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    Reading History from Different Perspectives

    February 8, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    Reading history is an interesting thing. You see, the perspective of the person writing the history is all mixed up with the history itself. This scares some people. They start to feel like they’ve inadvertently wandered into the world of relativism when they meant to stay standing on solid ground, thankyouverymuch.

    But I don’t think that saying history is told from a perspective means that truth isn’t knowable or known. A person can tell history truly or falsely — the latter is what we’d call revisionism, and it’s not history; it’s propaganda. But if we read two conflicting accounts, this doesn’t mean that one is True and the other is propaganda. At least, it doesn’t necessarily mean that.

    The fact is, we don’t always agree on who the hero is. This is normal, and this has to be okay because … it’s reality.

    Reading History from Different Perspectives: Why children should read and wrestle with conflicting accounts, and what is gained when they do so.

    One of the things I love about doing AmblesideOnline with my children is that they are gradually introduced to this concept over time. This is not the purpose or aim of the curriculum, but rather a beneficial side effect that comes from reading well-written history.

    The earliest example I can think of is in Year 3. There may be some places where the issue comes up before, but I have consistently had a conversation about this in Year 3 — in fact, we’re three for three so far, and I anticipate it’ll be no different when I get there with our fourth child in a couple years.

    In Year 3, they are covering a tumultuous period of English history. The American history is filled with Indian wars and colonization, yes, but Britain? She’s torn by civil war. She beheads her own king. Those were trying times, to be sure.

    In Our Island Story, Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads are made out to be (mostly) the heroes of the story. Or, at the very least, one can’t read the description of King Charles I and admire him very much. So the children, thinking in black and white as they do, immediately conclude that Charles I is the “bad guy” and Cromwell is the “good guy.” It’s happened every time. In This Country of Ours, they hear a bit of the other side of the story when they read of the Royalist Cavaliers fleeing the Puritan bloodbath by coming to America (that’s how George Washington’s family got here, by the way), of Virginia bravely declaring herself under the kingship of Charles I, yet eventually surrendering to Cromwell.

    But it is in Children of the New Forest where they really gain some perspective. The four Beverly children — our main characters — are orphaned, and Cromwell’s men burn their house down. The children must live in the forest in fear of the Levellers (a Roundhead extremist group) pretending not to be noble, praying for the king to regain his throne. And then Cromwell and his men behead the king.

    Every single one of my children has been appalled. And then the question comes up:

    Why is Cromwell bad in this book, but good in Island Story?

    Why, indeed.

    I don’t think it’s so much that he was good in Our Island Story as that Our Island Story focused on the transgressions of King Charles I, something Children of the New Forest brushes over. Children tend to read Our Island Story and think that since King Charles I is so bad, Cromwell must be the good guy, but that doesn’t logically follow — another lesson brought out by reading more than one accounting of something that happened.

    This question always leads to the best conversations. My current Year 3 student asked probably the most insightful question I’ve received so far:

    If King Charles was so bad, why did Colonel Beverly follow him and die for him? And why does Edward Beverly want to do the same?

    And so we talked about duty — about how the Beverly men likely followed the king not because he was a good king, but because he was the king, and it was the sworn duty of their family to fight in his cause. We talked about how we can believe, on the one hand, that King Charles I wasn’t a very good king, but also believe, on the other hand, that the Roundheads ought not to have beheaded him. We talked about the importance of stability in government, and how overturning tradition doesn’t usually mean progress.

    Another type of perspective is gained not in a single year, but over the course of time. In Year 7, we start our second history cycle. We’ve spent a number of years wandering through history on a child’s level, and now we take it up a notch — or many notches — by tackling Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. It’s an amazing four-volume set.

    Year 7 covers the same historical period as Y2. Last year was quite the awakening for my oldest. He’d repeatedly ask why Our Island Story didn’t tell him this, or why he didn’t know this or that, or why the story seemed different in Churchill.

    In addition to this, The Daughter of Time is read in Year 7, and, really, the idea that history is told from a perspective is the entire point of that book. While some of it is definitely what I’d call revisionist (denying the martyrdom of certain Scottish Christians, for example), the book is still a fascinating read. And it isn’t just about the perspective of those who have written the history — it’s also about the perspective of the person currently researching the history.

    We forget that we bring our perspective to the table, too — the second we open the book and start reading, our perspective is there, accompanying us.

    We don’t read history to “get the facts.” I’m not even sure that we read it in order to “know what happened.” We read it to get wisdom. To learn from the past. To put our own present in context, and to better make decisions for the future.

    Wisdom can come from reading a single accounting, yes. We can admire what is good and hate what is evil in a single story, it’s true. But in reading multiple accounts, we gain a different type of wisdom — the wisdom that reminds us that all may not be as it seems, and that it is worth hearing the other side of the story before jumping to conclusions.

    The one who states his case first seems right,
    until the other comes and examines him.
    (Pr. 18:17)

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    20 Comments

  • Reply Manabendra Pathak July 1, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    We read history to know our past. So to know the real facts, we don’t need someone’s revision of every historical event. In history, a hero to someone may be a villain to some others. A true review of such personality or event should have both the perspectives else it is considered as propaganda. An African proverb says “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters’. Propaganda doesn’t last long, particularly when there is multiple way of knowing the historical facts. However, a true review helps the reader to understand the event better. By and large, we always read only the distorted facts of the history where earliest historians had the better opportunity to carry out their propaganda. In that case, it takes a longer time to reestablish the facts and often that becomes controversy too.

