Confessions of a History Buff: 4 Important Do’s and Don’ts When Teaching History

I’m Jaron Pak, and I have a confession to make. I. Love. History. Like, I crave it 24/7. I can’t get enough of it. To give you an idea of how all-encompassing this obsession is, I spend all day researching and writing history curriculum, and then in my spare time, well… just as an example, I’m currently listening to a twenty-hour-long audio book that goes painstakingly slowly, step-by-step, through just the first month of World War I, this coming on the heels of listening through a twenty-four-hour podcast on the same topic. I’m enraptured. Have I lost you yet?

armor on a stone wall

I’m also a writer and researcher from Home School in the Woods, a hands-on history company that creates dynamic and exciting history curriculum to help break out of the mold of teaching with textbooks. And I want to help your children become history buffs too! To really love history and look forward to learning more.

Seriously, history buffs on a level like this are a fairly rare breed. Sure, plenty of people like history, even more are interested in it on some level or another, while many, many other people find it outright boring. But the reason I want to “expose” right from the beginning that a history buff is writing this is because I want to make one important fact plain from the get-go: in spite of a lifetime of obsession, to this very day I still struggle with the question, what exactly is the purpose of history? What does it accomplish? What is this nebulous thing that we casually call a school “subject”? I mean, with most academic subjects, we get the point. We use math every day, English and language classes help us communicate, gym class keeps our bodies healthy, science helps us understand what makes the world go round, and on and on. But… history?

And here’s where the real issue hits home. If we don’t understand the all-important, meaning-giving “point” that hazily sits somewhere on the horizon of our thoughts, all history really boils down to is a bunch of disjointed names, dates, and facts, and we, the teachers, rudderlessly point to our children’s history text books and order the mass consumption and memorization of this data in order to accomplish, well, what? At least we usually get something that we can affix a letter grade to so we can stand there awkwardly claiming that, “We’ve done it. We’ve taught history.” Yeah… O.K.

So what is history? I’ve spent a lot of time pondering over that very question – and in the process, an equal amount of time figuring out what it is not. In an attempt to reduce these thoughts into something more manageable and less “on the horizon of my thoughts,” I have listed below four important “do’s” and four equally important “don’ts” that we should keep in mind when teaching history. Let’s take a look at them together, shall we?


The 1st Do: Independent Thinking

I remember being given a book at graduation that was titled Top Careers for History Graduates. For a long time I didn’t even crack open the cover, assuming that its contents would consist of nothing more than a long list of academic jobs from elementary school teachers to college professors. When I finally did take a look, you can imagine my surprise when one of the first career choices to greet my eyes was that of a private detective. “Wait,” I said to myself, “You mean, this nerdy obsession I’ve had all these years to gather every historical fact and piece of data, fill in the gaps, and come as close to conclusions and coherent stories as I can is actually a useful skill …and for more than just history?” It’s true!

The most tangible skills I’ve seen come out of the study of history are not historical at all. When we push our children to come to their own personal conclusions, historically speaking, it challenges them to take an unfinished picture, a puzzle with many pieces missing, and try to understand what the big picture is. It allows them to problem-solve and to think independently. But set against this important skill is a big don’t.


The 1st Don’t: Knowing Next to Nothing

In his essay titled Historicism, C.S. Lewis in his proper yet casual way states, “I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?” It is a valid point. Further on he adds to this argument.

“The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission ‘Of course we don’t know everything’ that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

Ah, how eloquently put. We, my dear friends, must come to terms with the fact that we know next to nothing when we teach history. History is made up of an unbelievably huge myriad of historical people, places, and events. Only the tiniest smidge of this information has actually been preserved or recorded, rediscovered, gathered, and then reassembled by historians into an opinionated account of the past. We really do know next to nothing. And yet we teach history as if memorizing a textbook, wrapping our heads around that infinitesimally small amount of the information, somehow gives us a grasp of what history is. It does not. In fact, I would venture upon the bold claim that if we don’t see a purpose to learning history beyond the memorization work, it is nothing more than a waste of time.

Instead, let us use this conscious lack of information to hone in on teaching those very problem-solving qualities mentioned above, not to “conquer” the story, but to understand that we are private detectives observing just the tiniest glimpse into a story much bigger than ourselves.


