History for Littles

One of my favourite history/story books for young children (about 4-8) is an old pre-70s Childcraft collection of hero tales titled Pioneers and Patriots.* Once upon a time and a time when I was looking for such a volume to recommend to others that would be easier to find than my oop volume, I looked through the table of contents to see the authors of some of my favourite chapters- and again and again, it was Baldwin, of the Fifty Famous Stories Retold fame, so that’s what I ended up recommending, although each of the books includes some stories not told in the other.

The stories include things like Alexander and his horse, Dick Whittington and his cat, Washington and the Cherry tree, Betsy Ross and the flag, William Tell, Horatio at the Bridge, Johnny Appleseed and the like.  Some of the stories are now considered ‘apocryphal.’ Some are more legendary than factual. Some don’t tell other details that are also true but reflect badly on our pioneer or patriot.  Some are biased, and if we had the other side of the story we’d think differently.  We read them all anyway.

Earnest young mother asks:

But isn’t it teaching kids lies to tell them these kinds of stories as history?  Shouldn’t we only teach them things we know to be 100% true?

 Speaking of secular history, I don’t think there is much that we can truly say we know 100% to be true, unless we limit ourselves to lists of dates and facts.
I object to the notion that there is nothing to history but naked dates and dry facts.  Motivations, what people believed at the time, culture, and other issues matter, and these are issues that go beyond dry facts.
I object to the notion that there is such a thing as ‘unbiased’ history at all.   What we *know* about history changes.   Points of view are nearly always disputed, or we have more details now and so might understand something that happened differently than it was understood at the time, but that does not necessarily mean a textbook of dry facts or trivial details published this year will really do more for a student’s historical understanding- and *connections* with history than one published a hundred years ago.
To my way of thinking, the way to handle history that may or may not be accurate is to do one’s best to weed out the outright lies (Zinn), but also read widely, generously, not limiting one’s reading to only one approved text.  As you read other history books and other stories about the time periods you study, literature, poetry, diaries, and more, the various possible interpretations will come out, the picture will be filled in better, later, when they are developmentally capable of nuance.

For younger children in particular, start with the sweeping, inspiring, bold tales of old, the stories that people have been telling their children for centuries (or decades).  You can say,  if you must, “This is a story that may or may not have really happened exactly as I’m telling it, but it is a story that people shared because it said something important to them about their heroes and their nation and what they wanted to be true about themselves.

Researching the details behind every heroic tale and introducing scepticism about history to young children is not a great idea. Skepticism is appropriate when they are older and have more wisdom about when and where to apply that skepticism. But it is not really a healthy trait for 6 year olds.

It is really not a good idea to make young children cynical skeptics; it is harmful to their hearts, minds and souls.

 I think it would be a terrible, terrible disservice to our children *not* tell them some of the best loved stories ever told of our countries’ founders.

George Washington and the cherry tree is one such example, although perhaps not the best because it turns out the notion that the tale is apocryphal actually has far less historical evidence or support than the idea that it might be true. This story and a number of others now considered debunked (though perhaps with no better cause than this one) are part of our cultural legacy. There are many references to them in other literature and poetry- and even in small things, like calendars that might mark George Washington’s birthday by a hatchet or a couple of cherries, or cherry pies being on sale for President’s day. It’s part of our cultural heritage, and so these are stories that educated people know. Kids need to know them.

What about TRUTH?

What do you mean by truth?  Facts are not all there is to truth.  History is not just a bunch of facts, names, dates, and places on a map.

It is always good to be humble with history. Even our best supported eyewitness accounts could miss nuances, add observer bias, misunderstand an observation.

All history could legitimately be introduced with, ” something like this probably happened…” or “something like this may have happened,” or “this is what some/ many/ most/ historians think happened.


So what is history?

“What do we ask of it that it should do for our children?
Surely, that it shall give them heroic ideas, hearts full of fraternity, patriotism, and the desire to do and be for the good of others!
That the past shall for them be peopled with noble examples, dear friends, and awful warnings–not for nothing did “Boney” take the place of “bogey” in the nursery. [Note: for those who don’t know, this is Napoleon Bonaparte, would be world emperor, dictactor, accomplished general, failed in his ambitions, became scourge of the nursery used to frighten naughty children into being quiet little mice].
“We want the children to learn their history lessons, not “William the Conqueror, 1066,” but God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect; we want to train their moral judgment, that they may put the motive before the deed, nor dub all men with neat little labels of good or bad.”
Begin by giving your young children heroic ideas, notions of patriotism, the desire to do and be for the good of others, noble examples and dear friends.

For this volume of Childcraft, you have to have a volume 12 that was printed in the sixties. They removed it from the seventies edition, which is one of many reasons why I don’t really care for the Childcraft volumes printed in the seventies and later. Compare and contrast:

1960s set
1: Poems and Rhymes
2: Stories and Fables
3: World and Space
4: Life Around Us
5: Holidays and Customs
6: How Things Change
7: How We Get Things
8: How Things Work
9: Make and Do
10: What People Do
11: Scientists and Inventors
12: Pioneers and Patriots
13: People to KNow
14: Places to Know
15: Guide and Index

mid-1970s set
1: Poems and Rhymes
2: Stories and Fables
3: Children Everywhere
4: World and Space
5: About Animals
6: The Green Kingdom
7: How Things Work
1973: What People Do
1976: How We Get Things
9: Holidays and Customs
10: Places to Know
11: Make and Do
12: Look and Learn
13: Look Again
14: About Me
15: Guide for Parents

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