History: Trivium vs. Trivial Pursuit Part Two

History: Trivium vs. Trivial Pursuit Part Two by Bob Donaldson

The first stage of the trivium is the grammar stage. In order to understand the way to apply the analogy of grammar to history (or any other subject) we must first look at how grammar applies to language. The grammar of a language should include, for our discussion, at least these three elements:
Morphology – The categories of the building blocks of the language. These categories include not only the traditional parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), but also the various prefixes and suffixes used to construct words of one category from words of another (e.g. the common use of -ize in English to turn a noun into a verb).

Syntax – The rules for combining words of different categories into well-formed sentences. The sentence templates given in Shirley grammar are good examples of these rules.

Semantics – The rules for interpreting the meaning of well-formed sentences from the meaning of the words themselves and the meaning derived from the syntax. This accounts for the difference between the two headlines “Dog Bites Man” and “Man Bites Dog”, for instance.

Note that the vocabulary itself is not part of the grammar, but note, too, that talking about the grammar of a language without some vocabulary would be confusing at best.

Turning, then, to the question at hand, how can we apply our analogy to history? I hope it is obvious that we cannot simply say that the grammar of history is the collection of historical facts–specific names, dates, places-alone. These are much more like the vocabulary of history–the content that allows us to discuss the structure meaningfully. As with language, a large vocabulary has advantages. In fact, it is precisely this historical vocabulary that Paul appeals to in the passage from I Corinthians 10: 1-11. Look again at Paul’s exhortation, though. He encourages us to learn from the historical examples, not simply recite them. This requires us to go beyond the specifics. We need to understand the morphology of history–the building blocks out of which the events of history (the “well-formed sentences”) are constructed. There are at least three of these building blocks worthy of note-the role of the individual, the geographic/spatial relationships, and the linearity of time.

First, God is concerned with individuals and works in the ordinary course of history through individuals. We should show how individual people can influence history for good or for ill and how their own character and worldview play a part in both the kind and degree of influence they have. Heavy use of biographies, especially in the younger grades, is a great way to underscore this point. We should beware of curricula or teaching resources that downplay the role of the individual and emphasize, for instance, the irresistible force of progress or the equality of species. Both of these points of view have been or are commonly accepted by the teaching establishment, and have been incorporated into children’s literature and teacher’s materials.

Second, we should seek to understand how geography and spatial relationships affect the flow of history and how the growth of technology changes that effect. This might include discussion of how Egypt’s natural geographical boundaries affected its security and contributed to both the richness and the relative isolation of its culture (as well as why those natural boundaries are largely irrelevant today). Map skills and basic geography are essential components of understanding this aspect of history. Learning to translate distance into travel time for a merchant (or an invading army) during a given period will help students gain an appreciation for this dimension of history.

We should teach how the progress of time affects history. This includes illustrating the relationship between time and the development of technology as well as firmly grounding students in the “obvious” linearity of time-the fact that earlier events, people and ideas do have an affect on later ones. (I call attention to the word “obvious”, because humanist world views are calling into question this clearly Biblical concept. Rather than including a single “history” that documents a definite reality, both concepts become subjective and relative-merely one of an infinite number of possible threads through the space-time continuum.)

As we consider the syntax of history, we should build on these concepts to show how they interact to bring about the events of history. Some of these interactions are alluded to in the examples above; as with language itself, these divisions are sometimes both arbitrary and indistinct. Note also, that these are not sequential steps-it is precisely in discussing how these building blocks interact to form the tapestry of history that we grow to understand the contributions of each.

As we consider the semantics of history, we should be asking the question: “What does it all mean?” This question cannot be answered apart from an understanding of God’s sovereignty. He works through the ordinary means of His creation and also through extraordinary (or miraculous) interventions. History is one way God reveals himself to us. He shows us the consequences of good and evil. He shows us the excellence of His plan. (Consider, for a moment from a purely historical point of view-how perfectly God prepared the world “in the fullness of time” for the coming of his son!)

Taken together (and taught together–not sequentially) these three aspects make up what we are calling the “grammar” of history. Students who “learn” this grammar, will (at an age-appropriate level) understand how to integrate new historical facts into an overall understanding of history. They will also be ready to move into the dialectic and rhetoric stages, because they will have been trained on complete historical “sentences,” not just long “vocabulary lists,” I think this is the point concerning “living books”and “stimulating ideas” that Charlotte Mason makes repeatedly in her works, as the following two passages show:

It may occur to some readers to consider that such lines of thought as.I have suggested [i.e., exposing younger children to living books and living ideas] are perhaps interesting but not practical. Believe me, nothing is so practical as a great idea, because nothing produces such an abundant outcome of practical effort.

It cannot too often be said that information is not education. You may answer an examination question about the position of the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands without having been anywise nourished by the fact of these island groups existing in such and such latitudes and longitudes; but if you follow Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachelot, the names excite that little mental stir which indicates the reception of real knowledge.
The goal here is to engage and excite as well as inform the students…. [To be continued next issue.]