Learning to Teach History: Interview with Phillip Campbell


In recent years I have discovered a new interest in history. My motto for this blog is that behind every great story is an even greater story.

This refers to three things. First, it speaks of the effort going on behind the scenes when an author writes a book. Secondly, think of a painting. It’s easy to admire as an image, but often is so much more. If you’ve studied art, you know that very few immortal paintings exist for the sake of existing. Great works of art tend to have stories woven in between brushstrokes.

The third and broadest type of ‘story’ I refer to with my motto is history.

When we see the fireworks on Independence Day, we celebrate our freedom. How often do we set aside the hot dogs and ponder those men who, centuries ago, stood up in defense of their rights?

We idolize Vincent van Gogh for his story and his poignant art, make jokes about the ear incident. Do we know why he cut off his ear? Behind every great (and I mean great in the sense of huge, not always good, as in the case of van Gogh) story is a greater story.

We cannot let these stories become lost in time; they are relevant as the marble statues in front of the Capital building. Maybe we can’t see the stitches in that old quilt Grandma gave us; it doesn’t make the effort of perfecting those stitches less meaningful.

I believe history should be taught thoroughly, and so does my good friend Phillip Campbell. A history teacher, he’s published a book about how to teach history.

How do you present events with the dignity they deserve? How can you see the stitches in the quilt? What can we do to help those we are teaching to appreciate those stitches, too?


The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History, Phillip Campbell

I asked him a few questions about the past and its significance. I’m excited to read his book, The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History. My quest for this blog, digging up those small stitches and presenting them to you, will benefit from his wisdom.

It’s not only our duty to learn history–we must also pass it on. Purchase his book today.


Tell us your goal in writing this book. How will it change the way readers think of the past?

I wrote The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History to be a summary of my 15+ years experience teaching history in Catholic educational environments. This book is for parents or teachers who are trying to teach history in various settings: classroom, homeschool, or co-op. I’m hoping this book will help these people to teach history in a way that is engaging and memorable. 

Too many people complain that they found history classes in school to be boring and uninspiring. This is a true shame, as history is full of the greatest stories one will ever encounter. History is ultimately just the story of the human race! It’s unfortunate that it is often made dull by people who teach it poorly. Hopefully my book will contribute in some small way to turning that around.

There’s a lot to say about how to handle the past as a subject of study, but the crux of my method (at least when dealing with children) is capturing the narrative arc of history. In other words, returning the story to history. Everybody loves a good story, especially children. 

If we can really present our historical content as a story—complete with characters, plot, climax, and resolution—it becomes immensely more accessible. And the best part is we don’t have to create the story ourselves; it’s already there, we merely need to tailor our approach in such a way that the narrative structure of history is highlighted for young minds. This is what makes history “come alive” for people.  

Why is it important to teach and study history?

That is a very broad question, to which many answers have been given over the years. For most people, this question immediately brings to mind the famous quote of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

I have always disliked it as a comprehensive explanation of why we ought to study history. It takes a very pessimistic view of human civilization, essentially viewing history as nothing but an embarrassing burden we are “condemned” to deal with. Human nature is capable of great darkness, to be sure, but also great beauty. 

I, for one, prefer not to view history as something that only dooms us, something we must constantly be struggling to escape. But beyond this, we could also critique Santayana’s maxim for being too utilitarian. While building a more peaceful society for all humanity is certainly a worthy goal, doesn’t the study of history have some rationale more intrinsic to our own character development? Something more personal?

Traditionally, history has been a core part of the so-called “liberal arts” curriculum. The liberal arts are those studies whose purpose is to develop our own intellectual capacity and character (as opposed to professional or vocational skills). One does not study literature, poetry, or art because this knowledge keeps the electricity running or helps us make a buck. We study them because they form our character by ennobling our individual potential. They elevate our minds. They teach us to think. They make us more human. 

The ancients viewed history in this manner. Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Understanding the things that came before our own life experience is essential to understanding not only the world we live in, but our very selves. 

A person unfortunate enough to suffer complete amnesia loses their identity entirely, for a person who doesn’t know where they have been does not know who they are. Similarly, to the degree we live without knowledge of where we have been, to that degree we remain stunted in our understanding of ourselves. In the words of Cicero, we are still, in some sense, a “child.”

