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The teaching of local history in the public schools

By John S. Emerson
Someone has said, ‘Geography is the eyes of history.’ How true is this in the region where one lives! The boy is on the very ground, to start with. He will follow the teacher's ‘On the top of that hill’ with all of his mind, but the spot on the map of some distant region with his eye only. The men and the scenes of the Revolution are almost as impersonal and vague as those of which he reads in his morning devotional exercises. But show him the ground they trod, the houses in which they lived and slept, and they become real men instead of names only. His pictures of scenes become realistic and vivid. His attitude immediately changes from passive to active. He becomes not merely a recipient, but an investigator. He will work from pure love of his subject,—a difficult result to secure in many other matters.

The following are two of many incidents that might be given to illustrate the enthusiastic interest children naturally take in this subject. After the first lesson of the year on Somerville history, the teacher had an errand on Prospect Hill. On the way up, he met some of the class coming down. The next morning one of them said before school, ‘You went up to see where the flag was raised, and to read the tablet, didn't you?’ He had to confess that he had another errand, but was glad to say that he visited the spot. The pupil said, ‘We went up and read the tablet [58] and hunted for the old tent-holes said to be visible still. We tried to imagine the place and the country round as it looked then. I wish,’ she added, ‘I could live, if only for a week or so, in those times, to see how this region looked, and to see the men,—Washington and Putnam and the rest.’

The regular course in history had been covered, but the teacher had not known of any such longings to live — in another century, to see for herself how things were, and how the country looked. That first lesson in local history had come home, had appealed to the imagination, and had thoroughly aroused the interest.

A few years ago, in the city of Malden, in a school not far from the site of the first meeting house erected in that region, a discussion arose as to what had become of the old bell that had been mounted near the meeting house on an eminence still known as Bell Rock. It was learned that, strange and unusual as it may be, dissension had arisen in the little church, due rather to the differences and strength of opinions than to the size of the society, and that one roof would not comfortably cover the warring brothers and sisters. Another meeting house having been built, a struggle for possession of the bell began. One party hid it in the well of the near-by parsonage. This was as far as the children could trace it. One morning the boys, quite excited about the matter, suggested a plan to ‘chip in,’ as they said, and have the bell dug up. Further inquiries, however, revealed the fact that it had been raised, and placed on a schoolhouse, and when that structure was destroyed years after, the bell was broken up and the pieces distributed about town. Finally one of the class triumphantly brought a piece of the same old bell to school. A trifling affair, truly, but the spontaneous, enthusiastic interest in the early history of the place, indicated by the persistent efforts of the children and by their readiness to contribute their money to secure and preserve an old relic, is no trifle.

There are, however, serious difficulties operating against the teaching of this important subject. The teacher who is without family ties in the place, or other than a professional association with it, is quite apt to lack not only a knowledge of its past, but [59] also an interest in it. But assuming a willingness to do this work, she looks over the course of study and her program to find a place for it,—possibly to see what she can omit. Can we blame her if the latter is the stronger motive? Consider, there are but five hours in a school day,—the child's day, not the teacher's—and in them she must teach, somehow and at some time, reading, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, spelling, geography, grammar and language, drawing and painting, music, sewing, science, or nature studies, physiology, with special lessons on narcotics and stimulants, study of selected authors and their representative works, manners and morals, besides keeping all the school machinery running smoothly and properly. There are many other things, almost ‘too numerous to mention,’ not laid down in the course of study. She must prepare special exercises for the sessions preceding public holidays, regularly inspect, count, and repair books, keep registers and pupils' records, make frequent reports to parents and to school officials, etc. In the multiplicity of subjects crowded into the school, something is sure to be squeezed. It will be that of which the teacher has the least knowledge to begin with, and in which the requirements and the supervision are least exacting. Hence the neglect of local history.

Teachers are provided with nothing but an incomplete, illarranged list of topics, and are wholly without desk reference books.

But in spite of difficulties, it is possible to accomplish much. Local history does not call for great teaching ability. Given a little acquaintance on the part of the children with the library method of study, a correct outline, and an atmosphere of freedom and enjoyment in the room, and the enthusiasm of the children will give the teacher an hour's pleasure as often as she will take up the subject.

As to materials, the available sources of information are Frothingham's ‘History of Charlestown’ and Drake's ‘History of Middlesex County.’ There is an excellent history, also, of this city included in ‘Somerville Past and Present,’ written by our historian, Mr. Charles D. Elliot. If that part of [60] the book could be separated and have added to it condensed sketches from other portions of the work, it would be of great value in the schools. ‘Past and Present’ is too expensive for very general use, and contains much that is not usable. A few copies of this work will, however, appear in each class, furnished by pupils, and are the chief reliance. There is an abridged edition of Drake's ‘History of Middlesex County’ which, if placed upon the teachers' desks, would be of great service.

The public library contains some historical addresses suited to our purposes. Among them is that of ex-Mayor William H. Furber, July 4, 1876, treating of original territory included in Charlestown, purchase of Somerville territory from the Indians, hills and their fortifications, seizure of powder from the old mill, separation from Charlestown, growth, street railways, Somerville in the Civil War, and adoption of the city charter. Another by Mr. John S. Hayes includes first explorers, visit of John Smith and of Miles Standish, Winthrop's coming, division of land, siege of Boston, Burgoyne's troops on Prospect Hill, Paul Revere's ride, first school and first schoolhouse.

‘Historic Heights and Points’ gives a brief sketch of the fortifications and their importance.

Somerville's history is worthy of study per se. The life of the city has been continuous and progressive, and the children who graduate from our schools should have a knowledge sufficiently comprehensive and orderly to enable them to trace her history from the time the land was inhabited by Indians to the present.

