A little blaze

In discussing history with my older kids, I always try to hammer home the following point: when someone tells you that this or that issue is perfectly simple, then that person is either stupid or lying.

Here’s a satisfying case in point:  a recent Salon article (h/t to Kevin James) reminds us that, despite what renowned scholar Dan “I know how to type” Brown tells us, it wasn’t the mean old misogynistic Church who led those infamous European witch hunts.  More reliable sources show that women were accused of, tortured and killed for witchcraft because of  “squabbles among neighbors, resentments within families, disagreeable local characters, the machinations of small-time politicians and the creepy psychosexual fixations of magistrates and clerics.”

So there’s a good lesson there:  when something really big and awful goes on for 300 years, you can’t sum up its cause or significance in a single sentence (unless that sentence is “It’s a fallen world”).  Nothing is that simple.

For younger kids, though, I am in favor of teaching the simple, mythologized version of history first, and then refining it later (as long as you don’t get your myths from a dumbbell like Dan Brown).  Kids should understand the basic truth of what happened, and then discover the details when their minds become more subtle.

Thus, we teach the little ones that Columbus was a hero, Lincoln strode into battle to free the slaves, and God made the world in seven days.  All of this is true.  The details are more subtle, but the basic myth tells you something important that the details can’t convey.

Modern history books for children will have none of this fairytale foolishness.  They want to paint a truer, fuller picture of history by debunking myths — but they do this by oversimplifying in the other direction, and they end up telling an equally false story.  By insisting on the deary, mitigating details, they teach children that no one ever fights to the death for justice, and that no one is really courageous, that nothing is noble.  What a terrible lesson — what a lie!

So now school children kids believe that Thomas Jefferson was, above all, a famous racist; that Columbus’ main goal was to find some peaceful natives to slaughter; and that the liberated Israelites merely trudged after Moses through a swampy area during low tide.

I don’t lie to my kids.   Soon enough, children learn that there are details, there are complications.  But I know they haven’t lived long enough to understand that sin and weakness go along with courage and nobility — that they can exist in the same man.  This subtle understanding is something they will need to have eventually.  But trying to teach it prematurely doesn’t give you educated students, it gives you ignorant cynics.

When you’re building a fire, you have to start with a little blaze. Sure, the fire is more useful and productive when the flames have died down.  You can get some even and steady heat then, and glowing coals are easier to control and maintain than the leaping, unpredictable tongues of flame when kindling catches fire.

But you can’t just skip to the steady heat stage.  That’s what these myths about history are–they’re a little blaze to get things going.  You have to start with the blaze.

(cross-posted at The Anchoress)


    • The pages of our histories
      Are written by the hand
      With eyes and ears and tragedies
      Too far removed to understand
      And so the heroes of the ages
      Are stripped of honesty and love,
      To make them seem less noble
      And hide what we can become
      -Cruxshadows (don’t remember which song…)

      My love of darkwave music isn’t totally useless… 😉
      It’s tough to explain history in a way that is age appropriate, and correct. And then every so often I luck out and find a historical personage who was clever enough (or illiterate enough, or not important enough) to not leave much more than an amazing footnote in history. I’m not sure if that’s very coherent, I’m kinda tired. But the main idea is that human nature doesn’t change. We have a God given capacity to do incredibly good and selfless things, and then we have fallen human nature that says that virtue is hard and vice isn’t that bad.

  1. Echoing everyone else here – great post! This is something I don’t always remember to do well. I enjoy the older stage more, and I need to remind myself to keep patient during the “little blaze” stage because you are right, it is really important.

  2. I don’t know if I quite agree with you on this one. For instance, the myth of Columbus is mainly based on a similar Dan Brown-type fiction concocted by Washington Irving. I certainly don’t think that Columbus did enough worthwhile things to have an entire day celebrated in his honor.

    I don’t believe in over-herofication or over-villification for most figures in history. Besides trying to make history relevant to my children (“Remember in that episode of Phineas and Ferb when Candace’s hair looked like a bunch of snakes? That’s a reference to Medusa….”), I try to help my kids understand that these were people like them with good points and bad points. Some of our saints started out as extreme sinners. There’s hope for all of us.