Did any authors or historical figures influence this book?

I was deeply influenced by the classical approach to history as exemplified by the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks assigned history its own muse, Clio, the “Proclaimer”, the inspirational goddess of history. That history should be numbered amongst the Nine Muses—with such subjects as poetry and dance—gives us profound insight into the real value of historical study. 

The Muses were goddesses of inspiration; that is, the arts of the Muses are those that inspire and require inspiration. They help us transcend the workaday world and find value in life in an existential manner, connecting with things bigger than ourselves. That was part of my vision, to enable people to be inspired by history in a way that helps them connect with their own existence in a more meaningful way.

I mentioned Cicero above. Another inspiration is Livy, the ancient Roman author who compiled a history of Rome from the founding of the city to his own day. Livy stressed the moral value of history as a lesson in human nature—we are edified by the deeds of the righteous and horrified by the evils of the wicked. I just think the ancients were so much more in tune with the character building aspect of history than modern people.

If a person decided to study history, which three books would you recommend to them?

It depends on what era of history you want to study, and one’s level of cognition. 

Assuming we are talking to adults, I have a few recommendations: an excellent book that gives a solid introduction to the Middle Ages is Norman Cantor’s book The Civilization of the Middle Ages. My go-to book for ancient Rome is Michael Grant’s 1978 masterpiece History of Rome. It gets so much more fragmented when you get into modern history, and American history especially. 

It’s challenging to recommend a single comprehensive book. I guess I will take the opportunity to make a shameless plug for my own two texts on modern Europe and American history: Story of Civilization Volume 3: The Making of the Modern World, and Story of Civilization Volume 4: The History of the United States. These books are meant for younger readers, but adults enjoy them as well because, as I said, everyone loves a story!

It’s important to read lots of books to obtain a well-rounded view of history. For example, no one would say, “If you want to appreciate literature, what three books would you read?” Because the reality is, we develop our literary taste by reading a great variety of books. 

Obviously we have to start somewhere, and I think that’s what your question is getting at. But ultimately if we want to be historically literate, we need to get our history from a diversity of sources as well. I don’t have just one book about a given period. Incidentally, this also helps inoculate you against historical bias, because the more history you read the more discerning your historical sense becomes.

END


Waiting at the Manger


Last night we made a small pilgrimage to our church, where there is a Nativity scene. Baby Jesus is not there yet; according to tradition, He will be placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. In our house we have a small Nativity scene where Baby Jesus is covered up; He will be revealed on Christmas Eve.

Friends, it has been a year to test all of us; enough has happened to chip away at the faith of the most pious person. We cannot let fear steal away our joy of the holidays. We cannot let fear steal away our joy.

I’m not a theologian. I am a storyteller. Long ago, when I was baptized, I knew Jesus had sent us all out to tell the greatest story of them all: the story of how He came to save us from eternal grief. My short posts on lives of the Saints at Write Catholic are only the result of the first chapter.

What is the first chapter? Is it not when the Creator descended as a babe, helpless in the arms of His Mother, surrounded by the animals blessed to adore Him–already rejected, because there was no room for Him at the inn?

2021 is a good time to erase fear from the inns of our hearts and make space for the gifts that Jesus brought us. In 2020 we were all afraid, and we had reason to be; in 2020, many people lost loved ones and had their lives changed forever.

St. John Paul II’s handwriting encourages us to remember the 365 times that the Bible tells us not to be afraid. Anyone who knows of St. John Paul II’s life can agree that he saw fear; he felt it; he wept when he lost his friends, he must have been frustrated when Parkinson’s debilitated him, and there must have been times when he asked God Why?

He had a purpose, though, and God never gives us more than we can handle. You have a purpose, too; so do I. In 2021, I will follow the words of St. John Paul II and pray for the grace to stand steady in the face of a shifting world.

