06 November 2009
MACSA conference paper
Yesterday I presented a paper at the Mid Atlantic Christian Schools Association. What follows is a shortened version of that presentation.
“Restoring the Backwards Glance:
Unifying Literature and History in the Curriculum and Classroom”
Very few language arts teachers today present courses from an historical perspective. Relatively few schools unify their entire curriculum according to a chronological schematic (if you want to see how many, go to the website of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools). Outside the Classical Education subculture, why should you even consider following this totalizing theory? I would like to offer several compelling reasons to contemplate restructuring your course syllabi, department curriculum, or school-wide vision around an historical perspective—without necessarily going totally Classical.
Why should you consider teaching history, literature, and maybe all of the other subjects in a chronological unity? Let us take a look at the failure of contemporary education, which is due in part to a departure from this ancient and medieval method. Dorothy Sayers asked: “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things?” I am. She goes on to say about “educated” adults: “They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” And, commenting upon ideas for change that sound frighteningly relevant today: “we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.” I have observed this firsthand in many educational institutions of various kinds and at various levels. We teachers fling dissociated bits of information at our students, then crumble in despair when they cannot remember anything and simply do not know how to think. They have no reasoning power; they have no critical thinking skills. Above all, they have no concept of the trajectory of history and how its development is relevant to them.
I often assign a timeline as homework in my Language Arts classes. Students are asked to create a chronological presentation of the works of literature they have studied. This is a good assignment, because it appeals to learners of various sorts. Artistic types can make this into a beautiful work of art, drawing freehand, decorating, using colors and cut-outs, etc. More technologically inclined can create it on a computer. It can be oriented horizontally, vertically, or in any other way the student can imagine. They do this at home, with all of their notes and texts (not to mention the internet) available as resources. This past year, my high school sophomores turned in their timelines—and at least 6 students had put the New Testament on the “B.C.” section of the timeline. Let me repeat that: half a dozen 10th graders (who have, presumably, had 10 years of something that goes by the name of education), most, if not all, who had spent some years in Christian schools, thought that the New Testament was written before Christ (if they thought at all). And you thought the Old Testament prophecies were miraculous!
C. S. Lewis said, in a sermon in 1939, that “…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present… A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” This is true; the local mind does not know that the current fads of philosophy and worldview have been tried (and failed) before under different names, and so becomes petrified—both terrified and immobilized—by their apparently irresistible attack upon morality, Christianity, and social stability. However, this only supports the study of history itself and not the other subjects in conjunction with it. It is the “piecemeal” nature of postmodern education, as much as its a-historicity, that I denigrate.
Dorothy Sayers, again, laments the fact that grammar, public speaking, etc. (all the ordinary school classes) “are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all ‘subjects’ stand in a subordinate relation.” It is “one coherent scheme” that I am advocating today. When students are taught math, science, and literature as unrelated, a-historical pieces of discrete material, their minds do not develop the ability to retain information, to perceive connections, or to think critically. Presenting all the standard subjects as a unified whole, year after year, succeeds in teaching “the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning” (Sayers) so that s/he can then apply those mental tools to all educational and everyday informational tasks. Sayers concludes by emphasizing that she is “concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world…. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” I have observed, firsthand, education in vain; and I have also observed education that succeeds.
One of the major differences between unsuccessful programs and successful ones (besides the absolutely necessity of uncompromising high academic standards) is historical unity. The students whom I and other teachers have trained in historical unity are able to think for themselves by around age 12. Those who have suffered through the fling-random-information-at-you method never learn how to learn, nor how to think. They are the ones who cannot write a thesis statement (nor a cover letter), do not know the difference between the Renaissance and the Reformation (nor between exegesis and personal interpretation), and cannot point out the logical fallacies in a work of philosophy (or a letter to the editor, or a headline, or an advertisement).
Now, here are five specific reasons that literature and history (and, ideally, all the other subjects) ought to be taught together in a chronological unity. First, historical events actually happened in a certain order, so they make the most sense when studied in that order. History classes ought to be taught so that students go through the historical time periods in order as they mature. The cycle can be repeated so that older students can study earlier periods in depth, and/or so that different cultures can be investigated. But studying, say, PA history in isolation from American, European, and world history is a vain endeavor. How can we expect students to grasp the larger economic morality of, for example, slavery and its impact on Pennsylvania’s economy and social history unless we study Quakerism and the worldwide slave trade? A lesson about the trade triangle or about William Penn, taught in isolation from worldwide movements and concerns, will not prepare a young mind to interact with contemporary socio-political debates with multiple facets, such as the class-conscious and economic-driven aspects of our abortion genocide or of the contemporary scourge of human trafficking.
