Why Study History? Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Note: This is the third post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I offered a definition of “education.” I must next set forth just what is meant by “history.” Once these two definitions are in place we will be able to explore their relationship.

How then shall we define “history?” According to historian John Lukacs, “no definition will do.” Instead, Lukacs offers a description of history: Says Lukacs, “History is the memory of mankind” (John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History). Understood thusly, “history” is a kind of memory, the memory of things and persons past. In this sense, history is both active and passive. Active in the sense of the “study of things past” and passive in the sense that the contents of thought are memories: we cannot think apart from “things remembered.”

Yet, in spite of the discouragement of defining history from Lukacs, a general definition is necessary in order to proceed. “History” as such seems to sit between science and poetry as a discipline and practice, incorporating elements of both. The English word “history” is derived from the Greek ἱστορία (historia) and according to the Liddell and Scott Greek-English lexicon denotes “knowledge or information obtained by inquiry.” It is in this way that history relates to science. Both science and history are concerned with a kind of knowledge that comes only after research, and both attempt to prove or justify their claims. Hence, Aristotle titled his study of animals, The History of Animals. It is not the past events of animals or tales of animals in the line of Aesop, but rather a study or inquiry of what he discovered about animals as the result of his research.

urlIn our time we might entitle Aristotle’s work as a “study” or “science” of animals, but this similarity between history and science is quite informative for the definition of “history.” First, history is not necessarily concerned with natural, universal laws of the physical world, but the particular events of the past. That is, it is the knowledge of what happened in the past. In this way, we can also speak of certain natural sciences as also being a “history.” Geology might constitute both the natural laws of rocks and planets, and the history of those particular rocks on Earth that explain its current state. In fact, some scientists have argued that a study of the history of a particular science is the best way of studying that field itself. “In the twentieth century some of our best physicists have suggested that the clearest explanation of the new concepts of physics may be that of the history of their development…the history of chemistry is chemistry itself” (John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, 6).

Second, history is distinguished from the natural sciences in that, as its name implies, it is concerned with telling a story. The natural sciences are presented as propositions, while history is related in narrative (or prose) form. As Hegel says,

In our language the term History unites the objective with the subjective side … It comprehends not less what has happened than the narration of what has happened. This union of the two meanings we must regard as of a higher order than mere outward accident; we must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events. (Georg Hegel, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 546.)

It is in this way that history was distinguished from poetry. Though both relate to what is known, historia relates to that which is known as the result of research. Both Homer and Herodotus wrote concerning the Trojan War, yet Homer’s is poetry, while Herodotus’ is history. The difference is that Herodotus intentionally set out to investigate the claims that people like Homer have made about those events. Says Herodotus, “I made inquiry, whether the story which the Greeks tell about Troy is a fable or not” (Herodotus, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 547). This relationship to poetry helps explains why history was one of the Nine Muses. Clio stands next to comedy and tragedy as art forms, requiring or offering inspiration. This would seem to suggest that there is more to history than just a scientific analysis of past events. History unites the investigations of past events with the poetry and prose of narration and storytelling.

History, then, may be described in the following ways:

  1. It is the investigative process whereby the historian determines what has happened in the past.
  2. It is knowledge of those past events as determined by the research
  3. It is the narration which communicates those events to others.

While certainly more could be said about the nature and philosophy of history, this brief description will suffice for the purpose of setting history as a topic within educational curriculum.

Up next: The first function of history in education

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Humanities Departments to Blame for the Decline in the Humanities

So says Daniel McInery in The Humanities in a Digital Age: Online Higher Education

The humanities in American higher education are in deep crisis, and the cry of alarm released on June 18 by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences will probably contribute little to a renaissance.

The humanities themselves, as they are generally practiced throughout academia, surely deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the crisis. For decades now they have failed to make a compelling case for their centrality to a happy and productive life. They have indulged a passion for skepticism, materialism, nihilism, and one or two other noxious isms that one can find catalogued and critiqued in Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio, and in so doing they have, perhaps unwittingly, consigned themselves to irrelevance.