    Of course, at each age we get into a different level of detail. And I see any history instruction between first and fourth grade more like planting seeds that will be nurtured with more detailed knowledge when they get older until they hopefully bloom into a fuller understanding. As for making little cynics, we’ve done that just by explaining the purpose of commercials. 😉

    • I probably shouldn’t have chosen Columbus as an example, because everyone has such strong feelings about him. Mostly I emphasize to the little kids how brave he was. Am I misled about that? (that’s a sincere question) I try and get the kids to imagine how it must have felt, standing on the deck, nothing but old biscuits and stale water in your belly, squinting into the distance and wondering how much longer you can hold out without seeing land. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he must have been an extraordinary one, wasn’t he?

      • Well, as one of my religious studies professors described pretty accurately, Columbus “discovered America” at a point in time when Europe was in a position to do something with it. How he did it and what he did afterward weren’t particularly heroic. Realistically, he probably wasn’t much braver than any other sailor.

        I think I would use Columbus more as an example of happening to be in the right place at the right time to effect the direction of human history (even if he was completely clueless about where he was).

      • Columbus was most certainly “braver than any other sailor”, and awfully persistent, too. No other sailor ever dared to cross the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (unless you are a Mormon, and then the lost tribes of Israel did, but there is no historical evidence for that). The Vikings sailed to Newfoundland via Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland–there was always land in sight. Vasco de Gama’s trip to India was the same. Not so with Columbus. His men were definitely ready to mutiny, because they were scared silly.

        His motivation to sail to “the Indies” was most certainly based on greed, but also on piety: the Muslim’s had recently advanced upon Constantinople and had effectively controlled the spice trade with the East. Any self-respecting Christian would have felt an obligation to bypass the Muslims to obtain these goods.

        In addition, France and England were mired in civil strife, and were in no position to do anything. As always, the Italian states were fighting each other (which is most likely why Venice and Genoa refused Columbus’ request). The only nation with any ability to do anything was Spain, fresh off the reconquista. And all they did was give Columbus three ratty, small ships.

        I’d characterize his persistence and bravery for doing that which no man had, as far as he knew, done before as highly heroic. His treatment of the native populations afterwards is highly suspect.

        • I’m not sure why sailing across the middle of the Atlantic is any braver than sailing across the north Atlantic because

          a) You can’t actually see Iceland from Ireland, Greenland from Iceland, or Newfoundland from Greenland. Seriously, you can’t.

          b) Naval technology had advanced significantly from the time the Vikings found the new world and Columbus rediscovered it. Caravals and Carracks were not, as you put it, ratty small ships; they were state of the art. The ships he used were, indeed, quite small, but they compared very favorably to Viking vessels, in size, maneuverability, speed, and sail area. His vessels were also multi-masted, which allowed them to sail closer into the wind, and gave him improved maneuverability. Unlike the Vikings, he also had a rudder. And a compass. He was certainly better off than the Irish saints who tried to make it to Greenland in coracles.

          c) If you really want intrepid sailors, I’d check out the Polynesians. They, after all, made it all the way to Hawaii in dugout canoes. And the Pacific is far more dangerous than the mid-Atlantic.

          Was he brave? Sure. Braver than I am? Definitely. The bravest of the bravest of the brave? Meh.

          • So who said he was the bravest of the bravest of the brave? He bravely sailed to the country that I happen to live in now. So sue me, I’m more attached to him than to the vikings.

      • We went on life sized replicas of the Nina and the Pinta and they were so much smaller than you would expect. The idea of looking out from the deck of one of those and seeing nothing but ocean is truly terrifying. He must have been very brave if nothing else.

  3. Tricky concept and interesting post. It’s VERY hard for me to have any discussion without providing ALL of the details. I’m usually snapped back when I see their little eyes glaze over. I think that unfortunately it really depends on the kids. For me, once I found out that things were “glossed over” I found it very hard to believe anything from that source. Your method would be perfect for my husband and 2 of my kids but one of my little guys is like me and NEEDS details. Heaven help us all as we try and educate these little ones.

    • VERY helpful post! Me, too, KyCat–when we first started homeschooling I didn’t realize I needed any teaching skills; I just thought I would be a fine teacher as long as I myself was interested in the subject. And it was when I was really interested that I would go on and on with details until not only their eyes glazed over but they sometimes developed a persistent dislike for the subject. So I’m working on that, five years later…

  4. I also believe you have to start with simpler forms of the stories and then refine them more gradually as children age and become able to incorporate them — but I prefer not to even start on (say) American history until a child is old enough to understand at least the concept that a historical figure can have good qualities and bad qualities, that no one is purely a hero or purely a villain, that actions can have good and bad sequelae, and that not every consequence can be foreseen. If a child can’t get past “good guys”/”bad guys” then, in my view they’re not ready to learn history in any kind of depth and you might as well wait.

