Home > History > A Grid for Understanding History, Part I

A Grid for Understanding History, Part I

I just cannot fathom how high school teachers can make history seem so boring. Okay, I’m pretty sure Wisconsin history is pretty dull. But everything else is usually fascinating. World history is pretty much littered with wars, intrigue, and assassinations – the stuff good novels are made of. But most of what I got was “social studies,” where we spent our time learning the main export of each country. Oh yeah, that will really hook kids on learning about history.

So I never figured out that history was cool until college. Even then I only took two history classes. My first was Byzantine history, which was a smart choice since it covers over 1000 years, guaranteeing that I would become hopelessly lost in the details and mixing up people who were separated by, say, 200 years or more. The problem is that I had no framework for grasping a span of history that large, a problem I discussed yesterday.

I have encountered the same problem several times since then, whether church history classes, personal studying, or teaching homeschool. History is so vast that it’s hard to keep everything straight.

I have developed a solution that I have gradually developing since my American church history class a couple years ago. It has seemed to work pretty well for me so far. My idea was to break up history into 25-year blocks. The 1900s, for instance, would be broken up into four blocks: 1900-1925; 1925-1950; 1950-1975; 1975-2000. I am intentionally repeating numbers rather than using, say, 1926-1950. That is because I am not intending to separate events into hard-and-fast categories. I am just trying to get a feel for what fits where, using 1925 as a general reference point.

There are a number of advantages to this kind of system. First, it makes it easier to understand the relation between different events in the grid. Have you ever copied a line drawing by superimposing a grid over the original drawing and then doing your copy over a similar grid? You’ll be amazed how well you can copy a drawing, even if you are a poor artist. Imposing a grid helps you to recognize proportions and spacial relations. When studying history, a grid helps recognize temporal relations. So even if twenty-five year blocks are totally arbitrary, they still work well for creating mental storage compartments for various historical facts.

Second, my system gives us perspective. Perhaps my illustrations yesterday of 6000 babies or six chairs were not helpful to you. (Some people didn’t catch the joke.) They are not helpful because we have no real frame of reference for understanding 6000 1-year-periods or 6 1000-year-periods. But we can easily understand a 25-year-period since it fits within most of our lifetimes.

6000 years are composed of 240 blocks. 240 is still a lot, but at least it’s manageable. And we really don’t have that much information on the first 2000 years, so you can lop off about 80 blocks by just getting down a few basic facts. But more importantly, we are not usually focusing on the entire 240 blocks. Our topic will usually just take a portion, like Roman history, or the expansion of Islam, or American history. Each one is only going to cover 10 to 20 blocks. That is very accessible. In addition, we can gain a concept of how long a particular period is in relation to the whole. The US has been a nation for just over 10 blocks, for instance, which is pretty short compared to 240, but yet not so small as to be insignificant. I have found this perspective indispensibly helpful.

Third, twenty-five years is about the right amount of time to have its own story. You tend to get a lot of the same key actors in each block. Much smaller and you miss important parts of the story; much bigger and you start incorporating another story. Occasionally stories will ‘spill over’ into the next grid section. When a particular story, like a king’s reign, is spread pretty equally over two blocks, that is also fairly easy to remember by thinking of it stretching between the two blocks, like part A and part B.

In my next post I will further develop the grid method in reference to individuals. If you haven’t bought into it yet, stick with me. There are more reasons why I think the grid system works.

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