First Graders and History

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As we have learned, there was much hatred of Catholics by English Protestants in Maryland. One great Catholic man was able to overcome this hatred and he is one of our great patriotic heroes. His name was Charles Carroll. Charles Carroll was born in Maryland. His parents sent him to a Catholic school in France where Catholics were respected…Charles Carroll said that his greatest accomplishment was that he “practiced the duties of my religion.” Many Protestants began to realize that their prejudice against Catholics was unjustified.

The sentences above begin and conclude a typical lesson in a Catholic homeschooling course on American History intended for first graders.  This is not a genre with which I have much familiarity (we’re homeschooling for a few months to finish out the school year after a move), and so I thought it might be interesting to offer some comments as an outsider on the homeschooling materials we’ve received.

The most obvious (if superficial) feature of the homeschooling materials is that they are drenched in religious art, regardless of subject. As an alum of a mixture of public and parochial schools, I was surprised to find Spelling and Math textbooks adorned with (often very beautiful) religious art work. I don’t think there is anything right or wrong with decorating textbooks in this manner, per se, but it takes some getting used to.

As the passage quoted above suggests, the next thing that I noticed is that the history narratives tend to be awash in a type of Catholic triumphalism. I like a small dosage of triumphalism as much as the next guy, but it seems to me it should used (at most) as cream or sugar in coffee; the tendency with this particular textbook is instead to include a few (uniformly favorable) facts in the ongoing account of noble-Catholics-doing-good-things.

The tendency noted above is perhaps inevitable in a textbook for children who are six or seven years old; narratives have to be crudely simplified, and history comes alive when heroes and villains uphold or violate a child’s developing sense of justice. But there is a difference between telling stories in which Catholics are heroes and telling stories in which other religious groups – rather than individuals – are villains. And here I think the textbook further exacerbates the difficulties inherent in Catholic triumphalism by actively disparaging other religious traditions. The English Protestants in the passage above come across as dim bulbs filled with irrational and prejudicial hatred; only through the efforts of the heroic Charles Carroll are they able to gradually overcome (some of) their prejudices. And notice the end of the passage suggests this applies to Protestants generally (not even specifically English Protestants in Maryland). I assure you, although it is probably not necessary, that there are no analogous tales celebrating Protestant heroism in the face of Catholic prejudice in this particular textbook.

It is true, of course, that religious tensions are a large part of the history of the unhappy world in which we live. But there are constructive and less constructive approaches to introducing this truth to children; it seems to me that many of the history lessons in the homeschooling curriculum we received are more interested in readings of history that tend towards tribalistic tendentiousness, rather than a more universalistic and accurate account of the world. This is not just a failure in pedagogy; it is a failure in justice.

As I said, I am more or less completely ignorant of the Catholic homeschooling world. I have no idea how representative the materials we received may be, although I uncharitably remarked to my wife, who laughed in agreement, that textbooks like this explained a few of the people we encountered in college (no one, I hasten to add, likely to be reading this). In any case, I’m curious about others reactions. How representative are passages like this? Am I mis-reading it or being unfair to the authors? Are there any good curriculums on offer that provide a more balanced take on ‘American History’? Are these types of accounts a problem, and, if so, how do you approach teaching history?

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  1. Now, now, John. I’m not sure that French Revolution professor was homeschooled… 😉

    But seriously. Where did you find this curriculum? Though to be fair, I can think of a few where this would probably not stand out a whole lot.

    We do homeschool all the kids, and as you know, MrsD and I were homeschooled through middle school and high school. I’d say this is fairly typical of a certain type of packaged Catholic homeschool curriculum. The would be the same sort of folks who would use Christ The King, Lord Of History in high school. One of the things about homeschooling, however, is that you have far more latitude than public or parochial school teachers in picking your own books, and thus there’s room for a lot more range. Some of the packaged Catholic curriculums use reprints of old 30s through 50s era Catholic school textbooks — and some of those are, in fact, overly triumphalistic IMHO. (Others are quite solid. Publishing was not as consolidated back then, and there appear to have been a wider range of materials.)

