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June 5, 2020

“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.