Chapter XVIII


A Storehouse of Ideas.—Much that has been said about the teaching of geography applies equally to that of history. Here, too, is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, should enrich the chambers of his House Beautiful with a thousand tableaux, pathetic and heroic,  and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behavior of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation. This is what the study of history should do for the child; but what is he to get out of the miserable little chronicle of feuds, battles, and death which is presented to him by way of ‘a reign’—all the more repellent because it bristles with dates? As for the dates, they never come right; the tens and units he can get, but the centuries will go astray; and how
is he to put the right events in the right reign, when, to him, one king differs from another only in number, one period from another only in date? But he blunders through with it; reads in his pleasant, chatty little history book all the reigns of all the kings, from William the Conqueror to William IV., and back to the dim days of British rule. And with what result? This: that, possibly, no way of warping the judgment of the child, of filling him with crude notions, narrow prejudices, is more successful than that of carrying him through some such course of English history; and all the more so if his little text-book be moral or religious in tone, and undertake to point the moral as well as to record the fact. Moral teaching falls, no doubt, within the province of history; but the one small volume which the child uses affords no scope for the fair and reasonable discussion upon which moral decisions should be based, nor is the child old enough to be put into the judicial attitude which such a decision supposes.

          ‘Outlines’ Mischievous.—The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn ‘outlines,’ or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, ‘the truth-teller,’ with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V.—and his victorious
army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus. If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him.

          So are most History Books written for Children.—For the matter for this intelligent teaching of history, eschew, in the first place, nearly all history books written expressly for children; and in the next place, all compendiums, outlines, abstracts whatsoever. For the abstracts, considering what part the study of history is fitted to play in the education of the child, there is not a word to be said in their favour; and as for what are called children’s books, the children of educated parents are able to understand history written with literary power, and are not attracted by the twaddle of reading-made-easy little history books. Given judicious skipping, and a good deal of the free paraphrasing mothers are so ready at, and the children may be taken through the first few volumes of a well-written, illustrated, popular history of England, say as far as the Tudors. In the course of such reading a good deal of questioning into them, and questioning out of them, will be necessary, both to secure their attention and to fix the facts. This is the least that should be done; but better than this would be fuller information, more graphic details about two or three early epochs.

          Early History of a Nation best fitted for Children.—The early history of a nation is far better
fitted than its later records for the study of children, because the story moves on a few broad, simple lines; while statesmanship, so far as it exists, is no more than the efforts of a resourceful mind to cope with circumstances. Mr Freeman has provided interesting early English history for children; but is it not on the whole better to take them straight to the fountain-head, where possible? In these early years, while there are no examinations ahead, and the children may yet go leisurely, let them get the spirit of history into them by reading, at least one old Chronicle written by a man who saw and knew something of what he wrote about, and did not get it at second-hand. These old books are easier and pleasanter reading than most modern works on history, because the writers know little of the ‘dignity of history’; they purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you ‘all about it,’ stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child’s mind, no more than a convenient stage. A child who has been carried through a single old chronicler in this way has a better foundation for an historical training than if he knew all the dates and names and facts that ever were crammed for examination.

          Plutarch’s ‘Lives.’—In the same way, readings from Plutarch’s Lives will afford the best preparation for the study of Grecian or of Roman history. Alexander the Great is something more than a name to the child who reads this sort of thing:—
          “When the horse Bucephalus was offered in sale to Philip, at the price of thirteen talents (=£ 2518, 15s.), the king, with the prince and many others, went into the field to see some trial made of him. The horse appeared very vicious and unmanageable, and was so far from suffering himself to be mounted, that he would not bear to be spoken to, but turned fiercely upon all the grooms. Philip was displeased at their bringing him so wild and ungovernable a horse, and bade them take him away. But Alexander, who had observed him well, said, ‘What a horse are they losing for want of skill and spirit to manage him!’
          “Philip at first took no notice of this; but upon the prince’s often repeating the same expression, and showing great uneasiness, he said, ‘Young man, you find fault with your elders as if you knew more than they, or could manage the horse better.’
          “‘And I certainly could,’ answered the prince.
          “‘If you should not be able to ride him, what forfeiture will you submit to for your rashness?’
          “‘I will pay the price of the horse.’
          “Upon this all the company laughed; but the king and prince agreeing as to the forfeiture, Alexander ran to the horse, and laying hold on the bridle, turned him to the sun, for he had observed, it seems, that the
shadow which fell before the horse, and continually moved as he moved, greatly disturbed him. While his fierceness and fury lasted, he kept speaking him softly and stroking him; after which he gently let fall his mantle, leaped lightly upon his back, and got his seat very safe. Then, without pulling the reins too hard, or using either whip or spur, he set him agoing. As soon as he perceived his uneasiness abated, and that he wanted only to run, he put him in a full gallop, and pushed him on both with the voice and spur.
          “Philip and all his court were in great distress for him at first, and a profound silence took place; but when the prince had turned him and brought him safe back, they all received him with loud exclamations, except his father, who wept for joy, and kissing him, said, ‘Seek another kingdom, my son, that may be worthy of thy abilities, for Macedonia is too small for thee.’”
          Here, again, in North’s inimitable translation, we get the sort of vivid graphic presentation which makes ‘History’ as real to the child as are the adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
          To sum up, to know as much as they may about even one short period, is far better for the children than to know the ‘outlines’ of all history. And in the second place, children are quite able to take in intelligent ideas in intelligent language, and should by no means be excluded from the best that is written on the period they are about.