    Third grade was about right for my first child. Still waiting on my second.

    They can learn about geography or some world-culture stuff — I liked “lives of the saints around the world” as a good way to teach social studies to primary school kids.

    I can’t stomach, for instance, beginning with “Columbus was a hero” (although I do not criticize anyone who chooses to emphasize his heroism as a first step; it’s a matter of taste and I recognize that.) If you want a real Spanish hero in the Americas, try Father Bartolomeo de Las Casas. There is a fantastic out-of-print children’s book about him called “Protector of the Indians” by Evan Jones.

  5. I’m going to teach my kids that Lincoln strode into battle to smother the fires of agrarian culture and community in the Old South with the dingy coal-smutted sackcloth of industry and greed. How d’ya like them apples.

    • Seeing as Lincoln was born and raised in an agrarian culture, one that saw the growth of food, not a cash crop, I would say that that particular characterization borders on Dan Brownishness.

      Sure, Lincoln became a lawyer, but then again, I seem to remember a whole slew of Confederate leaders who weren’t necessarily cotton-growers, yet defended agrarian culture.

  6. The comment of the person signing himself/herself “I was born below the Mason Dixon” suggested an important point to me.

    If you teach “simple myth” to children before you go on to teach more nuanced and complicated truths, then we wind up with some people who learned some simple myths as children (e.g. “Lincoln: The Hero Who Liberated The Slaves”), and other people who learned opposite simple myths as children (e.g. “Lincoln: Devious Culture Destroyer”).

    I doubt very much that the nuance later hung all over those myths entirely obscures the first impression.

    Interesting to bear in mind.

    • That’s true. In the case of Lincoln, I believe the hero myth is a lot closer to the nuanced truth than the despot myth is, though – so, to answer the original poster’s question: I do not like them apples.

  7. I have to agree with ‘below the Mason Dixon.’ Although I was raised with the ‘simple myth’ of Lincoln, slave freer, I’ve studied more to realize that he was after governmental control of the states, using slavery as a cover. I firmly believe this, and whether or not he was an orchestrator, or simply just a pawn, I don’t know. But… he did start the USDA. Ugh. And as a farmer, I can tell you that’s a BAD thing.

    • As one who likewise studied history, and the Civil War era, I beg to differ. Lincoln was not after governmental control of the states. Lincoln firmly believed in a Union, and in the United States of America. His writings attest that. He was firmly against slavery, as his writings attest, and yet during his campaigns did not once argue for emancipation of slaves, out of fear of ruining the Union. His primary goal as President was preserving the United States of American and upholding her Constitution.

      For Lincoln, he understood three things: 1) the North and South both ratified the Constitution, and therefore it was the law of the land, 2) if any state refused to obey outright a law created by Congress, they violated the law of the land, and 3) it was the President’s duty to uphold the law and the Constitution. Lincoln never believed that the states had realistically left the Union because in his eyes they couldn’t…which is why his plan for Reconstruction was a little softer than the GOP Congress’s plan.

  8. I do think Lincoln was great man, whatever that might mean. He certainly had good convictions. But there was a lot going on on both sides of the divide besides slave ownership.

    One faithful sword thy ranks shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee.

  9. Poe’s Law states:
    “ Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing. ”

    well, i was being serious anyway.

  10. Dear Jerk: I do hope you’re being serious with your flouride remark… everyone knows the story of the two moguls joking at cards one day about how they could sell anything…

  11. “But trying to teach it prematurely doesn’t give you educated students, it gives you ignorant cynics.” <—-Hell, yeah! Excellent post. Thank you.

  12. Great, thoughtful post. Our kids need to see heroes with strong points of character, not ignoring the fact that people are complex mixes of good and bad, but elevating the good for admiration and emulation.

    • As a recycled public school teacher, I can tell you as-a-matter-of-factly that current history curricula strive to take heroism out of the heros. Academia delights in finding new and juicy details that knock each and every hero down to normal size.

