First Graders and History
As we have learned, there was much hatred of Catholics by English Protestants in Maryland. One great Catholic man was able to overcome this hatred and he is one of our great patriotic heroes. His name was Charles Carroll. Charles Carroll was born in Maryland. His parents sent him to a Catholic school in France where Catholics were respected…Charles Carroll said that his greatest accomplishment was that he “practiced the duties of my religion.” Many Protestants began to realize that their prejudice against Catholics was unjustified.
The sentences above begin and conclude a typical lesson in a Catholic homeschooling course on American History intended for first graders. This is not a genre with which I have much familiarity (we’re homeschooling for a few months to finish out the school year after a move), and so I thought it might be interesting to offer some comments as an outsider on the homeschooling materials we’ve received.
The most obvious (if superficial) feature of the homeschooling materials is that they are drenched in religious art, regardless of subject. As an alum of a mixture of public and parochial schools, I was surprised to find Spelling and Math textbooks adorned with (often very beautiful) religious art work. I don’t think there is anything right or wrong with decorating textbooks in this manner, per se, but it takes some getting used to.
As the passage quoted above suggests, the next thing that I noticed is that the history narratives tend to be awash in a type of Catholic triumphalism. I like a small dosage of triumphalism as much as the next guy, but it seems to me it should used (at most) as cream or sugar in coffee; the tendency with this particular textbook is instead to include a few (uniformly favorable) facts in the ongoing account of noble-Catholics-doing-good-things.
The tendency noted above is perhaps inevitable in a textbook for children who are six or seven years old; narratives have to be crudely simplified, and history comes alive when heroes and villains uphold or violate a child’s developing sense of justice. But there is a difference between telling stories in which Catholics are heroes and telling stories in which other religious groups – rather than individuals – are villains. And here I think the textbook further exacerbates the difficulties inherent in Catholic triumphalism by actively disparaging other religious traditions. The English Protestants in the passage above come across as dim bulbs filled with irrational and prejudicial hatred; only through the efforts of the heroic Charles Carroll are they able to gradually overcome (some of) their prejudices. And notice the end of the passage suggests this applies to Protestants generally (not even specifically English Protestants in Maryland). I assure you, although it is probably not necessary, that there are no analogous tales celebrating Protestant heroism in the face of Catholic prejudice in this particular textbook.
It is true, of course, that religious tensions are a large part of the history of the unhappy world in which we live. But there are constructive and less constructive approaches to introducing this truth to children; it seems to me that many of the history lessons in the homeschooling curriculum we received are more interested in readings of history that tend towards tribalistic tendentiousness, rather than a more universalistic and accurate account of the world. This is not just a failure in pedagogy; it is a failure in justice.
As I said, I am more or less completely ignorant of the Catholic homeschooling world. I have no idea how representative the materials we received may be, although I uncharitably remarked to my wife, who laughed in agreement, that textbooks like this explained a few of the people we encountered in college (no one, I hasten to add, likely to be reading this). In any case, I’m curious about others reactions. How representative are passages like this? Am I mis-reading it or being unfair to the authors? Are there any good curriculums on offer that provide a more balanced take on ‘American History’? Are these types of accounts a problem, and, if so, how do you approach teaching history?