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.
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?
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.
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