Perhaps the main part of a child’s education should be concerned with the great human relationships.
Vol. 3, p. 234
. . . 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.
Vol. 1, p. 279
The teaching of history using Charlotte Mason’s methods makes much sense. It was her desire to put children in touch with great minds from different centuries. We use historical fiction in many of our classes in the hopes that students will form relationships with a character from each time period and see the era being studied from a human point of view.
What is not so easy is choosing the literature. I have become more aware recently of what we teach and how we teach it, by two occurrences. The first was a conference that I had with parents who have three boys in our school. Though they have a general sense of the curriculum, they were simply curious about all the materials we use, and wanted to know the perspective the authors take, and in particular, how African history is taught and how much time is given to it. They were all fair questions, so I sat down with them one day and showed them the books we use and gave them sample syllabi for various age levels, to give them a sense of what we do. I humbly asked for their input and assured them that we ask these same questions all the time, and try to improve by seeking out the best books on every subject, especially ones that celebrate our African- American students’ culture and history. The parents were pleasantly surprised about many of the materials, but the discussion also moved to music and composer study, and we talked about the possibility of including different genres of music in our program. We already include black composers, such as William Grant Still and Duke Ellington, and we study folk, blues, and jazz, but of course, the majority of our composers are white European men. We don’t study hip-hop, and so I admitted that I would have to study it myself in order to teach about it. I told them that I had known nothing about most of the composers we teach when we started, and it is part of our philosophy that as lifelong learners, we sometimes learn right along with the children.
The discussion with these thoughtful, concerned people forced me to look at all aspects of our curriculum to see where we might broaden the horizons of our students: “to set their feet in a large room.”
The second experience that I had related to this subject was a trip to the Holy Land. It was led by a retired pastor couple, who named it: In the Light of Jesus- A Pilgrimage. As we traveled to many sites in Israel and searched the Scriptures about each one, and heard excellent historical and biblical teaching, it was life-giving and transforming. However, it was impossible to ignore the present day reality in the country. Our leaders were very sensitive to the Muslim Palestinian population there, and we also listened to the perspective of some Christian Palestinians. I picked up a book co-written by a Palestinian Christian and a Jewish woman who lead a reconciliation ministry there, Salim Munayer and Lisa Loden, titled Through My Enemy’s Eyes. The book speaks of the difficulty of separating the academic study of the human past (history) with the story a group tells about itself (narrative). They write:
Balance is needed. While it is true that narrative shapes history, affirming the distinction between the two is still valuable. Not all canonical history represents the fraudulent narratives of the victors over and against the silenced voices of the vanquished. History and narrative, working together, serve a larger purpose in human meaning. They simultaneously inform and are informed by each other. Indeed, there could be no real history without narrative, just as there could be no narrative without history. They are separate but intertwined. Imagine history without narrative. It would be comprised of statistics and graphs, without a connecting story that would give those facts coherency and meaning. Similarly, narrative without historical input lacks an accounting in the wider world; the story, while resonant with meaning, might not reflect reality. ¹
Meeting with parents, reading this book, and visiting the Holy Land caused me to look even more closely at our book selections and curriculum.
When choosing materials for the students to study, we are often faced with the reality of the changing perspective of authors over time. We can read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but, while enjoying Mark Twain’s writing style and humor, must teach them from the perspective of the author’s point of view and the culture of the 19th century. We look with a critical eye at books that once did not offend. An example is the book They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson. The book has been revised several times because of racially-insensitive references and illustrations. Did Robert Lawson have the right to write about his ancestors? Of course. But should the book be given accolades in spite of its portrayal of Indians and black characters? It was given the Caldecott medal for its illustrations in 1941. Obviously, very few people were questioning the book’s content in that time period. However, many people take issue with it now. Jean Mendoza, on the blog “American Indians in Children’s Literature”, asks, ‘At what point might an author, an illustrator, a publisher, a librarian, a teacher have a responsibility to say no to what’s in a book in the interest of “doing no harm” to the child reader? Always, sometimes, never? And then, what constitutes “harm”. . . .²
How do Native American or First Nations children feel when their ancestors are referred to as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence? The answer has to be that we treat it as what it is—a historical document, and not the Constitution or a statement of how their people are to be treated now. It is important to include Native American voices in our study of history. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe, states:
Native populations in America are not “ethnic” populations; they are not “minority” populations, neither immigrant nor tourist, nor “people of color.” They are the indigenous peoples of this continent. They are landlords, with very special political and cultural status in the realm of American identity and citizenship. Since 1924, they have possessed dual citizenship, tribal and U.S., and are the only population that has not been required to deny their previous national citizenship in order to possess U.S. citizenship. They are known and documented as citizens by their tribal nations.³
I have a personal interest in reading about Tecumseh, the Shawnee warrior who tried to unite the different tribes to fight against Americans who did not keep treaties and continually pushed Native Americans out of their lands. He walked right here in what is now Michigan, aiding the British in capturing the fort of Detroit. His speeches were recorded and are valuable resources for teaching students about the history of this area.
There are many more books being written today that portray characters of many colors in a joyful, but ordinary way. It is incumbent upon us to introduce children to all of the variety of people in the world, to help them see people who look like them on the pages of books. Many books that have been around for some time already attempt to portray the struggle for equality, and I always wrestle with the question of at what age to introduce painful topics. However, more books written today have joyful, well-loved characters of all races. Bonnie, our 1st grade teacher, searched tirelessly for good books for her primary students. One favorite has been the Anna Hibiscus stories about life in West Africa.
Reading about our own country’s history requires looking for books that do not shy away from the realities of our country’s founding, and the struggle for civil rights for citizens, but that also celebrate the fact that the founding fathers were doing something that had never been done before. We use Joy Hakim’s A History of Us. We look at pictures, from the Smithsonian collection, of separate water fountains and restrooms, and talk about how things were. But most of all, we try to include narratives and primary documents from the conquered peoples, the enslaved peoples, so that students see that their people had a history, and had eloquent people who spoke for them. My husband and I sat our children down when they were in middle school and we all watched the documentary, “Eyes on the Prize”⁴ together. We wanted our children to know – really know- the history of Miss Ethel, their surrogate grandmother from our Detroit church, who grew up in South Carolina and experienced every form of abuse and humiliation you can conceive.
Such documentaries that give first-person accounts that counteract some of the misconceptions that we have about a time period can be helpful. With parents’ permission, I have shown portions of “Eyes on the Prize” to the upper grade history students. One boy, in his narration, stated that he never understood the scope of the civil rights movement before watching the documentary. “I thought the whole thing was a disagreement about water fountains,” he said, even though we had read literature about Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
University of Michigan professor, Tiya Miles, has uncovered documentation recently that points to the fact that slavery existed in Detroit in its founding years.⁵ This information is changing our city’s story as truths which were hidden come to light.
If you look at the history of the American Revolution, you can see that even some of the terms and expressions we use in telling it are taken from propaganda and inflammatory speech of the time. The Boston Massacre was called so by revolutionaries who wanted to gain sympathy for their cause. However, many of the massacres of Indians were described as “battles”, such as at Wounded Knee in 1890.
As I am learning from the Munayer/Loden book, it is important to listen to the narratives of the people who were or are on both sides of a historical narrative. In our teaching of history, we are obliged to give a voice to all sides, that we may instill in the student “principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behavior of nations, and will rule his own.”
© 2018 Therese Racklyeft