For the teaching of history Tolstoy regards the Bible as an incomparable book, and especially the
Old Testament. It interested the children more than any other. "It seems to me," says Tolstoy
somewhat profoundly, "that the book of the childhood of the human race will always be the best
book for the childhood of every man." He found it impossible to find a substitute for it, and all
abridgements, and collections of Bible stories, were less valuable than the original. To his mind it
is perfect art. It may be an improper book for " depraved young women," Tolstoy says, but he
adds that he never altered a word in it when he read it to the peasants' children, and they never
listened to it except with respect and interest. "How comprehensible and clear it all is, especially
for a child, and serious and severe withal! I cannot see how teaching would be possible without
The Bible seemed to lift the veil of a new and magical world which the pupils wished to enter, and
it is the real function of the teacher to introduce his pupils into a new world of art and science. He
must arouse their curiosity and their desire to follow him. And the Bible first awakened this
curiosity, as nothing else could. The children never had too much of it, and after hearing it from
Tolstoy they were ready to follow him into Russian history and other fields, which before they had
refused to enter.
No other book presents in such a condensed poetical form all the aspects of human thought. The
primitive relations of men among themselves, of family, society, religion, show themselves in its
pages for the first time. It teaches wisdom under childlike forms and charms the mind of the child.
"Materialism will have a right to claim the victory when it shall have written the Bible of
materialism and children have been brought up on this Bible." And Tolstoy concludes that without
the Bible in our society, as without Homer in the society of Greece, the development of the child
and of the man would be impossible.
The step from Bible history to other histories was not an easy one. The children showed no
interest in Egypt or the Phoenicians. Before learning Bible history the children had absolutely
refused to listen to Russian history. After a course of Bible history they submitted more
gracefully, but still they showed very little interest in the national annals. Tolstoy admits that the
history of Russia is not an inspiring one. With the exception of the turning back of the French by
"Generals" January and February in 1812, there is no event which is calculated to arouse
enthusiasm, and those two generals lack the human qualities of flesh and blood.
It is rather amusing to find Tolstoy, the sworn foe of patriotism, forty years ago recommending
the patriotic method to teachers as the only way to teach history. The first time he told the story
of the retreat from Moscow remained a memorable occasion in his recollection. "I shall never
forget it," he said. He had formed the idea of teaching history going backward from the present
time. Another teacher had begun according to rule at the beginning, and the intention was
eventually to meet in the middle. He went into the other class one day and found the children very
weary of the subject which engaged them, and they begged him to tell them about something else.
He sat down and began to explain the rise of Napoleon after the French Revolution. For several
minutes there was a good deal of disorder, some of them climbing on to the table, some crept
under it, and others under the benches, but finally all was quiet. He told them how Napoleon
determined to subdue Russia.
"What!" cried a boy. "He will conquer us too?"
"Don't be afraid," answered another, "Alexander will get even with him."
They were much scandalized at the proposition of marrying a sister of the Tsar to Napoleon, and
that the Tsar should treat him as an equal.
"Let him wait a minute," cried Petka, with a threatening gesture.
"Go on, go on!" cried the rest.
When Alexander refused to submit and declared war, all the pupils showed their approval, but
when Napoleon, "with twelve nations," marched upon Russia, they were all much disturbed. A
German friend of Count Tolstoy was in the schoolroom with him.
"Ah, you too are against us," cried Petka to him.
"Keep quiet!" cried the others.
The retreat of the Russians pained them grievously, and they heaped reproaches upon the
"Your Koutouzov is a miserable specimen!"
"Wait a minute," said another.
"But why did he retreat?" asked a third.
It was hard work for Tolstoy to tell them that the Russians lost the battle of Borodino. It was a
terrible blow to the boys.
"Anyhow, if we didn't win, they didn't either," they said.
When Napoleon reached Moscow, expecting the keys of the city and the homage of the people,
there was a long cry of revolt. They approved of the burning of Moscow, of course. Then came
the triumph -- the retreat. Tolstoy told them how the French left Moscow, and how Koutouzov
pursued them and attacked them.
"He opened his eyes for him!" cried Petka, quite red in the face, clenching his little fingers. A thrill
of enthusiasm passed over the whole class, and a little boy was nearly crushed unnoticed.
When the French began to freeze to death, there were some expressions of pity. Then, as the
Germans begin to side with Russia, the pupils again turn upon Tolstoy's German friend.
"Ah, that's the way you behave, is it? At first against us, and then when you see we are winning,
on our side?" And the whole roomful saluted him with groans.
The German visitor accused Tolstoy of telling a one-sided story, and the latter vas obliged to
admit it. If he had explained Alexander's deceitful policy towards Prussia and his cruelty to
Poland, the boys would not have listened for a moment. Hence he was obliged to compose a piece
of fiction and call it history. And that is the real drawback in all attempts to teach a national
history in schools. The authors of the text-books and the teachers as well are forced invariably to
tell a string of lies -- a practice which cannot be edifying.
American history is indeed more inspiring than that of Russia. The immigration of the Pilgrim
Fathers for religious freedom, the refusal to pay the unjust tax on tea, the abolition of slavery, all
these great episodes give opportunities for high moral lessons, but no one uses them in that way.
All the defects of the national heroes are concealed, the characters of our enemies are depicted in
dark colours, and the stamp of falsehood is impressed upon the whole story. It is possible to rise
to a plane of enthusiasm for humanity from which mere patriotism appears immoral. Possibly the
average child cannot attain to this level, although I believe the effort of inviting him to it would be
worth making, but surely he has enough patriotism by nature without our stimulating it, and
especially by prevarication and unjust reflections upon other people's.
If he is to learn the history of his country, let it be a true history, and let pains be taken to dissuade
him from hating and despising other nations. Let him learn that they too have their patriotisms,
quite as reasonable and well-founded as his own.
And if he refuses to become interested in the truth, let him go without. And, in fact, how much
history have any of us retained from our school days? I can only answer for myself. I could easily
learn in a week from an Encyclopaedia all that I now remember of such instruction. And how
much does the most learned scholar know of human history? A mere infinitesimal particle of the
whole. And is the knowledge of a mass of undigested facts and of unrelated dates a real element
of education? I doubt it.
Tolstoy came to the conclusion that the pupil's interest in history was entirely dramatic -- that is,
artistic. They enjoy the story of Romulus and Remus, not because they founded the greatest
empire of the world, but because it is interesting and marvellous. They will not listen to an
account of the migrations of peoples because there is no art in it. "Children like history only when
it is vivified by art. They have no interest in history as such, and the phrase 'a child's history' is an
Tolstoy's preference for the Bible as a book of the world's childhood suggests that good use of
Greek, Roman, German and other mythologies might be made in place of more authentic
histories, and as a matter of culture it is probably as well worth while to know the details of the
siege of Troy as of the campaigns of Alexander the Great or of Charlemagne. The child has a
natural taste for this wonder-world, and it can do no harm to gratify it. Hawthorne's Tanglewood
Tales made a much deeper impression upon me than any of the histories which I studied.