• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Farm School bait: Children’s history book reviews

Many thanks to Susan at Chicken Spaghetti who offers a delicious bunch of “Weekend Links,” including chicken books, a must if your blog is entitled Chicken Spaghetti or Farm School!

Most interesting of all, though, as far as I’m concerned, is her link to the Guardian’s round-up of children’s history books, “A light in time’s bottomless well,” which includes E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World and H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story. I’ve already written about Island Story, though I haven’t seen the book yet (I see a paperback version is available in Canada now, hurray), so it’s nice to read a review. And I have my own review of Little History still in draft form; maybe I should use the Guardian article as the kick in the pants I need to get it finished and posted here. Might be a good project for the weekend while the kids are still under the weather instead of out in it.

The Guardian’s reviewer Amanda Vickery calls it Island Story “heroically insular” and writes,

The government calls for an inclusive, multi-ethnic national history, but the right wants a patriotic narrative that will find the roots of British identity in Anglo-Saxon institutions and the battle of Trafalgar. The Daily Telegraph and the think-tank Civitas have tossed HE Marshall’s Edwardian nursery classic Our Island Story into the breach. What would Henrietta Marshall make of this evangelical campaign? “This is not a history lesson, but a story book,” she insisted in 1905. Frank about her debt to legend, she said her tale did not belong with the schoolbooks, but “quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah’s Ark Geography”. …

Our Island Story was written at the high tide of Rule Britannia. Edwardian bombast holds it aloft. No quality is lauded more than courage, but rudeness always gets a ticking off. Charles II was “lazy, selfish and deceitful, a bad man and a bad king”, but many loved him because as well as being clever and good-tempered he “had very pleasant manners”.

It is no bad thing to have Boudicca, the Black Prince and Bonnie Prince Charlie strung together in a sequential narrative. Yet the deficiencies of the national curriculum will not be addressed by a book that gives more weight to Merlin than to Richard II. To recommend Our Island Story as a textbook for nine- to 12-year-olds is like relying on Mel Gibson for the history of Scotland. “Remember,” wrote Marshall, “that I was not trying to teach you, but only to tell a story.” Just as well for the Maoris, who are written off as a race of savage cannibals.

Which to me, and Lady Antonia Fraser too (nothing like good company), is missing the point, because a) Island Story isn’t meant to be a replacement textbook and b) its value is that it isn’t a textbook. Although I quoted from her extensively the first time around, her argument bears repeating:

While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today’s climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children’s eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation. …

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of “chronological” history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote “empathy” yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology – it drives me mad when people can’t place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say “I will tell you stories”, an idea with which I profoundly agree.

While H.E. Marshall doesn’t cut much ice with Vickery, Sir Ernst with his more modern views and “expansive sympathy” fares far, far better:

Gombrich opens with the most magical definition of history I have ever read. The past is a bottomless well. Throw a burning scrap of paper down that well “and as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It’s going down, down. Now it’s like a tiny star in the dark depths. It’s getting smaller and smaller … and now it’s gone.” History is the burning scrap of paper that illuminates the past. “And in this way we light our way back.”

Submitted for your consideration…

Their Island Story

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Rudyard Kipling

One of my favorite places to procrastinate, er, get ideas for our classical homeschooling is the Tanglewood Education website. One of the books I’ve been toying with adding to our collection is An Island Story by H.E. (Henrietta Elizabeth) Marshall, which Tanglewood uses as a main history text in part because it was used by Charlotte Mason in her own schools; the original British title is, of course, Our Island Story: A Child’s History of England, from Tennyson’s stirring and most English Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, “Not once or twice in our rough island-story/ The path of duty was the way to glory.” I would use it as a supplement, since it’s scope isn’t broad enough for us, mainly because we’re not English. Well, partly but not entirely :). I could just start printing the book from The Baldwin Project online, but there’s something about a real, bound book, not to mention the fact that for what it could cost me in printer ink, I could have that nice bound copy.

I was surprised to read in The Economist the other day that Island Story has been out of print in England for over 50 years. But thanks to the think-tank Civitas, it’s being reissued just in time for its centennial, with a publication date of September 22nd; the organization also has plans to give a free copy of the book to every primary school in the country, and is soliciting donations for the endeavor. In his fundraising appeal, Civitas deputy director Robert Whelan writes,

History teaching [in England] is in an equally bad way, but it has not received the same sort of attention. This is unfortunate, as the teaching of history is a vital part of the process of transmitting from one generation to the next knowledge of the events and the institutions which have enabled us to live in a free and prosperous society. In short, the health of our culture depends on each generation knowing where we have come from and how. [This, of course, was a very common theme after the July 7th London bombings, on the lips of Tony Blair and others.]

History is now not even taught in a chronological way. Instead of showing how one event influences others, and how the great men and women of each century have helped to make us to the sort of people we are, children are presented with all sorts of ‘modules’ about topics such as the state of the peasants, the role of women, slavery and the Empire, as if these things can be comprehended without knowing the order in which events occurred. Jumping from one century and one civilisation to another, children end up scarcely knowing if the Battle of Britain or the Battle of Hastings came first. …

We at Civitas want to do something to improve this lamentable situation, and way to proceed is to identify really good material produced in the past but now out-of-print. In the course of our reading and discussions, one title kept coming up: Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall, a classic children’s history book first published in 1905 and now long out-of-print. …

We acquired several copies of different editions of Our Island Story and started reading through it. It was easy to see why the book is remembered with such affection! It is beautifully written, and tells the history of Britain from the Romans to the death of Queen Victoria. Everything is arranged in chronological order, with every chapter bearing the name of the monarch of the period covered. Wars and revolutions, plagues and inventions, great men and women, all parade through these pages, giving the young reader a brilliant picture, simple but accurate, of the way in which our ancestors made us the people we are today.

Leading British historian Lady Antonia Fraser, writing back in June in The Daily Telegraph, whose readers in particular have been particular generous in the fundraising effort, acknowledged her debt to Marshall: “It’s not just the warmth of childhood memory that this book evokes. It was a direct inspiration for me in my career as a historian. It was from having read these stories that I came to realise that, as a study, history has all the best tunes.” She also gave a nod to modern sensibilities,

While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today’s climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children’s eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation.

In the past couple of days, there has been a row about the Royal Navy’s concern about perceived “triumphalism” over the Trafalgar bicentenary. Anyone approaching Our Island Story might also expect a blast of “triumphalism”. But actually, it isn’t there. Marshall is quite a pacifist, with a small “p”. And her approach to history is very personal. …

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of “chronological” history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote “empathy” yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology – it drives me mad when people can’t place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say “I will tell you stories”, an idea with which I profoundly agree.

Lady Antonia goes on to say, “That said, in teaching terms, one should never go back entirely,” but you can read the rest yourself. Nice to have my “ripping yarns” theory confirmed by the experts.

Canadians can buy their copy here, and can reading it while waiting for the reprinting of Our Empire Story next.

Unabridged audiobook versions of Our Island Story are available for purchase from Naxos Audiobooks in three CD sets, and for free from LibriVox, here and here.