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Charlemagne and the Case Against History Timelines

It was the moment for which I had been waiting. As a 4th grade teacher, I had dutifully suffered through teaching history timelines, confident in Mrs. Sayers’s assertion that these dates, these tedious facts, were pegs upon which to later hang ideas. I just so happened to have taught medieval history and timeline as a 4th-grade teacher. Now, as an eleventh-grade medieval history and literature teacher, I was armed with facts. Now was the moment I would see the fruition of my labors – the hanging of ideas upon these pegs.

“When was Charlemagne crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor?” I asked with great anticipation. I strategically turned to a student who had been at the school most of her academic career and had memorized these very timelines. She also happened to have the best memory of any student I have yet to teach. She could speed read copious amounts of Le Morte D’Arthur, remembering every detail, at times almost word for word. Eagerly I waited for her response. She shrugged.

800. It is a good, round number, somewhat in the middle of the Middle Ages. In truth, it is the only date from the timeline that I am still able to recall years later. She could not remember the fact; however, she could remember the story. The 4th-grade history book included a short narrative account of the coronation. She began to recite in great detail Charlemagne’s surprise coronation on that cold, Christmas day. The elusive fact peg did not after all exist. What she had in her memory was a story.

Previously, I had not really questioned the common application of Dorothy Sayers’s writing on memorization in The Lost Tools of Learning. She argues that elementary students find memorization easy and pleasurable. She advocates for memorizing history dates as “pegs” upon which to later hang ideas. It is a lovely idea, and delightfully straightforward to implement. In fact, memorizing historical dates has become so important that it is considered by some as the hallmark of classical education for the young. The only problem is that it does not seem to work.

As a grammar school teacher, I observed that memorizing history timelines, on the whole, was neither easy nor pleasurable for students. I did it for the “greater good”, preparing for the ideas that would come in the later years. While it is a fine theory, the students struggled to remember the dates, conflating the numbers and the events themselves. Not only this, but the rigidity of adhering so closely to a small portion of Sayers’s words has turned many families that I know away from classical education. They perceive it as just about memorizing facts and their children are not good at it.

So why memorize timelines? Sola Sayers is not a sufficient reason. While we owe her a debt of gratitude for her contribution to the classical renewal, she did not get everything right. She noted in her original speech that she had very little teaching experience. Her article is insightful, but not infallible. For me, there was only one reason to continue: pride.

The same year that I began teaching 11th grade my oldest was a kindergartener. For the first time, one of my own children joined in learning portions of the timeline in morning assemblies. Around the same time as the Charlemagne epiphany, I went into my boys’ room to tell them goodnight. My oldest was wildly waving his arms, chanting, “The Battle of Tours!” How proud I was. How clever he sounded. “Great job, Bud!” I encouraged. “When was the Battle of Tours?” He did not know. Nor did he know what it was. It was not a demonstration of knowledge, nor would it become a peg for future learning. It was mostly a performance.

There is something singularly impressive about a timeline recitation for recruitment night or grandparents’ day. Any kid can memorize a Bible verse or a poem. Chanting grammar jingles is profoundly dull, and no one can understand Latin. But a six-year-old boy who knows about the Battle of Tours? Now that is impressive. But impressive is not the goal.

When I began homeschooling, I decided not to spend memorization time with my elementary school children on anything that does not contain an idea. Scripture, poems, hymns, fables, speeches – these contain ideas. They often contain stories. These ideas and stories engage the imagination. We are currently studying Julius Caesar, reading both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Plutarch’s life. We memorized Marc Antony’s speech and talked about honor and ambition. This is the sort of memorization that children truly excel at and enjoy. Not only does the speech engage the imagination, but it also stores beautiful language in their minds. Ideas, stories, language – these are the true pegs of learning. They are even greater than pegs – something vibrant and living that will bear fruit.

My eleventh-grade student could not remember the coronation date but went on to college hoping one day to teach medieval literature. My oldest is now in 5th grade and a great lover of history. He can recite Antony’s speech and speak about Caesar’s conquests. He tells me, however, that he has never heard of the Battle of Tours.

6 thoughts on “Charlemagne and the Case Against History Timelines”

  1. Time is important. Having an appreciation of the relative order of events is an essential part of understanding the causes and effects of history. In this mix, knowing a few dates, and, really, being able to estimate a few others is important. But as for memorizing lots of exact dates, I can agree with the modest point that that isn’t necessary.

