The Key Component of Teaching History: Integration


If you’ve ever had an anxious dog greet you at the door with waves of love, jumping up and down with manic energy, even though you and your dog have played the same routine hundreds or even thousands of times in the past, you might have asked yourself why the reaction is always the same, as if each day was new with no connection to any other day. It’s probably because to them, each day IS new, and the animal lacks the ability to make the connections that we, as humans, take for granted.


It’s this unique capacity of integration, to connect the dots, to see the similarities and differences in things and draw conclusions, that allows us to harness fire, to communicate to each other using language, to discover the laws of motion, to build an electrical grid that supplies power to billions, and to live as human beings do. It’s what allows us to even consider asking questions about who we are and how we should live, how we should treat each other, and what should we aspire to.


Presenting history without integration is like watching a movie by cutting up all the frames, and drawing them randomly out of a hat. Unfortunately, this is the typical experience a student goes through with conventional education. We often see history units presented out of order, with the American Civil War examined before the first Constitutional Convention, or the second half of a Western Civilization class before the first. The study of history becomes a worthless chore of disconnected factoids to memorize, without any practical value. Or worse, the disintegrated approach creates a vacuum in which arbitrary lessons, no better than propaganda, can be inserted and graded upon.


So, what would an integrated approach look like? To start, we share one of the central tenets of the Classical Education movement, to present history in chronological order. But that’s not enough. It’s important to connect the most essential lessons of history to each other. With integration, history is no longer a futile game of trivia, but instead, a causal chain of human events in which we can abstract common principles that teach us about ourselves and our world.


The presentation of history as an ordered story, with the events of one age shown to have been presaged by the events of the previous age, on the one hand allows the student to retain the information more readily by showing the principles of history, rather than meaninglessly disconnected random occurrences. But on an even deeper level, the student gets to see the process of integration in action. They get to see integration, and they also get to do integration.


In the end, the practice of integration can give your student something like a super power. By developing the skill of making meaningful connections, they’ll be able to draw lessons from unexpected places, be a more principled person, and ultimately, see the world in a much richer way. As Aristotle noted, plants are solely concerned with nutrition, animals have sensations and desires, which allow them to move more freely; but it is humans having both of these features with the rational element added that gives us the added ability to think conceptually. It is this is what separates us from our beloved dog, who is just excited to see us.


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