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The Teaching of Scottish History in Schools
By P. Hume Brown


A Lecture delivered to the Glasgow Branch of the Educational Institute of Scotland and to the Eastern Branch of the Secondary Teachers’ Association of Scotland.

THOUGH some may regard it as a rash assumption, we may perhaps venture to take :t for granted that history is a legitimate and desirable subject in a school curriculum. If, indeed, there is a human instinct for any kind of knowledge, it is surely the desire to know the history of our fellow-mortals. If in the case of primitive races curiosity is first directed to the superhuman forces that condition life, their next intellectual interest is in the traditions of their own origin and history. At the camp fire of the savage the deeds of his ancestors are an unfailing theme or’ interest, and there is striking testimony to the exactitude with which one generation of tribesmen hands on its tradition to the next. Instinctively, it would appear, the rudimentary society realizes that its continuous existence is dependent on the tenacity with which it clings to ‘ts own particular past. ‘We are what you were; we shall be what you are,’ ran the patriotic hymn of the Spartans, and the words express at once the essence of patriotism and the essential idea of history.

Like other subjects, history may be studied from purely intellectual curiosity, but the primary justification of our interest in it is the original Instinct that impels us to realize the past through which we have become what we are. Except in the case of the few for whom history is only a department of knowledge, if is still this original instinct that prompts to its study, and it is to this original instinct we must appeal in the teaching of history to the young. In the child as in the savage, there is the natural desire to know how he came to be what he is. 'Children love to listen to stores about their elders', says Charles Lamb, and it is observable that the more remote the past, the more it impresses their imagination and excites their interest. Children love large measures equally in space and time, and it quickens rather than diminishes their attention, to be told of an event that it happened a thousand and not a hundred years ago. In teaching them history, therefore, we are ministering to a natural desire, and in satisfying that desire we are working along with nature in the organic development of their minds. It can be said of history, indeed, what cannot be said of every subject in the school curriculum,—that it expands the individual by impressing him with the sense at once of his own insignificance and of his own importance as the ‘heir of all the ages.’ You will remember the reply of the Carthusian monk to the question how he had contrived to pass his life: Cogitavi dies antiquos ei annos aeternos in mente habai. Consciously or unconsciously we are the products of the past, and the individual cannot attain to his full stature till to the extent of his capacities he takes cognizance of the contributory streams that are the sources of his intellectual and moral being.

In teaching history to the young, then, we are satisfying an instinct which, if wisely cultivated, seems intended by nature to become one of the chief formative influences of intellect and character. But it is one of the sad vantages of civilization that it is apt to deaden cr distort the wholesome instincts which were meant for the secure guidance of life. With the growing complexity of human a: ms and endeavours natural promptings are smothered, or, what is equally disastrous, they are diverted from the channels in which they were intended to flow. In the case of the teaching of history we easily see how misdirection is apt to arise. For primitive societies the past is a comparatively simple affair. A few outstanding individualities, a few prominent events comprise their whole tradition, and, apprehended by simple intuition, directly evoke the emotion and imagination which create the collective consciousness of the community. In the case of highly organized societies it is far otherwise. In the tangled and many-coloured web of their past it is difficult to find the central strands which yet give unity and cohesion to its texture. We are bewildered by the apparent conflict of opposing tendencies and of warring national leaders, and we lose sight of the fact that all alike go to evolve the net product which we call a people. Yet, if the study of history is to have its true spiritual and intellectual profit, it is precisely from the realization of this fact that profit must be won.

It will be seen, therefore, that in the teaching of history there are difficulties to be faced which other subjects do not present in the same degree. In the case of a language or a science we have a precise body of facts to be communicated, and the only problem in teaching them is how these facts may be most expeditiously conveyed to other minds. In the case of history, on the other hand, we have first to settle the much-debated question as to what are the significant facts to be selected so that it may work its full effect on the mind that receives them. As we are aware, the problem is one which has long engaged writers on education in every country, and the manifold types of existing historical text-books show how variously the problem is answered. This is a difficulty which every country has to face in the teaching of its national history, but, as we know, in our own case another difficulty exists which we owe to the peculiar position in which Providence has been pleased to place us.

