August 29, 2005

Their Island Story

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
Rudyard Kipling

One of my favorite places to procrastinate, er, get ideas for our classical homeschooling is the Tanglewood Education website. One of the books I've been toying with adding to our collection is An Island Story by H.E. (Henrietta Elizabeth) Marshall, which Tanglewood uses as a main history text in part because it was used by Charlotte Mason in her own schools; the original British title is, of course, Our Island Story: A Child's History of England, from Tennyson's stirring and most English Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, "Not once or twice in our rough island-story/ The path of duty was the way to glory." I would use it as a supplement, since it's scope isn't broad enough for us, mainly because we're not English. Well, partly but not entirely :). I could just start printing the book from The Baldwin Project online, but there's something about a real, bound book, not to mention the fact that for what it could cost me in printer ink, I could have that nice bound copy.

I was surprised to read in the Economist the other day that Island Story has been out of print in England for over 50 years. But thanks to the think-tank Civitas, it's being reissued just in time for its centennial, with a publication date of September 22nd; the organization also has plans to give a free copy of the book to every primary school in the country, and is soliciting donations for the endeavor. In his fundraising appeal, Civitas deputy director Robert Whelan writes,
History teaching [in England] is in an equally bad way, but it has not received the same sort of attention. This is unfortunate, as the teaching of history is a vital part of the process of transmitting from one generation to the next knowledge of the events and the institutions which have enabled us to live in a free and prosperous society. In short, the health of our culture depends on each generation knowing where we have come from and how. [This, of course, was a very common theme after the July 7th London bombings, on the lips of Tony Blair and others.]

History is now not even taught in a chronological way. Instead of showing how one event influences others, and how the great men and women of each century have helped to make us to the sort of people we are, children are presented with all sorts of 'modules' about topics such as the state of the peasants, the role of women, slavery and the Empire, as if these things can be comprehended without knowing the order in which events occurred. Jumping from one century and one civilisation to another, children end up scarcely knowing if the Battle of Britain or the Battle of Hastings came first. ...

We at Civitas want to do something to improve this lamentable situation, and way to proceed is to identify really good material produced in the past but now out-of-print. In the course of our reading and discussions, one title kept coming up: Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall, a classic children's history book first published in 1905 and now long out-of-print. ...

We acquired several copies of different editions of Our Island Story and started reading through it. It was easy to see why the book is remembered with such affection! It is beautifully written, and tells the history of Britain from the Romans to the death of Queen Victoria. Everything is arranged in chronological order, with every chapter bearing the name of the monarch of the period covered. Wars and revolutions, plagues and inventions, great men and women, all parade through these pages, giving the young reader a brilliant picture, simple but accurate, of the way in which our ancestors made us the people we are today.
Leading British historian Lady Antonia Fraser, writing back in June in The Daily Telegraph, whose readers in particular have been particular generous in the fundraising effort, acknowledged her debt to Marshall: "It's not just the warmth of childhood memory that this book evokes. It was a direct inspiration for me in my career as a historian. It was from having read these stories that I came to realise that, as a study, history has all the best tunes." She also gave a nod to modern sensibilities,
While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today's climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children's eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation.

In the past couple of days, there has been a row about the Royal Navy's concern about perceived "triumphalism" over the Trafalgar bicentenary. Anyone approaching Our Island Story might also expect a blast of "triumphalism". But actually, it isn't there. Marshall is quite a pacifist, with a small "p". And her approach to history is very personal. ...

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of "chronological" history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote "empathy" yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology - it drives me mad when people can't place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say "I will tell you stories", an idea with which I profoundly agree.
Fraser (erm, Lady Antonia) goes on to say, "That said, in teaching terms, one should never go back entirely," but you can read the rest yourself. Nice to have my "ripping yarns" theory confirmed by the experts.

P.S. Canadians, you can buy your copy here next month. Though it's not cheap (cheaper than a plane ticket to London, though, but not as much fun). Chapters doesn't seem to have it listed yet.
P.P.S. Civitas, could we please have Our Empire Story next?
P.P.P.S. Yoohoo, Canadians, the ball's in your court now. Americans, you too. Joy Hakim's History of US is nice, but too long and too politically correct for a proper ripping yarn.
P.P.P.P.S. Carlotta, please tell me that Civitas is a reasonable organization lol. They seem reasonable from the website, and the book is certainly a worthwhile effort.

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