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Getting Practical: How To Teach Virtue When You Teach History

A curious number of students at classical schools believe that history is “names and dates,” and this sad fact will be obvious to any teacher who has tried to teach history without using an 800-page McGraw-Hill textbook. Having taken a few standardized tests, classical students know that “the plain of Shinar” and “The Dutch West India Company” are the answers to “history questions,” and thus they get nervous when information about terms like these is not referenced during history class. When most students think of history, they think of a survey course, not a deep dive.

The difficulty many classical educators face, at least so far as History class is concerned, is that there is no history class per se. Many classical schools don’t have history classes, just Humanities classes, and each year of high school Humanities covers a certain period of time. Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and American seem rather standard lines of division in classical schools. The books in the Medieval Humanities year tend to be works of classic literature— Dante, Boethius, St. Augustine, The Song of Roland— which opens up the vexing question of what exactly “teaching History” means. Does a student not get a little Medieval History when reading Dante? Is there not some American history glossed in The Scarlet Letter? If history is something other than The Scarlet Letter, what exactly is it?

The point of teaching history must be the cultivation of virtue in students. If history class is nothing more than a chronology of wars and peace treaties, the class is not worth taking. If history class is nothing more than a periodic table of names and dates, it will be summarily forgotten, just like everyone I took chemistry with has summarily forgotten the symbol and atomic number for Neon. How should history be taught, then?

Heroes and Villains. A History class must have heroes and villains. There is a certain kind of historian who is never content to make such judgments, and any attempt on the part of the students to brand this fellow a “scoundrel” and that fellow a “lionheart” is met with the teacher’s chastisement, “It’s not that simple.” More information always stands to change our judgements, for human judgments cannot help being made with an incomplete set of facts. I have sometimes illustrated this point to my students in the following set of questions.

GIBBS: There’s a man named Todd. He is married and has two kids. Knowing only that, do you like him or not?

STUDENTS: Like him a little.

GIBBS: He hit his wife. Do you like him more or less than you did a second ago?


GIBBS: He hit his wife with his elbow when he turned around too quickly in their kitchen, which is quite small. Do you like him more or less than you did a second ago?

STUDENTS: Oh! Well, then, we like him more than a second ago.

GIBBS: But he turned around too fast on purpose. He knew it would look like an accident. Do you like him more or less than you did a second ago?

STUDENTS: Less! Much less! Who would do such a thing?

Of course, I could go on for hours, feeding them little facts and bits of information, then polling them on changes in their impression of Todd, and in the end, I could turn them all into history-gnostics who don’t believe it is possible for anyone to know who was a villain and who was a hero. While such an explicit attack against the souls of my students would be obviously impious and sinful, there are a great many history teachers who— in their refusal to declare some historical figures righteous— are essentially forming their students to be relativists.

At the end of the day, though, we must decide that a certain man is good enough to marry, that a certain sinner was actually a saint, that a certain teenage girl is not responsible enough to babysit little children. The fact that a man is dead or fictitious by no means relieves of us the need to make some sort of judgment of him. If we cannot judge a certain historical figure good or bad, what is the point of knowing more facts about him?

The wager of the good novelist is like the wager of a good historian, namely, that while more could be known of a certain fellow, enough has been said to judge him one way or another. A good historian knows he can stop when he has said enough. It is unfair to claim Mr. Darcy might have been a violent drunk, but that Jane Austen simply left those portions out of her story. Similarly, if I said, “Charlemagne was a good man and Oliver Cromwell was a villain,” and someone disagreed with me, I would think that person within their rights. But were someone to say, “It’s not that simple,” I would think that person rather dangerous behind a lectern. The history teacher will not train the affections of his students unless he trains their affections on certain people. Facts do not train affections. Subjective judgments do. No one loves method. If the history teacher does not tell his students who they should imitate, they will simply go back to imitating Drake and Taylor Swift. History must be filled with heroes, even if those heroes are nameless farmers whose lives were more real than our own.

A Good Bridge. While it is not necessary, most humanities teachers organize their books chronologically, and thus the City of God is the first book in the Medieval Humanities program and the Divine Comedy is the last, and there are three or four books covered in between. Not every classical text needs a big set-up and lengthy introduction (I offer no preliminary lectures or context when teaching The Consolation of Philosophy), but some do, and thus in the time between books, I would recommend covering an anthology of historical writing. I would not recommend cobbling together a lecture from Wikipedia articles and a few primary sources— though that was exactly what I did for the first two years I was a teacher and it was nerve-racking.

Most humanities teachers are far better educated in classic literature than history, even when the class is supposed to incorporate both. What is more, most humanities teachers are simply not strong enough lecturers to hold a class’s attention for an entire period, which means that “history day” tends to be a boring, somewhat bumbling attempt to do names and dates for sixty minutes. The teacher occasionally punctuates a catalog of facts with the text of the Peace of Augsburg or George Washington’s Farewell Address, but the presence of Washington’s Farewell Address, which is old, does not make a history class “classical.” A classical education is about the cultivation of virtue, and old things are simply the most reliable access we have to instruction in virtue, however, the texts of a few old peace treaties and declarations of war are not talismans that keep a history class from becoming a banal catalog of facts.

As a bridge between classic texts— or Anno Domini books, at least—I would recommend The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, edited by John McManners. Each of the essays in this collection are between thirty and forty pages long and deal with manageably small passages of history. Unlike some McGraw-Hill monstrosity, each essay is written by someone who is a recognized authority in his field. R.A. Markus wrote Oxford’s essay on Late Antiquity, Kallistos Ware wrote the chapter entitled “Eastern Christendom.” All the essayists write with zeal and conviction, which means the book is useful for reproof, rebuke, and instruction in righteousness, not just “names and dates.” What is more, the teacher can remark on “the claims Markus is making here,” as opposed to the nameless-faceless entities who assemble most textbooks. The teacher can thus cover historical epochs with the same “read and discuss” model with which any classic text is taught and spare his students from interminable lectures.

Catechism. Finally, I recommend teachers include brief timelines in the catechisms with which they begin class. The timeline should include references to the heroes and villains who will appear throughout the year, not merely a list of important events. If, say, the Medieval Humanities teacher has little interest in talking of Charlemagne, he should not feel compelled to include the coronation of Charlemagne (Christmas Day, 800 AD) on his catechism timeline simply because other historians think it important. The timeline should provide the factual, chronological backbone upon which his subjective judgments about historical heroes and villains are made.

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