Remembering the Past: A Classical Approach to History
- Friday, April 18, 2014
The classical model of education relies on the skills of the Trivium—Latin for “three roads.” These three roads refer to three sets of skills that a learner employs to approach a new subject. The three roads are commonly known as Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. Many view these skills as correlating with these terms in the Bible: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Most people associate grammar strictly with the study of English or a foreign language. However, this is a misconception. All subjects have grammar. In fact, Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines grammar as the “science of vocabulary.” The study of any subject, whether it be reading, history, or nuclear physics, begins with understanding the basic vocabulary of that subject.
The Grammar of History—Accumulating Knowledge
Elementary schools in this country were formerly called grammar schools because educators had a clear understanding of starting pupils with grammar—the basics necessary in each subject. Students gave oral recitations of math facts, spelling words, and of important people, places, and dates in history. As a classical home educator, I have worked hard to recover this method of studying. Young children have an amazing capacity for memorization. Once they have amassed a large body of facts, they enjoy demonstrating their knowledge through recitation. Because young children are literal, concrete thinkers, they should begin their exposure to history by becoming familiar with the people and events that shaped history. These facts serve as the foundation for their future studies of history in-depth.
My own children and children in Classical Conversations communities across the country begin to accumulate the facts of history by memorizing major events in world history in chronological order. For example, parents who are interested in giving their young child a solid foundation in American history should begin by having them memorize the major events—from Columbus’s discovery of the New World to the tragedies that occurred on September 11, 2001. As students continue to study history in-depth, they will encounter stories about the Pilgrims, the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, and the Louisiana Purchase, and they will already have these events ordered in their mind. They will then be able to store the information in their long-term memory and retrieve it quickly because they have a built-in filing system.
Stories—Retaining the Basics
One way for students to begin building on their timeline is to fill in some of the gaps by memorizing paragraphs of historical information that describe important battles, discoveries, and peoples. If this seems like an impossible task, consider this example from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of a school exhibition in which she and a fellow student recited the whole of American history. Laura takes the first half of the recitation:
America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa in Italy, had long sought to make a voyage toward the west in order to discover a new route to India. At that time Spain was ruled by the united crowns of . . . . She told of the Spanish and the French explorers and their settlements, of the English trading companies in Virginia and Massachusetts of the Dutch who bought Manhattan and settled in the Hudson Valley . . . of the war for the independence of the thirteen new states, and of how the Constitution was written and these thirteen States united. Then, taking up the pointer, she pointed to George Washington. (Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 24)
Laura goes on to describe the War of 1812; the presidencies of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Quincy Adams; and the beginning of the settlers moving west. The repetition of these basic stories year after year ensured that students would retain a lifelong knowledge of American history. This prepared students to be good patriots and virtuous citizens who would vote wisely.
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