World
Parents and teachers can see the order in this plan and are inspired to think that their children and students might develop an understanding of the flow of history that they themselves probably never achieved.
And they often come to us and ask why our curriculum, as shown below, is not in strict chronological order:
Grade 1-2: Stories from the Bible and American history
Grade 3: Old Testament and Greek myths
Grade 4: Old Testament and Famous Men of Rome
Grade 5: New Testament and Famous Men of the Middle Ages
Grade 6: Ancient history review and Famous Men of Greece
To the question “Why don’t you teach history chronologically?” we always answer, “We do!” Every text and study guide we publish, whether on Rome, Greece, or the Middle Ages, teaches the history of that era chronologically. And if you are teaching a survey course of world history in one year, which is often done in high school and college, then we certainly would recommend that you teach all the eras of history in chronological order.
But if you are teaching different eras of history in different years, then there are other considerations that can take precedence over chronology. To answer the question of why we teach some eras of history out of order from year to year, I will start with our curriculum suggestions for grades 1-2 in this article, and finish with grades 3-6 in a subsequent article.
To design the Highlands Latin School/Memoria Press history scope and sequence, we have added the following two principles to the ones already listed:
Principle #1: Students in the early grades are not developmentally ready to learn history chronologically. Indeed, the study of history at this age consists of reading or listening to interesting stories from the past about important people and events, and building up mental pictures of past ages when people were pioneers or knights or Roman soldiers, or when people built railroads, pyramids, or castles.
The knowledge acquired from listening to stories from world history is valuable. But time is a very abstract concept, and the chronological relationship between the different eras of history is very weak in young students and not at all the important thing.
But you still may ask, “Even if the chronology of history is too advanced for the early grades, why not teach history in the right order anyway? Is there any compelling reason to teach another order?” And the answer is, “Yes there is.”
Principle #2: We must fit history to the child, not fit the child to history. In other words, the Order of Knowledge is not always the same as the Order of Learning. The Order of Knowledge is based on some abstract principles, such as chronology, logic, complexity, etc. The Order of Learning goes from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex. The Order of Learning must unfold the subject and reveal its underlying order in a way that the students can grasp and understand it. Another way of saying this is that content and skills must be age appropriate.
So what factors take precedence over chronology in the primary grades? Going from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the known to the unknown. We think the best choices for grades 1-2 are the two historical eras that are familiar to parents, teachers, and students – stories from the Bible and from American history. Most students come to school with a background in Bible stories from an early age, and American history is all around them.
In addition, these stories provide many more cross-curricular connections with literature, such as the Little House books, and also with reading, spelling, music, and art. The priorities in primary school are reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic. Because these skills are so important, there is little time left for secondary subjects, such as history and science. The time that is available should be devoted to content that integrates or connects with what young students are learning in other subjects.
Just because educators of the past made the mistake of teaching fluff and twaddle in K-4 and nothing but American history in K-8, this does not mean that we should over correct by teaching about Egypt, Rome, and Greece to little ones, when stories from our own American past are so much more age appropriate.
Just because world history was ignored for so long does not mean we should skip over our American past in a rush to get to the ancients. If students do not read these wonderful stories from American history in grades 1-2, when will they? When will our children make butter like Laura, or have a hoedown at Grandpa’s, or make a corncob doll? When will they read about Washington crossing the Delaware or chopping down the cherry tree? First and second graders should be allowed to be children. There is plenty of time to read about Caesar and Cicero later.
Although we do not include ancient world history in our formal school curriculum for grades 1-2, we do encourage parents who desire enrichment reading for their children, to read some of the fine storybooks of world history, such as those written by Susan Wise Bauer, and picture books published by Usborne and Dorling Kindersley.
But if you are intimidated or do not feel you have the time in your school or homeschool to study ancient history in grades 1-3, do not be concerned that you are failing to teach history chronologically. There are many stories from America’s past to fill up your available history time, and Benjamin Franklin and Kit Carson are much more age appropriate than Caesar and Cicero for this age anyway.
At Highlands Latin and Memoria Press, we recommend that students copy and memorize beautiful passages of Scripture with the Memoria Press copybooks and listen to Bible stories from your favorite Bible story book. For history we recommend Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by Edward Eggleston, and the many beautifully illustrated storybooks from American history. In addition, work with globes and maps and learn basic world geography: continents, oceans, major countries, etc. This is quite enough for the primary-age child to learn. This is a reasonable and doable curriculum for parents, teachers, and students.
Understanding the chronology of world history is an important goal. At Highlands Latin, we have developed a curriculum and timeline that we believe achieve this goal by laying a good foundation beginning in the third grade. In a subsequent article, I will explain how our scope and sequence for grades 3-6 uses age appropriate materials to help students develop an understanding of history—chronologically!
Originally Published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2008 edition.