Why Study History? Part II

Cognosce Teipsum — Know Thyself

By Christopher Zehnder
General Editor, Catholic Textbook Project

Imagine waking one morning to discover that, except for the previous five years, you had forgotten all your past. You can recall your name; you know the identities of your spouse and children. You can identify your place of employment and possess the knowledge of your trade or profession. But you have forgotten who your parents are, where you came from, the experiences of your childhood and youth, how you met your spouse, and even how you learned your profession.
Historia, by Nikolaos Gysis
            Anyone finding himself in such a position would suffer from more than a mere amnesia of events; he would, to a great extent, have forgotten his very self. Our self understanding draws not only from a consciousness of who and what we are in the immediate here and now; it depends on our memory of our past. We know the world around us through our experience of it, and we know ourselves through our experience of ourselves, from the earliest events we can remember to the present. Why do we act the way we do? Why are our thoughts so formed? What are the sources of our peculiar affections? It is on memory that we must draw to answer such questions. Memory, too, helps us in regulating our personal behavior. To whom should we show honor, and why? What situations should we avoid, and which ought we to exploit for our betterment? Memory is indeed the repository of the knowledge of our very selves. It is the indispensable instrument for the ought regulation of one’s life.
            History is analogous to personal memory; it stands to a people or culture as personal memory stands to the individual. A people with a knowledge of its own history is a people that knows itself. It has often been said that “those who do no know history are doomed to repeat it.” A true enough statement, but it fails to plumb the depths. It is rather, those who know no history are doomed to be ignorant of themselves.
            Nations, like individuals, possess a tendency to self-deception. We think our people invariably just, generous, noble-hearted, gentle, kind, and brave. It is history that disabuses us of such hubris. Through history, a people sees not only when it has acted nobly, but when it has behaved disgracefully. It recognizes, not only its ideals, but how it has measured up to those ideals. History thus serves as a kind of examination of conscience and indispensable aid to corporate amendment and reform.
            History, too, helps individuals understand themselves. Each of us is born into a culture, and every culture is the fruit of an historical process. It is the “personality” of a people, long-developed over centuries. In turn, culture influences and molds the personalities of those who belong to it. Culture is second nature. One’s habits, even the way each of us thinks about and considers the world around him, are born of culture. To be ignorant of history, then, is not only to fail in one’s understanding of his culture and people; it is to fail in the very understanding of himself.
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Why Use A Textbook?

Currently among some educators is an aversion to textbooks. Some of the antipathy is justified Many textbooks are dry and, poorly written, giving the impression that they were composed by an uninspired committee trying to come to a routine consensus.
Another vein of textbook aversion finds its source in the the educational philosophy that contends that contact with great minds and ideas should be undiluted, that students should go straight to the source instead of reading what others have thought on a subject. In place of the shunned textbook, primary sources or living books are preferred. Thus, if a student were studying American government, he would not read a civics book, but only the original founding documents of the country. If he were studying the Roman Empire, he might read Caesar’s letters or Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels. While there are many good elements to this approach, is it sufficient and is it good for every subject?
First, what is a textbook? A textbook is broadly defined as a manual on a particular subject. The material therein is organized according to some kind of system with a goal of imparting a certain level of knowledge on that subject. The writer studies and combs through various sources until he finds the information he thinks is pertinent to his subject and appropriate for his potential readers. When he is satisfied with his research, he writes his own manual on the topic. This saves the reader much time and effort, and if we find the author reliable and honest, we can entrust him with our education on the topic.
A classic, early example of a textbook is St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, written as guide to those studying theology. St. Thomas used many sources – Greek philosophers (preeminently Aristotle), Holy Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers (favoring St. Augustine of Hippo) and Tradition – to compile his defense of Catholic teaching. He wrote his arguments in a repeating pattern: the question, possible answers (called objections) to the question, the correct answer from authority, then the same answer with its reasoned argument, and finally the answers to the objections. The Summa is very dense and is not read for literary enjoyment, but it is essential to the making of good theologians and the Church has proclaimed St. Thomas the premiere theologian because of his work. St. Thomas began the Summa when he was a professor, in essence writing his own textbook for his students. Through his systematization of theology, he made the subject accessible to many more fledgling theologians.
A textbook is a tool – one of the many tools – in education. In the learning relationship between teacher and pupil it can be a good tool if chosen well and used properly. While incorporating other resources, a textbook can be used as a “spine,” providing backbone or structure to the subject. In the study of history, where many people, events, and ideas are converging and dispersing, it is very important to keep everything connected in some way and have an order to follow.  A good history textbook reduces confusion and introduces some order into the student’s mind.
Reading primary sources should always be incorporated into history study. However, the question of what constitutes a primary source or secondary source is not clear cut. Additionally, some ideas which had a great influence on civilization cannot be easily understood by young readers through primary sources. A seventh grader should not be required to slog through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to understand capitalism and communism and their shaping of events and peoples. A good textbook can break difficult ideas down and present them in more easily digestible  and age-appropriate fare.
Historical fiction is also an aid to deepening historical knowledge and appreciation, but relying on it solely has its problems as well. First, there are not “living books” for every important era, event, or person. For instance, there are very few novels written about World War I, and the ones that exist – like All Quiet on the Western Front – are inappropriate for children. There are saints who made great contributions to history, but have not had biographies written about them, sometimes because they have not captured the popular imagination. The Catholic author Louis de Wohl wrote a biography of Pope Pius XII – a man he had met and had impressed him deeply. Arguably, Pope Leo XIII was just as impressive a man and his reign was filled with drama, but de Wohl did not attempt his biography. There are many living books with the Middle Ages as the subject or background; yet given that that time period covers 1500 years, there are proportionally fewer books written about it in comparison to books written on the five-year American Civil War. A good textbook fills in gaps, making for a more comprehensive grasp of the pageant of history.
No matter how close a novel is based on real life, a novel is not history. The author uses history to tell a story, but the story is his primary concern. If he has to change facts a bit to make a good story, he will. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not the historical King Macbeth. Richard Burton’s Becket is a great movie, yet it has its historical inaccuracies and troublesome character interpretations. We, of course, all know people whose historical knowledge has been shaped by Hollywood and whose minds are full of embarrassing errors. No parents would think it sufficient that their child’s knowledge of Lewis and Clark or the Alamo come from Disney. 
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Anniversary of A Catholic Radical