    Overall, I’d say it’s okay to have a history textbook for first graders which has a bit of a good guys/bad guys approach to some issues, but it needs to be done carefully. I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with a kids textbook talking about persecution of the Catholics in England, and how that was eventually put aside in the United States, but obviously I’d expect there to be some discussion of Catholics persecuting Protestants and Protestants persecuting each other as well. I think it’s a bad idea if a history textbook sets kids up to be surprised by that kind of revelation later. (What, you mean Catholic sometimes persecuted people as well? I never knew that! I thought they were the good guys!)

    Right now I’m reading the girls (primarily our 3rd and 2nd graders) E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Gombrich was, I believe, Jewish, but he wrote the book for a mainstream children’s audience in 1920s Austria, and it’s since become available in English. It generally treats the Catholic Church very fairly (perhaps no surprise, being written for an Austrian audience at that time) and I like it’s story-telling without hyperventilating approach. But there are an awful lot of good things out there.

    I’d say the key, with homeschooling, is that it primarily makes sense for people who have an active interest in spending a fair amount of time searching out good materials themselves. There are packaged curriculums out there, but as you’ve found they all have their own particular flavor, and it’s important to decide whether or not you think it’s the right one. (We take a “build our own” approach to curriculum, ourselves.)

  2. (Guest comment from Don’s wife Cathy): We did history unit studies with the kids every summer before our oldest graduated from the local public high school, as well as reading aloud daily from children’s history books & biographies after (public) school. I used what Catholic materials I could find (TAN Books titles such as “Christ the King, Lord of History,” old parochial school textbooks, Vision Books biographies, and some adult books from Don’s personal collection) as supplements to Protestant homeschool materials and secular children’s books (& public-school theme unit books). I think the mix of materials from various viewpoints provided balanced coverage of the periods and individuals we read about, without boring the kids.

    Don’s wide reading background in history and common-sense “reality checks” were also a good safeguard against any nonsense which might have cropped up in our choice of history reading material. One pair of books Don particularly recommends is “The History of the Ancient World” and “The History of the Medieval World” by Susan Wise Bauer. These 2 volumes are both published by Norton and written for adults, but make extensive use of any written material available from the period being discussed, and are much less dry as read-alouds for children & teenagers than most adult history books would be. (NB: These should not be confused with her “The Story of the World” series (published by Peace Hill Press), a Protestant homeschool history curriculum (I believe) which we have not used (and therefore are unable to comment on with any knowledge).)

  3. “I like a small dosage of triumphalism as much as the next guy, but it seems to me it should used (at most) as cream or sugar in coffee”

    That’s a good way to put it. Same with political or religious satire or parody — if it is used as an occasional “flavoring” to an otherwise bland public discourse or course of historical study, it’s fine; when it becomes the dominant or main course it rapidly becomes indigestible.

    Also Don and Cathy point out something that may be overlooked in the St. Blogs arena: homeschooling doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Really, ALL parents homeschool to some extent, the only difference is whether they do it full time or part time. A family that is not prepared or able to homeschool full time can still use homeschooling materials to supplement what their child receives at a public or Catholic school. Every little bit helps even if it’s just during the summer, or on weekends or in the evenings.

  4. This seems to be a deficit with the textbook approach to teaching full stop. The older approach would have been more comprehensive references and instruction dependent more on lecture. The advantage of the former is that it has democratized instruction, enabling more to do it. The big disadvantage is there is no clear point to transition to mastery of a topic. As a professor of mine put it, at some point you have to stop taking survey courses and actually learn something.

    Personally, I don’t see much value in a first grader knowing about Carroll. I can understand giving a kid cocktail answers (the year the US entered WWI, the allied powers of WWII, the axis powers of WWII), but giving a kid cocktail opinions just seems silly. Even were the opinion of Carroll not difficult to defend, the child still would have no real ability to defend it and have no real understanding of the opinion. I’ve come to the opinion that it is better to teach children mastery of a few things than to give them a little knowledge of a lot of things.

