Life is more complicated in the 21st century than it was fifty years ago, at least when it comes to teaching history. When our grandparents went to school, they studied American history and world history chronologically. They opened a book, read the stories, and learned the data. An example of this approach would be Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World.

But the world of education changed. History morphed into social studies, which is “ . . . the study of social relationships and the functioning of society and usually made up of courses in history, government, economics, civics, sociology, geography, and anthropology.”¹ And that, my friends, resulted in a tangled mesh of facts that is very difficult to teach, which may explain why many Americans are not as knowledgeable about history (their own or anyone else’s) as Europeans, Africans, or Asians tend to be.

Now, as a homeschooler of a middle school student, you might be wondering how to navigate the history/social studies discipline. If you look online at what public schools teach, you will discover that the norm is to teach one year of U.S. history in middle school—with few teaching any world history at all.² So, as you think about what you are going to do, it’s refreshing to know that doing some sort of history in each year of middle school will guarantee that your kids are learning more than most of their peers. Phew!

But what should middle school students know about history? Before we jump into specific discussions about American history versus world history, let’s consider three basic principles of how to approach the study of history.

First and foremost, teach your kids to start with humility. Though it may seem like the facts of history are undeniable, when you start digging down into what people actually know about the past, you often find scattered bits and pieces of information—mere fragments of a time period. It is the work of academic historians to sift through these bits in order to build a cohesive story. But they often disagree with each other’s conclusions! So, what we assume is a factual story in history may actually be an informed “guess” based on archaeological digs, old houses, castles, newspapers, etc.

Since the only one who really views all of history with absolute clarity and certainty is God, all the rest of us need to walk in humility when it comes to disagreements. This is a great life lesson for your kids to learn, and it is essential in the study of history.

Secondly, remember there are always at least two sides to every story. For instance, when an American thinks of the Revolutionary War, there is a rush of patriotism, memories of Fourth of July celebrations, and a strong urge to sing “God Bless the U.S.A” However, the British don’t have the same view of this event, do they? From their perspective, the events of 1776 are all about treason and disloyalty to the king. Yet another viewpoint was held by John Wesley, who believed that the issue in America was the waning of revival and a corresponding rush to materialism.

Rather than finding historical viewpoints which agree with what we already believe, it is helpful—and enormously instructive—to consider different perspectives. As your kids learn history, make sure they understand that there are different ways of viewing the same event.

The last foundational principle is to avoid “soundbites” in history. We all know the limitations of hearing a TV news story that has been condensed into 60 seconds. The real story is far more complicated and has many more details than can be told in a minute. There is a complexity to people, events, and cultures, and if we are to understand them, we need to slow down and learn more.

One of the best reasons to not rely solely on a history textbook is that it condenses the drama and adventure of history into soundbites—a mere mention of names, dates, and places. You can do better! Let the people of the past come to life through stories of the time by having your middle school student read biographies, historical fiction, and even primary sources!

With these things in place, you are ready for the final question: What history should your middle school student know? That is a great question. Here are a few suggestions:

American history. If you live in America, this is crucial. Most middle school students in the public school system study the American Revolution through the Civil War, but feel free to do more.

World history. There are many compelling reasons to study world history, including the fact that you won’t really understand American history if you don’t see it in its historical context (that means world history).

Ancient history; the Middle Ages. It’s always good to start at the beginning of a story; so,, if you haven’t yet studied the ancient world, begin there. If your kids are fairly conversant with history up through the Roman Empire, then tackle the Middle Ages. It is a fascinating time period, and it lays a foundation for understanding modern history.

Whatever history you dive into, I encourage you to let it come to life for your middle school kids!

Endnotes: 

  1. http:// www . merriam-webster . com/dictionary/social%20studies
  2. http:// www . greatschools . org/gk/articles/your-middle-schooler-and-social-studies/

Copyright 2016, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Annual Print Book 2016 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.