      CS Lewis, in his great Screwtape Letters, talks about this trend in a couple of ways. One way is that Screwtape, a master-tempter, recommends mediocrity or normalcy as opposed to extremes. For the demon, 100 mediocre souls that enter hell is just as good, if not better, than 1 Hitler. Likewise, Screwtape says that despots (which include an elite class like academics) need to knock heroes down to normal to retain control.

  13. This brought to mind our reading for the “Saint of the Day”. We read about Blesseds John Duckett and Ralph Corby and their martyrdom along with the story of the September martyrs. It is not as simple as saying All the revolutionaries in France were bad and the Church was the only good. There were many forces at work. And there are sinful fallen people everywhere.

    Right now my 6 year old needs to know of the martyrs faith and forgiveness and God-given bravery. Soon enough they will learn all the sinfulness that brought about the martyrdoms.

    And so it goes with history and any great man or woman for that matter. There is always more than meets the eye – but we need to simple stories to inspire us to become the big stories.

  14. It occurs to me that if we want to inspire young children with un-nuanced stories of heroes, maybe we should stick to people who are actually canonized.

    • I was thinking that, Erin – and the nice thing about Catholic saints is that they come in all varieties. There’s still plenty of opportunity to draw the wrong impression from their lives, though – their “central holiness,” if that isn’t too silly a phrase, may be something completely other than what they are famous for. In other words, you can’t go wrong praying to them, but you can certainly be misled by mythologizing their lives, just as you could with great secular people. Think of what happened to poor St. Francis: he’s known mostly as a great lover of puppies and kitties, and people forget about the stigmata!

      I’m not arguing with you, just thinkin about stuff.

  15. Barboo said:

    Well, as one of my religious studies professors described pretty accurately, Columbus “discovered America” at a point in time when Europe was in a position to do something with it. How he did it and what he did afterward weren’t particularly heroic. Realistically, he probably wasn’t much braver than any other sailor.

    I think I would use Columbus more as an example of happening to be in the right place at the right time to effect the direction of human history (even if he was completely clueless about where he was).


    But, come on, he had to decide that he was going to be the one to do it! “Europe” didn’t do it — one man did it. He had to campaign hard for the funding and persuade a crew. He didn’t have maps. That’s what gets me. I’m sure there were many equally brave sailors at the time, but being the first one to do something new, dangerous, frightening, and enormous makes you a great man, in my book.

    • I also take issue with the notion that Europe was in any shape to do anything about the new discovery. NOT! France and England were embroiled in their own disputes (either civil or international), the Holy Roman Empire was anything but a cohesive whole and unified, the Italian peninsula was embroiled in the midst of political wranglings of the ruling families of the city-states (not to mention making pretty penny off the spice trade with Muslim traders), and Spain had just finished conquering the Iberian Peninsula, thus forcing the Portuguese and Spanish monarchs to reorganize their governments and resources. The only reason Spain had any cash whatsoever was that Ferdinand listened to some of his snake-like advisors and kicked out all Jews from Spain…and confiscated their wealth. Even then, all Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus was three ratty old ships that weren’t designed for over-sea travel (in the words of Princess Leia: “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought!”)

  16. I like the wisdom of fictional characters. Here’s an excerpt of a monologue given by the character Maurice from the show Northern Exposure. It’s from season one, episode two. There are about two paragraphs of the speech which precedes what I’ve quoted here and I’ve left out a bit in the middle.

    “I don’t give a damn if Walt Whitman kicked with his right foot or his left foot or that J. Edgar Hoover took it better than he gave it, or that Ike was true blue to Mamie, or that God-knows-who had troubles with the ponies or with the bottle. We need our heroes. We need men we can look up to, believe in. Men who walk tall. We cannot chop ’em off at the knees just to prove they’re like the rest of us.


    Sure, we’re all human, but there’s damn few of us that have the right stuff to be called heroes.”

  17. Sara’s quote brings to mind a great American folk hero:
    Johnny Cash. There’s a lot that a person could learn from studying his life.

  18. Yes…I’ve been thinking about this as I read James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.

    To me, both the cartoonish narrative that was taught for so long, and the black and white newsreel of oppression that so many now advocate, cover up three things:

    The history of ideas, that is, learning that what we take for granted these days was hard-won by scrabbling in the very rocky field of ignorance. (I came to history via the history of science, which is explicitly a history of ideas.) Perhaps the biggest obstacle Columbus overcame was his own misperception about the size of the world. Or say it another way: one of history’s greatest jokes is that his ignorance gave him the courage to achieve one of the great discoveries of the ages.