  5. The statement is true, it is pitched at 1st graders who, presumptively, are being brought up in the Catholic faith…in such a situation, you keep it simple and you provide abundant reasons for loving what should be loved…you can explain why the beloved object did some hateful things later, then the kid is older and fully grounded in the faith.

  6. Interesting. I’ve never thought about home school curricula before.

    Agreed about a 1st grader not needing to know about an oversimplified version of Carroll. But I could see maybe having your child read about him in later high school, and maybe even reading The American Cicero by Birzer.

    That’s what I see as the great home school advantage. The ability to utilize great works on a particular issue that actually inspire and generate interest. 1776 or John Adams by McCullough, e.g., for the war of independence. I’d also recommend Bill Bennett’s American history books for high school level (maybe junior high, as well) called America: the last best hope; I think it comes in two volumes. He wrote it with the intention that it be used by students as an inspiring, narrative-oriented alternative to the dry, sterile, p.c. account we find in most textbooks. It even has a sprinkling of Catholic anecdotes.

  7. Thanks for the comments, all. As Darwin, Cathy, and M.Z. point out, it looks like we made a rookie mistake in approaching homeschooling. We were just looking for something to fill in a few months prior to the next school year and so we have not spent much time figuring out what materials to use. For now, I think we will probably just selectively use the pre-packaged curriculum we have (how bad can the Math book be?) with some supplemental materials for subjects like history.

    Mark – to the extent we disagree on the merits of the lesson quoted above, I’ll note that my problem with the lesson is not primarily that it presents a rosy view of Catholics; it’s that it denigrates Protestants as full of “prejudice” and “hatred” while at the same time presenting Catholics as heroes. Any time a history book starts resembling a New York Times Op-ed, I get a little uneasy. Tribalism is tribalism, whether it’s religious or political.

  8. Hmmm, not sure I see the problem with the cited passage, which seems simply factual to me.

    Of course, all history comes with a viewpoint. Why should Catholics feel compelled to give their children the supposedly “neutral” viewpoint (which in fact imports a secularist viewpoint).

    Of all the viewpoint-laden history out there, it seems to me perfectly natural that Catholics would select a history that highlights the accomplishments of our co-religionists, and attempts to correct some of the “black legend” so prevalent in American history texts.

    Of course, when students reach higher levels of study, the simple grade school narrations give way to a more comprehensive study, which will be more nuanced.

    But for grade school, history has to be a fairly simple narrative. Better one like the sample above than what passes for history in the government schools.

  9. Oh, and some of the “prejudice” and “hatred” for Catholics in the New World is touched on here: and includes violent persecution.

    After all, we’re talking about an English colony during a time when the Penal laws were in effect, and martyrdoms were occuring, yes, even in the colonies.

    I don’t think it’s mere tribalism to re-cover some basic truths about this period of history: the dominant English Protestant culture was not a welcoming environment for Catholics, and not just in New England.

  10. John,

    Well, I wish it were a reasonable assumption that one could simply pick up on of the standard Catholic curriculums and expect it to be good without reservation, but at least as of when I’ve looked I’ve always had a few issues with their choices in history and science (though the latter shouldn’t affect first grade much.) On the other hand, there’s no reason not to mix and match, so it’s easily remedied.

    For the record, if someone does want to pick up a boxed curriculum and not have to worry about any of the content, my strong recommendation for a Catholic family would actually be to pick up the secular (but certainly not hostile to Christianity) curriculum from Calvert, which is the curriculum which is often used by kids of parents in the diplomatic core, etc. Pair that with the Faith & Life religious ed books from Ignatius and some bible stories and saints lives and you’re pretty much all set. (Not like I’d be advocating doing a sudden switch in your situation.) Calvert is not cheap, though it’s less than parochial school tuition, but they’re been pretty universally good in all the grades I’ve seen. I’d tend to say this is an example where a well done secular approach to curriculum development is sometimes better than an overly religiously-motivated one.

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