|Dr. Anne Carroll is the founder and director of the Seton (Day)
School, where she also teaches history and religion. The school is
located in Manassas, VA.
When new students enroll in Seton Day School, they often remark that
they hate history. After they have been at Seton a few years, they may
still hate history but the class, not the material. They
hate writing term papers and taking essay tests, but they usually end up
liking history, even being enthusiastic about it. Home schooling parents
are also often faced with the "I hate history" syndrome. But
they, too, can transform antipathy into enthusiasm.
Everything we teach our children should have as its ultimate purpose
the glory of God and the good of souls, and history is no exception. How
specifically can we teach history so that it fulfills these purposes?
First of all, it is through history that we learn that Jesus Christ
is the most historically important person who has ever lived, that the
Incarnation/Redemption/Resurrection are the most important events, or
rather the most important single event, in history. Obviously Jesus
Christ is of supreme theological importance, but it doesn't take much
thought to see that He is of supreme historical importance as well.
The Importance of Church History the Why
On the first day of freshman history class at Seton, I ask my
students to define history. Without much coaxing, they come up with the
definition that history is recorded past events which have made a
significant impact on the world. From that it is easy to conclude that
the most important events and persons are those which have had the
greatest impact. Who is more important: Abraham or Hammurabi? We
probably won't find Abraham mentioned in a secular history book. But how
many people today honor Hammurabi? How many follow a creed that he
taught? How many name their children after him? The answers are probably
none, none, and very few, if any. Yet Abraham is honored by the three
great monotheistic religions of the world over two billion living human beings.
That's historical impact.
Yet Abraham was only a forerunner, the father of a race of people
deservedly called Chosen, from whom would come the Person with the most
impact of all. All of the ancient world points to Him because the only
ideas and institutions that survive from that ancient world are either
those which directly led up to the Incarnation and the founding of the
Church (Jewish culture) or those which were preserved by the Catholic
Church (everything we have from classical culture). If the See of Peter
had not been located there, Rome would have become just another
backwater village after the fall of the Empire and the barbarian
All of history since the Incarnation has been dominated by the
Church. The skeptic might concede that the Middle Ages were
Church-centered but deny this influence in later centuries. Yet even at
times when the Church, in secular terms, appears weak, it is still the
focus of attention, or, more correctly stated, the focus of attack. How
many other religions are routinely pilloried in Time or the Washington
Post? How often do we see the picture of the Dalai Lama or some Hindu
Guru or the head of the Lutheran Church or the chief Prophet of the
Latter Day Saints on the cover of Newsweek? If the Church weren't
influencing history today, the liberal media would not be so
vociferously attacking it.
Three Principles to Remember
Thus principle number one in teaching history from the Catholic point
of view is that the Incarnation is the central event in history.
Principle number two is an obvious corollary: God acts in history. We
can see this action in Old Testament history, but not just there. Why
did Don Juan of Austria win at Lepanto? Why did nine million Indians
convert in Mexico? Why did the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution
end when it did? Why did Communism "fall" in Eastern Europe
and the Soviet Union? Did perhaps Pope Pius V's rosaries and the
apparition at Guadalupe and the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns and the
election of a Polish Pope have something to do with these events? God
does, indeed, act in history.
Principle number three is that history is made by free will choices.
Men and women not impersonal forces make history. Communism did not take
over Russia in 1917 because it was economically inevitable or because
the dialectic of history ordained that it would. Russia fell to
Communism because of Nicholas II's decision to mobilize against Austria
and thus bring Russia into the war, and Alexandra's decision to hand
over the government to Rasputin when Nicholas went to the front, and
Ludendorff's decision to ship Lenin to Petrograd to make a revolution.
Without those decisions, Communism could not have taken over the world's
largest country. Russia would have been at peace, its economy stable,
the people content and Lenin would have died in Zurich.
All history is taught from a point of view. Even the most meticulous
card file historian has a principle of selection. What do we choose to
include and what leave out, what to emphasize and what to assign to
We Catholics judge by these three principles: The Incarnation is the
central event in human history; God acts in history; history is made by
free will choices.