As survivors of 2020, what might our purpose be? Here are some ideas off of the top of my head:

  • Comfort the mourning. You probably know somebody who lost a friend or family member to COVID; send them a card in the mail and reassure them of your prayer and friendship.
  • Exercise your faith. Like a muscle, faith needs to be put into action daily. Read the Bible or a devotional; sit in silence and wait for the soft voice in your heart to give you instructions.
  • Pray the Rosary. Our Lady gave us the Rosary with the promise that this Sacramental would save the world. She told the children at Fatima that it should be prayed every day. I have made this a practice, and it brings me peace I cannot describe with human words.
  • Count your blessings. A dear friend encouraged me to write my small blessings in a gratitude journal. Be grateful for your breakfast in the morning; be grateful for that line in a song you really love. The more you practice gratitude, the more grateful you will be.
  • Tell someone about Jesus. I can assure you that, in the chaos of 2020, many people have forgotten about Jesus and what He did for us. Tell one person about Jesus this year; remind them that we have not been forgotten, and that we look forward to a better world.
  • Practice charity. Whether it’s donating to a food bank or being kind to someone you do not know, those five dollars might buy a meal–a kind sentence might be the only kindness someone encounters in an entire day. Love covers a multitude of sins–and heals a multitude of hurts.

We are a people of joy, not fear.

Christmas is nearly upon us; I can feel in my bones that we Christians have extra work to do in 2021. Raise the hashtag #2021BeNotAfraid. Seek the positive, the reminders of God in the world. Tell people why you still have hope.

My part in all of this? I am a writer. I can use words to get messages across. I am more than a fiction writer. My interests are in more than fantasy and historical fiction. It is my vocation to keep telling the greatest story in the world.

I believe this is my purpose. Sit down for a while now and ask God…what is yours?

My Catholic Conversion Story


I just realized that, as a Catholic blogger, I’ve never shared my conversion story.

I love hearing others’ stories about how they discovered the joy that that can only be found in the Church; how they found that, in Jesus’ flock, there is a cloud of witnesses—so many Saintly brothers and sisters looking out for us that we are never truly alone!

It was the year that St. Pope John Paul II died, and it was my dear mother who made everything happen.

I remember that he was giving his Easter blessing that night—trying, as he could no longer speak without difficulty—and my mom knew that his time on this earth was almost at an end.

She went to the bedroom and woke up my brother and I; she turned on the television so that we, too, could see him for the last time.

The day of our baptism!

I still thank my mother, to this day, for making sure I had that last holy glimpse of him. The next time I saw him was after he had died, during his funeral.

Soon after this, Mom decided that my brother and I, who had not been baptized in any church yet (because half of our family are LDS, we were to be given the chance to choose for ourselves) needed to be part of a faith. She asked us to pray about it and decide what we wanted to be.

I didn’t have much to think about, really; I remembered feeling protected when my grandmother on my mom’s side would visit with her little saint statues.

These were visual reminders that there was something else. I wanted to know what that other thing was.

We went to church for the first time in our lives. I remember being awed by how big the church was, not just the building, but the sense of joy and unity within.

Not long after that, my brother and I were baptized. We received our First Holy Communion. We were home.

After my baptism, I entered a frenzy of wanting to learn more about the Church, the saints, the sacraments, history, and devotions. Perhaps I tried to get into theology too early, as I burned myself out on all of the things to know, and lost interest as a teenager. Recently, though, I have grown interested again. There is so much to know!

In rough times, when I have thought the Church perhaps too demanding or judged myself as wanting in the Communion of Saints, I’ve felt myself comforted by Mother Mary and the Saints—particularly St. Thérèse and my patron saints, Rose of Lima and Catherine of Siena. I think that St. John Paul II has also been watching over me; after all, he is the first “saint” I knew of before I was baptized, and I did see him alive.

I’m in love with the Church and all it has kept for us over the centuries. I acknowledge that there have been bad Popes, that the human aspect of the Church has led to decisions that were not Christlike. This does not change my love for her.

Until we are all in Heaven, we will all make mistakes.

What’s your story?

The Catholic Series: My Next Challenge


The Communion of Saints

Wondering what the Communion of Saints is? Read this article!

As a writer, what I love most about telling stories is that it allows you to create people. With enough practice, you can make them so lifelike that readers will feel them to be like friends.

This month, I’m wrapping up my trilogy on merpeople. It might have a spin-off trilogy later, but I’m satisfied to tell Rose’s story in three books, or possibly piece them together so that they are one. It depends on what might happen when I edit them.

