Should history be a taught as a separate subject (in middle and high school)?
It seems pretty obvious to most people that the answer is ‘Yes.’ They think that history should be taught each year, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and again in college.
But some classical schools answer ‘no.’ To see why, we have to examine deep insight about knowledge that they have retained, and which affects how we view education.
To begin, consider a brief statement from Thomas Aquinas College as to why they don’t study history as a separate subject:
“The uniform curriculum of Thomas Aquinas College does not include distinct parts devoted to history and the social sciences… Histories by such writers as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tocqueville are read. However, the discussions they provoke are not limited merely to an interest in historical fact. These discussions, for example, may involve an analysis of the assumptions used by the writer in establishing and evaluating historical events. The value of reading history will always depend upon the quality of the reader’s general understanding of reality.”
I think that the argument is pretty sound that history should not be taught as its own distinct subject. It should not be taught separately from the books and artifacts in which the past survives to the present. History should be taught, of course! But it should be taught in and through other subjects.
The Basic Arguments
Pedagogically, the more proper strategy is to make sure historical thinking and historical facts are learned alongside the mathematics, the science, the philosophy, of a particular time and place.
First, because students understand the past best when they learn about a particular time and place by studying primary sources, biographies, stories, archaeological data, and secondary sources (such as contemporary historians). But such study of primary sources demands much more than mere “historical thinking”; studying the decline of the Roman Republic, for instance, requires logical thinking, worldview analysis, a working understanding of human nature, a working hypothesis about whether or not gods interfere in human affairs, and a lot of data about Rome.
A study of the Roman Republic requires knowing the purpose of the study: is our knowledge of our history supposed to evaluate our past, or simply remember it? In America, should we remember Jefferson, Washington, as heroes, as sinners, or as neutral agents? These questions are properly philosophical or abstract questions about how we can do historical inquiry. Yet having answers to them is not optional. Our answer may be a hasty assumption or a thoughtful hypothesis, but an answer we will have.
Perhaps it would help to consider a few examples of schools actually doing this:
- Example 1 – Aristoi (6-11) has a “Humane Letters” class instead of English and History
- Example 2 St Constantine (k-12) has a “Great Texts” class instead of English, and whose “history” class merely supplements and provides context for the Great Texts.
- Example 3 Escondido Tutorial (8-12) does a “Great Books” tutorial instead of English and History, teaching historical topics through primary sources.
- Example 4, of course, is Thomas Aquinas College.
If anyone thinks a student could complete the course of studies at any one of these schools without having a solid working understanding of history, I would find that shocking.
Still, let’s consider some important possible objections.
Objection 1: It might seem that we should study history as a special subject because that is the way all children have been taught since time immemorial. Even the Greeks studied “history” 2000 years ago, and the study of history today is a direct continuation of that tradition.
Response: As a matter of fact, history has not been taught as a separate subject for very long – a little more than a hundred years. Before that, history was embedded into the total education of a child’s training in grammar and logic. For example, a child learning grammar would study the Illiad, the Aeneid, or the Old Testament. Therein, via a study of those books, students would learn both grammar principles and truths about the past. The Greek word ‘historia’ translates to the more general “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”. They understood that knowing what happened long ago is difficult and requires sifting through evidence, absurdities, falsehoods, and fabulism.
Objection 2: History is a study of the past. It is the study of certain significant events, people, and places in the past, how they came to be, and how they change, etc.. This study has its own methods, aims, and standards. One cannot learn to do historical inquiry in a science lab, nor in a logic class, nor in a literature class. So it needs to be taught as a separate subject.
Response: The methods of good historical inquiry are not exclusive of logical thinking in general. The methods of good thinking about the past do not exclude good rational and philosophical thinking about reality. The methods of thinking about causation and change in the past are not separable from the methods of causaion and change in general. The methods of thinking about past “great men” and other influential figures are inseparable from thinking about mankind in general. So the historian cannot but be ipso facto a philosopher, logician, even a metaphysician and a psychologist. As Thomas Aquinas says: “History itself will not make a well-ordered mind, but the cultivated intellect will profit greatly from the study of history.”
Objection 3: Historians are professional academics with a highly specified discipline. Teaching history as a separate subject introduces younger students to this discipline the same way teaching them algebra introduces them to higher mathematics and physics introduces them to the professional discipline.
Response 3: Good historians are well grounded in the basics of the liberal arts. A student should not become a “mini-expert” in every specific discipline but should become well grounded in the basics of the liberal arts: they should read well, write well, think well, speak well, and argue well. As Thomas Aquinas College says, “When one considers that these subjects are often prominent in contemporary humanities programs, this fact may be puzzling. No [school] can claim to complete a student’s education, nor should it claim to teach all things. It ought to assert that it will teach him what is first and fundamental.”
When constructing curricula, classical school administrators and teachers can and should be bold. The most effective method for producing future professional historians is the same method for producing good thinkers in general: expose them to the Great Books, ask them to understand and master their content; invite them to argue, debate, and analyze; guide them to form their thoughts in speech and writing so as to express oneself beautifully and clearly. Wrestle with the big questions about truth, how we know anything, and how to separate fact from fiction when studying the past. All this can be done, and should be done, in class. But all this can and should be done without a “history” label.