Why Study History? Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation

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

In my previous three posts I argued that history provides the early content of thought, the only means by which the student may understand themselves in their current society, and it teaches universal principles of human nature. We now come to the last function of history in education: Moral Formation.

230px-Tacitus01This function, Tacitus calls “history’s highest function:” “My purpose is not to relate at length every motion, but only such as were conspicuous for excellence or notorious for infamy. This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be commemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds” (548). In reading about those who have come before them, students are shaped by the example of great people and cautioned by those of ill-repute. Perhaps the most striking example of this in ancient literature is Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. According to Plutarch, the reading or studying of history affects the one studying. That is, there is no distancing the subject from the material. Necessarily, we are affected by what we study, and the studying of peoples and events of the past forms the student. Says Plutarch,

But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. … Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice, and influences the mind and character not by a mere imitation which we look at, but by the statement of the fact creates a moral purpose which we form. (Lives, 122)

That one cannot help but be affected by the study of history is further evidenced by Plutarch who claims that while he wrote The Lives for the sake of others, he was himself greatly affected by their study: “I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life” (195). In a like manner, Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography or history of a single individual, is written partially with this view of the function of history in mind:

Physician of my soul, make me see clearly how it profits me to do this. You have forgiven my past sins and drawn a veil over them, and in this way you have given me happiness in yourself, changing my life by faith and your sacrament. But when others read of those past sins of mine, or hear about them, their hearts are stirred so that they no longer lie listless in despair, crying “I cannot.” Instead their hearts are roused by the love of your mercy and the joy of your grace, by which each one of us, weak though he be, is made strong, since by it he is made conscious of his own weakness. And the good are glad to hear of the past sins of others who are now free of them. They are glad, not because those sins are evil, but because what was evil is now evil no more. (90-91)

From this brief survey, the place of history in education is fourfold: (1) to enable one to learn and think generally, (2) to understand ourselves and our present condition, (3) to plan for the future, and (4) to form the student morally by example and cautionary tale.

What will be shown next is that these four essential roles of history have not been enough to save it from certain philosophical shifts in education from displacement in the modern curriculum.

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
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines
Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles

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