Because I have written about magic for so long, I’ve decided to try something different when this trilogy is finished. I’m in a phase of discovering my faith again, seeing the beauty of being a Catholic striving for sainthood. I’ve been mulling over a new project—and this week decided to go for it.

I want to write tales of everyday Catholics who believe in the Sacraments—and especially in the Real Presence. I want to prove that faith can be captured in fiction writing. The stories will vary, but the main characters will have Catholicism in common.

It won’t all be perfect faith; I will write about the soul whose faith falters with as much care as he who believes. The point of this project is to write about realistic characters; every believer has doubts.

These stories will not be long. I predict they’ll be the length of a short story or a novella. If one does make it to “novel length,” I’ll be thankful, but shorter stories often have the most impact.

Don’t neglect your spiritual reading. – Reading has made many saints.

St. Josemaría Escrivá

As for POV, tense, or outlining, I don’t know what the stories will look like. I’m in collecting mode, gathering stories from people whose grandparents were devout, or those who believed that God would keep His promises and waited on Him until He did.

I have a few ideas; in my mind, I see these “small” acts of faith as the signs of future Saints. We can all be Saints.

They might be written in the form of a diary, or letters being exchanged; through this project, I am exploring new ways of storytelling.

We all know the tales of St. Thérèse and St. Joan of Arc; there are thousands of known Saints. I hope that the stories I write will remind us that we can also become Saints by living simple lives.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Hebrews 12:1, NIV, italics mine

If you know someone with a good story about faith, love, vocations, anything that would make for an inspirational short story, please share. I can make stuff up, yes, but real people add life to the narrative.

I am eager to set aside the magic and see life through the eyes of faith. I’m going to learn a lot, writing these stories.

Nothing is stranger and more beautiful than real life, nothing more marvelous than His Sacrifice.

What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation…In this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood.

St. Francis of Assisi on the Eucharist and Real Presence of Christ

Catholicism in the Storm


It has been a rough year for everyone. With loss and anxiety spreading across the globe, it can be difficult to remain optimistic. I’ll be the first to admit I spend more time struggling with emotions than seeing the silver lining.

The year has also offered many opportunities for growth. I’m finally getting around to read books that had been stacked in my room for years. I have discovered new authors and made progress on my trilogy.

We are all enduring abnormal amounts of anxiety as we hope for the way to clear. We have either lost loved ones, or experienced the sense of losing ourselves.

Whenever I find myself choking in negativity, I go outside and see a flower. There is still beauty in this world. 

As I contemplated the flowers in my garden today, I realized that I can find peace in my own garden to begin with, even if I can’t go much farther; every bloom is a reminder that God is still here and that He loves us.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.

Romans 8:19, NIV

It is easy to lose our grip on faith with all of these challenges set before us; we don’t understand why it’s happening. I have come to see that, in times like these, we need to hold onto our Catholic faith more. 

We need to cling to the truth, the thing that never changes, the comfort of Christ’s promise.

I started a new prayer journal. It’s a place where I am raw with my emotions; some days I am more hopeful than others. He understands. In my prayer journal, I’m taking my questions and placing them at His feet. 

We are tempted to lose hope with the world as it is now; walking away from God is a sure way to feel weaker, more helpless. 

I will choose the little way like St. Therese of Lisieux, finding God in my garden and content to be a little flower, if that is His will. After all, I believe each flower in my garden is beautiful, regardless of size or color.

St. Therese, the Little Flower

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

― St. Therese of Lisieux

Seek the truth in prayer, in the Bible, in your garden, in the silence when you can only hear your breathing. Turn to the saints who felt despair and plead their intercession. Seize this opportunity to learn context, history, and find ground that does not wobble beneath you.

I used to be passionate about apologetics, until they bored me. Now, their complexity is a comfort, not a burden. Our faith is woven with fact and history, martyrs, great thinkers, and ordinary people. They also went through trying times; they will guide you through this.

Remember to stay safe and healthy. This can’t last forever, and we will all emerge stronger, knowing what really matters. When it’s harder to walk, take another step. When it’s harder to believe, dig deeper.

My next read is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI. I am going to try and read at least one spiritual book every two weeks, aside from the Bible, which is daily bread. What are you reading?