          Dates.—In order to give definiteness to what may soon become a pretty wide knowledge of history—mount a sheet of cartridge-paper and divide it into twenty columns, letting the first century of the Christian era come in the middle, and let each remaining column represent a century b.c. or a.d., as the case may be.
          Then let the child himself write, or print, as he is able, the names of the people he comes upon in due order, in their proper century. We need not trouble ourselves at present with more exact dates, but this simple table of the centuries will suggest a graphic panorama to the child’s mind, and he will see events in their time-order.

          Illustrations by the Children.—History readings afford admirable material for narration, and children enjoy narrating what they have read or heard. They love, too, to make illustrations. Children who had been reading Julius Cæsar (and also, Plutarch’s Life), were asked to make a picture of their favourite scene, and the results showed the extraordinary power of visualising which the little people possess. Of course that which they visualise, or imagine clearly, they know; it is a life possession.
          The drawings of the children in question are psychologically interesting as showing what various and sometimes obscure points appeal to the mind of a child; and also, that children have the same intellectual pleasure as persons of cultivated mind in working out new hints and suggestions. The drawings, be it said, leave much to be desired, but they have this in common with the art of primitive peoples: they tell the tale directly and vividly. A girl of nine and a half pictures Julius Cæsar conquering Britain. He rides in a chariot mounted on scythes, he is robed
in blue, and bits of blue sky here and there give the complementary colour. In the distance, a soldier plants the ensign bearing the Roman eagle, black on a pink ground! In the foreground, is a hand-to-hand combat between Roman and Briton, each having a sword of enormous length. Other figures are variously employed.
          Another, gives us Antony ‘making his speech after the death of Cæsar.’ This girl, who is older, gives us architecture; you look through an arch, which leads into a side street, and, in the foreground, Antony stands on a platform at the head of a flight of marble steps. Antony’s attitude expresses indignation and scorn. Below, is a crowd of Romans wearing the toga, whose attitudes show various shades of consternation and dismay. Behind, is Antony’s servant in uniform, holding his master’s horse; and on the platform, in the rear of Antony, lies Cæsar, with the royal purple thrown over him. The chief value the drawing, as a drawing, is that it tells the tale.
          Another girl draws Calpurnia begging Cæsar begging Cæsar not to go to the Senate. Cæsar stands armed and perturbed, while Calpurnia holds his outstretched hand with both of hers as she kneels before him, her face raised in entreaty; her loose blue night-robe and long golden hair give colour to the picture. This artist is fourteen, and the drawing is better done.
          Another artist presents Brutus and Portia in the orchard with a ‘south-wall’ of red brick, espaliers, and two dignified figures which hardly tell their tale.
          Another child gives us the scene in the forum, Cæsar seated in royal purple, Brutus kneeling before him, and Casca standing behind his chair with out-stretched hand holding a dagger, saying “Speak,
hands, for me,” while Cæsar says, “Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?”
          Again, we get Lucius playing to Brutus in the tent. Brutus, armed cap-à-pie, seated on a stool, is vainly trying to read, while Lucius, a pretty figure, seated before him, plays the harp. The two sentries, also fully armed, are stretched on the floor sound asleep.
          Another, gives us Claudius dressed as a woman at the women’s festival—the ladies with remarkable eyes, and each carrying a flaming torch.
          Another, pictures, with great spirit, Cæsar reading his history to the conquered Gauls, who stand in rows on the hillside listening to the great man with exemplary patience.
          In these original illustrations (several of them by older children than those we have in view here), we get an example of the various images that present themselves to the minds of children during the reading of a great work; and a single such glimpse into a child’s mind convinces us of the importance of sustaining that mind upon strong meat. Imagination does not stir at the suggestion of the feeble, much-diluted stuff that is too often put into children’s hands.

          ‘Playing at’ History.—Children have other ways of expressing the conceptions that fill them when they are duly fed. They play at their history lessons, dress up, make tableaux, act scenes; or they have a stage, and their dolls act, while they paint the scenery and speak the speeches. There is no end to the modes of expression children find when there is anything in them to express.
          The mistake we make is to suppose that imagination is fed by nature, or that it works on the insipid diet of children’s story-books. Let a child have the
meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers round this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours; the child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint.

[1]See Appendix A.

[2] Bohn’s Antiquarian Library (5s. a volume) includes Bede, William of Malmesbury, Dr Gile’s Six Old English Chronicles—Asser and Geoffrey of Monmouth being two of them—Chronicles of the Crusaders, etc.

[3] See Appendix A.

[4] See Appendix A.

[5] See Appendix A.

[6] See Appendix A.

[7] See Appendix A.

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