  • Reply SS #12: Close Encounters of the Other Kind (with Kathy Wickward) | Scholé Sisters January 28, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    […] Reading History from Different Perspectives […]

  • Reply Catie May 4, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    “We don’t read history to “get the facts.” I’m not even sure that we read it in order to “know what happened.” We read it to get wisdom. To learn from the past. To put our own present in context, and to better make decisions for the future.”

    LOVE THIS. 🙂

  • Reply Nelleke Plouffe February 12, 2016 at 10:58 am

    I appreciate this so much! I’ve been trying to find living books for Canadian history for my boys and a bit discouraged that the very best written books I’ve come across have basically ignored Native Canadians except where they intersect the lives of the white explorers and settlers (the books are quite old and of course have a bit of a colonialist flavour). I am encouraged… this is not the only Canadian history they will have, and perhaps this bias being so obvious may actually be a good thing. It’s harder to see the biases of our own time.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 16, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      “It’s harder to see the biases of our own time.” — That is SO true, Nelleke. In fact, I always think it will be interesting to look back as an old woman and maybe see what I was missing — what I was blind to in my younger years!

  • Reply Melissa February 9, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, I love it when the kiddos make connections! It’s one of the beautiful moments of homeschooling that I’m so thankful to be a part of….like when they say their first word, take their first step, master toilet training. I tell parents homeschooling is an extension of all those precious moments 🙂

  • Reply Sarah February 9, 2016 at 8:06 am

    “We don’t read history to “get the facts.” I’m not even sure that we read it in order to “know what happened.” We read it to get wisdom. To learn from the past. To put our own present in context, and to better make decisions for the future.”

    I almost choked on my coffee. I taught American Studies in high school (a combo of American lit and history) and I wish I could go back and make it all about this. My co-teacher and I were young teachers…and we did the first two things. I hope I can maintain a better perspective when teaching my own children. It’s hard to gauge wisdom when you’re teaching 130 students every day, but I am saddened by the many lost opportunties I had during my early years as an educator.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 9, 2016 at 8:55 am

      My guess is that you were doing what you were trained to do, right? But my other guess is that if you were combining lit with history, it wasn’t all bad. 🙂

      I hate that feeling of missed opportunities… 🙁

  • Reply Amanda February 8, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Love these insights, Brandy… and now I want to go gobble up all of these history books whole to catch up! *sigh*

    • Reply Sharron February 9, 2016 at 5:59 am

      I know! I feel so ignorant!! LOL

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 9, 2016 at 8:40 am

      You know, it’s funny, but I feel like reading children’s history has helped me be a better reader of adult history. Cracking open Our Island Story — even more than This Country of Ours, which is good but inferior, I think — was one of the best things that ever happened to our family, including ME! 🙂

  • Reply Jacque February 8, 2016 at 8:35 am

    As I read this post I can’t help but wonder what one is to do if her child is not recognizing the different perspectives. My son (age 8) really enjoys CONF, but does not seem to track with TCOO. At this point, his understanding of who the good guys are is quite simplistic, which I realize is to be expected at this age. But I really struggle when I hear him voice his view of who the good guy is. Unusually those of the dominant culture . . . There is an inner conflict going on where I want to trust the process of AO and its selection of rich, historical works and yet worry a bit that he will always have a negative view of certain people groups and historical figures.

    Not sure if I expressed myself clearly or not.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 8:46 am

      It’s possible that he’s not quite mature enough for it. I think that’d be the case with my youngest, except that, due to some issues when he was younger, we started him late — so he’ll be 9.5 when he reads these passages.

      With my little guy {he’s 7.5 right now}, I sometimes ask him if what he just narrated reminds him of anything else, just to get him to start making connections across works. Another thought might be to follow up — if he says someone is the good guy, ask him why he thinks that. Expressing his reasons might be the first step to maturing them…

      But generally, I would NOT be discouraged at 8. Especially with a boy. 🙂

      • Reply Jacque February 10, 2016 at 7:42 am

        Thanks for responding. That is helpful to remember!

  • Reply Sharron February 8, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Thank you for this! I like things to be one or the other with no inbetween and that’s not how life is. So I understand the kids questions. You are definitely right about bringing our own perspectives to the table too. I’ve lived most of my life in IN, my husband is from MS, we have some interesting conversations! I’m sure I’ll be reading this again.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 7:48 am

      I know what you mean! My husband is from FL and I’m from here {CA} and the same thing happens sometimes for us. 🙂

  • Reply Hevs February 8, 2016 at 12:30 am

    My year 3 daughter and I have just had exactly the same discussion! For children (and occasionally adults!) who tend to see things in black and white this is a great reminder that just because one person is bad it doesn’t necessarily mean the other is good… And on the subject of studying history, I was struck by this quote of Livy’s in Augustus Caesar’s World recently: “This is what makes the study of history so valuable, the fact that you can behold, displayed as on a monument, every kind of conduct; thence you may select for yourself and for your country that which you may imitate; thence note what is shameful in the undertaking and shameful in the result, which you may avoid…” Great thoughts for a Monday morning!
    Hevs in the UK

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2016 at 7:48 am

      I had forgotten about that quote! I think I wrote that in my commonplace book years ago when I first read it. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing it — perfect for this discussion. ♥

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