Two centuries ago the destinies of Scotland were linked with those of another country greater in extent and resources than itself, and, we may admit, more conspicuous in the world’s eye than its remoter and less favoured yoke-fellow. At first, as we know, the marriage was not a happy one, and one of the partners, at least, 'was long convinced, and not without good reason, that 'he bond had been a mistake from the beginning. But both the ill-assorted parties were pre-eminently endowed with common sense, and above all with the desire to have their full share of the good things to be found in this world, and in their own interests they gradually settled down to a tolerable understanding regarding their mutual duties and responsibilities. In time, comparatively friendly intercourse was established between them, but all along there were advantages on one side which naturally gave umbrage to the other.

On the part of Scotland the gravest objection to the Union was the dread of her individuality being merged in that of her more powerful neighbour, and from the day that the great transaction was completed she has never ceased to be haunted with this apprehension. Quite recently we have seen important representative bodies raising their protest against what they regard as a serious menace to Scotland’s continued existence as a nation. The school-boards of her two chief cities, and that most venerable of her corporate bodies—the Convention of Royal Burghs—have directed attention to the insidious process through which, they believe, this calamity :s threatened. Scotland, name and thing, they report, is menaced with obliteration from the records of mankind. As the result of a special enquiry, the Convention of Burghs has testified that Scottish history does not receive its rightful measure of attention in the national schools and that its place is unduly usurped hv the history of the sister country. What in their opinion is still more to be reprobated, in the current school books Scottish history is not infrequently treated from at early English standpoint. The history of Scotland, even before the Union, is represented as that of an outlying province of England with no independent self-subsistence of its own. In connection with the period subsequent to the Union they find still graver ground of offence. In direct disregard of the express terms of the Treaty of Union the terms 'English’ and 'England’ are substituted for 'English’ and 'Britain,’ and Scotland is thus insulted in her national sentiment and defrauded of her due in the building-up of the British Empire. The achievements of Scottish statesmen, soldiers, men of science and men of letters are put down to the account of England, with the result that in the eyes of the world England has ail the glory which in justice should be fairly proportioned between the allied peoples. As a matter of fact, at least, we have recently had a weighty testimony regarding the neglect of Scottish history in our schools. In his school report for 1905 Mr. Struthers has the following significant remarks: ‘It was disappointing to note a widespread ignorance of Scottish history even among more picked pupils who may be supposed to represent the outcome of the most advanced teaching. A large percentage of the Honours candidates who wrote on Montrose confused him with Claverhouse, while one candidate, an Edinburgh candidate, too, went so far as to ascribe to Jeannie Deans the exploit of Jenny Geddes.’

A fussy patriotism is certainly a thing to be reprobated. It compromises the dignity of a nation, and invites the taunt that the nation can hardly be of much account that requires to flaunt its existence in the eyes of the world. But that can scarcely be called a fussy patriotism which only demands an exact use of historical terms, and maintains that the rising generation should have full and accurate instruction in the history of their native country. Moreover, if we analyse the feeling that prompts these demands, we cannot but see that it rests on rational grounds which are its fullest justification. If the history of the past has any educational value, it is from the history of our own people that the richest gain is to be derived—and this for the simple reason that it is only the history of our own people, that we can adequately understand. It was the maxim of the greatest of French critics that no one can speak with perfect security of any literature but his own; what he meant being that each literature is the expression of national idiosyncrasies which in their totality can never be fully apprehended even by the most gifted of aliens.