Why Study History? Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Note: This is the second post in the series: “Why Study History”

Before an examination of the role of history in education can be made, the definitions of both “history” and “education” must be set forth. To begin with the later, there are two broad understandings of what constitutes “education.” On the one hand there is what I will call “humane education.” On this view, the primary purpose of education is to make students good. It is an education that concerns itself with the whole of human life and the formation of the child or student into a robust human being. On the other hand, there is what I will call “utilitarian education.” On this view, the purpose of education is to make students useful for some task. The modern utilitarian usually has something like “career” or “job” in mind when defining the “task” for which the student is to be trained. Etymologically, the word “education” is derived from the Latin ēdūco which means to lead forth, draw out, or bring away. This general concept is common to both humane and utilitarian education to the degree that both views see education as the process of leading the student from one state into another.

Both humane and utilitarian views of education go by different names, but it should be pointed out that, historically speaking, it is a mistake to associate “humane education” with “traditional” or “classical” education and to associate “utilitarian education” with “modernist” or “progressivist” education. Both forms of education can be found across the centuries and in many parts of the world simultaneously. For example, Aristotle, in defending the humane education like that found in Athens, criticizes the Spartans for their utilitarian education that was only concerned with “necessary and useful things,” and ignored what is “noble” (Aristotle, Politics, 1332b1:15-1334a1:25). However, “humane education” has been the dominant view among educators and philosophers until the modern period. Says Mortimer Adler, “one opinion from which there is hardly a dissenting voice in the great books is that education should aim to make men good as men and as citizens” (Mortimer J. Adler, “Education,” Great Books of the Western World, 297).

“Humane education” has its roots in Greece and is most closely associated with the Greek word παιδεία (paideia). “Paideia” refers to the nourishing or upbringing of a child and it is from the related Latin term humanitas which we derive “the humanities.” Both paideia and humanitas take it for granted that a child will not naturally grow into a full human being, and therefore requires humane education. For humane education, “the aim of education is the perfection of the individual soul, the cultivation of its faculties for their own sake and in due gradation of absolute value, using the external world, in so far as it does us this at all, chiefly as a means and opportunity of arriving nearer to the ultimate perfection or of rendering clearer our vision of the ultimate truth” (W. H. Hadow, “The Place of Humane Letters in Education,” 20).

The “means” alluded to by Hadow, most closely associated with humane education, have been the liberal arts. “Liberal” because those were the arts it was thought necessary to master in order to free the human mind. As Mortimer Adler says, “the liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished…once all were acquired, the student was “free” to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act” (Mortimer J. Adler, “What Is Liberal Education?”. It is not taken for granted that the child will naturally grow into an adult, rather the child requires cultivation. According to Leo Strauss, “‘culture’ means…chiefly the cultivation of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind. Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, [so] the mind needs teachers. [Humane education] consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness” (Leo Strauss, Introduction to Political Philosophy).

Different undertakings of humane education have included various disciplines or “liberal arts” to achieve the end of a fully develop human person. For example, Pythagoras of Samos, in the sixth century B.C. developed a progressive education of three levels: oral instruction, musical education, and culminating in mathematics. This was later developed by Plato in the Republic to involve music, sports, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and finally philosophy. By the time of ninth century A.D., humane educators had codified the “Seven Liberal Arts.” These involved the trivium (or 3 ways of knowing) of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium (or 4 ways) of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. They are properly “ways” as “ways of knowing.” The common theme among these varying schemes of “liberal arts” is that they worked on the inner life of the mind of the student, cultivating and forming the student to become more fully human. As stated above, this was the dominant view of education.

If humane education is concerned with the formation of a child into an adult, a definition of what it means to be human in the first place is necessary. Every understanding of humane education must be understood with the ideal of the human person. For instance, Pythagoras’ educational system culminated in mathematics because this was the sacred doctrine that fully formed the human mind. “Irrespective of the cultural setting, the crux of the educational paradigm was the same—i.e., beginning with the end in view and approaching that end incrementally with each art building upon the other…” (Littlejohn and Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence, 29). Often, utilitarian views of education purport to be silent on the issue of human nature, seeking instead merely to train the student to accomplish some task. For example, the utilitarian might seek to train the student to perform some job only, while attempting to ignore the question of why a person should perform any job in the first place. Such a philosophy is inconsistent. As David Hicks says,

Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes. The writer on education who fails to state his view of man at the outset expects to perform some polemical magic. He masks his premises and invites a gullible reader to judge his conclusions on the deceptive merit of a logical deduction. In fact, whether he wishes to or not, he presupposes an order of human values; his understanding of the nature and proper end of man determines the purposes and tasks that he assigns to education. (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, 3-4)

As indicated above, education concerns itself with the cultivation of the mind. Related to this notion is the idea that education is also the process of “enculturation.” That is, if we examine the nature of “education” beyond simply “schooling,” education is the process by which one generation hands off or communicates its culture with the next generation.

