Catholic Approaches to Teaching History


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Integrating our faith into our worldview.

By Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

History is much more than a series of facts and dates. It is the story of all that has come before this present moment. As such, it is virtually impossible to know all of history. There also is no way to look at history completely objectively. We are all influenced by the stories that have been shared through the years, the documents that were written down and managed to survive, the books we read, and our own personal perspectives.

As Catholics, it only makes sense that we would have a unique understanding of history. Our faith is a fundamental part of who we are as people and the perspective with which we see and interpret the world. We believe that God is active in human history and that secular events are only part of the full story of what is happening in our world. Fidelity to the Church magisterium helps guide our understanding of what is right and wrong on both a personal and social level.

As educators, we need to teach the students entrusted to us that we Catholics are called to influence history. Each one of us is part of this great human story that is still unfolding. We can learn from what has come before, both the good and the bad, in order to make good and informed decisions moving forward. We are part of the physical history of our world, but we are also aware that this life is not all there is. We answer to a higher power, and that shapes the way that we live.

The textbook problem

In the past, most history textbooks in the United States were written from a Protestant perspective. To some extent, this makes sense. For much of American history, Protestants were the primary people in power. The country was largely founded by people who practiced various Protestant faiths. However, this put Catholic students learning about history at a disadvantage. The contributions of the Church in general and individual Catholics were often downplayed. In more unfortunate cases, there can be a direct anti-Catholic bias.

In more recent years, the problem has become even more acute with an emphasis on secular history. This does not mean “secular” events as opposed to events directly related to Church history, but rather a viewpoint that disregards faith all together. According to Michael van Hecke, MEd, founder of the Catholic Textbook Project:

The very textbooks we use in our classrooms are written from a viewpoint or philosophy which is implicitly hostile to religion. This has been the case for generations, though it has unarguably been getting more extreme in the last 10 years or so. The secular textbooks today are not just telling historical nuggets from a temporal point of view — they have adopted an aggressive political activist stance, and have crafted themselves according to the more anti-religious secularism. They are materialist, secular-humanist, and relativistic. “Your truth is fine for you, but …”

Here is how this problem of secularism affects us, as teachers. Students take for granted that the textbook used in class is accurate. But in today’s culture, these textbooks can undermine a young person’s understanding of the simple, universal human truth, of traditions, of nature, of natural law, and of our Catholic faith — of the significance of the Church and its faithful throughout history. (todayct.us/2TXEA75)

Several Catholic publishers are working to provide textbooks and supplementary materials that offer an authentic Catholic perspective on history. This does not mean that Catholics are always portrayed in a positive light or that the given facts of historical events are ignored. As Catholics, we are always called to seek the truth, even when it is ugly. Rather, these texts seek to offer a more balanced viewpoint, one in which the contributions of the Church and individual Catholics are not buried. These materials can easily be used in your classroom or for your own reference so you can incorporate more information about influential Catholics into whatever curriculum you are currently using.

The Catholic Textbook Project (CatholicTextbookProject.com)

In the Introduction to the textbooks of the Catholic Textbook Project, James Hitchcock of St. Louis University shares that this series of texts “on the one hand honors the Catholic faith and on the other is not afraid to be honest and comprehensive in its treatment of the past.”

The current texts available include:
From Sea to Shining Sea — American History — for grades 5-8
All Ye Lands — Origins of World Cultures (includes chapters on Greece, Rome, Europe, China, Japan, India, Africa, Russia, North America, and Latin America) — for grades 6-8
Light to the Nations, Part I — The History of Christian Civilization — for grades 7-9
Light to the Nations, Part II — Making of the Modern World — for grades 8-10
Light to the Nations Companion Volume — History of the United States from 1492–1900 — for high school
Lands of Hope and Promise — History of North America — for high school
Sample tables of contents and chapters are available for download.

The Story of Civilization (TanBooks.com)

Tan Books publishes The Story of Civilization series, which offers four books exploring world history from a Catholic perspective. These books are designed for first through eighth grades. Audio books and videos are also available. Sample chapters, audio files, and video files are available.

Connecting with History (RCHistory.com)

In the Teacher’s Guide for the Connecting with History series, Sonya Romens and Kate Jackson state, “We believe that history is essential to understanding the Catholic Faith and that the Catholic Faith is essential to understanding true history. … There are two lives of historical meaning: secular history, or the surface events of history, and salvation history, or the plan of Divine Providence — God’s action in human history.”

This four-volume series is based on the classical method of education with a rotating schedule so children encounter the material two or three times during the course of their education, engaging with it at a deeper level each time. There are many supplementary materials recommended to accompany this program. Sample pages may be found at Flipsnack.com/RCHistory.

Additional resources

There are many ways you can incorporate a Catholic perspective into your history classes.

This Week in History

The Catholic Textbook Project offers a blog that shares interesting stories from history for each week of the year. With a deep archive of several years’ worth of blog posts, there is a great deal of material here to supplement your curriculum. (CatholicTextbookProject.com/Blog)

American Catholic History Classroom

The Catholic University of America provides an excellent resource on Catholics in American History. This website contains a wealth of information with an emphasis on primary sources. (todayct.us/2T0JWyo)

Facing History

Facing History has resources on social history and prejudice, including several articles relating to Catholics in history. One Catholic high school has created a special class using the resources on this site to “combine social studies with Catholic history and theology in order to help students examine difficult moments in human history and understand how their own actions can inspire tolerance and peace in their communities and around the world.” (todayct.us/2RFayZ1)

History Worth Remembering Timelines

Emmanuel Books offers a series of timeline books which offers a list and short biographies of influential Catholics in history. These low-cost resources offer a jumping-off point for further study and investigation. (todayct.us/2TZKjZU)

Saint Biographies

Saints were people who lived in a given place and time in history. An easy way to incorporate a Catholic perspective into history is to include lives of the saints who were alive during that time period. Wikipedia offers a chronological list of saints, which provides a good starting point for further research on these saints. (todayct.us/2sxSLnN)

The study of history is fascinating. There are always new stories to discover and investigate. Taking a more intentional approach to incorporate a Catholic perspective on history will help your students develop a greater appreciation for the role that Catholics have played in the story of our world. It will also help them understand the ways our rich Catholic faith and teachings can impact their own contributions to our world.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur, MAAT, editor of TodaysCatholicHomeschooling.com, is a homeschooling mother of three children.

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