And what is true of literature, which is only one expression of the spirit of a people, must be doubly true in the case of a collective national life. In the citizen of every nation there is an inheritance of sentiment and emotion and type of thought of which he cannot divest himself, and which makes him Scot or Frenchman or German, as his destiny has ordained. It is two hundred years since the Union, and still to-day England is a very different place from Scotland and an Englishman a very different being from a Scot. Between a Scotsman wholly educated in Scotland and an Englishman wholly educated in England there is an intellectual estrangement which it requires an effort on the part of both to overcome. Their differences of accent and pronunciation are but the outward signs of an inward diversity of mental habit and tendency. If they come to discuss a subject of any complexity, they speedily discover that they start from different premises, apply different logical processes, and see the governing facts in incompatible relations. In the case of fundamental questions, such as those that bear on human life and destiny, the opposition of the two types is illustrated at once by history and by present experience. The average Englishman frankly admits that his mind is unequal to lake in our theological distinctions, and the average Scot is equally perplexed by an Englishman’s concern about ritual, which seems to him a mere question of millinery and upholstery. And the countries they inhabit bear on the face of them the marks of the different national experience which they have inherited. Apart from their different national aspects and apart from the appearance of greater national resources n the one than in the other, the two countries immediately suggest that two distinct peoples have made them what they respectively are. As Hugh Miller and Robert Louis Stevenson have vividly shown, an adult Scot who for the first time visits England feels that he is virtually in a foreign country. As he looks around him, he realizes that a process of reflection is necessary before he can take in what he sees and relate it intelligibly to his previous experience.

But all this goes to illustrate what has just been said—that it is only our own national history that we can adequately realize and understand in all its significance, and from which we can derive the stimulus and instruction which the knowledge of the past is fitted to give. We may have the most exact acquaintance with the facts of other national histories, but they will always be something external to us; something eludes us which is yet of their very essence, and we are all the while unconscious that we have missed it. We have but to read the best histories of our own country by foreigners to realize how impossible it is for them to avoid misapprehensions which excite our wrath or our ridicule, as the case may be. The historian Tere made a special study of England, yet, as is well known, he gravely notes it as a proof of the respect of English boys, for their parents, that they speak of their father as ‘the governor.’ It was quite a natural blunder for a foreigner to make, but it is a blunder which Illustrates the fact that only a native can tread securely outside the bare facts of his national history. It is only the members of the household who understand the varying expressions and gestures of each other which mean so much to them, but are imperceptible even to the most intimate friend. The inference is that the history of any people cannot be learned from books alone. Facts may be acquired with perfect fulness and accuracy, the chain of cause and effect in the national development may be grasped with absolute clearness and precision, yet the insight which can only come from natural sympathies and affinities, and which alone is truly formative, can be acquired by no amount of study even by the most gifted minds. It is, indeed, no paradox to say that half and perhaps the better half of our knowledge of our national history is unconsciously learnt, and that it is by this unconscious knowledge we interpret what we deliberately acquire.

But, as was already said, children in Scotland are in a peculiar position with regard to the study of their national history. They are born into the inheritance of their own country and nation, but as incorporate with England and the British Empire they are thus the inheritors of a triple tradition, which to forfeit and ignore would be disastrous to them as individuals and disastrous to that great community to whose building-up their fathers have contributed no little part. To restrict the study of history in our schools to Scottish history alone, therefore, would be at once an individual and a corporate injury; and this, it may be said, for a double reason. As a future citizen of the British Empire, the pupil in our schools is conditioned by its past, has a stake n its future, and he must one day share the responsibility for the policy that shall guide and direct it. Ignorant of its history, he at once misses a great inheritance, and is a maimed member of that collective community in whose destinies his own are involved-—whether he will or not.

But there is another reason why the study of history in our schools should not be restricted to that or Scotland alone. In point of fact, the history of no ore country can be understood when isolated from that of every other. The founder of the University Chair with which I am personally associated defined its aim to be—the teaching of the history of Scotland and that of other countries so far as they illustrate the history of Scotland. Whether, indeed, we take the history of Scotland before or after the Union of the Parliaments, it cannot be fully intelligible without reference to the histories of England and of continental countries. At one time or other previous to the Union every class in the Scottish nation was affected by the corresponding classes among other peoples. Our kings learned lessons from the kings of France and England, our nobles from their own class in the same countries, and our burghs from similar communities in England and on the Continent. And the Union of 1707 itself is seen in its true historical perspective only when we realize the fact that it was the natural result of political and economical forces that were determining the development of all the countries of Western Europe.

