Voices from the Past

Ken Osborne
History as Storytelling

In recent years we have underestimated the power of stories to arouse students' interest in history. A few people, most notably Kieran Egan (1986), have reminded us from time to time that story telling is a powerful teaching tool, but, for the most part, curriculum developers organize curricula around issues, themes, concepts, and skills. History no longer tells a story; it is a collection of case-studies.

In abandoning the story, we have given up one of our most powerful teaching tools. As Egan points out, stories possess a universal appeal. And they appeal especially strongly to children and adolescents in their search to understand themselves and the adult world that surrounds them.

Moreover, stories can raise questions as easily as they impose answers. They can be open-ended and multi-perspective. They can even be used as vehicles of their own deconstruction. Above all, they are a wonderful way of making abstract ideas intelligibly concrete, of combining the cognitive with the affective.

All this was spelled out in a book which appeared in 1903, and which, though forgotten today, remains one of the most appealing and imaginative handbooks on the use of stories in teaching, Special Method in History, written by an American teacher-educator, Charles McMurry. 

So far as history was concerned, McMurry began with Grade 3, assuming that children in the first two grades were too immature to benefit from anything that approached formal historical study. In Grade 3 children were to study Christmas and Thanksgiving, George Washington, Indian life, and local history and geography, In Grade 4, they turned to European explorers, beginning with their local region, and including a number of selected important figures, among them Raleigh, John Smith, Daniel Boone, Washington and Lincoln. Outside the American context, other stories included Abraham, Joseph, and David; Romulus, Coriolanus, Cincinnatus, Julius Caesar; the Angles and Saxons and King Alfred. Grade 5 continued the theme of exploration, touching on Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Drake, and the Spanish; and the American explorers of the West, from Lewis and Clark onwards. In European history, students studied Spain and Portugal at the time of Columbus; England from the Norman Conquest to the Armada; and Scottish history centring on William Wallace and Robert Bruce. In Grade 6 students studied aspects of Greece and Rome; while in American history they studied the colonial period and the Anglo-French wars. In Grade 7, American history continued, with students concentrating on the period from the American Revolution to the Constitution; while in European history they studied the Reformation, the Puritan Revolution in England, and Louis XIV of France. In Grade 8 American history continued more or less to the end of the nineteenth century, but the topics in European history ranged far and wide through Julius Caesar; the French Revolution and Napoleon; the British conquest of India; British involvement in Africa; the independence of Spanish America; the Greek War of Independence; Italian and German unification; and Queen Victoria (1903, 238-268).

At first sight, McMurry's curriculum appears haphazard, especially in its rejection of chronology, but it reflected his conviction that the goal was the education of children, not the coverage of subject-matter. He chose topics for their power to interest children and to "plant in a child's mind a living germ capable of strong and beneficent growth" (1903, 242-3). He also wanted to provide students with exemplars of virtuous behavior, both positive and negative, which is why he saw stories as so important, since stories were "especially fruitful in those personal, concrete forms of life which reveal moral ideas in a striking form" (1907, 11).

Whatever one thinks of McMurry's proposed program, it is clear that it made very high demands on students, even in the early grades. It was light years away from the expanding horizons approach that was adopted by Canadian schools in the 1930s and that, then as now, began with the child's everyday surroundings and moved progressively outwards. Instead, McMurry plunged children directly into myth and fable, epic and ballad, romance and adventure, often using adult books to do so. He insisted that children should learn from "the best stories and classical masterpieces-not in fragments, but as wholes" (1907, 47). He recommended "complete translations" of the Iliad and the Odyssey for use in Grade 4, Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome for Grade 5, and so on. 

He believed that "children are quite capable of reasoning when they possess sufficient concrete knowledge and experience...." (1903, 143). The task of the teacher was to provide this knowledge in ways that children could work with, through "fact, illustration, biography, adventure, and everyday life." Conventional teaching had not "given children a fair chance to show what reasoning power they possess." Teachers assumed that children "had little or nothing of this reasoning power, but that their memories were quick and retentive of the brief formulated statements and general conclusions of the text-books...." (1903: 143). "But," noted McMurry, "children can reason very intelligently about all matters of thoroughly familiar and interesting knowledge" (1903, 72).

This did not mean that children could think only about their immediate environment. The whole point of historical stories was to widen and deepen children's experience. He agreed with the statement of a Massachusetts school superintendent: 

It is a mistake to think that what is nearest in time and space will make the strongest appeal to the child. Mature institutions and mature customs appeal only to mature minds. The child knows only the world that conforms to his inner experience and not the world of infinite complexity that these days surrounds him.... Remoteness in time and place are no obstacles to his interest. He has all the appliances, seven-league boots, Fortunatus' wishing hat and purse, to make these of no account. Most remote things are more real to him because they are simple" (James 1906, 1, 91).

McMurry believed history could be made interesting and tangible even for young children. Well chosen poems and stories, if imaginatively taught, would lead children to identify with characters from other times and other lands, to walk in their footsteps, to think about their problems. Biographical stories, he believed, were "the choicest and most educative historical material" since "they simplify history by focussing it in a few leading characters, events, or ideas" (1903, 243). 

McMurry never saw stories as mere narration or entertainment. They were no soft option but rather a constructive way to channel students' interests and energies. He advised teachers to break up stories in order to raise questions and stimulate students' imaginations: "The effort to reason out situations and results ... will bring children to the point of understanding what history really is and how it ought to be studied" (1903, 73). It was not difficult, for example, for children to see themselves as scouts on a wagon-train who spot a cloud of dust in the distance. What caused it? How should it be investigated? What precautions should be taken? Questions like these would engage students and enrich their powers of thought and imagination. Properly handled, stories should raise problems for students to explore: "suitable history stories are just as full as problems as an arithmetic, only we have been accustomed to give the answer instead of the problems" (1903, 73).

Stories would also interest students so that teachers would not have to resort to punitive discipline or to what was little better, artificial motivating devices designed to spice up the subject. For McMurry, interest was "intrinsic, native to the subject, and springs up naturally when the mind is brought face to face with something attractive. It is natural, genuine, and spontaneous, not a forced, extraneous, or artificial phase of mental action" (1907, 87). 

He insisted that to think of trying to make teaching interesting was as absurd as trying to make sugar sweet. Good teaching had to be inherently interesting, and interest lay in pursuing challenging problems, which is why stories were so useful. In McMurry's view, "Many teachers make the fatal mistake of thinking that they must make the lessons easy and interesting. The result is a pitiful feebleness, flabbiness and helplessness on the part of good stout boys and girls who are fully capable of doing problems twice as difficult" (1907, 98).

Just over twenty years ago, the distinguished historian, Lawrence Stone, wrote of a "revival of narrative" among historians (Stone 1979) and, though he equated narrative with description, historians like him have in fact shown how narrative can be effectively combined with analysis. In teaching history, as in the discipline of history itself, we need to return to narrative, to rediscover the power of story, not only to interest students in the past but to lead them to think about the present, and indeed the future. In this regard, Charles McMurry and his contemporaries have something to teach us.


Egan, Kieran. 1986. Teaching as Story Telling. London, Ontario: Althouse Press.
James, J.A. 1906. "Report of the Conference on the Teaching of History in Elementary Schools." In American Historical Association Annual Report, Volume 1, pp. 135-145, Washington: Government Printing Office.
McMurry, Charles A. 1903. Special Method in History. New York: Macmillan.
McMurry, Charles A. 1907. Elements of General Method. New York: Macmillan.
Stone, Lawrence. 1979. "The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History." In Past and Present, 85. Reprinted in Lawrence Stone (1987). The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul: 74-96