Second, works of literature were written in historical context, and come to life when studied in conjunction with that context. Here is an example that I find exciting. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a fairly standard high school text. Some conservative families are concerned about the witches. If we simply toss out all texts that deal with topics of concern, obviously we would be left with little to read—and the Bible would have to be high up on the list of combustible books. But an understanding of American and English attitudes towards witchcraft, a study of witch hunts, and (especially) an examination of Shakespeare’s motivations can be extremely enlightening. King James (the same one who commissioned the “Authorized” version of the Bible) ruled England at the time that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (c. 1611). In fact, he was the patron of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, The King’s Men. King James was fascinated by witchcraft. He had served as a judge at witchcraft trials and had written a book on the subject. Shakespeare was naturally eager to please his monarch, and so he included this cultural hot topic in his play. Yet a close interrogation of the text can reveal places in which Shakespeare destabilizes the idea of omnipotent witches (did they actually predict the future, or did Macbeth cause the prophecies to come true by his actions?) and shows the dangers of consulting with demonic powers. Macbeth, after all, ends up crazy, despairing, then dead (sorry for the spoiler)! This can be taken as a very relevant warning against dabbling in the occult. Studying this play in this way can disclose the historical reasons for topical choices, present a valid spiritual perspective on troubling material, and encourage critical thinking about contemporary consequences of older texts.
Third, scientific and mathematical discoveries were made contemporaneously with—and even frequently caused by—socio-political movements. Science, then, can be unified with literature and history. For example: why would the Roman Catholic Church condemn Galileo as a heretic for claiming that the earth goes around the sun? Well, a reading of selections from Dante’s Paradiso is a more effective explanation than the most detailed doctrinal lecture. In this third volume of his Divine Comedy, Dante embodies Christian theology in the heliocentric universe so perfectly, thoroughly, and beautifully that it is hard to see how Christianity could survive the Copernican Revolution! The artistic symmetry of Dante’s universe is a more persuasive orthodoxy than all of Kepler’s and Copernicus’s complicated epicycles—and will translate the historical reality into teenager’s terms more readily.
Fourth, studying all subjects chronologically fits in neatly with the psychological, academic, and moral development of students: the ancient (or classical) time period was a time of symmetry and balance that is reassuring to freshmen or middle school students, whereas the modern period is fraught with disaster, despair, and nihilism that should only be approached by students who have developed spiritual maturity. Alternatively, repetitions of the historical cycle allow for greater depth in each repetition as the student’s mind develops. Susan Wise Bauer, today’s leading proponent of Classical education in the homeschool, suggests “that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times. The child studies these four time periods at varying levels — simple for grades 1-4, more difficult in grades 5-8 (when the student begins to read original sources), and taking an even more complex approach in grades 9-12, when the student works through these time periods using original sources (from Homer to Hitler) and also has the opportunity to pursue a particular interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth” (“What is Classical Education?”). There are many ways others of structuring curriculum to incorporate historical development with psychological development, too.
Fifth, this organization of all academic material promotes both memorization and understanding. During the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance periods, or during the first cycle (depending on which paradigm you choose), students are drilled in the memorization of facts. This is the “Grammar” or “Poll Parrot” phase of the Classical model (Bauer, Sayers). During the Neoclassical and Romantic eras, or the second repetition, students learn to question given facts and discover the reasons behind them and connections between then. This is the “Logic,” “Dialectic,” or “Pert” phase. Finally, during the Modern and Postmodern periods or the third repetition, students learn to express themselves through whatever fields fit their talents. This is the “Rhetoric” or “Poetic” phase.
