Why Study History? Part IV: The Displacement of History in Education

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

In the previous four posts (see end of this post for links), I argued that History plays a central role in education. In spite of this, since the late nineteenth century, American education has seen a steady decline in the teaching of certain academic fields, primarily the arts and humanities (including history). No doubt the cause of this change goes well beyond what can be covered here, but a few general observations concerning this shift in curriculum may be observed.

First, the changes in emphasis of curriculum are due to an overall change in the view of the ends of education. As mentioned above, both humane and utilitarian views of education go back thousands of years, with the dominant view being the humane education which seeks to make students good. Recently, however, utilitarian views of education have become dominant, at least in the United States. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market.

In order to achieve these goals, a shift in curricula is necessary. For example, in 2007 the United States passed the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69) which specific purpose is “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States.” Again, “competitiveness” is the driving force. To do this, the act shifts funding for educational programs into S.T.E.M. disciplines. S.T.E.M. refers to any discipline which correlates to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. Accordingly the act authorizes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy Office of Science. As educational programs receive increased funding in S.T.E.M. disciplines, they must necessarily de-emphasize non-S.T.E.M. fields like history and the humanities.

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesSecond, these shifts, though not a direct result of, are certainly influenced by an overall Cartesian view of knowledge which emphasizes certainty above all else. The “pure” sciences, like mathematics, lead to absolute certainty in matters of truth. Without certainty there is no knowledge, only speculation, or so we must reduce all disciplines to mathematical postulates and explanations, and if not, they are viewed as suspect. Says Descartes, “In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.”( Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 225) That is, unlike Pascal, Descartes emphasized the throwing-off of tradition and previous generations as a way of knowing, leaving the philosopher alone with reason only to discover truth. Where then is a place for history, literature, or the arts in an educational program? Since these cannot lead to any kind of certain knowledge, they are at best seen as interesting trivialities. That is, a philosophical shift in the general view of truth and knowledge may also be driving these educational changes.

Third, while the current driving force of these changes may be an utilitarian view of education, the underlying assumptions of American Pragmatism must certainly be explored as an influence. Though many would trace these changes in American education back to John Dewey, Dewey himself was heavily influenced by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. According to Spencer the purpose of education is to prepare children for “self-preservation, securing the necessaries of life, bringing up children well, [and] producing good citizens.” (Egan, Getting It Wrong, 116) The means to achieve this would be the sciences. Accordingly, a new curriculum would be necessary to meet this aim. The criteria for selecting fields of study then would be their utility in preparing the student for these goals. “So the prevailing curriculum based on Greek, Latin, and history was to be swept away.” (Ibid.) What use would a child have for declining Greek nouns, conjugating Latin verbs, or knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred in getting a job or raising a family?

From this educational shift, history was replaced with general social studies, the arts with more practical arts of the home and everyday life, and literature with science and technology studies. We have today, incorporated Spencer’s view of education wholesale so that his views of education are now mainstream. The more traditional curriculum is left for those who can afford private schools, while middle and poorer-class students are relegated to a crass utilitarian education:

An implication of Spencer’s writing was that the classics should disappear from the experience of middle-class student and should have no role for the increasing numbers of children from the lower classes who were filling the expanding state schools…Today, of course, the educational establishment—almost entirely without any knowledge of what once was the backbone or staple of education and almost invariably ignorant of classical languages—takes it for granted that the classics should be treated as an occasional and exotic option for only a few students. (Ibid., 120-121)

As noted, the champion of this kind of education in the United States was John Dewey. Dewey emphasized education as a kind of vocational activity. In order to function best in society, Dewey focuses his curriculum on “thinking skills” while de-emphasizing “information.” That is, it is more important that the student think than what the student thinks about. After all, the educator cannot predict what vocation their students will pursue, and so cannot predict what kinds of information will be useful to them. So, once again there is a replacing of history and culture with pragmatic skills. Though Dewey himself found utility in the studying and teaching of history, those who came after him found it of little use.

