Setting the Stage for History

I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s book Saint Frances of Assisi, and, wow, it is an amazing book. Chesterton really crafted every sentence well, and I’m fairly convinced I will read everything he’s written – it’s all on my Goodreads “to read” bookshelf. I recently told a friend that really great books always begin with a map, and I stand by that generalization – even though SFoA doesn’t begin with a map. However, it does start with two preliminary chapters that go to rich depths even before the author begins to tell of St. Francis.


Chesterton on St. Francis

It is this second chapter, titled “The World St. Francis Found,” that inspired this blog post. The chapter serves to set the stage of the world into which St. Francis was born. Chesterton argues that the saint was born (cir. 1181) at a perfect time during the Dark Ages well before the Renaissance. The situation of St. Francis’ birth on the timeline of history allowed him to create the most impact because the world had been, basically, wrapped in a cocoon during the Dark Ages following the life and death of Christ. (The cocoon is my analogy, not Chesterton’s.)This cocoon overwintered during the Dark Ages with the light of Christ on the inside of the cocoon and the natural knowledge leftover from the Greeks on the outside, there to freeze and die. It was only after a sufficient winter that the cocoon could open and the gospel eclose, spread its wings.

Chesterton on the Study of History

Reading this chapter sort of opened my eyes to the way history should be learned. In this same chapter, Chesterton offers this criticism:

[Journalism] never thinks of publishing the life [biography] until it is publishing the death … Most modern history, especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half the story of Christendom, and that the second half without the first half … [history] is obscure because its origins are obscure.

And this a few paragraphs later:

… to begin the story of St. Francis with the birth of St. Francis would be to miss the whole point of the story, or rather not to tell the story at all. And it is to suggest that the modern tail-foremost type of journalistic history perpetually fails us. We learn about reformers without knowing what they had to reform, about rebels without knowing what they rebelled against, of memorials that are not connected with any memory and restorations of things that apparently never existed before.

A Shallow View of History

Those last few lines completely summarize my experience learning history in school. As an elementary school student in the public system, I dutifully learned about Columbus, the colonies, the American Revolution, and the Oregon Trail. The end. That’s all the history we needed to know. Nothing from another continent and certainly nothing before Columbus. The stage was never properly set, and I was always left wondering, “Who were these rebels, and what were they rebelling against?” “Taxes,” they told us. Or, “They wanted religious freedom.” I’m ashamed to say that was good enough for me until I traveled abroad during college for an internship. I lived in London for three months and finally started asking myself some questions. One memorable day I visited the London War Museum, which documented every single war in known English history. I remember thinking, “I should find the American Revolution and see how it’s described.” I looked. I searched. The place was set up in a linear fashion, and I remember scouring the 1700s trying to find mention of the United States. Finally I found the tiniest of little blips on the grand timeline. In small print, it said, “Skirmish in the Colonies.” At first I was indignant. Then I was humbled.

A Robust View of History

I tell that story to demonstrate how correct Chesterton was to attempt to properly set the stage before he began his biography of St. Francis. In its approximate 200 pages, his book spent the first 38 attempting to preface for the reader the situation of the world into which the saint was born.

As many of you know, we homeschool using the Ambleside Online curriculum (which is free and wonderful and I think you should click the hyperlink right now and discover its richness and come back to this blog post many hours later). I’ve read criticisms or hesitations regarding AO’s grounding in ancient British (well, before the Britains) history. Charlotte Mason began her Form 1 students with folk tales of England’s past, and some have suggested that an Americanized version of a CM education should begin with American folk tales – American heroes like Paul Bunyan and Ben Franklin – instead of European heroes, like King Arthur, William Tell, and even some from ancient Greece.

I wasn’t a nay-sayer because I trusted the AO advisory board, and I knew they were leading me on a great path – a great curriculum. But now, after reading Chesterton’s criticism of a shallow view of history (and having experienced most of Form 1 with A9), I can proudly say “I get it.”

The AO curriculum is setting a larger stage than Columbus-through-Oregon Trail (even though AO Year 1 does cover Ben Franklin and other American heroes simultaneously). A person can’t just jump into “Columbus” and expect to understand the context any more than Chesterton could have jumped into talking about St. Francis without laying some ground work.

In Term 2 of AO Year 3, my son just read about Sir Walter Raleigh, and instead of just seeing one man, he saw the history of The Island on which sits England, Scotland, and Wales. He saw his patron, Queen Elizabeth I, on her throne in the shadows of Arthur, Alfred the Great, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, Henry the V, Richard III, and Henry VIII. He saw these early settlements of The New World in the light of the near constant land struggle between England and France. And, even though his grounding in U.S. history foretells him of the great nation to come, he understood in this lesson (wherein Raleigh gives orders to explore The New World) that the English explorers (and the Spanish conquistadors and the French Huguenot) had no idea how vast or important the land on which they stood (and starved and died) would be to the world in four hundred years. He understood because he has been given a broad view of history, a foundation.

So, yeah. I’m not regretting the decision to follow AO’s curriculum, and if you needed a little encouragement to check it out, I hope this message accomplished that.

Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




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