GUEST POST BY MATT BIANCO
Tuesday was a magical day for me in my Classical Conversations community. I tutor a group of eight twelfth graders (sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds). We study all of the subjects together on our community day: Same teacher, same eight kids, all subjects ranging from mathematics and science to literature, philosophy, and history…so we make lots of time for subject integration and discussion.
This past Tuesday, we were discussing the reading from our world history text, The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin. One of the young men was describing Prince Henry the Navigator, and asked whether Prince Henry was a leader. Here is where the magic happened.
Note what happened: It was not enough to just discuss the facts of history. Nobody wanted to sit around and make statements of fact about Henry’s place of birth, date of birth, hometown, and feats. This was not because that is boring; it was because that is not what the history asks of them.
David Hicks asserts that the nonnormative presentation of information “does not stir a response in the reader; it fails to judge issues that cry out for judgment; it dresses up colorful moral dilemmas in drab amoral prose (so as not to forfeit a claim to objectivity).”
The study of history does not cry out for its students to discuss facts; it cries out for judgment. On that Tuesday, the souls of my students heard that cry and responded accordingly. What followed was magical:
- First, they tried to define what it means to be a leader. They got stuck when they could not agree about whether or not a leader had to be leading toward that which is good, or simply towards that which he perceives as good. For example, they were asking the following kinds of questions: “Was Reagan a leader because he was trying to lead the United States toward what is truly good? Was Hitler a leader because he was trying to lead his country toward what he believed was good from his perspective?”
- Second, the students made a list of people whom they considered leaders and put them into the two categories: (a) those who lead toward that which is truly good, and (b) those who lead toward what they perceive to be good. Then they compared the leaders within each list to discover what the leaders had in common and where they differed from one another.
- Finally, my students tried to decide if the “lead toward the truly good” characteristic was what was prescriptive of a leader or whether it simply meant that person was someone who inspired others. In turn, they also tried to decipher whether or not the “lead toward the perceived good” characteristic was prescriptive of a leader or whether it just indicated that the leader was an effective manipulator of others. What the students essentially wanted to determine was whether a leader is someone who gets people to do things regardless of the moral value of those things, or whether a real leader is someone who inspires people to do what is truly good—they were trying to distinguish between inspiring (“lead toward the good”) leaders and manipulative (“lead toward a perceived good”) leaders.
The students concluded the conversation having come to some answers, but also having generated more questions. What they learned was that there is value in the question itself. Again, David Hicks writes:
A college president I know keeps three books on his night table: the Bible, the Iliad, and Louis Auchincloss’ 1964 novel The Rector of Justin. When I once asked him, “Why the novel?,” he responded, “Because it raises questions I cannot answer or ignore, the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.”
That day my students learned that history—among other things—cries out to be judged. They experienced what it means to learn from prescriptive rather than descriptive contexts. They discovered that they learn more prescriptively, from norms, than they do descriptively. They discerned the purpose—the end goal—of wrestling over Ideal Types.
For that reason, I had this to say to them at the end of the discussion:
I want you all to recognize what you have accomplished here today. We live in a society, a culture that has us convinced that the end of education is to know the right facts. That is not the end of education. What you just discussed, that is the end of education. You are called to pass judgment on history and to learn from it. Knowing the right facts is not the end; it is the means. It is the means to be able to judge history, to wrestle with definitions for leadership, good, true, beautiful, right, and wrong; it is a means to knowing God and to making Him known.
It was a magical day, a day in which my students taught me how to study history. They taught me how to learn from types. Their souls cried out for judgment, and they therefore used the mimetic sequence to ask questions that cannot be answered or ignored, but in which there is wisdom apart from the answers.