It is clear that culture is inseparable from education, since education in the widest sense of the word is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation’…No doubt this is a far wider process than what is commonly known as education, for we apply the word ‘education’ only to a very specialized type of enculturation—the formal teaching of particular kinds of knowledge and behavior to the younger members of the community through particular institutions. And the most important of all the processes by which culture is transmitted—the acquisition of speech—takes place before formal education begins. (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 3)

That is, “education” is the process by which a group incorporates a younger generation into its customs, practices, art, history, etc. This process often happens tacitly from the very moment a child is born as it learns the primary part of culture from parents: that of language. As will be explored later, E.D. Hirsch identifies modern utilitarian education’s failure to properly “enculturate” students as the primary reason for the overall failure of these students to be able to function in society; so that culture (or history) becomes a primary component of any educational philosophy, whether humane or utilitarian. Therefore, an evaluation of the relative merits of humane education versus utilitarian education is unnecessary for this series of posts (but certainly will be a part of a different series I have planned for the future), since the overall goal of this series is to argue that regardless of one’s philosophy of education, history plays an essential role.

Up Next: Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction

Why Study History? Part I: Introduction

“Why do I have to learn when the Battle of Hastings occurred? When am I ever going to use this information in my life!?”

Such laments about learning the events, peoples, or places of history are not uncommon in the school classroom. For some time children are taught about those people who came before them, and those events which led up to their own time. Yet, why? Why spend so much time teaching students about history? It seems rather impractical to spend so much school time on the past when schools are supposed to be preparing students for the future, right?

Claims like these are among some of the reasons why history is losing its place in the modern American school. In a series of upcoming posts I plan to explore the role of “history” in education, which up until the modern era held an essential role. Recent calls for educational reform are essentially a plan to return history to its place in education.

My plan for this series is as follows:

  1. First, I will offer definitions of both “education” and “history” in order to explore the proper relationship of the two ideas to one another.
  2. Second, I will give a brief survey of four ways that history has been used as a part of the educational process going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  3. Third, I will explore the philosophical shifts that have led modern American educational systems to displace history (and the humanities generally) in place of science and technology subjects.
  4. Fourth, I will survey attempts by several different kinds of educational reformers, all of which see the failure to teach and study history one of the essential problems with American public schools. All of this will go to show that the most robust education must have a place for history.

Stay tuned!

Five Things Every Liberal Arts College Should Do

…according to Mortimer J. Adler that is, if that college wants to succeed in meeting the goals of a liberal education:

  1. A liberal arts college should not allow any form of special training for specific jobs, vocations, or even learned professions to intrude itself into the curriculum.
  2. A liberal arts college should not provide any elective courses in its curriculum, nor should it afford any opportunities for specialization in particular subject matters.
  3. The faculty of a liberal arts college should not be divided into departmental groups, each representing special competence in some particular subject matter, and narrow interest in some limited field of learning.
  4. No textbooks should be used in a liberal arts college; there should be no lectures in courses; and formal lectures should be kept to the minimum and should, wherever possible, be of such generality that they can be given to the whole student body.
  5. Written examinations, especially of the objective or true-false type, should be eliminated in favor of oral examinations.

To find out why Adler argues for these five recommendations, see his essay, “Liberal Schooling in the Twentieth Century” (1962).

Lowering Reading Requirements and Expectations

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Last year, for the first time, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students. “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read,” Stickney says, “has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.”

~Lynn Neary, “What Kids Are Reading, In School and Out

Boredom Is Inhuman

It is an interesting fact that only humans get bored, and I say that people only get bored when they fail to be human.

Boredom appears to be a kind of restlessness that occurs when one does not know what to do when there is nothing to do. By “nothing to do” I mean nothing “compulsory” (work, labor, etc.) and when no form of amusement presents itself—when I’ve done all my work, when there is nothing on television or at the theater that I care to see, and when all my friends and family are otherwise occupied. Keep this understand of “nothing to do” in mind, because by it I do not mean that there is actually “nothing to do”. Boredom occurs when I do not know what there actually is to do apart from the things mentioned above (work, amusement, etc.).