2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City. The following is from the soon-to-be-published (on CD) high school history book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.

Dorothy Day, founder of Catholic Worker
Catholic Anarchists

It is ironic that it took a communist and free-love radical to understand the sense of the Catholic bishops’ 1919 message that “charity is also social virtue.” Dorothy Day, the daughter of a journalist father in Chicago, had from her teen years felt a deep concern for the lot of the poor. She had read such books as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorritt, which had inspired her with a keen sense of the injustice of the world. But it was Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle, which detailed the filth and degradation of the meat-packing industry in her own Chicago, that stirred her to her depths. Walking the streets in working class neighborhoods, she learned to see beauty in the lives of the poor. “From that time on,” she later wrote, “my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”

Read the rest here.
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Why Study History?

By Christopher Zehnder
General Editor, Catholic Textbook Project

I suppose I was an annoying student to my high school teachers. I was wont to ask them what I thought trenchant questions that, to them, must have seemed merely contentious. I recall once asking my algebra teacher why I had to study algebra. He replied that algebra was useful in a number of professions, and he listed them for me. When he had done, I thought I had him. “But I don’t want to be any of those things,” I told him. I recall that, rather than betraying any indication of discomfiture, he looked me straight in the eye, arched one eyebrow, and said: “O.K., fine. But, do you want to pass the test?” I did not find his reply at all intellectually compelling, but I could feel the force of it all the same. I went home and studied my algebra and (I think) I passed the test.
Historia, by Nikolaos Gysis
            I admit, having taught high school myself, that I feel more sympathy for my algebra teacher than I do for my erstwhile self. He dealt with a smart aleck in what he thought the most effective way. And it worked, at least to some extent. (I was not a stellar math student.) At the same time, I conclude that his answer was not as convincing as my question was honest. I was not simply being difficult; I did want to know why. His answer betrayed that he, perhaps, knew no better than I did why any but a narrow category of people seeking to enter certain professions should study algebra.
            It is this and similar experiences that convinced me of the importance of giving a good account, at least to older students, of the why of a subject. Students need to understand why a course of study is more than a mere hurdle they need to clear in order to graduate. Students need to see that what they study has intrinsic worth or, at least, is of import to them as human beings and not simply as potential members of a work force. I am speaking here, of course, not of subjects studied in vocational training but of the academic disciplines (such as mathematics, grammar, literature, music, natural science, theology, and history). For it is the aim of these disciplines (at least as they have been traditionally understood) to form the inner man, not to train the working man.
            It is not my intent to give a justification for each of the academic disciplines. I shall, instead, limit myself to the why of history. Personally, I never needed to know why I needed to study history, for I have always loved history. When I was young, if anyone had asked me why I read so much history, I would have said, “because it is interesting.” However, as many teachers and home schooling parents have experienced, not every student loves history. Some are indifferent to it. Others find it boring and irrelevant. Such students ask, “what importance do all these dead people and past events have to me and the world in which I live?” Indeed, there might even be teachers and parents out there asking the same question.
            Over the next few weeks, I shall write a series of posts giving various reasons why the study of history is important and necessary to a well-rounded academic program. It is my contention that history is not simply interesting but important to the full development of a student as a human person. Moreover, I shall argue that history is not only relevant but central to the formation of a truly Catholic sense of the world in which we live and the part each of us plays in it.
            Please join me in this discussion. 

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