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How to Read History

Reading History Different Culture

When I was a little girl, I would go visit my grandparents once or twice a year. I quickly figured out that things at my grandparents’ house were different from my own house. They had different-looking furniture; they watched different TV shows and played different games; they had different toys for me to play with; they didn’t have air conditioning; they ate different foods. They even used different words. At my house, we ate “cereal” for breakfast; at their house that box of cereal was called “breakfast food.” 

Perhaps you experienced the same kind of thing at your grandparents’ house. We didn’t use this word when we were young, but what we were experiencing was a different culture

We know that if we travel the globe and visit other countries, we will be spending time in different cultures. But sometimes we forget that when we go back in history, we are entering a different culture too. Especially if we are using living books, we feel like we are experiencing those historic events and spending time with the people whose actions caused those events. And if we are reading authors of that time period, the experience can be even more immersive.

So as we read history, I think there are two key ideas that we would do well to remember.

First, it’s important to remember that people in history are not like us. They lived in a different culture; their world had different fashions, different foods, different cooking techniques, different technology, different global awareness, perhaps different currency, definitely different monetary values, different vocabulary, different word meanings, and different events that shaped how they viewed the world. Just as the actions and conversations at Grandma’s house reflected a different mind-set, so the actions and words used in history narratives will reflect a different culture.

Now, you know this, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: different doesn’t automatically mean inferior. We need to be careful that we don’t give our children the impression that any culture that is different from ours right now is of less value or is to be despised. Our children need to see the whole “pageant of history,” as Charlotte Mason put it, and understand the various cultures that are connected with each era.

Vocabulary is one of the key reasons that understanding is important. People in the past—whether your grandparents or their grandparents or their grandparents before them—used different words. Language is constantly changing, and our children need to understand that. Words are important, absolutely; but understanding a person’s intention when he uses words is just as important. 

When we come across a term or even an action in a historical narrative that today makes us pause, we would do well to remember that it might just be a cultural difference. The real question is Why did the author (or the person speaking) use that term or do that action? You can usually tell from the context whether the person meant to be insulting. Consider whether that term or action was intentionally derogatory in that historical culture.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been reading the letters and journals of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other American classics. Louisa lived during the mid-1800s and grew up in a home that was adamantly anti-slavery. She helped her mother hide a runaway slave in their house; she heard her beloved father give lectures in support of the Abolitionists. Louisa herself had some of her stories rejected by magazine publishers because they were too obviously anti-slavery; yet Louisa refused to change them, even though she needed the money that they would bring. 

Now with that context in mind, let me share a paragraph from her journal of January, 1865. The Civil War had just ended. Let me tell you up front, she’s going to use a term that we would disagree with in our culture today, yet I want you to consider the idea that she is communicating and whether that idea would be of value to your children. 

Louisa wrote: “On the 15th in the midst of the rejoicing came the sad news of the President’s assassination, and the city went into mourning. I am glad to have seen such a strange and sudden change in the nation’s feelings. Saw the great procession, and though few colored men were in it, one was walking arm in arm with a white gentleman, and I exulted thereat.”

I think we would all agree with her attitude, even though we may not appreciate her choice of words. The term she used was acceptable in the culture of Louisa’s time period. 

Understanding that people in history are not like us can help us view them through gracious eyes, looking for their heart, interpreting their words and actions with their intentions in mind. 

Cultures change, but heart issues remain, and it’s the heart issues that help our children learn and grow. Our children will be missing out on so many wonderful ideas if we feel that we must skip any readings that reflect a different culture from the one we are comfortable in today. We don’t have to agree with everything in the cultures of the past, but we must help our children understand them and approach them with respect for what they can teach us.

So the first thing to remember when reading history is that people in history are not like us. 

The second thing to remember when reading history is that people in history are like us. 

People are human, no matter what culture they live in. And human beings are not perfect. We all make good choices and bad choices. I’m sure all of us have certain memories from our past that make us wince and think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that.”

But the thing is, we can learn from those bad choices; and we’ve made good choices too. We’ve done things that have helped others and perhaps even changed their lives for the better. 

The truth is that the world is full of flawed people. And the history of the world is full of flawed people. Some people are remembered for a great contribution that helped whole nations, yet those people also made some poor choices in other areas of their lives. 

The Bible is full of men and women who played a major role in Biblical history, yet in almost every instance, the narrative includes the person’s failings as well as his triumphs. Why? To remind us that people in history are much like we are today, and to remind us that a person’s failings don’t discount or disqualify the good that he did. 

It’s the same with all people in history. We need to be careful not to glorify someone’s successes and ignore his failings, but we also can’t do the opposite and ignore someone’s successes because of his failings. 

We don’t want to be remembered only for our faults. And we certainly don’t want any significant contributions we made to be swept aside and considered invalid because we aren’t perfect. What we want is for others to acknowledge that we are human but also to recognize anything of value that we are able to contribute to those around us. 

So, let’s afford the same respect to our fellow men and women who lived in the past. Our children can learn from both the good and the bad choices those people made. Living history narratives play an important part in educating our children’s consciences and training their reasoning. 

History provides an opportunity to learn from good and bad choices like no other subject, because in history we can trace the long-term consequences of those choices. Those narratives hand us valuable tools to discuss the timeless principles behind the choices. 

Opinions change. Preferred terms and word choices change. Entertainments change. Circumstances change. And if our children only learn the opinions of today’s current culture, they will be ill-equipped to face the decisions of tomorrow. 

Timeless principles offer a solid foundation on which to build all of life. And history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—provides a goldmine of opportunities to emphasize the principles behind the actions and the words.

How do you do that? Well, when a history book states something that makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this true? Did this actually happen? And don’t assume you know the answer to that. You may be surprised. Seek out additional sources or source documents when possible; look for older and newer sources. An older source is going to be closer to when something happened and may have more detail and accuracy in some points. But a newer source has the advantage of reflection over time and collective knowledge from more than one perspective. The main point is don’t jump to conclusions.
  2. How does this compare to the principles that rule my life? Don’t get stuck on the opinions cherished by today’s culture, but get to the heart issues.
  3. What can we learn from this? 

We’re doing our children a disservice if we try to change history to reflect only today’s culture. Our children will learn so much more, and be better equipped for life, if we read and discuss the decisions made by the people in the past—people who are not like us, and yet, they are like us. And those are two important things to remember when you read history.

2 Responses to “How to Read History”

  1. Deb October 3, 2019 at 8:16 am #

    Well said!

  2. Becky Tierney October 3, 2019 at 9:41 am #

    I agree with Deb. Well Said! Thank you

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