Lessons within the Principles
If we teach history guided by these principles, certain lessons will
emerge. The first lesson is that the Church really is built on a rock
and the gates of hell really will not prevail against it. We know this
is true through faith (Matthew 16:18-19). But history confirms our
faith. When we look at the broad span of history, we see the Church
under attack from Roman persecutors, heretics, barbarians, Byzantine
Emperors, power hungry noblemen, Holy Roman Emperors, schismatics,
Protestant revolutionaries, and modern materialists and atheists. Yet
the Church still stands. Perhaps the strongest evidence history can give
us that the Church will always stand is that it has survived attacks
that would have destroyed any human institution.
If anti-Catholics bring up the Renaissance Popes as arguments against
the divine institution of the Church, we can say that they are, in fact,
arguments in its favor. If the Church were merely human, its weak human
leaders would have brought it down long ago.
In fact, there are even worse problems than most anti-Catholics know
about. During the Dark Ages, for example, there was actually a case
where one Pope ordered the dead body of his predecessor exhumed and put
on trial. He was, not surprisingly, found guilty. This Synod of the
Corpse is not too well known even by anti-Catholics. Yet if the Church
can survive this, it can survive anything.
We need not hesitate to teach older students about these problems
that the Church has had. If we do, they won't be surprised or shocked if
they hear about them from some other source. But, more importantly, they
are good evidence for the divine institution of the Church.
A second lesson is that history is an apologetics tool. Many of the
attacks on Catholicism can be answered by history. The Crusades were not
aggressive, unjust wars waged by rapacious Christians against peaceful
Moslems. The Inquisition did not unjustly slaughter thousands of people
simply because they practiced a different religion. The Protestant
Revolt was not an attempt to reform the Church of its evils and give
people a chance to follow their consciences. Galileo was not harshly
persecuted simply for speaking a scientific truth. Franco was not a Nazi
dictator who overthrew a legitimate government and set up a police
state. Pius XII was not a coward, indifferent to the plight of the Jews.
All of these lies can be easily refuted with a little historical
A third lesson is that Christianity transformed civilization.
The Impact of Christianity on the Pagan World
Think of the characteristics of pagan society. First, the individual
counted for nothing. In fact, there was not even a concept of person in
the pagan world. The concept of person was first formulated by
theologians to explain the Trinity and the Incarnation, and then applied
to human persons. As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete of the John Paul II
Institute has explained, only societies that honor the Trinity will also
honor the dignity of the human person. Pagan societies did not honor the
human person, and our modern society is granting the title of person to
an ever smaller group. Having already excluded the unborn and the
comatose, it is now moving toward eliminating the elderly, the seriously
ill, the retarded, and the handicapped.
A second characteristic of pagan society is that women were property.
Only Christian society gave women their proper dignity. In the Book of
Genesis before Original Sin, we see the fundamental equality of men and
women: "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my
flesh," Adam said to Eve. But after Original Sin, Eve was told that
her husband would lord it over her. The pagan world saw male dominance
carried to its logical conclusion as women were considered the property
of men. But in Christ, St. Paul tells the Galatians, "there is no
Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female." Salvation is open
equally to men and to women. And in the Church, we see women attaining
their proper dignity. Despite what the radical feminists tell us about
the male-dominated Church, it is only in the Church that we find St.
Teresa of Avila, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Joan of
Arc, and St. Catherine of Siena, the little dyer's daughter who told
Popes what to do. History properly taught will expose the lies of the
radical feminists as little else can.
A third characteristic is that governments in pagan times had no
limits on their power. Christianity introduced the concept of limited
government, the idea that the king or ruler was responsible to God and
that the legitimacy of governments depended upon whether or not they
were in harmony with God's laws.
Absolutist, unlimited governments are pre-Christian or
anti-Christian. The first standard by which a government should be
judged is whether or not it respects the laws of God and, therefore,
whether it will respect the rights of the individual person and advance
the common good. It does not matter whether the government is monarchy
or democracy. If it honors God and God's laws, then it is a just
Actual Teaching of Catholic History the How
These are the main historical lessons we want our children to learn
from history, but how do we go about teaching them? We tell stories.
That's the way history happened. History is not a list of events and
dates (though dates, of course, are important.) History is lived
experience, people making choices, acting on them, and living through
the consequences of those choices. The best way to teach history is to
A typical secular history book would probably devote a few sentences
to Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs along these lines: Cortes went to
Mexico and destroyed a flourishing native culture, imposing alien
European values, in a flagrant example of cultural genocide.