There can be no question, therefore, that the teaching of Scottish history in our schools must be supplemented by the teaching of the histories of other countries, and specifically by the history of England and of the British Empire. But it is from the knowledge of our own national history as a basis that we can most adequately interpret the histories of other countries, and this ťor the reason that has already been suggested,—that, in point of fact, it is only the history of our own people which we can ever really understand. Even to the adult, study the histories of other countries as diligently as he may, those histories will always be something external, and he acquires his knowledge of them by a purely intellectual process. But if this be true of the adult it is doubly so in the case of the school-boy. His soul, his emotions cannot be so deeply engaged by the history of any other people as by the history of his own. What are Simon de Montfort, the Kingmaker, Pym, or Hampden to him compared with Wallace and Bruce, the Good Sir James Douglas, Montrose and Dundee? These are to him bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh; he has a personal interest in their fortunes, and he admires or hates them according to his own predilections and his family traditions. But it is only when the mind is thus alive to any subject that something can be gained from it beyond merely strengthening the memory and storing it with matters of fact.

And what is this something which is to be gained from an early acquaintance with our natonal history? It is the enlargement of mind and emotion and imagination which comes of the vivid realization of a world wider than the petty one which must be the immediate and main concern of each of us. And it is to be noted that it is only in youth that the mind possesses the elasticity which makes this enlargement possible. Then only are impressions so vivid that they pass into our being and cast the mould of our after thinking and feeling. And once gained, this acquisition is at once a possession and a faculty, it is a possession because this enlarged life we have once experienced gives its tone and colour to all subsequent experience, and it is a faculty because we are thus enabled to apply a larger and more genial measure equally to men and things.

According to Wordsworth, who, as we know, had pondered deeply on the growth of the individual mind, it should be the prime concern in education to

Nourish imagination in her growth,
And give the mind that apprehensive power,
Whereby she is made quick to recognise
The moral properties and scope of things.

Of all the subjects that can be taught either in secondary or elementary schools, there is none so specifically fitted to foster imagination and apprehensive power as the study of national history. Science opens up a world that excites curiosity and wonder, but it cannot touch the inmost being in the same degree as the record of the actions of our fellow-creatures. The study of languages has its own value in the development of faculty, but it does little for those powers which Wordsworth considered indispensable for the richest growth of our common nature.

Literature, indeed, works in the direction towards which Wordsworth points us, but the full effect of literature is unattainable by the average pupil either in the primary or the secondary school. The kind of literature which is capable of evoking the highest powers of mind and soul demands a maturity of thought and experience which belongs to a later period of development and which only time can bring. You will remember the laudable attempt of Matthew Arnold to introduce literature as a power into elementary schools. The pupil in higher schools, he conceived, experienced this power in reading the master-pieces of Greek and Roman literature —which in the case of the average school-boy is open to question. In the case of elementary schools he thought that no access to this power existed, and for the reason that the best English literature was so overlaid with classical traditions that the pupil ignorant of Latin and Greek was not in a position to take it in with intelligence. To remedy this defect he edited his Bible-reading for Schools, consisting of the second part of the prophecy of Isaiah—his contention being that every British child was familiar with Bible ideas and Bible language and would thus readily transport himself into a world other than his own, and a world admirably fitted to impress him with 'the moral properties and scope of things.’ It is difficult not to feel, however, that Arnold misjudged the capacity of the average school-child whom he had directly in his view. The scope of the prophet’s ideas, the exaltation of his style, the lack of a continuous narrative to sustain the attention, demand an experience both in life and literature for their comprehension which we cannot look for in a pupil in an elementary school. The educational benefit which Arnold expected from the study of his Bible-reading was that the scholar, by taking in a great literary whole which engaged his soul as well as his mind, ‘gained access to a new life,’ 'was lifted out of the present,’ and schooled ‘to live with the life of the race.’ But for the attainment of these high ends, surely desirable for every responsible human being, the study of the history of one’s own people seems a simpler and more effective means than that which he proposed. The subject is one which interests the youngest child, and it can be adapted to every stage of his development. Moreover, if the grasp of a great whole has the educative value which Arnold attaches to it, the history of his own country is perhaps the only great whole which the pupil is capable of apprehending. That he can apprehend it is, I believe, a fact of experience. His apprehension is doubtless immature, vague, coloured by childish fancies; but once acquired, the conception will grow with his own growth in fulness and precision; it will be a possession for life, making him conscious of the roots of his own being—of the heritage he owes to the race from which he has sprung.

