Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

If letters and numbers are the tools of a liberal education, the structure of the edifice is surely history. Human civilization is not a thing that is created anew in each generation; it is a bequest, a heritage, handed on from the generations of the past, and accumulating with generations. Further, it is by no means transmitted automatically nor without loss; rather, its continuance depends upon conscious effort, the effort of teachers, and upon wise selection of what shall be taught. Each succeeding generation of men–if they are to continue the work of civilization–must have been initiated, as it were, into its mysteries by the men of the preceding generation, and the initiating officers are the teachers. Not all the experience of any single generation can be handed on to its successors, but only the most valuable and significant of its experiences, selected out from the whole. It is such selected experiences, accumulating with the years, that constitute history, and it is these which make possible the culture that separates the civilized man from the untaught savage.

Knowledge of history is the preserver of civilization. This being true it is obviously of the first importance that history be thoroughly and wisely taught in the public schools. It should be clear that history, in the scope in which I am conceiving it, is not the record of any one particular form of human activity. It is not (as many of us might think first off) merely the records of the political activities of men–of the rise and fall of nations and states, with the recounting of their battles and the roll of their passing monarchs. Neither is it merely this with the addition of the social and economic changes which influence the destinies of peoples. It includes all these as necessary parts, and in particular national and dynastic records form the frame or guide with reference to which other facts are given orientation in time. But history in its full and significant sense comprises the total record of human achievements in all the great fields. It comprises along with the story of political changes and the record of the spread of the races of mankind over the globe, the history of the growth of ideas in religion and philosophy and literature, the history of discovery in science, the history of invention in art and industry. Religion, letters, art, science, industry,– all these represent the superstructure of civilization, the development of which is made possible (in the higher forms) by political and economic organization. It is mainly these activities which give the value of life. They are, therefore, justly regarded as the measures of civilization; and it is obvious that if the aim of the schools be the preservation and enlargement of the gifts of civilization, no teaching can be more important than is that which strives to make of our citizens qualified judges of these higher forms of human activity. Knowledge of the history of culture–that is, of the development of ideal interests as well as of the course of human events–is thus the completed end of liberal education.

Necessarily, there must be a starting-point in the inculcation of such a vast body of knowledge; and this, without doubt, should be the history of the races and nations of mankind. There must be, first of all, a conception of the beginnings of things human and of the importance of “before and after” in the arrangement of events. Personally I am an arrant rebel against the so-called recapitulation theory as applied to pedagogy,–that is, the notion that every child, in the course of his education, must run the gamut of experiences marking the progress of the race upward from savagery. But I think we may take this one lesson from the untutored child of nature,–namely, that a myth of the beginnings of things is the natural introduction to a conception of history. For it is true that savage peoples have such myths long before they dream of counting their genealogies or telling over the count of their tribal chieftains. Luckily, there are many excellent school readers which tell the story of ancient man, as he was in the dawn of history; and I suppose that the great body of folklore tales of giants and heroes and princesses and the like, who lived “once upon a time” or “long, long ago,” give as good an introduction as one need ask for to the conception of changing times and passing events. Certainly no child should be deprived of them.

Let us suppose, then, this introduction, as belonging to the primary grade. The next step–and it can hardly be emphasized too clearly–is to impart the chronological form of history, the “time-form,” by means of which the “before and after” of events is shown in detail. I think I can best illustrate what I mean by reference to a well-known psychological phenomenon. A considerable per cent of those who learn numbers acquire, with their first knowledge of the notation, what is called a “number- form.” The number-form is an imaginary spatial arrangement, a picture or mental diagram, of the integers in their natural successions. Often such number-forms begin with a circle, the numbers 1 to 10 running about it clockwise (showing the influence of the dial of the clock, but modified by the power of the decimal idea), while the higher numbers, first in tens, and then in hundreds, run off into space at all sorts of tangents and angles. A person who acquires such a number-form (quite unconsciously) in childhood is virtually certain to carry it through life. Now a chronological time-form is very similar. It also is organized according to the decimal system, into decades and centuries and millennia, and it has a middle position, or era, with respect to which all the balance is organized. It is simple, to be sure, in its structure; but it is not so simple that it need not be taught, for (I speak from experience) it is altogether easy to find in a group of university students not a few who are unable to define “the Christian Era” with any accuracy, who have only hazy understandings of “B.C.” and “A.D.” or who fail wholly in attempts to characterize even the greater periods of history, in their time perspective. We are all familiar with the mischief wrought to a child’s geographical understanding by the distortions of map projections; only a globe can set him at rights. The same thing is true with respect to the time perspective: its general form, with the Christian Era forming a kind of historian’s equator, must be in his mind in order that the student shall correctly place the items of his growing historical knowledge. The whole significance of history is, indeed, dependent upon the order of events in time; and the student who cannot tell what is first and what is second, what is before and what after, misses the conception of historical growth and casuality1. In short, what the multiplication tables are to arithmetic or the axioms to geometry, the time-form is to the study of history.

