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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Or "Why is it so dang hard to find a history curriculum that's not full of inaccuracies, debunked myths, or the author's pervasive prejudices?"

Here's a good one: how many of you were taught in school that people in Columbus' time thought the world was flat. Better: that they thought if they sailed too close to the edge, the water flowed downhill and they'd float right into the mouths of sea monsters. Or dragons.

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it?

It is.

It sounds ridiculous on the face of it, and yet this myth has been perpetuated by history textbooks for about a hundred years.

It's in chapter 2 of H. E. Marshall's This Land of Ours, an old out-of-copyright child's history of the U.S. often recommended to homeschoolers for its "living book" quality. And lest you think this is just a problem with old out-of-date texts, I found references upholding the flat earth myth as fact in several modern texts aimed at the elementary (and even high school) grades, including Joy Hakim's Freedom: A History of US.

I know I was taught the "flat earth myth" in school, or some variation on it (I think they skipped the sea monsters)...didn't make a whole lot of sense to me at the time...I mean, did they not notice things disappearing below the horizon and then reappearing as they came back?  Were people really a lot dumber then than they are now? 

Or were we dumber for believing it because it was in a textbook?

How many "facts" that we've learned of our history are real and how many are make-believe, invented either through malice or because they were misremembered or mis-chronicled by those in the know?

An excellent novel on the topic of false histories is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tay. I recommend'll open your eyes to the magnitude of the problem and how public opinion is often influenced by misinformation that has been accepted as fact. It's popular fact, if you will. But not what is true.

An interesting thought experiment, but what am I getting at?

I'm a teeny bit compulsive about finding the right materials for my kiddos. My own history education was...well we just won't talk about that.  My public school education was not bad, but it was lacking in this area in particular (or perhaps I simply wasn't well suited to soaking up the wisdom in the classroom).

This is just one reason why we homeschool. Intellectual rigor. And critical thinking. I want my children to know that just because a books says it's true doesn't mean it is true. There is a higher authority than books, no matter how nice the binding is or how respected the author is.  It is ok to question what we read.

We do try to choose books based on how reliable their information is...but we are mindful that all books written by man are flawed. And history books...history is not an objective recitation of facts, but a narrative. A story. It might be true. But it might also hold untruths in it.

The most dangerous untruths are probably those of a false the point being made true or not? Do you see what I'm getting at?

A text that claims people in the middle ages thought the world was flat is one thing, but one that claims they thought the world was flat because the Church hid the wisdom of the ancient Greeks from them and twisted scientific understanding to its own use...this is the bigger lie.

We have a duty to pray for discernment when choosing our texts, but also to read books with a critical eye...what is really being said, here? Is it just an innocent gaffe, or is there something bigger going on? 

I take my responsibility for our children's education very seriously. If I were to put my children in the hands of a school, I would probably be limited in what I could do about an objectionable text, the school system would be in charge.  The best I could do would be to encourage my children to read with discernment and discuss their studies with them (this is always the very best that I can do, actually).

But since I homeschool, even the text is up to me.

I have to. Decide.

And it's a little difficult when every book I open has a glaring error. The flat earth myth is only one example. I start thinking about how lacking my own history education is (though I'm working on it:-)...what if there are whole bunches of other errors I haven't got a clue you see why a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous?

And at some point you start questioning everything that you read. Is it true?

So what is the answer? This is what we (hubby and I) have come up with. Now hubby's history background is good---he's a bit of a history nut, so he's a good go-to person to have. But, he agreed: there's no such thing as the perfect history text.

Finding an objective recitation of "just the facts, ma'am" is impossible. It doesn't exist. And really, it can't exist. We don't know or understand our world as an objective collection of facts. Every single "fact" that enters our memories has to go through all the filters of our experience before our brain interprets it for us.   "Facts" without context are meaningless.

Even if you witnessed an event first-hand, you'd have no chance of seeing what really happened. So much of truth is tied up in the background info that you might not even be privy to...and what about all the unrecorded background info that no one is privy to?

This is probably going to sound really cynical...but at some point we just have to choose what we are going to teach and the materials we'll use. We can choose our narrative.  We can acknowledge that any human narrative will be flawed.  And we can pray that we are able to encourage our children to discern the true bigger picture and to filter out any debris the gets in there.

And we do.

But I also see many teaching their narrative exclusively.  They choose texts that espouse their particular world-view and eschew those that don't---and I'll note that I don't want to criticize that viewpoint, I feel strongly that parents should choose how to educate their children, we just disagree with that way of doing things.  It's just not how we roll around here.

We choose to use multiple books and resources from different authors with various viewpoints. Yes, even authors we don't agree with.  Even authors that don't fit our chosen narrative.  Because all human narratives are flawed. We do talk about what we believe, yes, but we don't expect our children to accept our narrative without question.  We discuss things.  At some point I'll talk more about our philosophy in this area, but as I've already written a tome here, I will sign off.

Did you learn anything in school that you know now, without a shadow of a doubt, is false?


  1. I really like where you've ended up: Take a variety of perspectives, with a solid foundation of where you start, and triangulate and discuss from there. The nice thing is that, as you model yourself, even if you don't get a great history education, as long as you learn how to learn and love that... you can always pick it up later. You don't have to get everything while in school. You can't. Learning is a life-long process.


  2. Hi Luke,
    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I agree, learning should be a lifelong passion, not something we "get done" in 12 years. I'm still doing plenty of learning myself. ;0)



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