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How to Approach History As a Pursuit of Wisdom

“Every writer of history proposes to himself an original method” – G.W.F. Hegel

What exactly am I doing when I do history?

If I ask the question based on the meaning of the word, I make an interesting discovery: history is from the Greek word for inquiry. History, therefore, as originally imagined, was an inquiry.

An inquiry into what? And how is it to be conducted?

Ever since at least Hegel, the German philosopher of the early 19th century, history has been an inquiry into the forces that brought the modern world into being. In a way, this is typical enlightenment thought. It asks, “How can I turn this inquiry into a scientific quest? Ah, of course! Science is about identifying forces. I will identify those forces and thus make history a scientific study.”

And yet, for Hegel, history was almost a mystical study. He says of history,

“I have traversed the entire field. It is only an inference from the history of the world, that its development has been a rational process; that the history in question has constituted the rational necessary course of the world-spirit.”

For Hegel, then, history is a rational and scientific study, but his conception of reason enters what any thinker today would call mystical.

The English or American philosopher of history would be a little embarrassed by that move, so he would reduce the forces of history to something more mechanical or material. That way it can fit into his positivistic framework of reality.

But what the more mystical Hegel shares with the more materialist Karl Marx is a quest for the forces that enable us to reduce history to a science.

On the opposite extreme are those historians like Plutarch and Thucydides who saw history as primarily the record of people who acted out their own will and thus influenced history by their virtues or their vices.

A thinker like Christopher Dawson could be said to bring the two streams together in his works on what he called “the dynamics of world history.”

History is driven by a complex of deep human needs:

  • we want to know where we came from
  • we need to determine how much of a difference we can make, or put another way, whether we are agents or patients
  • we want to know whether there is a benign force behind the world and whether it is going anywhere
  • we need the wisdom to deal with our own circumstances and we know that the only way to get that wisdom is to find analogies in earlier events
  • we like a good story

Consequently, everybody loves history, just so long as it is not reduced to a school study oriented toward something nobody actually needs: a test score.

What then am I doing when I do history?

I am inquiring into what brought the world I live into its present state and I am asking what I should be expected to do in this given world.

The former is the science of history. The latter is the ethics of history.

Here is what this implies for teaching history:

  • It is unprofitable to expect undergraduate or younger students to grasp the forces that drive history, though it might have some limited value for them to know what speculations people have made about those forces
  • It is impatient to use historical narratives to drive a particular ethical code, as though the cause and effect nature of human activity is not overruled by both grace proper and the grace of the rain that falls on the unjust. In other words, don’t predetermine a moral code and then reduce history to a morality play. History transcends moral cause and effect.
  • Children and young adults can and should learn historical narratives about people and communities who were confronted with great challenges, made decisions, and acted on them. Some rose above circumstances and others were crushed by them. Some maintained their honor and some were disgraced. We can learn from them all, the more particular and specific and authentic the better. History should be a practical narrative first.
  • Any community consists of its memories. It should preserve those memories in stories and images, but it should understand that those stories must be simplified for the young, challenged by the adolescent, and refined by the adult. The duty of the school is to oversee the stories it sustains, never for simple preservation but always for the pursuit of truth and wisdom.
  • The science of history is a graduate study at the earliest, but only the old can speak with genuine authority over historical matters. It takes a long time for the wine of history to ferment and too much too soon has, at best, not fully opened. It needs to breathe and its drinkers need to attain moderation.
  • In short, distinguish the science of history from ethics and teach them accordingly.

In my understanding of the classical curriculum that would look something like this:

  • Young children learn a wide range of stories about heroic people, both good and bad, noble and ignoble.
  • They would also learn about historical epochs or timelines, so they can eventually locate people in time.
  • Middle school children should examine situations and dilemmas and argue about the most appropriate things to do. But they should not debate current events.
  • High school students should be deeply involved in historical research, focusing on interpreting texts and artifacts in light of historical issues. The emphasis, however, should not be on premature historical insight (ie., hasty overgeneralizations called opinions) but on the humbling task of serious research.
  • These stages will occur within a cosmology and an ethical code, which it is the duty of the teacher/school/home to make clear to the child. The delusion of neutrality will help no one.
  • The ethics of history can’t be mastered until biology is well understood and physics and chemistry are adequately understood because
    • the living humans who make up history have bodies
    • the thought patterns of physics are somewhat transferable to historical events
    • the thought patterns of chemistry are even more transferable to historical events
    • natural science is more foundational than ethical thought, not in regard to daily conduct but in regard to being able to speak with authority
  • The science of history is ultimately an ethical and political study merged with philosophy, so nobody should try to master or explain it until they have mastered all seven liberal arts, the natural sciences, and the humane sciences of ethics and politics.
  • To simplify that last point, history should be treated as a political study, which it is, but not in the modern, cynical approach to politics.
  • In summary:
    • Cast aside the burden of teaching high-level history to children who can’t learn it, especially given that very few teachers have an adequate background in the foundational studies that make history comprehensible.
    • Instead, hand on your tradition with modesty and with deference to those whose authority you follow (which is a good thing and necessary for a community to exist)

And by way of conclusion, if you are offended by my refusal to approach history in a pseudo-individualistic, self-valorizing manner (in other words, if you are offended that I contend that you should admit you are part of a tradition and teach accordingly), I would only encourage you to look around and within and see how desperate people are for community and how exhausted they are with the self-destructive autonomy and false individualism with which we have burdened them.

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