A scholars most precious possession is his time. All that can profitably be known so exceeds our lifetimes that it takes only a few years of serious, eager study to realize that this beloved activity contains the daily temptation to despair.
Yet, the pleasure and the value of coming to understand, of seeing new relations, of gaining new insights, of grasping new patterns, of perceiving reality in a deeper and more precise way, of feeling one’s own powers of reasoning and listening and questing grow stronger, these and many other delights constantly draw the soul back into the realm of ideas to learn more and to explore more.
When I was a child, I learned about the ancient world because my family and my church studied the Bible a lot. I knew a little about Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and, of course, Israel and the Hittites, Philistines, and Caananites.
I also knew something about the modern world after the Renaissance and the Reformation.
But it was not until late in my high school years that I began to get a glimpse of that era we write off as the middle ages. Empires make things so tidy for the historian. Tribal migrations and ceaseless bloody battles with a variety of stable kingdoms and a multitude of outliers make for a messy chaos.
So the period from the 4th to the 15th centuries was always hidden in those fabled mists of history.
Too bad. It’s really quite fascinating, and, to my surprise and to the surprise of most western Europeans and their heirs, there was an Empire that dominated and ordered the Middle Ages. To rub in the surprise, it was the same Roman Empire that dominated the classical world.
But it had a different form and moved in a different direction than the western world moved.
Yet, it seems questionable to me whether we can understand our place in the world if we fail to study the eastern Roman Empire any more than if we fail to study Renaissance Italy, which was reborn directly as a consequence of its contact with the eastern empire.
It was the eastern empire that interacted with and lived on the same streets as the medieval Arabs and their Caliphates. We could use their counsel right about now. As western European Imperialism continues its unwinding, as the lower, materialistic values of the west continue to spread, though without the higher, spiritual and aesthetic values of its past, I become increasingly convinced that our students need to learn more about the eastern empire than that Justinian tried to reunite it with the west in the 6th century.
The primary and secondary years do not offer enough time to allow a child to become deeply versed in any era of history, though they do need to learn how to read history and they need to gain a solid outline for their later historical reflections. So to try to teach them every teacher’s particular passion in history will only frustrate them, unless the focus is on the basic skills of historical research.
But standards for history need to be derived from the goals and commitments of the school and its faculty, not from the text book handed to the teacher so that she can administer its information to the students.
Among those standards are a minimum of knowledge that every graduate needs to know, certain ideas that each student needs to contemplate and understand to a recognized level, and, especially, specific skills that will enable them to conduct their own mature studies of history as they engage in the issues of the day later on in their lives.
Surely the eastern Roman Empire merits a level of knowledge beyond, say, ancient Egypt or the Mesopotamian kingdoms. Surely we are not culturally neutral on this selection.
But let me reiterate: you can’t graduate a historian from a high school. You can graduate a student with enough historical background and intellectual skill to consider the contemplation of history in the years to come.
And oh those skills! Reading at a high level, writing with reserve and inquiry, reasoning with maturity and nuance – gain these and who cares about the standardized tests!
Besides, the scholars most cherished possession is his time. How much I have had to “waste” as an adult because I was not educated well by my schools as a child.