What then of those uses of history covered previously? How might a student come to think without something to think about? How might a student come to understand the society in which they live? How might a student learn to plan for the future? How might a student be formed morally? All these questions are treated as relatively unimportant on an utilitarian view of education. Yet, as I will examine in my final posted, it is precisely the lack of these functions provided by history that prevents utilitarian education from meeting its goals.

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
Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation


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

Why Study History? Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles

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

In my previous two posts I argued that history provides the early content of thought and the only means by which the student may understand themselves in their current society.

The third function of History in education is that History functions to discover and teach the universal principles of human nature that enables the student to plan for the future. “Consider the past,” says Marcus Aurelius, “[that] thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now” (Meditations, 267). Similarly argues Gibbon, “History…undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future ages”(Decline and Fall, 211). That is, because human nature is everywhere and always the same, the student of history may learn from the achievements and failures of previous generations. Machiavelli, in giving advice for the preservation of the state, makes continual reference to historical precedents to justify his claims. Granted, Machiavelli sees the lesson of history that the prince ought to be willing to do evil in order to preserve the state. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s principle is sound: to plan for the future, learn from the past.

220px-James_MadisonLikewise, in considering the nature and form that the U.S. Constitution should take, Madison and others made a thorough study of constitutions of the past, noting what worked, what did not work, and why. In defending the Constitution during the debate over ratification, the Federalist essays of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (like Machiavelli), make continual reference to historical precedent to justify why the Constitution took the shape it did, and why it was superior to all previous forms. These historical considerations were made because, says John Jay, “We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them” (Federalist No. 5, 37). Planning for the future without consulting the past is foolish at best and disastrous at worst. Thus Santayana’s oft quoted maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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

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”

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”

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!

A Surfeit of Sources (or, Historian Hoarders)

urlOne might think that given the proliferation of recorded material available to the historian today that the task of history is made easier. Everything is recorded, everything is saved, we can compile terabytes of data on a disk smaller than a human hand. So, to know the causes and effects of the Vietnam War, one only need access the data.  Not so, says historian John Lukacs,

The fantastic and overwhelming proliferation of typed and printed material may suggest that the successor of the aristocrat is not the democrat but the bureaucrat . . . The very number of libraries multiplies alarmingly: it has become recently an American national custom for former Presidents or for their descendants to sponsor entire libraries the contents of which would consist primarily, if not exclusively, of the “materials” relating to the few years of their national administration. In addition to the standard kind of “documents,” the contemporary historian must consider an entire array of new “sources”: magazines, films, photographs, phonographic recordings, oral-history tapes, teletypes, etc. These developments are self-consciously applauded by historical associations. I, for one, cannot share in these pompous and circumstantial expressions of joy: at times I am tempted to wish that there were a long-term moratorium, forbidding the erection of presidential, indeed, perhaps of all new libraries. My reason for this impious desire is simple: the quantity of historical “material” has already become unmanageable. (Historical Consciousness, 54).

Put simply, there is too much useless information for the historian. We are a society of information hoarders. We cannot distinguish between valuable information and trash. Does the Library of Congress really need to archive the entire contents of Twitter? And this is but one example.

This is a moral problem. We can no longer judge what is important and so we throw everything into a pile and call it “precious.” We have a mental disorder that cannot judge diamonds from diapers. We cannot distinguish information from knowledge.

Gun Control and History

It seems as if, during our current debate over gun control, there is a growing number of people who are incredulous about the notion that they need to be concerned about defending themselves against the government.  They view people who have such a concern as conspiracy theorists and out-right lunatics.  What do we have to fear from our government? Our government would never turn against us!

My question is: do these people choose to ignore history or are they genuinely ignorant of it?  History provides one example after another of governments attacking their own people! It staggers the mind that anyone could ignore this!

I used to think that Hegel was just being pessimistic when he said, “what experience and history teach is that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”  Now, I think he was on to something.