Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How do we teach history?

Anybody who has read secular history books knows how horribly biased they can be with issues regarding Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Sometimes, I even notice that a historian who is otherwise excellent in his respective field suddenly blows it and gives way to the most gross absurdities when treating the Catholic Church. It is as if when one talks about Catholicism, there is no need for scholarship anymore - simply reciting the same tired old fables and prejudices suffices.

This bias has understandably provoked a reaction in the Catholic world and the subsequent publishing in the last few decades of a large number of works on history by Catholic authors, many written for children as part of homeschooling programs. My wife and I have been homeschooling for four years now, and only in the past two years (as my eldest daughter is going on 7) have we really got into teaching history. We have primarily been using Seton, but also other companies as well.

Without singling out any publisher, I have to say that my wife and I are very upset at the quality and tenor of the history books from Catholic publishers. I've seen them all for every age group and publisher. I've seen Seton, the Didache series, the Ignatius Faith & Life history book, the stuff put out by Memoria Press, the Carroll's books and lots of the old stuff from the 1940's that is currently being reprinted. While some of it is good (I think the Memoria Press history books are pretty solid), the vast majority of them take what I feel is a faulty approach to history.

I know that secular history books tend to ignore the Church and its contributions. But then in the Catholic books I get, the pendulum goes too far in the other extreme: the Church and the saints are often the only things covered, as if history consisted of nothing other than the development of the Church and the lives of different men and women of faith. I am certainly not against publishing books about Church history and saints' lives - believe me! But what I am against is marketing a book as "American History" and then finding out that it is only a history of American saints and the Church in America. That is an important element of American history, but it is not American history. My daughter has a history book which purports to be about American History but it does not mention the Civil War, except for a passing reference to it regarding a nun who worked as a nurse in the War. I don't think it mentions the Revolution, either.

We want to emphasize the Catholic presence in history, but for crying out loud, how can you leave the Civil War out of a textbook on US History, even if it is for a third grader? Listen, when we study history, we are studying (by and large) the particular and the secular. We are studying the rise and fall of kingdoms, wars and battles, eminent men and women and important discoveries and innovations. Sometimes (often) the Church is part of that story - often times it is not. There's a lot of history that happens that has nothing to do with the Church but is nevertheless very important, and you can't just leave that stuff out or treat it like it is incidental to Church history. The books I see tend to treat all history as if it is a department of ecclesiastical history.

Church History should be a separate course of study from mainstream history, or if it is integrated, it should not completely supplant profane history. Anybody who studies Church history even for an hour knows that the profane and the sacred histories are so intertwined that you can't parse them out and really grasp one without reference to the other - well, maybe you can in the modern world, but certainly not in the Middle Ages. Church history is very important, but I don't want my kids to just be reading hagiographies and Church history and think they are getting the whole historical picture. I think the ideal is to teach secular history with ecclesiastical history mixed in as the crowning jewel of the world's history. In this sense I appreciate the approach taken by the Carroll's, but I still think their writing tends to overemphasize the ecclesiastical element.

Okay. Had to get that out of the way. Sorry.


Anonymous said...

Solution..... read them both.

I would be more concerned about a history book telling outright lies than by one covering secular, and one covering religious history.

FOXNews has had an ongoing segment about the current public school books that have errors... looking for the link, perhaps on youtube.

Perhaps the better books are the ones that concentrate on one specific era or country etc. Better than a "jack of all trades, master of none."

Anonymous said...

Have you looked at Kolbe?