Finally, Susan Wise Bauer, again, points out that an education grounded in history and the great books teaches children to be critical thinkers because, among other reasons, it presents the honest complexity of historical and contemporary reality. She writes: “Religious educators are often too afraid to admit that devout believers did bad things; secular educators are often all too happy to point out that the love of God is the root of all evil. My public school would teach my 9-year-old that Columbus was a self-aggrandizing representative of an expansionist empire determined to acquire more money and power while wiping out native cultures. On the other side, the mother of a Christian-school student told me with wide-eyed exhilaration of her son's American history lesson the week before: ‘Columbus went to the New World to share the gospel with the Indians! I never knew that! Doesn’t that change the way you think about this country? We were founded on the declaration of the gospel! Isn't God good?’ So was Columbus a patriarchal aggressor or a humble servant of God? He was both” (“Dodging the Home School Stereotype”). And by putting Columbus, or anybody else, into his context and studying the arts, sciences, mathematics, religion, and literature or his time, your students will understand that, remember it, and apply it to the Crusaders, Imperialists, and Saints of today.
Well, now I hope that you are inspired to rush home and transform your entire school according to the Classical model of education! Maybe you can do that—so much the better—maybe you cannot. Either way, now I will present several practical methods for incorporating the historical perspective into a classroom—methods that fit traditional and non-traditional schools and that can be easily worked into any state requirements or test preparations you may have. So this section is first addressed to English and History teachers, but then I’ll get a little more universal and give other teachers some ideas, too. These techniques include the adaptation of a compulsory textbook, the use of primary sources, details for teaching a literary text to all ages, and the integration of math and science.
So, you probably have a required textbook you must use, maybe a state-issued one, and I’m guessing that unless it’s a senior Survey of Brit Lit, it’s not chronological. I faced this problem one year. I was hired at a new school, tossed the textbooks, and told to have fun. So fun is exactly what I proceeded to have! The 10th grade textbook was awful. I can’t imagine a cheesier organization or more dumbed-down selection of texts. Some teacher had gone and ordered books behind the department chair’s back, and the school was tied by budget considerations to that book for five years. The units in the book were based on “Themes”—and you can’t imagine a more tacky set of themes about identity, courage, etc. After some brainstorming, I decided to construct my own units, using most of the reading selections in the book, around historical time periods. I created power point presentations to introduce each time period, complete with works of art, famous people, and historical events. That way the students had an obvious visual to mark the end of one unit and the beginning of another (reinforced by a test). I added supplemental readings, especially for the Ancient and Apostolic eras (from the Old and New Testaments) and the Seventeenth Century (the book was predictably weak on the Metaphysical Poets). It was a big success! I turned out a class of sophomores who had a good idea of historical developments, literary styles, etc. They were well prepared to fit 11th grade American Lit and 12th grade Brit Lit into that schematic. So you can take a required textbook and simply rearrange the order in which you assign the readings. You can do this with a history, art, or drama book as well as English.
Next, I recommend using some kind of a reference tool for every historical event or literary work your students approach. In my case, this is what I call a “Ten Facts” sheet. It is essentially a list of ten reading objectives for each work of literature. This is a great tool when you’re reading multiple poems in a week; you simply require the students to fill out two of these, and they get to choose which two poems they’d like to do. Then we go over as many of them as we can in class. They’re really handy for test review, too. And when the students are ready, they include a “Historical Context” category. That way they can start to make connections. Why is Yeats’ poem called “Easter 1916”? What was going on in Ireland on Easter of 1916 and how did it affect him and how did he feel about it? How does he work it into the poem? And so on. You could make a sheet like this for every historical event you study and include a “Literary Context” category in addition to the basic What, When, Where, Why, Who questions. You could make one for each scientific discovery or invention—but more on that in a minute.
Next, if your education is going to be good quality at all, you absolutely need to introduce students to primary sources as early as possible. What is a primary source? In literature, the definition is simple: Any piece of literature written in the time period. It is a source for the literary styles, forms, genres, and concerns of the day. This is essential for the development of taste, reading comprehension, and prose style. Studying historically is helpful here, too, because Greek and Roman classics in translation are exciting and more accessible than, say, John Donne or Jacques Derrida. In history, I do not believe there is any better way to study historical events than through first hand accounts. History teachers have to be more particular in choosing their primary sources than English teachers do. For you, you need to ask about any given document, “Is this a primary source for the event in question?” In history, a primary source is identified by its proximity to the event on which it is reporting. Letters, journal entries, eyewitness accounts, trial and speech transcripts, and other first-hand documents provide excellent evidence about historical events and their contemporary reception.