  2. This is interesting! I have had almost the opposite experience with my own teenage children, however. I am a classical/Charlotte Mason hybrid mama, and while I find that my kids are passionate about living books and can always narrate beautifully, years later the catchy songs with dates are usually the first thing they recall. The stories are there too, but that “peg” comes first. I’ve landed in a place of not prioritizing one over the other, but rather valuing both.

  3. This is an interesting observation! I have kids from baby to high school senior, and I also observed the opposite. We also do classical/Charlotte Mason approach, we homeschool, and the 7th-12th graders take live, online courses.. When we are reading stories or texts, my younger kids often yell out a part of the timeline with exact dates when they recognize it in the text or at a historical site. They are so excited to make the connection. Our timeline is only about 8 minutes long and is not heavy on dates, though. We also study our memory work via living books (stories!) in age-appropriate ways every week so they aren’t just memorizing big words, although I know they don’t perfectly understand everything in the younger grades. They might just get an idea and connect it to the words.

    My high schoolers tell me that they “have a song for every week of history” that they perfectly recall as they move forward through their studies. They haven’t practiced these history songs for years, but they spring up into their minds as they study that history in further depth in class. My daughter says she would sing it for the class every week if she wasn’t shy about singing in front of her peers who may not know the song.

    I wonder if our kids remember the timeline and history songs better because they study the history, read living books, narrate, and make those connections — delve into the ideas, as you were mentioning in this article. I wonder if the shorter timeline and fewer dates also help. They practice the full timeline for six years as well since it is shorter. We also do the other memory work you mention — poetry, speeches, etc., but we do not do grammar jingles. Our Latin consists entirely of Latin prayers and hymns, and they know the translation to most of those as well. I think maybe we have more context, and that helps.

  4. I have 10 children with the oldest being in his 20’s. I as well am a classical/ Charlotte Mason homeschool mama and I have found the timelines a wonderful peg that allow my children to understand more in the high school years because those names are not unfamiliar. We have never pushed date and detail memorization though and it is not used as a way to show off or had the stress of using it as a test added to it. Simple and quick recitations of cards with pictures and fun movements and songs to make us familiar with the name Charlemagne suffice. So that in later years a connection was made when they read a living book about him. It’s not a strange name that causes them to stumble and struggle to gain more knowledge. It’s more like finally meeting a family friend whose name they’d heard of for years and now they get to know something about them. I strongly encourage memorization in the younger years to have pegs for the older years. But done in a way that is simple and fun and not dry and mind numbing.

  5. I’ve taught a good bit of history myself, to both middle schoolers and high schoolers, and I don’t find this case persuasive.

    It is certainly true that many kids have a great deal of trouble remembering dates and come to hate being required to do so. But this is very often because the date memorizing is being done in the context of having to read boring textbooks that are attempting to narrate lists of facts while also trying to explain why what is being read is a bunch of rubbish because it’s old and back then they didn’t know the kinds of things we know nowadays. Or it’s being done in the context of having to listen to overworked and underpaid teachers give boring lectures about things that don’t seem to have any connection to the present, but are just ways to fill up class time and generate grades for a gradebook. Students see right through this kind of teaching, even if they can’t articulate it the way I just said.

    I agree with the article that history is a story and that all students need to see it that way and learn it that way. But just as it matters in which chapter of the book a certain sequence of actions happens relative to the other chapters, it also matters, say, when the Trojan War happened with respect to the Battle of Gilgamesh and Enkidu with Humbaba or the foundation of Rome or the return of the Jews from their captivity.

    History is about story, but story itself is about tracing chains of causality in order to understand why (Herodotus). Dates are necessary. Or shall we take on the Venerable Bede and accuse him of wasting a bunch of time trying to relate the dates of the Roman Empire to the dates after the incarnation? The only question is which dates and how many. Which is of course, a very big question on which much disagreement may certainly be permitted.

  6. Thank you for the article. I am following the Well Trained Mind for the Grammar years presently. My small family is enjoying their Story of the World. I am emphasizing place, before / after and Era, e.g. Classical, etc. for our Grammar Stage timeline knowledge. This is distinct from date memorization.

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