Category Archives: History: Big Picture

“Battles and Dates and All That Rot”

In the Magician’s Nephew, Polly Plummer complains of having to learn history, which to her is merely a bunch of “battles and dates and all that rot.”   Using her phraseology as a catch-all for a rather large intellectual problem I have observed over the last 15 years or so, here are some musings regarding teaching history to secondary school students.

(1) Sometimes history classes can try to give students of this age too much in the sense of raising questions and issues they aren’t ready for at the time.  Partly it’s not the fault of the teacher.  The very “father of history” himself, the Greek inquirer Herodotus, wanted to analyze a 20 or so year period of history (the initial wars of the Greeks with the Persian Empire), and spends many hundreds of pages tracing complex cause-and-effect chains over multiple centuries in half a dozen geographical locations only tangentially related to the actual accounts of the Battles of Marathon and Salamis.

It’s all very great stuff, and if one carefully reads it and reflects on it, one’s understanding of the war between Greece and Persia comes out a great deal more substantial and rich.   But, the best ideals of classical education aside, it’s legitimate to ask questions about age appropriateness. Force-feeding a 13-year old all 800 pages of Herodotus in a few short weeks just because this is classical education, and we read books here, may not have the intended effect of broadening the mind, but instead the unintended consequence of simply reinforcing the trope that history is just a bunch of “battles and dates and all that rot.”

The kinds of questions Herodotus raises about history are just too big for the average secondary school student to get hold of, let alone to come to enjoy dealing with.  Perhaps we might chalk up the child’s experience with such a grand reading load to “formation,” realizing that as with all education, it will be many years before the seed of Herodotus grows to fruition in their minds. And perhaps we might rightly argue that secondary school is the time for kids who are more than halfway to adulthood to begin broadening their minds, realizing that the world of history really isn’t just a list of “facts” that are just so much “trivia” to be forgotten as soon as they’ve passed the test.

But there’s an argument to be made, I believe, that even with these goals in mind, we shouldn’t assign 12-15 years olds to read all 800 pages of Herodotus in just a few short weeks, and then pretend to be able to say something serious about inquiry (which is what history is) in a 1,500 word paper at the end. Polly’s remark is immature, yes, but it gets at the really obvious and also really profound truth that a middle school mind is still trying to make the turn from being able to process a small list of concrete “facts” to being able to abstract itself from the “facts” and draw major synthetic philosophical implications from them. Bottom line: for this age range, abridge that Herodotus significantly.

  (2) Despite this observation, at the same time, as someone who has spent many years studying history as an art, I am increasingly persuaded that we DO in fact sell students short in most history courses.  Failing to teach them the grand art of historical understanding, we almost inevitably fall into the opposite extreme of teaching them that history is a sort of Shakespearean story full of sound and fury, signifying nothing with respect to the present.

For one thing, if we do not even TRY to get kids into philosophizing about history, we tend to treat history as if it is mostly about memorizing and recalling “dates and dead people,” which just simply sucks the life out of it for most kids, especially the present generation, which has been taught to obsess on excitement and “relevance” rather than on understanding of human nature and insight into perennial problems. The *matter* of history is the dates and dead people, but the *art* of history is so very much more, and so much more thrilling than just stuffing the brain full of seemingly endless factoids.  

For another, because we don’t tend to teach history as an *art*, most students get all the history “education” they are required to get, but come away from it with a very vague mishmash of said “dates and dead people” and from there either develop (a) the conviction that history is bunk or (b) the conviction that history is important and can be really understood fairly easily – say, by reading popular level textbooks, source anthologies the selections of which exhibit a fear of the present “too long; didn’t read” impatience, or, worst of all, by inductively building up a fallacy-ridden reconstruction of history from stringing to together “quotes” from historical figures.  

(3) To trade on a famous remark by Cicero, intellectual puerility is the main result of this sort of history “education.” Students either come to disdain history as a bunch of meaningless trivia, or, when religious motives seem to require some sort of appeal to History (capitalization deliberate), to embrace caricatures of the material that make history out to be rather a sort of Hanna-Barbera cartoon than a Rembrandt painting.  The credulity of the religious person who engages the matter of history without having first learned the principles of the art of history is a sight to behold, indeed, and would make the historians of our great Western Tradition spin in their graves.

But, I hasten to add, such credulity is not really the students’ faults.  They are simply treating history the way their teachers taught them to treat it.  Intellectually puerile teachers will never produce anything but intellectually puerile students.

What’s the solution to all this? I actually don’t know. Schools as they are presently conceived – and I mean both public *and* most Christian schools (I daresay even many classical Christian schools) – are simply not set up to teach ANYTHING of an intellectual nature as an art, let alone history.

And another thing I’ve learned is that true education often has only a circumstantial connection with what goes on in schools.   Too often, the very form and procedures of “school” as it is presently conceived and implemented, along with the anti-intellectual, pragmatic and slavish assumptions of most parents and students – work to actually block true education rather than advance it.

Is Western Culture *Worse* Than Sodom or Nineveh?

It’s becoming increasingly popular in these days of seemingly triumphant secularism for Christians to speak of the “sad decline” of Western culture. I resonate with this idea a good bit, and not least because there’s plenty of reason within the Western tradition itself to see temporal matters often going downhill – sometimes drastically. Nevertheless, when I read the individual’s concluding thought, which was that we need to “dust off” our Old Testaments and become re-familar with “remnant theology,” a light went off in my head – a light I would not have expected to go off in my (pessimistic) head.