The 2nd Do: Look for the Deeper Lessons

A couple of years ago, I taught a workshop on the importance of teaching history to our children. In it I went over the fact that history is not like most subjects – something I already touched on in this article. However, I went further than just pointing out history as an academic outlier. I went ahead and plucked it right out of the list of traditional academic topics (i.e., grammar, mathematics, etc.) and added it to a different category of learning: morals.

In the Christian world, to use a familiar example, one is raised learning morals from the Bible, church, family interactions, etc. Eventually, however, we grow up and have to go out on our own. And when that happens, well, that is when things get real, and the hard truth is that while experience is a powerful teacher, there are certain things – think nuclear war, genocide, murder, etc. – that we just don’t need to experience to see that they’re wrong. That is where history comes in.

By studying history we can see the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can see consequences, fairness, and unfairness in action. Everything isn’t black and white, but that very grayness and uncertainty can serve to deepen our wisdom and understanding of life. President JFK handed out copies of a World War I best seller to his staff to help them understand what they were trying to avoid during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is it just a coincidence that World War III did not follow? I think not. At the least, a general respect for the past can help us with our decisions in the present. With this in mind, though, we must be careful not to lean on history for moral formulas, just for examples of life. Hence the next don’t


The 2nd Don’t: History and Philosophy Are Not the Same Thing

The revelation that history helped teach me ethical and moral values had a greater impact on my life than I can even put into words. Even much of the Bible uses stories to teach, many of which are… you guessed it, historical! However, to my own chagrin, I very quickly found out something important: while history is a great showcase for morality, ethics, justice, etc., it is not always as black and white as we’d like to teach it. How often do we trot out the phrase “Life’s not fair?” The same goes for history. We can’t just teach that it is bad to murder and then look to history to bear out the sentiment. If anything, it can often leave us struggling to explain why things are the way they are. Why do martyrs die for making good choices? Why do conquerors murder and destroy their way to power and riches? Why is there so much injustice in the world? Why do famines strike the good and bad alike? And so on…

These are very important questions to tackle with our students, and it is in this way that we should teach morals through our history lessons. By the time we dig into history, past the surfaces of the stories into the deeper meanings, we’ve left the simple, plain lessons of our youth. “Johnny, don’t hit your sister,” is an easy lesson to learn. But history is the graduate class, the heavyweight boxing championship; it’s where we learn that the good is worth it even if it doesn’t pan out in our favor in the moment. It’s where we learn that evil does indeed succeed, often, but always temporarily. It’s complicated, but it’s worth teaching to our children via historical examples in the comfort of the schoolroom before they’re faced with the reality in their own lives.


The 3rd Do and Don’t: History Is a Complete Story

O.K., I’m kind of doubling up on this one, only because both the do and don’t are wrapped up in the same point: We are in the middle of a story, most of which is hidden from us. The plain truth of the matter is this, if we know next to nothing about the past, we know even less about the future. The mantra that we are doomed to repeat the past, while often true in a general sense, is nothing short of Darwinian in its mindset if taken too literally. To simply repeat what has come before over and over again is a hopeless and endless cycle of meaninglessness.

Anyone who believes in a Creator has to realize that, while human behavior is often both predictable and repeated, the actual outcome of the future is not. History may have cyclical tendencies, but it does not have identical occurrences. We are part of one long story, God’s story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Therefore we are not simply playing on repeat. We are at a different point in the narrative now than people were in the past, and thus we must be prepared to use the wisdom and lessons of that past on a new canvas in the future. This should be one of the foundational elements in our history lessons. We are not pointless; the story is not pointless. We must continually remind ourselves that the story of history has a purpose, and in the same breath that we are too small to easily see it. It’s a humbling thought.


The 4th Do: Understand the Biases

Looking at history through the lens of our modern cultures is always a confusing trip that ends in bitter disappointment. We look back at all of the crazy people who did weird things in the past for no good reason we can easily understand …and is it a surprise that we then struggle to see the point? Why did they act that way? What were they trying to do? Why didn’t they take the easier way? It sounds silly, but don’t we all think that way sometimes?

Teaching our students to view history (and many other things, but I’ll leave that for another discussion) outside of our own cultural biases is a vitally important element in understanding the deeper meanings and lessons. Now, I want to clarify something quickly before I go on. The word bias has gotten a pretty bad rap in our modern vernacular, but I mean it in its pure sense, just a tendency or opinion – not necessarily good or bad – that weighs in on nearly every thought that we have. We all have biases, and even if they are correct or at least good, they are still opinions that we hold and use to interpret our thoughts and expressions. They are a good, natural part of life, but they are also very real, and historically speaking, they need to be set aside at times; not necessarily compromised, mind you, just set aside to see the big picture.