Time-form of European History

Of course a chronology-form is not a thing to be memorized direct in all its elaborations,–which are indeed complex when taken in connection with the history of mankind over all the globe. Rather it must be built up, in connection with definite contents, like an arithmetical number-form. Probably, the best method is to approach it from both ends–the modern history of one’s own country and ancient history–at the same time. The history of one’s own land can be made elementary because of its familiar nearness; ancient history is easy because of its relative simplicity (partly due to our meager knowledge, partly to its restricted character), and because of its association with the Bible, which is the key to our chronological system. Ancient history, moreover, is better capable of being shown as a history of culture in all its variety, than is modern,–I mean for elementary courses. It is not the politics of Egypt or of Greece that appeals to the imagination so much as the art and the modes of life; and all these are simpler in form and more obvious in gradation than in later centuries. One might almost take ancient architecture as the index of the quality of the whole; it is readily intelligible because of the simplicity and symmetry of its members, and it serves as a kind of progressive symbolization of progress,–from the childish, even if huge, pyramids and enclosed temples of Egypt to the open colonades of the Greek and the arches of the Roman civic edifices, as it were framed to admit the spirit of freedom and democracy along with the light of day into the abodes of men.

At the other extreme, American history is begun naturally and vividly with the tales and incidents that stir patriotic idealism and explain the great national festivals. But its study leads inevitably and early beyond the boundaries of America, back. to the Old World, whence our fathers came; and from Britain on to the Continent, and from our own country back through the centuries of the history of western Europe. There is probably in all human history no great episode so broadly unified as is the development of Catholic Christendom out of the ruins of the Roman Empire. It is from this development, either directly or through the reaction of the Reformation, that all modem western nations take their rise and get their color and temper; and it ought to be the easiest of tasks to impress upon the mind of a child who has already grasped the great central fact of the Christian Era the general form of the development, which through medieval Christendom, leads from Imperial Rome on into democratical America. Having grasped this fact, he will–I venture to say–have acquired the fundamental key to the understanding of our civilization and of our ideals, political, social, and religious.

For it must be remembered that American history and American institutions (like all other objects of knowledge) can never be understood in isolation. We can only understand what we are in seeing clearly what we are not; and in particular in seeing what we have grown out of being. It is for this reason that American history should lead inevitably into English history, and English into west European, and west European into Roman history,–where the connection is naturally made with the ancient Mediterranean history, of Egypt, Judea, Greece, in which our civilization has its remote roots. So much of history,–at least so much,should be mastered in its broad outlines by every youth who leaves the high school (and I am tempted to say, by every youngster through with the grades); for it is fully as important that he have this general background into which to fit the facts which his later knowledge will bring, as it is that he should have a clear conception of. the globe and its continents as a foundation for fuller geographical and physiographical knowledge. Time-form and space-form are alike fundamental, if the world is to be understood, or the affairs of life wisely judged.

But I must repeat what I said in the beginning. History is not merely political history-nor merely economic, for nowadays there is an unfortunate and untrue stress laid upon what is called “the economic interpretation of history.” History is rather a complex of the development of all human interests. All the great interests–industry, art, science, letters, philosophy, religion,–are not only manifestations of human progress, they are also causes of human progress. My own special field of study is the history of philosophy, that is the history of men’s abstract thinking about the meaning of human life; and for the later history of mankind, from the Greeks onward, I am certain that a very clear case might be made for the domination of ideas, as causes of progress and as the true interpreters of history. It was ideas, for example, that led to the Crusades, that led to the discovery of America, and in large part to its settling; it was ideas, again,the great ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence–that brought about our Revolution and the establishment of the United States as a free nation; and it is ideas and an ideal of justice and humanity that have plunged us whole-heartedly into the great European struggle–now, indeed, a world struggle. Ideas and ideals, in art, science, religion, letters, are of tremendous importance in human affairs. Comprehension of them is the beginning of all political wisdom. Comprehension of them is also the surest safeguard of democratical rights, and the true seed of patriotism. It is certain as day, therefore, that a schooling which fails in giving to the growing generation the fullest knowledge of history, in all its bearings, which it is capable of giving is traitorous to its duties. Men must be able intelligently to survey the past of mankind, in order to comprehend the present, in order to look forward to a wisely prepared future. Hence it is that after the tools of learning are mastered, the study of history should be made the core of the curriculum, to be pursued without interruption from the child’s first tales of Washington and Lincoln to the college senior’s study of the history of philosophy. Even then the subject will but have received an introduction, so vast is its scope. Fortunately, history is the easiest of all subjects to carry forward when schooldays are past–the easiest and the most important.

  1. Obsolete form of ‘casualty’.