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Far from being an optional and not particularly important subject, history deserves a prominent place in any Catholic curriculum. Classical educational guru Susan Wise Bauer, over at The Well Trained Mind website, argues that history should in fact be at the centre of any ‘classical’ (i.e. non-modern) curriculum since it is the subject best suited to helping a child develop essential intellectual skills. “The beauty of the classical curriculum is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs. History “is simply the account of everything humanity has done, thought, invented, and dreamed about since the beginning of time,” and as such encompasses all other subjects: “The literature of the past, science and its progressive discoveries, the music of the masters — all of these are historical in nature.” History is certainly not some boring, optional subject with little meaning in our modern world.

Teaching History

There are many ways to approach the teaching of history. We aim to divide our study into 12 main sections: after an initial study of Ancient Greece and Rome to give some background, we focus on British History from the Celts and Romans through to the First World War. All twelve sections can be covered in a basic way from ages 7-11 (about three per year). Since the level of detail at this age is going to be limited (and vary greatly between 7 and 11), from 11-13, a selection of these areas might be revisited in more detail. Finally, from 14-16 the focus would be on modern (19th and 20th century) history in preparation for the IGCSE exam.

British History from a Catholic perspective As far as I am aware, there is no standard textbook which treats British History (including the history of the reformation era) from any sort of Catholic perspective. At best you will find a text which is relatively neutral (this seems to be truer of more modern than older texts), in which the faith is examined in a couple of pages along with food and clothing as if it were just some curious medieval pastime. School textbooks are a filtering and summarising of higher levels of academic thought and as such reflect the most deeply entrenched and widely accepted academic orthodoxies. With regard to British History, this can generally be characterised as ‘Protestant Establishment’, beginning with the supposition that only once the British people threw of the shackles of medieval Catholicism could they really began to find their national identity (as a Protestant nation), i.e. from Elizabeth onwards. The Catholic faith has, since the late 1500s, been viewed as something quite alien to the British spirit, and this is perhaps unconsciously projected back even before that era by authors of school textbooks. Glancing through a few of the old ‘Ladybird’ style books we have, it is remarkable that whilst each one tells of the ‘burnings’ of Bloody Mary, not one refers to the innumerable martyrdoms under Elizabeth!  Parents simply have to educate themselves, be aware, correct errors (or balance unbalanced material), and supplement specific information as they go along. This doesn’t only apply to the Tudors; it goes on right through the Stuarts an up to our present day. If you are following a study course in Christian Culture you will be providing plenty of material which balances out the peculiar British approach to the Catholic Faith as some kind of minor historical curiosity…

If you want to read for yourself an account of the reformation era, so that you can balance out the bias of the textbooks, you could do worse than to read Hilaire Belloc’s ‘How the Reformation Happened’ or his ‘Characters of the Reformation’. If you want something specifically on Britain, try William Cobbet’s ‘ A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland‘. Written by a non-Catholic, this book is generally regarded as giving a very balanced view of the Reformation era.

GCSE: There are IGCSE options available from both Edexcel and CIE. Both focus on 19th and 20th century history. Both require a deeper study of one chosen topic, and both require the interpretation of source material.  For our own children, we have decided that rather than cover only the 19th OR 20th century material, we would cover both, with only one being chosen for more intense revision for the exam. Unless time is an issue, it makes sense to study the 19th century so that the student can put 20th Century events in context; similarly, it seems profitable to allow the student to understand what events in the 19th century led to. In the interests of connectedness and contextualisation it seems worth taking the extra time even if the exam does not strictly demand it.

NB GCSE Ancient History is not an easy option for home-educators as it contains a controlled assessment element, so here I’m only talking about ‘modern history’ IGCSE.