One way to counteract this kind of teaching is simply to replace the
pejorative words: Cortes went to Mexico and defeated the evil Aztec
Empire, allowing Christianity to be brought to the people. Thus we will
have stated the facts and communicated a lesson. But there is another
way to teach the same facts and the same lesson.
We can land with Cortes on the coast of Mexico, hear with him the
rumors of massive human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs. Watch him
scuttle his ships so that his men won't be tempted to return to Cuba
when they realize the incredible odds they must face. March with him
across the plains. Enter Zocotlan and see the temple with its enormous
racks for skulls, each representing a victim of human sacrifice. Count
them with Bernal Diaz, the chronicler of the expedition, and add up the
totals: 100,000 skulls. Arrive at Tenochtitlan, the capital city, be
greeted by Montezuma who doesn't know quite what to make of this bearded
white man who shows no fear. Go on the tour of the city. See the towers
and benches made of skulls, smell the blood, see the hideous idol of the
Aztec devil god Huitzilopochtli, which the Spaniards called Witchywolves.
Watch Cortes grab an iron bar, smash the idol, and order Montezuma to
have the place cleared out and a chapel set up. Hear Cortes try to
convert Montezuma to the true faith and then see Cortes capture the
Emperor in spite of the presence of his stupefied guards. Feel the fear
as the Aztecs besiege the house where the Spaniards are staying. Escape
on the night known as Noche Triste, Night of Sadness, as the
Spaniards fight their way out of the city, at great cost. Stand with the
battered, exhausted remnants of the army on the Hill of the Turkey Hen
and look down into the valley to see an enormous Aztec host blocking the
way. Hear Cortes commend their souls to God and Holy Mary and call upon
St. James and St. Peter. See the victory won. And then with every reason
in the world to leave the nightmare empire of the devil gods and never
return, follow Cortes to a safe place where he begins rebuilding his
army to make a new assault on Tenochtitlan, an assault which finally
brings victory. Attend the Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Father
Olmedo. See the temples of the devil gods destroyed and human sacrifice
ended forever. Then kneel with Cortes at the bare feet of the Franciscan
missionaries who have come to bring Christ to the long suffering people
Learning from Stories
For younger children, up to about fifth grade, it is probably best
not to use a textbook or to use it only as a general guide. Instead tell
them stories, read them stories, and give them books to read on the of
Old Testament history, the great stories from classical history
(Marathon, Alexander the Great, the Punic Wars, for example), a history
of the Church with emphasis on saints and heroes which will give them a
general understanding of European history, the stories of missionaries
and the establishment of the Church in non-western lands, and the
Catholic saints and heroes of the Americas integrated into a general
summary of United States history.
Seton Day School begins with sixth grade, and for our sixth, seventh,
and eight graders, we teach World Culture. This class is a
country-by-country approach in which we teach the great cultural
achievements, the saints, and the most important historical events of
each country. We cover all the countries of eastern and western Europe,
Russia, India, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and others
depending on the interests of a particular class. We teach a different
group of countries each year so that in three years we've covered the
A similar approach would work in the home. Parents with their
children could pick out the countries they want to cover each year. Use
a good encyclopedia to learn the people and events that are important
and then go into detail using books from the library or other sources.
To give an example to illustrate, one of the most popular countries
to study at Seton is Italy. We begin with St. Peter's basilica, giving
historical background on the martyrdom of St. Peter, the conversion of
Constantine, the building of the first St. Peter's, its falling into
disrepair when the Popes went to Avignon, and the decision to build the
new one during the Renaissance. We then discuss the different artists
and architects who worked on the church, climaxing with Bernini and the
baroque interior of the basilica. Then we do other great artists of the
Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. We do great
Italian saints: St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John
Bosco. For modern times, we do Padre Pio and the rescue of the Jews
during World War II. This is obviously not a political history, but it
gives the students the flavor of the country.
Each student does a project involving research and a presentation
both oral and visual. Parents may not have time to give a 45-minute
class every day the way we do at school, but they can direct their
children to the sources to read and then discuss these sources with
them. Surely there is time at the dinner table, while doing chores, or
while riding in the car to discuss these topics even if there isn't
always time for a specific class during the day.
Tan Books and the Daughters of St. Paul have many books which will
help parents teach history and world culture to younger children. Make
good use of your public library as well.