Some such outline as the following will illustrate the orderly treatment of matter. Much of Somerville's history has been determined, or, at least, influenced by her topography, and so it is well to begin with that. Then will follow the aboriginal life, the Indian tribes, and also:—

Web Cowit and Squaw Sachem.

First visits by white men.

First settlers.

Coming of Winthrop; Ten Hills Farm.

Title from the Indians. [61]

Division of land.

The stinted commons.


Early roads.

Life in the colonial period.

Somerville's connection with the Revolution, including:—

Capture of powder from the old mill.
(Legend of the mill.)

Paul Revere's ride.

Battle of Lexington and Concord.
(Route through Somerville.)
(Fighting on Somerville soil.)

Battle of Bunker Hill.

Siege of Boston.
(General plan of fortification.)
(Somerville's fortifications.)
(Memorial battery on Central Hill.)
(Raising of first flag of Continental army.)
(Quartering of Burgoyne's captured troops.)
(Residences of generals, and other houses of note.)

Growth of this portion of Charlestown.

Prominent persons.
Industrial and commercial life. (Middlesex Canal.)
(Railroads, steam and street.)
(Manufacturing enterprises.)
Separation from Charlestown.

Name and why selected. Somerville in the Civil War.
Change from town government to city.

Date, charters, seal. Mayors and a few other prominent officials.
To this should be added a sketch of the educational history of the city, with a brief history of the particular school which the child attends, together with a brief account of the man whose [62] name it bears, noting the traits and events that prove him worthy the honor. Sub-divisions of some of these topics would, of course, be made as events require, my effort being directed to an orderly arrangement with topics broad enough to include all the knowledge that may be gained, with a place for every fact. The arrangement is, in the main, necessarily chronological, excepting that under such topics as education or religious life, we should bring together in order all the facts, from earliest to present times; or, again, if we are studying the business life of the city, we should go back to first conditions and follow events, searching for the causes and influences which have affected its growth and development.

Under ‘Charter,’ there should be a study of our city government, the departments, the duties and powers of each, and methods of transacting business, elections, etc.

The schools should be provided with a standard text-book of local history, but others more complete should be accessible to the children, not a single copy or two, but in sufficient number to meet the demands of many pupils. Much material contained in souvenir editions of our papers and in souvenir books and pamphlets that cannot be bought for the schools because of the advertising in them can be brought by pupils from their homes, and used by them as their own property. The information gained will be useful in later years, so many of our pupils are making histories for themselves, in which they write brief statements of facts, references to sources of information, illustrated by clippings from papers and souvenir books, small pictures of historic spots and of prominent men.

Quite a demand has been made of late by the children for photographs after the plan of the Perry pictures and the Brown pictures, but of Somerville subjects, and a proposition is under consideration to print large quantities of them to sell at a very low cost. The camera craze is being turned to good use, and interest in history thereby increased.

Collections and exhibits of relics borrowed for the occasion also add to the interest. The reading of poems, such as Mr. Foss's ‘Raising of the Flag on Prospect Hill,’ and the narration, [63] orally or with the pen, of the stories and legends of the past, are not only profitable, but sources of much pleasure.

Excursions in the hours after school and on holidays, walks, bicycle rides, and the customary annual sleighrides may be made doubly beneficial by directing them to historic shrines.

The topical method of study and recitation should of course be used, as has been indicated already, but there should be no regularity in calling upon pupils to recite in this particular subject. All such efforts should be entirely voluntary. The assignment of a topic should be considered a compliment, to recite a privilege. I would keep no marks and have no penalties. However much we may believe in tasks in other subjects, I would banish all suggestions of them in connection with local history. It should be a work of love, and the class exercise should be characterized by the utmost freedom and enthusiasm.

This society does well to interest itself in the promotion of this study. We must begin early if we would successfully cope with the commercial spirit, the selfishness that would destroy old landmarks, if we would preserve the relics and documents of the past. But on this latter point another society is earlier in the field. The Massachusetts Historical Society recently sent to the State Board of Education a request that an effort be made to interest the school children in the preservation of old documents supposed to be lying about in attics and other repositories of rubbish. The secretary of the board therefore prepared a circular, to be sent to the various towns and cities, requesting children to collect such material and to place it in the custody of that society for preservation and use when required.

The teaching of Somerville history, the record of its life, should beget in the minds of her young people a respect and pride for her past and her present success. It should at least diminish that longing for change to, some other place,—no matter where,—so common with them, and teach a devotion to the city and its institutions, an attachment to even its soil, which shall hold through life. Southey says, ‘Whatever strengthens our local attachments is favorable both to individual and national character. Show me the man who cares no more for one place [64] than another, and I will show you in that same person one who loves nothing but himself. Beware of those who are homeless by choice. You have no hold upon a person whose affections are without a tap-root.’

The boys and girls of this section of our country have a proud heritage. It was no mean people who came to this region. No poorhouses, workhouses, or prisons were opened to populate our soil, and to ease the burdens of another country. It was a liberty-loving, high-minded people, jealous of their rights as freemen, who began here to build a state, and Mrs. Hemans's words,

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod,

may well be applied to Somerville.

Lord Macaulay says, ‘A people who take no pride in the achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.’

In this intelligent pride of our young people there is for us the strongest possible guaranty of good government, and of municipal success and prosperity in the years to come.

The public statutes require the teaching of the history of the country and of lessons of patriotism, but it is left for the people of this city to see to it that our schools teach her history, and implant loyal devotion to her interests.

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