As a Humanities teacher, the Old Testament tends to be much in my thoughts, for Scripture is one of the three pillars of the West (the other two being Greece and Rome). To be sure, the Old Testament witness of God’s people is dreary, and can easily underwrite a Christian notion of cultural pessimism. As a general rule, I don’t think it’s healthy for Christians to get so wrapped up in the goods of temporal life that we start thinking and acting, even perhaps unconsciously, in line with the maxim, “Things are getting better all the time.” Because, unless one confines oneself to a very narrow subset of criteria, say, ones chiefly focused on how our gizmos keep advancing at warp speed and making our material lives ever cheaper to maintain than our spiritual lives, NO, they really and truly AREN’T.

Still, not even the Old Testament is entirely pessimistic. After all, God is the God who told Abraham that He would spare the horrifically wicked city of Sodom if only ten righteous people were found in it, and He’s the God who spared the horrifically wicked city of Nineveh, because there were 120,000 people within it who could not tell the difference between their right hand and their left – plus the livestock. There’s room even in the Old Testament for some real hope that things might get better.

After all, “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray and  seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). If God would have done it for a people as evil as Israel and Judah, He surely may yet do it for us.

So what about the common Christian practice – which I myself have been known to do more than a little bit! – of sitting around lamenting the loss of Christendom, and well, even the loss of just basic “Western culture” in our time? Woe is us, for we are sadly declining and there is no health in our bones! Surely God cannot put up with our manifold sins and wickednesses for much longer, but must hasten us into the trash-heap of history! What can we poor, besieged Christians do but pray for strength to avoid falling along with everything else?!

If the problem with an ever-cheerful cultural optimism is that it presumes on God’s providence, assuming that the entrance into the world of the Gospel necessitates an ever-upward path of temporal and material benefits, the problem with an ever-despairing cultural pessimism is that God isn’t obligated to underwrite a despairing, prophetic-rock-throwing, Gospel-thundering remnant and destroy the rest every time things in the world get really bad. As Augustine pointed out so long ago in the City of God, nobody knows the secrets of providence. God raises up kings and God deposes kings (Dan. 2:21), and all without consulting us or even remotely caring about our limited, and usually quite foolish, perspectives on the ephemeral events of our terribly momentary little lives.

Moreover, from the standpoint of what we can, as humans, actually know, we are explicitly told in Deuteronomy 29:29 that the only things that belong to us are the things that have been revealed – the secret things belong to God. Last time I checked, there is nowhere in Scripture that says Western culture will fall in the 21st century, leaving only a pathetic little remnant of faithful people to say “See, I told you so! At least we kept preaching the Gospel and doing apologetics while the house burned down around us!”

And at any rate, as Peter Leithart has sagely pointed out in his commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, the Old Testament teaching of the remnant does not typically refer to a small band of believers who survive a judgment of God because they stayed firm to the end. Rather, it refers to a mixed remnant, a remnant of believers and unbelievers, who, by God’s providential selection alone, survive a judgment of God.

So yes, let’s dust off those Old Testaments and, while taking care not to fly into the Cloud Cuckoo Land of over-realized eschatological triumph, at the same time realize that we are not the ones who have declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and it is not our will for our culture that will be done. Perhaps we ought all to more seriously consider the words of Jonah 4:2, which, despite being uttered by a prophet who was angry that his gloom-and-doom expectations had not come to pass, “Ah Lord…You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” This God who saved Nineveh is, someone else subsequently pointed out to me, the very same God who knew that ultimately Nineveh would apostatize again and would have to be destroyed. Thus, indeed, we have reason to hope, even in the midst of what really does, to all our senses, appear to be little more than a long, drawn out, sad decline.

In Church History, the Present is NOT the Key to the Past

Church historian David Knowles writes of his own discipline:

…no class of historian has found the presentation of its subject-matter in terms of ideas so difficult and so perilous. Those who have attempted to do more than give a summary or a narrative of events have often fallen into the biological fallacy that has misled historians of parliament and other institutions. They have presented their theme, whether it was the doctrine of the Real Presence, or the development of the papacy, as one of gradually increasing definition and clarity, from the mists of the early Church to the present time. The present is tacitly regarded as the norm, if not as the ideal, to which the long series of past events is directed. They thus give to the present an element of finality and to the past an element of inevitability.

In the hard sciences, the idea of evolution largely works by assuming that “the present is the key to the past.” That is, the only way to properly understand the past is to start with some feature(s) of the present and “read them back,” as it were, into the historical records. This enables a historian to bring order to the choking cataract of facts by constructing a linear narrative. Why is some part of the present – say the Roman Catholic Church – the way it is now? Why, because of all these clear precursors in the past that seem to look like it. It’s just been one long process of progressive development. Knowles doesn’t buy it, and for the very good reason that such a scheme is not even really historical at all:

In both past and present the purely historical appearance is lost, for though the present derives its characters from the past, the past has seen the action of multifarious agencies, material and spiritual, and it is no part of the historians task to distinguish between God’s design and man’s part in failing to accomplish it. We must beware as historians of the slant toward apologetics. Church historians in general say too little about the changes of cultures and of mental climates, and still less about the extravagances, ignorances and misconceptions of sentiment and devotion that have coloured or deformed the purity of the spirit in past centuries and that may well be obscuring for us now in this respect or that the full vision of revealed truth. For there is no reason to suppose that our generation is more spiritually clear-sighted than that of our forefathers, or that the Spirit of truth will not work in the future as He has worked in the past. [Foreword to Albert Mirgeler’s Mutations of Western Christianity (Montreal: Palm Publishers, 1964) pp. v-vi]

Worth considering, especially if one is already inclined to the sort of odious apologetics that pretends everything is obvious to those who just “let history speak for itself.”