High School History
In ninth grade we teach World History I, which is a survey from
Abraham to the end of the High Middle Ages, around 1500. In tenth grade
(World History II), we go from the 1500's to the end of World War II.
The reason we stop there is that in the upper division courses we cover
the 20th century thoroughly, but in the home the parent could certainly
cover later events. This two-year course is taught systematically and
It is important by the time children are in high school that they get
a detailed survey of history. This survey should include events that
might not have an immediately apparent Catholic significance. But every
educated person should have a good basic knowledge of important
historical events. The difference from surveys in secular schools is
that everything will be taught in the context of the principles we have
already outlined, and it will be more interesting because it will be
taught in terms of the stories of the people who made history.
A good example would be the Battle of Waterloo. Everyone should know
the story how Napoleon escaped from Elba and
rebuilt the Grand Army to face the Allied armies near that little
Belgian village; how he was overconfident and made crucial mistakes; how
Prussian General Blucher who had been trampled by horses two days before
rose from his bed of pain to bring the Prussian army to Waterloo just in
time to win the day for the Allies. The Battle of Waterloo is a great
And the Catholic significance? Napoleon was the child of the French
Revolution. He spread revolutionary liberalism throughout Europe. It was
important that he be defeated once and for all. His defeat gave
Europeans a breathing space in which traditional values could be
restored and there could be a great Catholic revival before Europe had
to face the next great revolutionary onslaught, Communism.
The Catholic Approach to American History
In the last two years at Seton, we alternate two upper division
courses: History of the Americas and Twentieth Century History.
History of the Americas covers North and South America. Of
course, the majority of the time is spent on the United States, but
students need to know Hispanic history as well.
In U.S. history there is not as much Catholic material as one would
wish but more than we might think. Our children need to know about the
early missionaries in North and South America, Blessed Junipero Serra,
Mother Seton, Bishop Carroll and Charles Carroll, Bishop Neumann, the
anti-Catholic Nativist movement, Bishop Hughes, Mother Drexel, Mother
Cabrini. And they need to look at U.S. history with intellects that have
been formed by the historical principles we discussed earlier in order to analyze the strengths and
weaknesses of American government, to evaluate Supreme Court decisions,
to look at our current problems with historical perspective. With regard
to the first point, we don't teach a separate government class at Seton;
we integrate the information students need about American government
into the history class so that they can see how our government became
what it is. With regard to the last point, a student with a good
historical background will know exactly why Bosnia is a trouble spot,
will see why our health care situation is not likely to be improved by
Hillary Clinton, will know why all the indexes of social health in our
country are giving bad readings. It was easy to know not to vote for
Clinton, but not all political decisions are so obvious. A good
knowledge of U.S. history will enable a young person to see beyond the
photo ops and to make intelligent political decisions.
Our Twentieth Century History course mainly chronicles the
rise and fall of Communism. Even though Communism looks like it has
fallen in Europe and Russia, its harmful effects are still very much
with us and we must never forget how much evil the Communists
perpetrated. Just as we study the Nazis even though Nazism is no longer
a historical force because we don't want such things ever to happen
again, so we must study Communism. Furthermore, Communism is still a
historical force in Asia.
Research of History
Juniors and seniors should have the background to explore any area of
history in depth. They should be able to read historical sources, do
research, write documented papers, and give oral presentations on what
they have learned. We require research papers in our upper level
courses, and home schooling parents should do the same. Being able to
research and write historical papers is an important skill, and no one
should get a high school diploma if he hasn't written at least one major
historical research paper, preferably more than one so that he can learn
from the mistakes of the first. The student should use sources by
secular historians so that he can learn to evaluate their conclusions
and their evidence.
Understanding the Importance of History in the Catholic Home
Teaching Catholic history in the home is a challenge for Catholic
parents. For the younger children, the parents must find sources and
become familiar with the material so that they can tell stories. The
older children must be guided in the right direction so that they can
find and evaluate sources. On all levels, the parent must take the time
to discuss the material with their children, inspiring them to see the
wonder of human virtue and the consequences of human sin.
But out of the effort will come a deeper awareness of the importance
of our free will actions, of the responsibility which we must take for
our decisions, of the splendor of Holy Mother Church, of the glory of
saints and heroes. Most importantly, parents and children alike will be
able to contemplate the love of God for man, the love of the Second
Person of the Trinity who chose to become one of us and enter into our
history, sharing with us the human condition and transforming history