A Socratic Approach to History
History, along with literature, are my absolute favorite subjects. Hmmmm- that is definitely falling short. Let me try again. I live and breathe history and literature. Those are the subjects my mind revels in when there is a moment for it to frolic free. I am absolutely guilty of having serious book hangovers, during which I feel lost in the world of a book I just completed, and even the most difficult of historic time periods inspire a nostalgia that impedes my ability to function in my own. Bring history and literature together in what to me is the most harmonious marriage, and I am won completely.
As you can imagine, when we decided to begin history this year, with ancients, I had so many plans. I instantly envisioned mummified chickens on my counter (a chicken from the grocery store-already deceased- not one from our backyard flock), constructed pyramids, a pillaged laundry room with all of our sheets turned into togas, and the list goes on. I planned all the books we would create and the art we would re-create. And though this is all well and good, (and yes, I might still sneak a few of these projects and pull them back into the mix) I have realized something about teaching and learning history. It is a story. A very powerful one, yes. One with drastic consequences, yes. But it is a story. And…therefore, is one best learned through long, un-rushed periods of oral story telling and discussion.
Realizing this, we decided to go back in time, to a time when topics were explored entirely orally, through discussion, through questions and answers, through narrations, through the tradition of story, and maybe even a little debate (Hammurabi’s Code can be inspirational for this). We have, in actuality, very naturally discovered the Socratic method.
I remember when I was in school- namely high school. History was taught as a series of lectures mixed with assigned text book readings, questions to be answered in writing, and multiple choice tests. I remember the questions that would arise in my young mind, about the people, the experiences, the ethics, and I remember the exasperated feeling I would have when there was simply not the time to discuss these out of the way topics at length (often my questions didn’t concern the timeline of events but rather the ethics in question and the experiences of those involved). I remember pondering a topic for a few days, but before I could wrap my head around it, we would have, as a class, moved on to a different topic.
So when I found myself feeling a bit burdened and rushed in our lessons by all of the projects or writing assignments I had planned for us in the name of history, I naturally became a bit concerned.
After stepping back and thinking things over, I came to realize something. History is different than other subjects, in that the heart of it isn’t based on rules to be memorized. Though it is replete with interesting facts, there is so much more to be understood and explored or the entire experience of learning history is for naught. It is an experience, and as such, it involves ambiguous things such as ethics, morals, and faith. It involves hope and the loss of it, bravery and cowardice, and it involves heroes and villains, and, most importantly, it involves critical thinking, as it has been written often from the perspective of the winners. This is not a topic that can be learned by lectures and not even through a hands on project filled curriculum. Sure, a child can learn to associate mummies with Egyptians after completing any of the offered mummy projects out there, but only through story and an open ended discussion can a child begin to learn about what possessed people to feel the need to endure eternally. Or about the hierarchy of social status, at the foot of which so many suffered, that made the building of pyramids possible. A child can open a book and read about the British Empire, but only through discussion, during which the parent is willing to be present, not thinking about all the other things that need to be accomplished that day, can a child explore the question of the ethics and morality behind an empire. We can read Shakespeare, dress up for the Rennaisance fair, and immerse ourselves in the Age of Exploration, but only through discussions, questions, answers, and narrations, can we inspire our children to think about what those years of exploration meant for so many non-Europeans.
The purpose of history isn’t to memorize significant events and their dates, though the public school system will often do their best to make it so. Nor is it to match period clothes and art to their time on a timeline. The purpose of history is to teach our children about ethics and morality. To teach our children about what it means to be human, and then to inspire them to be of the best, both ethically and morally. If history was approached this way, for generations, we just might, as a human race, stop this cycle of repeating the same mistakes for over two thousand years. This kind of learning and exploration can only be experienced through the ancient art of speaking. It requires the voice, it requires eye contact, and it requires time. It requires thought and reflection, and then more discussion. It requires asking our children questions about the ethics of an event, situation, or person, and waiting patiently while they arrive at their answer, rather then jumping to give them the answer.
After contemplating all of this, I made a drastic change, something I have never done. I erased ALL of my plans, projects, ideas, and crafts from my plan, and I began our lesson with a story, or a chapter from one of our history books, and then, to help my children digest it and understand it, I asked them to narrate it back to me in their own words. After that, a discussion would naturally take over. I would ask them questions about their thoughts, ambiguous questions- which required them to think rather than remember the right date or answer. And we would then discuss the topic deeper. We might not have our shelves lined with projects, nor will we have a lot to physically show for our year of history, but I am watching my children learn HOW to think. I am watching them learn how to contemplate the morals of situations and come to their own conclusions about if that situation was an ethical one. And that, I believe, is the purpose of studying our story, the human story.