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.

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