Why Study History? Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs & Disciplines

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

In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.

Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:

But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)

fatherofhistory03bFor example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.

Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.

Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)

As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.

So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.


Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge


Why Study History? Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge

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

From the threefold description of history from my previous post, the main use of history in education is in the knowledge of the past and narrations of history. That is, the means by which historians research and investigate the events of the past will not be a role in education inasmuch as this is a specialized task and so will not be a part of general education. However, this may play a role in that the historian must use reason, logic, and the rules of evidence, and these are certainly a part of the critical thinking education of the liberal arts.

MemoryThe first function of history is to provide the foundations of thought. Thinking itself does not seem possible without there being something to think about. Early in the developmental process of the student’s mind, history provides the most natural and simple content for the thoughts of the student. In fact Hugh of St. Victor goes so far as to say that history is “the foundation of all knowledge, the first to be laid out in memory” (Hugh of St. Victor, “The Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History”). Hugh argues this because of the progressive nature of education, learning first that which is most immediate to the student, what is most simple, and that on which the more complex truths depend. Explains Hugh,

First you learn history and diligently commit to memory the truth of the deeds that have been performed, reviewing from beginning to end what has been done, when it has been done, where it has been done, and by whom it has been done. For these are the four things which are especially to be sought for in history—the person, the business done, the time, and the place. (The Didascalicon, 135-136)

According to Hugh, to skip history and move to other philosophical or theological truths, or simply to train a student to perform some task, is like trying to read without first learning the alphabet. And of these people Hugh says, “knowledge of these fellows is like that of an ass. Don’t imitate persons of this kind” (Ibid). Hugh’s exhortation is based on his view that history serves to root the young student in what they can simply comprehend in order that the more complex may be developed. For example, studying the life of George Washington first, may enable the students to go on the reason about valor, courage, and war.

History provides the simplest content of thought: names, dates, events, all of which the young student can easily store in memory and then use as the content of later thought. It may not even be of immediate use to the student. No doubt, people often complain, “what is the use of studying history? I’m never going to use this!” Yet, Hugh points out that there are different kinds of utility when it comes to historical knowledge. “Some things are to be known for their own sakes, but others, although for their own sakes they do not seem worthy of our labor, nevertheless, because without them the former class of things cannot be known with complete clarity, must by no means be carelessly skipped” (Ibid).

Up next: The second function of history in education

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

Abolish the Ph.D.!

I came across this today from Mortimer Adler:

Another demon we must exorcise is the Ph.D. degree. The Ph.D. degree has no ancient lineage. There were no Ph.D.s in the medieval universities. They had only four degrees. One was the teaching degree, the master of arts. The master was strictly a teacher, and he taught the same arts that the students were to learn, the liberal arts. The other three degrees were professional in nature: doctor of law, doctor of medicine, and doctor of theology. (Adler, “Reconstituting the Schools”)

He then explains the roots of the Ph.D. in German universities and why they don’t really have any meaning today.

He goes on, “Today there isn’t an actual doctor of philosophy in our country. There may be a few in the departments of philosophy, but for the most part they, too, are not philosophers. We don’t refer to someone as a “doctor of philosophy”; we say, “doctor of philosophy in [X]”.” 

Adler’s main complaint is that the Ph.D. is often taken to be one of a highly specialized degree of scholarship and a teacher. Hence, universities require their professors to have Ph.D.s. But anyone who’s been a part of a doctorate program knows, it in no way prepares you to be a teacher!  And I imagine many of us have suffered in college under professors who had no business being in a classroom.

Here’s what Adler recommends instead:

We ought to restructure the whole thing. We ought to have a “Sc.D.” which would stand of doctor of science of scholarship, and use that in place of the Ph.D., for all graduate degrees other than law, medicine, and theology. The Sc.D. would not signify a teacher at all. If we want to signify someone who is prepared to teach, and since the master of arts degree no longer means that, let us resuscitate the old degree (now an honorary degree) of L.H.D., the doctor of humane letters. (Ibid.)

Oh, and by the way, I found this in my reading for a doctorate class…


Mortimer J. Adler

What Is Philosophy? A Very Short Overview

“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.”

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliClassically (and etymologically), Philosophy is the “love of Wisdom.”  “Love,” in this sense, is the eros or “passionate desire” for Wisdom and Truth.  Philosophy investigates and seeks to answer the perennial, fundamental questions of human existence: “what is the purpose of life,” “what does it mean to live well,” “what is truth,” “can truth be known,” “what is good and evil,” etc.  Given this breadth of inquiry, Philosophy qua philosophy is not an end in itself; instead Philosophy encompasses all disciplines / knowledge as they tend towards Wisdom and Truth.* Since all Wisdom and Truth are grounded in God, Philosophy naturally leads to Theology.  Furthermore, because all Wisdom and Truth is essentially theological, Philosophy itself is always at the service of Theology; as Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae (the Handmaiden of Theology).  Philosophy serves as the ancilla theologiae in three ways:

Ratio (method / procedure) First, Philosophy equips Theology with the rules of thought / Reason by which the mind operates, the dialectic of argumentation by which the mind investigates Truth, and the analytic and synthetic processes by which the mind discovers Truth.

Auctoritas (authority) Second, Philosophy provides Theology with insights discovered by the great philosophers (both Christian and non-Christian) who arrived at the Truth with the light of Natural Reason and practices deference to their authority.

Concordia (union / harmony) Third, Philosophy coordinates its discovered Truths with Theological Doctrine and subordinates these Truths to Revelation.

*Related to this definition, philosophy is also the investigation into the presuppositions of any subject / discipline.  It asks and attempts to answer the foundational questions of all areas of study (e.g., “how ought we to proceed in the study of X?”).  Thus, philosophy incorporates the Seven Liberal Arts and the Four Sciences as it provides a “philosophy” of each of these disciplines: e.g., “the philosophy of grammar,” “the philosophy of science,” “the philosophy of arithmetic,” etc.

Happy Birthday to G. W. Leibniz!

TO LOVE is to find pleasure in the happiness of others. Thus the habit of loving someone is nothing other than BENEVOLENCE by which we want the good of others, not for the profit that we gain from it, but because it is agreeable to us in itself.

I claim that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated without this principle: nothing exists without a reason. This principle holds not only in mechanics, where it concerns whether from a given magnitude, figure and motion, another magnitude, figure and motions, follows, but also in matters that of necessity are not mechanical, which I show as follows.

~Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)