How to study history

Oct 12, 2009
We know now as we always should have known that we can make no deeper penetration into history than through the lives of the wisest and most sentient individuals who have themselves shaped our world. Page Smith: John Adams, Introduction to Volume I, 1735-1784
History is not impersonal forces; it is the outworking of human decisions. If we fail to teach it that way, we fail to utilize one of the most effective tools available to equip our children to make sound decisions, whether in community or in private life. Therefore, I advocate teaching history as the study of a series of decisions:
  • Should Caesar have crossed the rubicon?
  • Should Truman have fired MacArthur?
  • Should Napolean have attacked Moscow?
  • Should Athens have attacked Syracuse?
Teach it this way and you won't need to talk about "bringing history to life" because this is the life of history.
Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS

What about,

"Should Henry V have attacked France?"

I suppose I could tolerate that.

; )

I had never thought of history that way. I'm learning already.

It makes it more interesting, doesn't it?

How much prior knowledge on the subject must one have to contemplate these questions in an intelligent manner?


That's the question isn't it? I would say not a lot, and here's why. To contemplate them in an intelligent manner, the first thing you have to say is, this is beyond me. I cannot gain adequate knowledge to attain absolute certainty on almost any of these questions. And even if the moral answer is easy to see, how to do the moral thing most effectively might not be.

So the first step is humility and that only deepens when people study history closely.

However, there is a reason you can still contemplate these questions intelligently even if you don't have a lot of specific knowledge about the matter at hand. You still have experience making decisions - lots of it by the time you get to kindergarten. You still have access to information while you contemplate. You still know the basic form of reflection.

And you can use the tools of rhetoric to refine them further (which is the purpose of The Lost Tools of Writing, for example).

The crucial thing is not that you have particular knowledge about events but that you allow yourself to inquire into it.

Prior knowledge can help or it can hinder. This is where Pope was right: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. For example, if you are teaching a 10th grade class and one of your students studied, say, Roman history, the year before but the rest didn't, it will be very hard and unusual for that child to approach the matter humbly. The same can happen to a teacher.

To summarize, let me quote one of Aristotle's most important statements and apply it to this matter:

<blockquote>It is the mark of an educated man to seek exactness just so far in each subject as the nature of the thing admits."</blockquote>

Historical knowledge lacks the exactness of mathematical/scientific knowledge. So we should teach it accordingly.

The great thing about this approach is that you can use it with kids of any age and expect them to gain only the amount of judgment they are capable of gaining. God help us, though, if nothing has been done to prepare people for the analogous decisons they'll have to make when they become adults.

Does that help?

I am not sure this will do the work you think it will.

Have you read Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History?

How would his essay fit in with your proposal?


What work do I think it will do that it won't do? Your response will help me think this through, while clarifying my own ideas.

This is exactly what I've been wondering about...thanks!