Teaching Kids the Importance of History

by David L. Russell, Ph.D.


I come from a long line of history conscious Russells and I have to say that growing up in Ken Russell's house was a daily journey down our family's memory lane as well as journeys into historical facts. My father remembers more historical facts than most people have forgotten. He can tell you the exact number of years from the death of, let's say, Abraham Lincoln to the birth of Richard Nixon. He knows facts, dates, and names that will boggle your mind. I credit him to a large degree for my own love of history, and also to my pursuit of graduate level studies in history.

That being said, however, I began to look at history in a much more scientific and deeper level. It wasn't until my second year in college that I noticed the importance in studying history was found in looking at the cause and effect process through the walls of time. Names, dates, and place are important to know as the foundation for a deeper study of the events of history. If you're studying the Civil War, you should know the time frame and context of all the events that took place. The danger in merely memorizing names, dates, and places is that you'll never understand the hows and whys of those events. Memorization of names, dates, and places is great if you're planning to be the next Jeopardy champion, but that alone isn't going to help you understand it.

Now I'm not attempting to pick on public education, but I have to say that in my research and study of public educational institutions, I am dismayed at how ill prepared most children are in the area of history. In all the years thatI taught first and second year college history courses, I can count on my right hand the number of students who actually expressed any enthusiasm about history methodology. Most of what I heard was to the effect of, "I find history boring, but it's a required course". Or, "Who cares about this stuff? Where does this attitude come from, by the way? It's not only reinforced in the schools, but in a society that has plunged into an ahistorical mindset with the help of a post-modern spirit of the age. Unfortunately, it's too often reinforced by parents who fail to possess an historical conscience.

Let me use an example from a conversation I had with my son, Weston. He is an inquisitive boy and not much gets by him when it comes to current events. He was eight years old when the terrorists attacked our country on 9/11/01 and quickly began asking questions about "Why these people would do such a thing?" He began to ask questions about the history of the Islamic religion, and what happened to make some of them terrorists. I took him on a journey back to the Old Testament and the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and the bitterness that resulted from this family squabble. In a simple way, I attempted to explain that the events of history need to be viewed as a series of causes and effects. I told him that history is important not for nostalgia sake, but for understanding the causes behind the events. This is how we learn (hopefully) not to repeat past mistakes, and to get a better picture of what molds and shapes people and societies. Teaching children merely names dates, and places will in no way help them to truly understand history. They need to understand that ideas have consequences and that history is shaped by philosophy whether it's good or bad. I like to say that studying history is like performing autopsies on culture. As we teach our children about history we need to show them the connective tissue that links events together, how ideas shape history. Discussing historical events, and how they came about, will help our children gain wisdom, and teach how to keep their fingers on the pulse of society.

I love to discuss the importance of history with my children, and one way I have helped them to see its values is through the use of timelines. When they were homeschooled, we used to put timelines on the wall in the basement and then let them put their picture and personal information on the timeline with all the other events in history. It's amazing to see how a child takes an interest in the subject once they see themselves written into the story. You cannot get too deep with younger children simply because they haven't lived long enough to have a developed frame of reference, but we can still teach them the importance of "understanding history as opposed to merely knowing facts. An oft quoted line by the Historian Santayana that "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it" should be drilled into our children. But more importantly, we need to continue to teach them history from thestandpoint of God's revelation through His word. The Old Testament is filled with story after story of God's hand in shaping the history of His people, and the results of wrong headed, sinful decisions. What better examples can you find of historical cause and effect? The New Testament with the revelation of Jesus Christ and the development of His Church serves as an example of God's continued involement in human history.

I invite your comments and questions if you would like to share them with me. I wish you all continued success in educating your children, and pray that all our children come to understand the value of history.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 - David L. Russell, PhD.

All rights reserved by the author - © March 2004

Permission to reprint is possible, please contact the author for consideration.