And this is what makes Boredom essentially inhuman. By “inhuman” I mean “goes against the essence of humanity.” What does it mean “to be human”? What distinguishes humanity from all other beings? No doubt this question goes well beyond what I can cover here, but let me put forth the mild assertions that what makes humans, human, is the ability to think, to reason, or to know. If that is so, then thinking well is the highest activity a person can do and that our ultimate happiness consists in an activity of the mind. What a person is saying when he/she says, “I’m bored,” is essentially, “I do not know how to be human,” or “I do not know how to think”. Because, for the person who can think and learn for themselves, there is never a time when there is “nothing to do.” As Mortimer Adler says, “[it is] the mark of the happy man…that you never find him trying to kill time” (Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education,” 1951).

Only humans can get bored because only human can know / think. It is when I do not know how to learn, how to become more human, more of what I am, that I get “bored”.

So, to all my students who, finding themselves out of school for the summer and without a job: exercise you mind. You have been given an amazing gift of leisure time, time to become more human, time for contemplation and reflection.

Our society enjoys more “free time” than any other society in history. It is a simple fact that prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of humankind spent their lives in work and sleep, with no opportunity for leisure. We have been given this amazing gift to explore the universe and our own minds, both of which provide for infinite growth and possibilities. And what do we do with all this free time? We say, “we’re bored, there’s nothing to do”!?

What an absurdity! What a denial of life! What an inhuman thing to say!

Going to College So That We May Learn to Live Well

The least important of all the the reasons for going to college and trying to get an education is that it will help one to earn a living. … There may be other reasons for going to college, but unless the chief reason is to learn what needs to be learned in order to live well, in order to lead a decent human lie, then one might have been better off, perhaps, not to have gone to college at all.

~Mortimer J. Adler, Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Given what goes on at most colleges, Adler is right. Students often see college as a time of experimentation rather than formation, and the experimentation that goes on is destructive to the soul. Better not to go and save one’s soul.

A Thought on Suffering and “Game of Thrones”

The internets are all abuzz about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I am a latecomer to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, I admit. The first book, Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 and has since risen to the heights of most “Best Fantasy” book lists. At some point I read one of those lists, bought the book, and it sat on my shelf for several years (always in the “to read” category). Then, when the HBO series came out I watched the first episode and quite frankly, couldn’t keep the characters straight (not to mention the tremendous backstory that sets up all the events!). So, I decided I would read the books since they had a nice index in the back with full family lines and this would get me more of the backstory necessary to fully appreciate the story.

Well, I was hooked. I stopped watching the TV series, bought the rest of the books, and was overwhelmed by Westeros and Essos for nearly 3 months. I then went back to the TV series and have been pleasantly entertained by the adaptation.

Now, back to Season 3, Episode 9. I have to admit that I was quite tickled by the reactions filmed by those who knew what was coming of those who did not. Martin is an author that seems to enjoy killing off characters you love and the Red Wedding (as it’s known) is a slaughterhouse for beloved heroes.

There is a part of me that is resentful of the reaction of those who have not read the books. “Read the books, they’re so much better, and you get so much more out of it.”

I had the exact same reaction to the Red Wedding when I read the books that TV fans had this week. And that’s what bothers me. It seems that everyone had an amazing shared experience of horror and disbelief that I suffered through alone. I remembering slamming the book down and charging outside for a breath of fresh air. Looking back now, I would have loved to commiserate with fellow readers, share my suffering with theirs. But I was all alone. No one to confide in, no one to vent to without sounding deranged. So when people had the same reaction this week, I was resentful and condescending because the emotions of the event were no longer fresh for me. Time has healed the experience, but for others it is fresh. I must not forget my own experience and extend to them the “shoulder to cry on” that I lacked. This all might seem a bit overstated since we’re just talking about a fictional story, but I think it illustrates just how real and how powerful art and beauty can move us.

And this is what I take from this experience: suffering (whether at the hands of some real-life problem or at the hands of some sadistic author) is often best managed in community. Even the suffering experienced through art is best a shared experience.

This does not mean I’ll stop reading the books (who knows how many years before The Winds of Winter is released anyway) because there is a depth and breadth of story and character that cannot be match by television or film (it’s simply a limit of the medium). This may, however, call for a book group with whom I can journey through this drama.