Teaching History Through the Trivium

Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a fascination with the causes of historical change. Is it great men and women that change the world, or is it the world that produces great men and women?

Was Thomas Carlyle right with his Romantic view when he said:

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,”

Or did Herbert Spencer get it right with his more scientic approach:

Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.

The interaction between the two forces charges the intellect like water in a dam. There’s a way to teach history that takes advantage of this interaction as well, and it fits the stages of the trivium.

In the grammar years, students should learn the stories of “Famous Men of History.”

In the Logic years, they should relate those heroes to each other by studying the ages in which they lived.

In the rhetoric years, they should engage the argument directly. “Why is the world like it is today, because of heroes and their actions, because of sociological forces, or for some other reason?”

Of course, if you are a Christian you believe that the world is like it is today because God is sovereign. But that’s also true about why physics works like it does. That shouldn’t keep us from studying – it should make the study more exciting.

To see the argument baldly stated, take a look at this Wikipedia article, from which the above quotations were drawn.

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