History in Classical Education

Written by Stephen Angliss on May 12th, 2017

I’ve known rivers.
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

American poet Langston Hughes wrote those words while riding a train across the Mississippi River. He was only seventeen. Today, we remember Langston Hughes as a giant in American literature. But at that time, he was just a black teenager riding a train alone to visit a father he barely knew. His family moved often. His grandmother primarily raised him, and he attended white schools during the Jim Crow era where history curriculums ignored or ridiculed African-Americans.

It would have been understandable if young Langston Hughes had resented history. But as he rode across the winding rivers of the American landscape, he expressed in verse what history meant to him.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went
down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn
all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers.
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the river.

When he wrote those lines to his poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, he communicated history in a way not yet done by the African-American community—or any community. History became more than a story to be told; it became a piece of identity to engrave on the person. To put it another way, history no longer only told a leaf that it was part of a tree, but that it was in part a tree itself.

Today our schools are filled with leaves needing to be told they are trees. Providence does this in three ways.

1. Teaching a love for history.

People were made for stories. The great Storyteller made us in His image. The way people think, remember, learn—even dream—is through stories.

What is history but the great story? From the beginning, Providence instills in students a love for stories through teaching history. The triumphs of Luther and Lincoln, the tragedies of Caesar and Henry VIII—these are all given to students to savor. In the grammar years, they receive characters to despise and adore. In the logic stage, they receive plots to analyze and evaluate. In the rhetoric stage, they receive the pen themselves to write the history of tomorrow. This gives what the public system failed to give Langston Hughes: the opportunity to love and identify with history.

2. Teaching the skills of history.

Providence also equips students to be historians themselves. No longer are they mere consumers of history; they are called up from the audience, brought on stage, and trained as curators.

As such, students learn to analyze primary sources in history. Instead of reading a textbook explaining the role of the Gettysburg Address, students read the document themselves and find its meaning and purpose intrinsically.

Students also learn to discern history through character: entering the mind of a historical figure, discerning life events, and concluding why he or she acted in a certain way. (E.g. Why would Hitler attempt to eliminate the Jews? What prompted Napoleon to crown himself emperor?) Secularists use the same skills to write biographies. Why not produce a new generation of historians capable of the same analysis from a Christian worldview?

3. Teaching history holistically.

Finally, Providence incorporates history in all its subjects. Education therefore becomes a story to digest. When freshmen learn geometry, it’s not only lines and angles, but also Euclid, and how his theories shaped Western worldviews, and how those worldviews shaped American democracy, and so on. Science transforms from laws and procedures to risks and revolutions. Art changes from dyes and tools to breathtaking breakthroughs. Students’ perspective of education changes when they see it as a story in which they take part. To quote another poet, Walt Whitman,

What good amidst these, oh me? Oh life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Providence prepares students to step on the stage and deliver the verse God intended for them to offer. But, before they can offer their lines, they must first realize that they are part of the play at all. Teaching history holistically does that.


Langston Hughes was not only referring to the ancient streams of civilization when he wrote his poem, he was also referring to us. A river is literally shaped by its past. Its bends and banks are carved by the flowing waters before it. The same is true of us. Hughes claimed that, like a river, our souls and capacity to learn deepens when we consider the past.

Today, most students are puddles, not rivers. Their width is narrow and their depth shallow. As Lewis once suggested, education must irrigate these puddles. But education must also deepen them. Puddles must be dug into rivers. The teaching of history must entrench, not just inform. It must root, not just reveal. The souls of students must be deepened so that they may feel, understand, express, and appreciate their identity in Christ as part of His story. And so, their souls may grow deep like the river.