Fiddling While Rome Learns
It is not surprising to hear that our nation’s children are performing low on history proficiency tests. Our educational system has set us up for that result. For many years, the focus in elementary schools has been on math and language arts because the state testing standards hold the most weight in those subject areas. As a result, schools and teachers have made history a low priority beginning in the foundational years of elementary school. But this is only the beginning of the problem.
History has been replaced by social studies during the foundational years of elementary school. Social studies deals with the social aspects of our society, focusing on community and citizenship. Instead of using these foundational years to develop a strong understanding of our history, we focus more on our current society and culture.
When history is taught in schools, namely in the later middle school and high school years, it is taught through limited means, focusing only on certain key historical figures and events and addressing issues through the lens of our current culture. Our attitude toward our nation’s history these days is a negative one that dwells on the mistakes of our past. We take less pride in our nation’s historical accomplishments and put an emphasis on its shortcomings.
The result of this approach is disappointing. We shun our past and attempt to erase any negative reminders of that past by tearing down statues and changing the names of buildings. This selective approach to history not only limits us in our understanding of our past, but creates in us a resentment of it.
Our nation is losing its memory and, as a result, we are losing our future. Our future comes from our past, both our successes and our failures. When we minimize what we teach in history and ignore parts of our past, we do not have the means to lay a proper foundation for our future based on the experiences of our past. We do not see the full picture or understand both sides of each story to help us to fully interpret what happened and why. We have a divided approach to history and, therefore, we lack the benefits of a shared history.
In his essay "On History," President John F. Kennedy wrote, “History, after all, is the memory of a nation. Just as memory enables the individual to learn, to choose goals and stick to them, to avoid making the same mistake twice—in short, to grow—so history is the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose. The future arises out of the past, and a country’s history is a statement of the values and hopes which, having forged what has gone before, will now forecast what is to come.” We learn the collective history of our nation because it helps us to understand the timeline of events that lead us to our present and continues to pave the way for our future.
Our classical Lutheran education at MLS does not follow the common educational approach. Instead of social studies, we thoroughly teach history from kindergarten to eighth grade. We begin with our nation’s history in kindergarten, setting the timeline of events of our country from before its beginnings to the present. The students at this age drink up all of the knowledge they learn about historical people and events of our country and are excited and curious as they learn about them. They discover common traits of some of our great leaders and learn about both accomplishments and losses in our nation’s history. They learn about symbols and monuments that were created to honor our nation and its leaders.
In first through fourth grade, our students study history from the beginning of time to the present, establishing a timeline of events, incorporating the geography of places where these events occurred, and gathering information about people and events significant to each of the time periods. We continue to set the foundation of both our nation’s history and the history of the world through these formative years through a gathering of knowledge.
By the time this foundation is set by middle school, our students are ready to take what they have learned to the next level. Understanding the timeline of events and drawing from their knowledge of history, students at the logic level study history through a variety of ways. Through the use of primary sources, they delve into the writings and thoughts of different leaders of a particular period of history. Rather than a textbook, students choose a variety of sources on the different topics being studied and research these events, eventually writing about them.
As our students continue to study history and discover our rich past, they are better able to understand the workings of their world and make connections between current events and events of our past. The study of history helps to preserve our nation’s memory and provide an account of our past, an understanding of our present, and a direction for our future.
*This blog is inspired by “A Nation with No Memory Has No Future” by Joseph Pearce, The Imaginative Conservative, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/01/nation-with-no-memory-has-no-future-joseph-pearce.html, and “On History” by President John F. Kennedy, American Heritage, https://www.americanheritage.com/history.
A good education is one that leaves its student grateful. How many times can you remember having a teacher that brought you to feel nothing other than gratefulness for what you had learned?
I imagine that in the perfect world, every school would consist of only teachers that brought students to be this way. But a good school is a place with more than just a few good teachers. I think that a good school is one that strives to ask and answer, “how do we work systematically to create grateful students?”
I think about teaching for gratefulness from the perspective of teaching History. How would a good school teach History systematically (from kindergarten to high school) so that it leaves its students feeling grateful by the end?
It seems to me as though the system must work in a progressive fashion.
I think the progression goes something like this. There is no one on this earth more prone to wonder than young children. For this reason, young children are most well-equipped to wonder at the wisdom of people like king Solomon and Odysseus, the courage of people like Regulus and George Washington, and the faith of people like Abraham and Perpetua. Despite this natural advantage of young children, many schools today seem to replace rich stories such as these—in the name of practicality—with the immediate and the tangible, with questions like what is a mailman and how is my family different than a family in Asia. If you don’t believe me, go look at a social studies book.
After this initial phase of telling rich stories of the past, it would seem fitting to give students a sense of order for these stories. This would enable them to place the stories in the context of the great and glorious civilizations that rose and fell before the one we live in today. I work to accomplish this mostly in middle school, through a four-year cycle that goes from ancient history to the 20th Century. Students in middle school are ready to begin grappling with the larger picture. Yet the story of western civilization has been replaced by many today with world history and stories of great western oppression—how land was stolen from natives, how masses of people were enslaved by the colonists, how women overcame subjection and earned the right to vote, and how we have all become much better than we ever were through the civil rights movement. While many people who came before us seemed grateful to observe that we stand on the shoulders of giants, this switcheroo in curriculum has been most efficient at bringing us to resent those very shoulders.
Once students have seen the big picture, it becomes fitting—if our goal is to foster gratefulness—to bring students to appreciate the actual words and thoughts of the people who were heroes and villains inside the stories and civilizations they learned about in their youth. Primary sources. This period of study—call it early high school—includes a richer and more challenging body of texts. But it is Pericles' Funeral Oration that comes brings us closer to the experience that was the Peloponnesian War; it is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that brings us closer to the experience that was the American Revolution. After the middle years, students reach a point where they are able to read and understand texts and ideas that are deeper and more complex than the secondary sources they learned from in grade school.
Despite this human development, many places forgo this opportune time to study primary sources with courses like (I know of at least one in our area) “Defining Moments in Political History.” In this, students are tasked with acquiring a more in-depth “philosophical” look at systemic oppression. The end of this is, of course, to become "woke"—to see one’s self as not only better than those in the past but also those in the present who fail to see what one has learned to see. On the other end of the spectrum, there are AP classes that are offered to teach the history 500 years in 2 hours, in order to make students feel like have mastered complicated subjects well enough to skip them in college.
Finally, I have come to believe that a good school goes even one step further than teaching primary sources. It is not enough to let students expect that as English-speaking Americans, everyone and everything must make itself digestible to them. Greek, Latin, German, French… any language that is useful for digging into many of the primary sources that were read at an earlier stage of education. It is an act of humility and respect to take the time to learn the language of another, in order to understand a person in his language. How cool is it to think that you can have the very same thought in the very same language cross your mind as the thought that crossed the mind of an ancient Greek or an ancient Roman 2000 years ago—not to mention the vocabulary that these languages build us up to understand. I cannot put into words how grateful I am that I have a job where I get to read real Latin literature with my 8th graders, where we get to laugh at Roman jokes in the language of the Romans. While all students can grow to to appreciate the past at this level, this is about the time in education when—for many—the main focus becomes getting a job and blaming the educational institutions that one came from as places that taught them nothing practical.