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How to Read History

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In another article, I explain, “How to Study for Mastery“, which is necessary for real arts and sciences that are worthy of mastery.  More recently I explained “Mastery vs. Familiarity” in studies.  The study of history belongs to both categories, for we would master as much as possible, but, because of the amount of material that is to be learned, we must patiently progress to that mastery over time–but make sure we acquire familiarity as soon as possible.

Cicero said, “To not know what happened before one was born is to remain forever a child.”  In his day, he had 3,400 years of human history to look back on, and he lived only 650 years after the founding of Rome.  We, on the other hand, have an additional 2,100 years of history to learn–and it is much richer and more important than the history he studied!   Our history study includes the Incarnation of the Son of God, the foundation of the Christian Church, the Descent of the Holy Spirit and much, much more.

History studies require great reading, but students who are used to reading in the classical liberal arts must learn how to read history.  First, we must understand that historical knowledge is not “certain” and the further into detail we go, the less likely those details are to be true.  Second, we must use the Christian faith to interpret world history and judge whether this or that reported event is credible or not.

1.  Speed Reading

We must read thousands of pages to learn world history.  We cannot possibly do this reading as we would read one of Aristotle’s treatises.  For Aristotle, every line is packed with information in ajust a few words that we must, by memorization and meditation “unpack” to understand even the basic points of Aristotle’s doctrine.  Reading in Reasoning, Rhetoric, Ethics or Physics is slow and exhausting.  If we were to read history in this way, it would be a waste of time.

When children learn to read, they read aloud, speaking what they read.  As they grow up, even when they read quietly, they continue to read as if they are reading aloud.  They often speak the words of their reading, with their lips and tongues moving as they go along.  The mouth, however, is much slower than the mind and this kind of reading, while great for Shakespeare, or poetry, or Aristotle, is not possible for history.

To read history, we must read with our eyes and our minds, not our mouths.  To do this we must point to the word on the page, and move our finger across the page, from the beginning to end of the line, taking no more than 2-3 seconds per line.  Our eyes must follow our finger as we move aross the page and down, line by line.  As an example, in the Ancient History chapter on Homer, there are 43 lines per page, which means it should take you 80 to 120 seconds–or 1.5 to 2 minutes–to read each page.  There are 23 pages in the chapter, meaning the chapter should be able to be read in 30-45 minutes.  That’s speed reading.

You will have a difficult time doing this when you begin because you’ll think that you’re going to miss all the information, and because you don’t know how quickly your mind can work once you get the hang of it.  Here’s a page to practice on:

2.  Highlighting

In historical writing much of the content is filler.  The author spends time making transitions from one subject to another, talks about what is NOT true, provides information already known or available elsewhere, and so on.  Every here and there, you’ll find a “nugget” of important information and, really, that’s all that needs to be noted.  For example, on the first page of the chapter on Homer, you’ll see that though there are 35 lines of material, only the highlighted content is actually necessary to study.  The bottom half of the page is just a summary of the story of the Iliad, which should be known because students already have read the Iliad, or can read it afterwards–I just scribble on that to show myself there’s nothing to worry about there.  Read the highlighted pieces and you’ll see that, if you’ve speed-read the page above, that’s all that’s really there:

Looking at the second page we see, again, that there’s really nothing crucial to be learned–one line about the form of the Iliad and then two vocab items (which may not really be important at all):

This is why speed-reading history is sufficient.  After we’ve read the chapter, we should be able to quickly flip through the pages and mark any important points for future reference.

It’s worth noting here that this is one of the greatest advantages of studying using digital texts.  I know people will say that they prefer printed books, etc., but you have real-world problems to face in historical studies.  First, you probably cannot afford the books that are worth studying.  For example, the Cambridge Ancient History alone can cost you $100-200 per volume.  There are 9 volumes, so that’s $1,000 to start off.  That doesn’t get you the Medieval or Modern books.   You can borrow them from a college library–if you have access to one–but you can mark them up or keep them as long as you might need to.  Second, in a PDF book, you can use the tools there to highlight, add comments, etc.–and save your marked copies.  Again, I understand the “I love having a book in my hand.” idea, but if you want to study history, you have to be realistic.  Whereas you will not be able to afford the printed books you need to study history, you can have a hundred thousand dollars worth of books, with your notes in them, on a single USB drive in your pocket.  Don’t be ridiculous and spite yourself.

If you cannot mark a text with highlights, you will need to make a written outline of the chapter and I believe you should be able to see how much inferior that is to using and marking digital texts.  Nevertheless, if that’s necessary, you should end up with something similar to what I’ve marked on the pages above.

3.  Assessments

As you complete these studies, you’ll want to have some proof that you’ve done so, which is why it’s good to complete whatever assessments are available.  First, I provide written assessments that allow you to sumarize the reading, which will only be possible if you’ve read as directed.  Second, live assessments are available, where I will simply flip through the text and ask you questions about the content in the book.  Completing these is all that’s needed for credit in history reading in CLAA courses.

4.  Mastery

The goal of studying history is to add it to the available sources of interpretation and persuasion at your disposal in your studies, speaking and writing.  If your life is devoted to studies, you will constantly be revisiting your historical readings, and re-reading them in your leisure throughout life.  This is how mastery of the great body of historical content is acquired over time.  Such mastery is impossible during your formal academic years and, to be honest, is not a good use of your time when the arts are waiting to be studied.

I hope you find this helpful.  If you have any practical questions about history studies, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Mr. William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
wcm@classicalliberalarts.com