History as a Link
The teaching of history, therefore, should not be limited to a moment or a culture (e.g., the Vietnam War, Eighteenth Century France). Such an approach only provides an isolated view of man and his world. Expanding history, on the other hand, to include the entire human saga sequentially from the beginning to the present provides what’s needed to open the mind to the variations of the human drama in a rich and understandable way.
For history to have meaning, historical events must be integrated in an orderly manner of cause and effect. Ancient Rome could never have known glory if it hadn’t built on the remains of ancient Greece. And America could never have become a great industrial nation if it hadn’t been for the Enlightenment. The present is linked significantly to the past. Together they lead to the future. Teaching history means teaching events in this way.
A teacher, on the other hand, who teaches unconnected historical events, as names and dates, to be memorized for a test, is doing a child a grave injustice. Such teaching has little respect for a student's conceptual development. By teaching history sequentially -- identifying cause and effect -- a teacher demonstrates how one event leads to another and affects all levels of the human experience. Most importantly, he teaches what ideas endure and fail, and why. By such teaching, the students are learning about the grand panorama of life with civilizations rising and falling, nobler or more corrupt than before, because of the ideas contributing to it.
For maximum intellectual benefits, it is important that the material isn't arranged artificially around some fashionable idea or controversial current event of no historical importance. Such material only distracts from the relevant and leads to intellectual confusion. Therefore, lessons should be organized around reoccurring themes, as true today as they were yesterday. By identifying such themes and emphasizing them through the selective presentation of salient facts, a teacher brings the entire human saga to life and makes it flow logically!
For example, from the Neolithic period to the present, there has been the clash of two mighty forces: to conquer and control, and to break away and be free. History is replete with examples. From slavery among early totemistic tribes to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, from the intellectual freedom of the ancient Greeks to the United States of America, these two forces have opposed each other, both from inside and outside the empires since life began.
To illustrate these forces in action, the teacher must show their different shapes -- the similarities, the dissimilarities, the strengths, the weaknesses -- from the earliest nomadic herdsmen to modern man. Teaching history means teaching important fundamental patterns. It means taking an idea, woven through time, and bringing it to life. Jacques Barzun summed up the process of bringing a subject to life well in his book Teacher in America. "How then do you pour a little bit of what you feel and think and know into another's mind? In the act of teaching, it is done by raising the ghost of an object, idea, or fact, and holding it in full view of the class, turning it this way and that, describing it - demonstrating it like a new car or a vacuum cleaner."
To provide full dimension to important historical patterns, a teacher should expose the student to all the relevant facts, which reinforce the theme. This is done by highlighting the lifestyles, the government, the social and political structure, the music, the religion, the philosophy of the time and draw them together around a central theme with literature, movies, slides, field trips, music, tapes, and other supportive tools as aids. The purpose is to demonstrate how one idea affects all aspects of life, how one political or religious or philosophical attitude can turn a historical moment into a human celebration or a tragedy.
History presented like this ceases to be just names and dates, but instead becomes an exciting, relevant experience. It unites men of all ages and cultures by exposing the basic forces that moves them. But most of all it teaches values by teaching what is possible or impossible, what is best or worst, and what brings happiness or misery. History taught chronologically and linked to a primary theme enables students to understand the world and their place in it. Without this background, their ability to grasp human events is stunted.