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A Rollicking Good Tale: Teaching History as Story


Of the classes I can recall from high school, among the most tedious was sophomore history. History class with Mr. Faulmann (an alias) was almost invariably the same. On an overhead projector, he would place an outline of the chapter he had assigned us to read and then proceed to read the outline aloud to us. We, the students, were required to copy the outline in our notebooks. That was all. He stuck with the book and only the book. The only variation in this routine came when Mr. Faulmann had to work on track scores (for he was the track coach). At such times, he assigned us a chapter of our textbook to read, each to himself alone, in class.

I recall feeling a certain frustration with Mr. Faulmann’s procedure. I could not understand, having already read a chapter as homework and understood it, why I had it have it repeated to me in tedious outline form in class. But now, 30 years later, having myself taught both middle and high school history classes, I can somewhat sympathize with my erstwhile pedagogue. It is difficult to teach history, precisely because a student can simply read a good history text and understand the matter by himself. What is left for a teacher to explain in the classroom? This, of course, can make teaching history a simple affair for the pedant who is content just to “cover the material”; but for the teacher who wants history class to be something more than an exercise in the drilling in and regurgitation of facts, the teaching of history can offer a sturdy challenge.

The teaching of history, however, is a challenge that an imaginative and conscientious teacher can master. I hope I do not wrong Mr. Faulmann, but I think he failed at teaching history because he himself did not love history (in fact, I think he became a teacher in order to be a track coach); and I think he did not love history because he did not see it for what it is. History is simply what its name suggests – it is story. Moreover, it is the story behind all stories. It is the prime story because it is the retelling of the primal drama of the universe, the sojourn of God with man.

In describing history in this way, I do not mean to reduce it to an exercise in pious reflection. The danger, of course, in this understanding of history is that one may be tempted to force facts to fit a preconceived theory. A “theological” understanding of history can invite a misunderstanding of Providence as fate, where one minimizes the role of chance in history and conceives every event as simply foreordained. (Indeed, it is the character of Providence that it accomplishes its preordained purposes by means of events that are not fated but contingent and free. Julius Caesar, for instance, might have chosen to obey the Senate and not cross the Rubicon. If he had done so, there may have been no dictatorship and no assassination leading ultimately to the accession of Augustus, which resulted in the Pax Romana. Without the Pax Romana, the Gospel may not have spread with the celerity with which it did spread. Providence also works by means of events which are in themselves unequivocally undesirable – such as when the glory of the Church is enhanced by martyrdom – the murder of the innocent – or when heresy leads the faithful to a deeper understanding of revelation.)

Another deceptive piety is the temptation to divide historical characters between “white hats” and “black hats.” Though, on one level, it is true that, as the Song of Roland has it, “Christians are right, pagans are wrong,” it is not true that Christians are always good and those who oppose them are thoroughly rotten. History presents us with the mystery of iniquity. It tells us stories of virtue and heroism, but also of the failures, even the moral failures (as well as the rank stupidity), of those who stand on the side of right. If our recounting of history does not include such ambiguity, it not only departs from truth and minimizes the power of Providence, it fails to be a good story. For the best stories invite the reflection that leads to a deeper understanding of man and of the wonder of his interaction with God.

If the teacher avoids such false piety in his reading of history, he is left with what is at bottom a rollicking good tale. But it is also a tragic tale, a tale of heroic fidelity and betrayal, of beauty and sordid ugliness, of victory and defeat. Moreover, it is a drama in which each one of us has a part; for each person, simply by being born, has been woven into its fabric. No doubt, some of us play leading roles in the story, while others have only bit parts; but we are all dramatis personae. History has formed us and we, in turn, form history. We are a part of history, for by participating in mankind, we are that for the sake of which there is even such a story in the first place.

I emphasize here how the teacher of history should approach his subject, for if he does not understand what history is or feel its beauty and drama, he will not be able to pass on a proper sense of history to his students. Nor will they come to love history and thus learn it. Young people are good at detecting fraud, and, whatever a teacher’s protestations as to his subject’s importance, if he himself is not convinced of its importance, neither will his students be. Contrariwise, a teacher who loves his subject can inspire the same love in his students. Adults can moved by ideas alone, but youth are drawn by personalities.

Space does not here permit a detailed discussion of the various pedagogical methods by which a teacher can concretely teach history in the classroom. Suffice it to say that the methods used will vary according to the students’ age, ability, background, and culture. With younger children, a simple retelling of history in the mode of story is sufficient, and one can effectively use even fictionalized accounts of historical persons and periods as aids to draw students into the larger historical story. With older students, teachers can begin discussing historical cause and effect – how one series of events created the conditions for subsequent events. High school students, in particular, can be led into an exploration of the ideas that influence men and societies, as well as the interplay between ideas and such material causes as economic conditions, terrain, and climate. (Using all or portions of original documents here can be of great importance and allow the history to come alive.) Teachers can also help older students examine the character of divers historical figures, and how their ideas and personalities influenced, and were influenced by, the course of history. Such considerations will help students detect the hand of God, weaving the free actions of men and the chance happenings of the world into that mysterious fabric that goes by the name of Providence.

The teaching of history requires from the teacher imagination, dedication, and a measure of hard work. But, above all, it requires love – love for the subject and the students who are the teacher’s charge. History is one means by which we can help students fulfill the first prerequisite of wisdom –cognosce teipsum: “know thyself.” For through history man learns to see himself as he is – a part of a noble story whose author is the God who brings light from darkness and orders all things splendidly.

May 25, 2019

[See also Mr. Zehnder’s plenary talk at the Institute’s national conference: The Creative Historian: The Role of Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past.]

Christopher Zehnder is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. He has taught middle school and high school both in Connecticut and California, and has been a journalist and an editor. He is currently chief editor of the Catholic Schools Textbook Project, which is publishing a series of textbooks that tell history in the mode of story (