If we cannot temporarily look outside of the lenses of our biases that we use to interpret the world around us every day (as much as is reasonably possible), it is very hard to understand the past. It’s like someone who grew up in Alaska wondering how someone paying them a visit from Arizona might be panic-stricken when driving in the snow. Looking at it from a person’s own perspective it seems ridiculous, but it doesn’t take much of an effort to imagine that life in a desert would leave you with quite a different point of view when it came to winter driving in the Alaskan wilderness. You don’t have to compromise or give up your ability to drive in the snow to understand this, but you do have to look beyond your own perception of winter driving to do so. And yet we fail to do this to the people and events of history all of the time. We ignore the fact that people grew up in a different time, place, and culture than our own. We don’t need to agree with or adopt their views and thoughts, we just need to understand them if we want to get the big picture of the past.

A medieval doctor bleeding a patient might seem ridiculous, until we put ourselves in their shoes and realize that without our modern understanding of the importance of blood, to them it was just one of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) that needed to be kept in perfect harmony for a person to be healthy. Too much blood is making your system sick? Ok, let’s get rid of some if it! It seems ridiculous to us now, but against that criticism I would put this argument: how many things do we heartily believe in now that will be looked back on in the future and laughed at as ridiculous?


The 4th Don’t: The Chip on Our Shoulder

Mankind, as a whole, is very good at thinking we have it all together. Throughout history, right up to the present moment, people have regularly acted as if everything before us has existed simply to lead to ourselves, as if we are some great culmination of awesomeness. Are you rolling your eyes yet? But it’s true! And nowhere is this collective pride as painfully obvious as in history. How often do we read a history lesson and think to ourselves how ludicrous, inefficient, or pointless the past was? How oddly we look at the way people talked, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the way that they worshiped, the list goes on and on.

But if we act like all of the past was one long improvement gradually leading to ourselves (once again, an idea very Darwinian in its nature), we miss the fact that the same Creator formed us all with value and purpose. He did not “waste” lives in order to get to other lives further on down the timeline of time. His creation is precious at every moment, from its conception to its ending, and not a hair on any of our heads is left unaccounted for. And in that mindset we must teach history with the clear understanding that we are not inherently better (or on the flip side, inherently worse – don’t let this point cause us to get too down on ourselves!) than anyone who has come before us. We’re all in the same story together.

So there they are, the eight points I came up with. They don’t lead to too many grand conclusions, at least not for me. But that’s O.K. They aren’t really meant to resolve the “issues” of history. Rather, they are meant to open up the eyes of “we the teachers,” to keep us from boxing up history into a simple, bland subject with little to no value. If you take away one thing from reading this article, I hope it would be to blow up the preconceived notion of what “history” is and to unleash the boundless potential of what we can learn – and what we can teach – by approaching it with the respect and interest that this vast, beautiful subject deserves. And in that mindset, as we gradually find ourselves overwhelmed by the epic narrative that is history (past, present, and future) we just might find ourselves, in the desperation of the unknown, naturally pushed right into the arms of the Narrator himself. It’s almost like it was designed that way.

“It is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer.” – Blaise Pascal

P.S. As a quick postscript, I just wanted to mention that if you want to teach history in this more holistic and purposeful way, you should check out some of the products that we at Home School in the Woods  are constantly putting together. We have timelines, maps, lapbooks, notebooking pages, 3D projects, recipes… basically anything that can help bring the story to life for the students. While the larger significance of history (as we’ve talked about at length now) is always important for the teachers to keep in mind, for the students themselves, the best way to introduce them to the subject is to show them that it is a fascinating thing to study in the first place! Get that passion rolling, make it come alive, get hands-on, show them the story!

If you have any questions or comments you want to pass along my way, feel free to email me at [email protected] Thanks for reading, everyone!


Jaron Pak is a researcher/writer/marketing manager at Home School in the Woods. He lives in Upstate New York with his wife Jenessa and three children in a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse that they have restored. He grew up in the Church and is still heavily involved in ministry in his own church. He also has a passion for history and story-telling in general, and his love for historical and classic literature has continued to deepen over the years. It is one of his greatest desires to continue to pass on the value and importance of stories, and especially the one great tale that is our history, to the next generation. To find out more about Home School in the Woods, look for them on Facebook and Pinterest.


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