And now let me bring in the math and science teachers. You don’t have much flexibility: you just have to teach algebra I, algebra II, geometry, calculus, trig, physical science, biology, chemistry physics…. You can’t exactly say, OK, the 2010-2011 academic year is the Ancient Time Period and then spend all your time measuring pyramids and doing dissections on Egyptian mummies. You’ve got those labs to get through, after all. Well, sure. But math and science developed historically, just like everything else, and there are certain fields of study that fit with certain time periods. The more elementary courses should correspond to the year the school is doing the earlier periods, the more advanced courses with the modern and postmodern phase. But let me just tell you a simpler way to do it, since that way requires an enormous faculty to cover all eras for all grades at once. Once a week, have a student give on oral presentation on a mathematician, scientist, discovery, or invention from the time period the whole school is in. Have them sign up on a list at the beginning of the year and proceed through the presentations chronologically. Whenever relevant, give a mini-lecture on the history of math or history of science that led to whatever concepts or experiments you are presenting. Provide a supplemental reading list of biographies and books about discoveries from the time period. In other words, open the door to your classroom. Let the students listen for a few minutes to what was going on in the rest of the world when, say, Euclid drew up his geometry. He didn’t do it in a vacuum; why should they?
I’ve seen some amazing projects develop out of historical math and science. One young lady did an impressive study of cartography: the making of maps. Her final presentation was a synthesis of historical research, mathematical calculation, geography, written explanations, and art. Another student studied and solved the Euler's Konigsberg's Bridges Problem, then created a 3-D topographical map, written discussion, and equations.
OK, but maybe this is still too overwhelming. You have no time; you have to grade papers and go to faculty meetings. That’s fine: just do me a favor—do yourself and your students a favor. Try one interdisciplinary, historical lesson plan. Here are some ideas.
1. Unite art, science, and history or art, math, and history around drawings by M.C. Escher and lessons on symmetry, tessellations, polyhedra, spacial relations, relativity, strange loops, or Gödel’s theorem.
2. Unite history, art, and literature with a lesson on the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, Goya’s painting “The Third of May,” a quick look at Christological/hagiographical iconography in war paintings, and a discussion of mythic archetypes in literature. To put that in more simple language: talk about heroes. Contrast Napoleon and the martyr in Goya’s painting and David's famous depiction of Napoleon, and both to Christ.
3. Unite government, literature, and dance. In a government class, bring the concepts of monarchy and democracy to life. Contrast the poetry of Milton with that of Walt Whitman, then teach students how to dance one of the courtly dances in Playford’s English Dancing Master, then the very egalitarian Virginia Reel!
4.Unite history and comparative lit. When you’re teaching the French Revolution, read selections from Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Michelet’s History of the French Revolution, and parallel passages in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. For younger students, try The Scarlet Pimpernel. For advanced students, add some Edmund Burke. Talk about the French perspective, the English perspective, and a fictional English retrospective.
5. Let me give one more, textually specific, way that reading Macbeth historically can bring it to life. This is cool because it could be used in a history class, a literature class, a drama class, or an art class —or some ideal mixture of all four. In Act IV, scene i, Macbeth has gone to consult the witches after killing Banquo. He sees several prophetic visions, the last of which is “A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand.” These are, of course, meant to be Banquo’s crowned descendants. The mirror, says Macbeth, “shows me many more.” Now, picture the scene when Macbeth was performed in 1611. King James himself sat in a special box seat while his own dramatic troupe performed this new play in his honor. When this scene came, the last actor in line passed in front of King James, holding the mirror. What did the king see in the mirror? Himself, of course. Why does this matter? Because King James claimed to be descended from Banquo—so Shakespeare wrote this historical compliment into the play. Once you explain this to students, that scene comes to life, as do some aspects of Elizabethan theatre, politics, etc. Then you can launch into a full-scale lecture on the problems of succession after Elizabeth, the religious conflicts in England from the Reformation until the Glorious Revolution, the enactment of legend as part of political campaigning (cf. the Kennedys and American Camelot, or the recent “discovery” of Michelle Obama’s slave ancestry). Or, even better, you can send the students off to do research projects on these topics.