Nor will his absorption of the history of his own people blind him to the virtues of others. Prejudice against foreign countries is mainly due to ignorance of the history of our own. When we know the history of our own people from the beginning, we realize that at one time or other in the course of its development it has manifested all the elemental impulses of human nature which are found in the history of other peoples. It has had its periods of frenzy, of magnanimity, of cruelty, of volatility, of sober and steadfast enthusiasm. We think the French a fickle and restless nation, but such impressions arise from restricting our regard to certain periods of a nation’s history. Before its great Revolution the French could justly boast that they had been less prone to novelties in state and religion than any people in Europe. In the seventeenth century the French regarded the English as the most restless and fickle of peoples, and the history of England during that century naturally gave rise to the impression. To correct such hasty judgments, to school us to that enlightened patriotism which, while treasuring its own national tradition as a precious possession, does generous justice to the traditions of other races—the true and effective means is to know our own history as a whole. By restricting our attention to special periods this discipline is. in great measure lost, and for the reason that in one particular period we see only the exaggerated manifestation of one aspect of the national character. The period of the Reformation in Scotland is doubtless the most momentous in our annals, but by exclusively fixing our eyes on that period we are apt not only to misread the national character, but to defeat the end which should be the ultimate object of the profitable study of history. We identify ourselves with its contentions, take sides with its leaders, and lose sight of the all-important fact that the sixteenth century, like every other, was only one stage in the evolution of the Scottish people. Only by the large survey of every stage of a nation’s history can we understand its own distinctive characteristics, and learn to distinguish that special note which it has contributed to what has been called ‘ the great chorus of humanity.’

From what has been said it will be seen that I am advocating the study of our national history :n schools not so much with the view of producing patriots as of producing fully developed men and women. If it could be shown that the study of the history of other countries were better fitted to effect this result, surely every good patriot would say—by all means, then, let him do so. But in the reasoning I have submitted to you be sound, it is in the nature of things that the youthful mind should derive its largest profit from acquaintance with the history to which it alone possesses the key, which it can understand and assimilate as it can do no other. From such an acquaintance it acquires something far more than a multiplicity of facts; it has entered into the life of at least one segment of the universal mind, and has gained that permanent faculty of imaginative sympathy which beyond every other lightens the burden of daily experience.

The time has gone by when we can advocate any study on petty and parochial grounds. Each nation now lives in the full current of the universal life, and if it is to be an adequate partaker of that life, its people must possess the discipline and the aptitudes requisite to receive it. It is, therefore, on the grounds, not of a narrow patriotism, but on the grounds of reason and enlightened self-interest that I have tried to emphasize the importance of the study of our national history in schools. At present, it is a matter of regret among Scotsmen of all shades of opinion that it does not receive the amount of attention it deserves. The regret is felt mainly because national sentiment is thus impaired, and with it the native vigour which springs from the consciousness of an inspiring past. But this, as I believe, is only part, and not even the greater part, of our loss. By neglecting to communicate to our youth a full, an accurate, and a living knowledge of their nation’s history we are depriving them of a nutriment at once for soul and mind, which in the nature of things no other secular subject can in equal measure supply.

P. Hume Brown.


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