If you’re like me, you hated history in school. But now, as a parent, you’ve come to believe that knowledge of history is valuable. You want to include history in your homeschooling curriculum, but you face a lot of tough questions. At the top of the list are what to teach, and how. But if you want to help your child to appreciate history, an equally important question is when to start teaching it. The sooner children start learning the right history, the greater the chance they will learn to love it. Conversely, every year that goes by before children are exposed to proper history instruction makes it less likely they will ever learn history, let alone love it.
Consider for instance, the prevalence of historical ignorance and disdain for history among adults today. When most adults think back to how they hated history when they were younger, they are almost always referring to high school. To this day, high school is often students’ first exposure to history proper, because most schools teach only “social studies” to younger children. By the time high school comes around, most students have little idea what history is, never mind its full scope, the basic sequential breakdown of its constituent civilizations, or the main actors that moved it forward.
A great illustration of this fact is that I have never managed to introduce the story of Martin Luther to new students at any level (including high school) without them either drawing a complete blank or having someone ask me if I didn’t mean Martin Luther King! This illustrates a number of disturbing points. First, students are told something about Martin Luther King, so they recognize his name, but they don’t really know anything about him. Second, students are not taught about something as important to the history of the world as the Reformation. And third, because they are taught the former and not the latter, most students don’t have even the most basic level of historical-mindedness required to sort out the difference between a sixteenth century German monk and a twentieth century American civil rights activist!
It may be true that typical high school history classes and textbooks are irreparably bad. But it is also true that if children haven’t already learned history by the time they get to high school, they probably never will!
Children need to start learning history early. The best time to start kids on a systematic history curriculum is when they are six or seven years old. Five is usually too young, and eight is possibly too late!
Why start history at six or seven years old? Because children of that age are ready for history. It never ceases to amaze me how advanced seven year olds are. Recently, while studying Ancient Greece with each of my classes, we talked about the Athenian lawgiver Draco. When I set the context for my students, I explained the trend of aristocratic infighting and bids for power by tyrannoi such as Cylon which were destroying the social fabric of Athens, and I explained how the Athenians were seeking to establish order. My seven year olds were quickly able to identify a similarity between Draco’s Laws and those of the famous Babylonian lawgiver Hammurabi, whom we had studied a few weeks before. They were eager to discuss why the same kinds of harsh laws would arise in similar social contexts. They were happy to learn a new vocabulary word-“draconian”-and use it with their parents in order to not have to do laundry or get a little more TV time! They were equally eager to know what further social problems plagued Athens, and why Solon was empowered to create yet another set of laws within a generation.
By contrast, getting my Junior High class to explore this topic was a little like pulling teeth. It’s not that they didn’t recognize the parallels between Draco and Hammurabi. Indeed, given their greater intellectual maturity, they were equipped to consider it in more depth, and I was able to lead them through a profitable discussion. Sadly, however, they didn’t get excited by it.
This is because they hadn’t learned to get excited about it when they were younger. Obviously, when it comes to young teenagers, there’s a lot going on. Most of them struggle to sort out the growing range of academic, family, social, and emotional issues they are faced with. But the things kids love as they grow up, they usually continue to enjoy, whether it’s basketball, skateboarding, music, or computers, and it can be the same way with history.
A perfect case in point is the various “Upper Elementary” classes I’ve taught. At this level, I have had the distinct pleasure of re-teaching ten year olds the same material that I once taught them when they were seven. This is where the pay-off starts to become evident. I’ve seen first hand, how excited students can be to revisit a topic they previously enjoyed, and how they derive new kinds of pleasure from learning it again and learning more about it. One of the key values students receive from returning to material they learned when they were younger is a sense of efficacy. Students enjoy remembering something they once learned three years ago. They are filled with pride when able to demonstrate previously acquired understanding. And they experience a new kind of intellectual pleasure when they grasp that their knowledge is progressing. When students begin to experience history in this way, they are on their way to picking up the “history habit.”
Of course, they can’t experience these unique benefits if they didn’t learn history earlier, but they also can’t experience them unless they get more of the same history again later. Kids don’t just need history early, they need history often and repeatedly, i.e. they need to return to the same material many times over the course of their education, so that they can continue to build on the foundation of their early schooling. Look for my article “How Much History do Kids Need?” for an in depth look at this point.