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Remembering the Past: A Classical Approach to History

Remembering the Past: A Classical Approach to History

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.

Chronology—Memorizing Timelines

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.

The Dialectic of History—Understanding the Past  

As students mature, they develop a desire to know more than just the facts and the stories. Older students want to understand historical events. Students aged 12 to 14 naturally want to know how the Americans were able to defeat the British despite the overwhelming odds in favor of the British (more money, more weapons, trained soldiers and generals, etc.). They will want to understand why countries around the world entered into World War I and how the postwar treaties laid the groundwork for the future conflict during World War II. In the grammar stage, students accumulated the basic facts. Now, they can build on those facts by reading about specific events in greater depth. They can engage in debates with their classmates about the pros and cons of historical policies and programs such as President Wilson’s League of Nations. As they attempt to understand conflicts, their understanding of geography will prove an invaluable asset. Discussing history with family members and peers, debating policies and current events, and writing essays about historical events are the skills that dialectic students must practice as they seek a deeper understanding of history.

The Rhetoric of History—Applying Wisdom to the Future

One of my passions with older students—both my own children and the students I tutor—is to recover a right understanding of history by reading original source documents. Younger children can read interesting stories about the hardships of the Pilgrims; older students should read The Mayflower Compact and Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation. Students should read about the Civil War, but they should also read the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. These primary sources not only give students a deeper and more accurate picture of historical events, but they also are an excellent introduction to speaking and writing with style. Using the classical approach, the study of history can impact the road to the future by helping students learn to make wise decisions, develop leadership qualities, and become virtuous citizens who are capable of self-government.

Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide. She lives with her family in West End, North Carolina. To learn more, visit her website or her blog.

Copyright 2012, used with permission.  All rights reserved by author.  Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.  Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: April 18, 2014