    This is related to overcoming our past. The heroic thing about Jefferson is that despite being so blinded by the social conventions of his time that he could keep slaves, he could also write the Declaration of Independence, and espouse a way of thinking about liberty that would eventually do away with slavery.

    And this in turn leads to the idea of heroes. I keep trying to convince myself that Lincoln was a horrible man, one of the worst tyrants in American history. However, I keep finding that he, too, misguided as he was, had a profound vision of what America, and Americans, could be, and that the biggest impediments to that vision were slavery, and the idea that keeping slavery was really the only “states’ right” worth sundering the nation for. He took a terrible gamble, but the nation was, evidently, ready for that fight, and I believe that he led us, all of us, even — especially! — the South, into a great victory over our coarser natures.

    We shouldn’t teach that our heroes had no flaws, that they are superheroes. That blinds us to the very struggle that makes them heroes. By the same token, though, we shouldn’t teach that there were no heroes, because that hobbles us with our failings, rather than giving us the wings we need to become heroes ourselves.

    • Two points:

      You state Jefferson’s support for slavery in contradiction to his Declaration of Independence. Perhaps, Jefferson wasn’t that committed to slavery as we are led to believe…after all, he, through his buddy Madison (from what I have read), pushed for the elimination of the importation of slaves as well as the 3/5 Compromise in attempts to wean the South in particular off slavery. Perhaps, he REALLY meant that ALL men, including slaves, were endowed with certain inalienable rights.

      I can’t bring myself to call Lincoln a tyrant, despite his actions in the war. This is because of his plan for Reconstruction, his vision for the United States, and the severe opposition he faced in the North during the war. He was planning a reconstruction “with malice toward none”, one that wouldn’t alienate the South (unlike the GOP Congress). You already mentioned the vision thing…a tyrant doesn’t have a vision like that. Lincoln faced severe opposition during the war, and if it wasn’t for Gettysburg or Vicksburg, he would have lost the 1864 election. Tyrants don’t allow such opposition to exist (but he didn’t tolerate anyone hampering his ability to carry on the war he felt was absolutely necessary to his vision of what the US should be).

      • Thanks for reading, and for your reply. Essentially, I think, we’re in agreement, but yes, there are these niggling details.

        Jefferson’s commitment to slavery was enough that he kept slaves. That, to me, is a striking contradiction. I think he really did mean that all men had certain inalienable right — but being a fallible human being, he wasn’t quite able to accept the cost of applying the ideal to his own affairs. (I also suspect that he rationalized this by refusing to acknowledge that blacks were fully human, capable of exercising liberty and the duties that come with it.)

        Your comments on Lincoln are spot on. When I say “I keep trying to convince myself Lincoln was a tyrant,” I’m responding to the trendiness of attacking him, a phenomena I see on all sides — right, left, socialist, and libertarian. Nevertheless, many of the criticisms I see are, in my mind, entirely justifiable.

        However, my main point is that both men achieved greatness that transcends their failings, for the very reasons you describe. That achievement is what we should highlight, particularly in grade school, not the failings.

        The more I learn about history, and the individuals who made it, the more I love learning of the failings and contradictions of our heroes. They overcame awful physical privation and terrible enemies, but they also overcame their own ignorance and prejudice, and that of their times and cultures.

        Gods, Sally Hemings is like the seasoning in a really good étouffée. Jefferson would be bland marble without her.

  19. […] Simcha Fisher, in defense of history’s heroes: For younger kids, though, I am in favor of teaching the simple, mythologized version of history first, and then refining it later (as long as you don’t get your myths from a dumbbell like Dan Brown). Kids should understand the basic truth of what happened, and then discover the details when their minds become more subtle. […]

  20. To be fair, Margarete Porete, who was the first woman burned by the Paris Inquisition, was in fact burned for heresy by the Church. Along with her spiritual advisor. For expressing a view that was contained in the catechism. 200 years later, when St. John of the Cross suggested the same idea, it was a-okay.

  21. I have a Master’s Degree in History largely because I was fortunate enough to go to a school that didn’t have the money to throw away the over simplified, often fictitious, Childhood of Famous Americans books. So I fell in love with the stories that formed the delightfully solid framework on which I would later hang flesh and blood and pimples and scars. I wonder if it is not all this “truth” that is causes most children to consider history boring.

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