Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


Canadian History—how best to teach the authorized text book*

Mr. Chas. G.D. Roberts opened the session on History in general, and Canadian History in particular.


We give a digest of Mr. Roberts' excellent paper: It was obvious to attain a connected realization of the course and progress of events, we should have method in our arrangements, for where there was confusion in the mode of presenting the subjects to our mind, there would be confusion in the mind on receiving it.  There should be a thread in history, with particular epochs, and particular events should have particular place.  One king threw his weight in with progress, another against it, some exerted a beneficent, others a baneful influence; then to measure our periods in history by the duration, and connect them by the succession of monarchs, seemed much like making a string of beads, no one bead being better adapted for its position than its neighbor, and no one of the beads being necessary to the string, no more than the latter was necessary to the beads.  Such a mechanical and arbitrary method helps to defeat an acquisition of knowledge in logical order.  Instead of taking the actors in the great play we should take the play itself: dividing into periods the different phases and stages of some particular line of mental, moral, political or scientific development.

He contended strongly that we had no right to set up kings as the thread or landmarks of history, unless these monarchs associated with themselves the germs of the advancement of their times.  If we speak of the progress and vast steps in philosophy in England, did we think of James I., or Francis Bacon?  In science, of Charles II., or Isaac Newton?  If we investigated the growth of political thought did we think most of the grave, sweet majesty of Charles II., or the cant of the regicide hypocrite Cromwell?  In pursuing the advance of literature, did we think of Henry or of Chaucer? of Elizabeth or of Shakespeare? of Anne or of Addison?  It was eminently true, therefore, that History should be the biography of the greatest men.  All progress towards relative perfection was made by stages.  We saw this in reading the history of the growth of material life as written in the strata of the Earth's crust—the perfection arrived at throughout was the highest type of creation, Man.  And then after pointing briefly to the onward and upward tendency of material development from the time when Mollusca swarmed in Silurian waters on through the Devonian period, and down to when the crowning work Man, was manifested of God, he applied the same principle of progress through periods to greater perfection to literature, and to history especially.

Now having gone all round about the subject, I will make a bold plunge, and endeavour to penetrate to some degree into the subject.  We teachers are required to instil into the brains of young Canada a certain amount of information on Canadian history, through the medium of "Archer's History of Canada."  In the way of doing this successfully bitter experience has taught us there are well nigh insuperable obstacles.  Some of us are conscious of those difficulties indeed but vaguely, for when our long suffering indignation is at last aroused, a few reckless ones indulge in merely a cursory examination.  Others have a very clear appreciation of them, rather after the manner of the worthy Scottish Division, who, when brought face to face suddenly with a tough passage would say: "Brothern, this is one of the difficulties which commentations canna agree on, Wi' the grace of God let us look it boldly in the face—and pass on."  Indeed, it will require such radical change to enable us to overcome these difficulties, that, for aught that my crude suggestions can avail to clear for you the thorny path of teaching with the text-book, we might as well pass on.  So I will endeavour to distinguish between the merits and defects of this work, and to gather an idea of the sort of book we want, to put in the hands of children.

First look at the book as a literary effort.  In this light I consider it a great success.  It is full to brimming over with most imaginative eloquence with felicities of expression, and graceful and skilful inversions.  Prejudiced by this vexation and toil of trying to adopt food for mature minds to the undeveloping intellects of children, many of us lose sight of the great literary ability displayed in the work.  Here is made manifest a wide and solid culture, the most careful study of the subject and the fullest information, and a mind so comprehensive in its grasp as sometimes to be followed with difficulty even by mature readers, and not at all by children.  From very fulness of material and a desire to cover all points, the subject is worked out on several lines instead of one central one, which makes the difficulty of grasping and retaining it the greater; though these lines all converge and eventually unite when confederation is consummated.  There is nothing threadbare about the production; there is nothing like paddling, it is pregnant with fact throughout.  Herein lies another difficulty.  Children cannot understand all this.  It is absurd to expect them to.  There is almost as much solid substance requiring to be assimilated condensed into this little volume as is contained in three books of Gibbon's Rome.  When I hear teachers rail against this text book I incline to think that they are mistaking the object of their censure.  Were Gibbon to be placed in the children's hands, and were we required to make them acquainted with it in a certain time, having known it before, we should still perceive its greatness, and we wouldn't grumble at or deride the author because his book was not level to a childs comprehension, but we would be quite sure that sometime someone had acted unadvisedly, or it would not be expected of us to do the impracticable.  This book with its comprehensiveness, eloquence and Latinized diction, is about as well adapted for children's study as Gibbon's masterpiece.  In the preface the only aim mentioned by Dr. Archer is to place in the teachers hands a "pretty comprehensive text-book;" and I think we may conclude that he has sacrificed the excellence of his work as a child's History to the achievement of a noble literary success.  Then let us not depreciate the book, but let us complain, with reason on our side, because it is demanded of us to teach a large amount of Canadian History with this as our only aid.  A few words as to how the required knowledge might be instilled, if the time and energy of the teacher were at all adequate.  It would have to be taught orally, a method by which knowledge must be very slowly imparted and often reiterated in its variety.  The end is not gained at all fully by explaining and translating the allotted time to the children and then telling them to learn it for next day; for they cannot bear in mind all your explanations, and their brains will be occupied and bewildered with the inverted constructions, and the, to them, novel and incomprehensible words.  Then if a chain of leading events be taken, such as Mr. Creeds very useful digest contained in the last Educational circular, avoiding the digressions of the text-book and you group the related event around this, giving them to the pupils in simple direct, and somewhat picturesque language, you will probably succeed in instilling a comparatively thorough knowledge of the subject into their minds.  But who can do all this?  In the multitude of studies, what teacher can find time or energy for this laborious and elaborate work?  There is a tendency now to require too much oral teaching.  This method however thorough is necessarily very slow.  To practice it demands such an intimate familiarity as very few can attain to when occupied with so many wholly differing branches.  Under the present pressure we must, in justice, have such books to put into the pupils hands as they can themselves, under judicious guidance, extract their knowledge from, without the necessity for all this continued feeding, this administering by hand with a teaspoon.  Still I do not wish to be found ungraciously carping at our authorities.  I believe that they themselves now perceive some of the difficulties which all practical teachers are experiencing.  They are having prepared a simple and compact history based on this text book.  It is natural that at first there should be some errors in the construction of so comprehensive and yet so particular a thing as a course of instruction: and it is natural to suppose that those actually teaching should be the first to perceive the weak points.  Nothing can be produced at once perfect from man's brains, and a course of Instruction can only be perfected by degrees.  It was from a God's head that the Minerva came forth fully armed and of magnificent stature.  A wonderful thing, such as has now in tradition been ascribed man or hero.  But when the Board proclaim the need of improvement they endeavor to effect it in the best way; and I hope that soon we may be enabled to place in the children's hands such a text book, from the able hands of the author of the present one, as will make Canadian History no longer a bug bear, but the intensely interesting subject which it should be to us, the fruitful mother of loyal love towards this our country, and practice zeal for her future welfare.


 "Canadian History—how best to teach the authorized text book," from the proceedings of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Northumberland Teachers' Institute, Friday Morning Session, The Star (Chatham, N.B.), Oct. 13, 1880 [back]