Back to the Classics

To teach, to learn, to change

The river of history

I asked when I began this project “How do you give what you’ve never received?” That challenge reared its head once more as I tackled one of the most vital subjects in a liberal arts curriculum: history. The core organization of the trivium and quadrivium made sense to me, and it seemed to work well for those using it. But where did history fit in? It’s so important for students to understand where we came from, how our knowledge and philosophies developed. History doesn’t fit either of the divisions in the classical liberal arts curriculum, and while I made some small expansions to the quadrivium (for science!), it doesn’t really fit there.

I went round and round in my head and talked it over with some of my sounding boards. In the end I found that I had fallen prey once more to tunnel vision. The solution was not to fit in a history course somewhere. The solution was to make history the course of study.

Okay, so what does that mean? I found it best explained in one of the articles that first introduced me to the classical liberal arts curriculum. The site is offline at the time of this writing, but the most relevant parts are these:

The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.


The other subject areas of the curriculum are linked to history studies. The student who is working on ancient history will read Greek and Roman mythology, the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, early medieval writings, Chinese and Japanese fairy tales, and (for the older student) the classical texts of Plato, Herodutus, Virgil, Aristotle. She’ll read Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare the following year, when she’s studying medieval and early Renaissance history. When the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are studied, she starts with Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and ends with Dickens; finally, she reads modern literature as she is studying modern history.

The sciences are studied in a four-year pattern that roughly corresponds to the periods of scientific discovery: biology, classification and the human body (subjects known to the ancients); earth science and basic astronomy (which flowered during the early Renaissance); chemistry (which came into its own during the early modern period); and then basic physics and computer science (very modern subjects).

I’d like to note that I have nothing against history classes, and if a student moves on to college and gets into more specialized historical knowledge, they make sense. But for our purposes in the Freeman Academy, using history as a framework is much better. Also, there is a wonderful guest post about teaching history over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog. It’s specifically about Human Wave history; if you don’t know what that is, never fear – you will by the time you’re done. I hope to have a post up soon about Human Wave and how it fits with the Freeman Academy’s mission, but I have a lousy track record lately of getting posts up as planned. For now go, read, think.


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