I have had the rather calming thought this morning that maybe the education system has it all wrong. I am not sure that I have enough experience to judge such a thought. I have only been teaching school for 35 years. That has included teaching students in the elementary grades through college classes. I have taught in five schools, a college, and a prison. I have taught subjects ranging from basketball to Shakespeare, and I feel equally inadequate, but enthusiastic about both. I have introduced students to William Faulkner, Jesse Stuart, Herman Dooyeweerd, R. C. Sproul, Louise Cowan, and a host of other great thinkers and writers. But none of that qualifies my assertion.
Here is my expanded thought: I am mainly thinking about the subject of history, which is my specialty. I am largely focused on how history is taught in colleges, although aspects of the same issue arises in high school teaching. History is taught in surveys. Surveys are built around the concept of covering the entire gamut of a history, be it American, World, or Western. High school history classes are surveys. AP courses are surveys. Freshman and sophomore college courses are usually surveys.
Surveys are often dominated by that so often uninviting format, the textbook.
Now I am not an enemy of the traditional textbook. True, many are the work of committees agreeing on content rather than individual authors weilding literary skills. True, they dance to the tune of current trends of political correctness, hence needing constant revisions. True, they blanch the flavor out of events. True, they rarely present anything really provocative in interpretations. True, they exclude and sometimes misrepresent some of the issues, people, and events that I consider most critical in history. (Just try to find an American history textbook that even mentions J. Gresham Machen or a Western Civilization book that includes a reference to Abraham Kuyper.)
Despite those slight criticisms, textbooks can be quite useful. (In the absence of a desk, one can use big helfty textsbooks as props for writing.) The pictures, maps, chronologies, and even the narrative accounts can help fill in the broader story of history.
This year, I am teaching World Civilizations. The focus of the book for the fall semester is on beginnings up to 1600. This week, I have covered chapter 2. Basically, this chapter highlights the incredible speed of civilizational advance in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean Sea area. More specifically, it covered ancient Mesopotamia, Sumer, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Mycenae, Israel, and a few other civilizations. This is a remarkable story.
It is the story of two dominations, two conquests. The first is dominion over the creation. Early man, early communities, in the eras somewhat before and after Abraham, developed irrigation systems, domesticated animals, created wheeled carts, developed languages written and spoken, developed governmental systems, had medical breakthroughs, constructed great buildings and cities, and created a host of tools, weapons, jewels, and other objects that were both finely crafted and artistically designed.
Early people exercised dominion over soil, plants, water, animals, rocks, and other elements. That dominion squares quite well with the Dominion Covenant given to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Even allowing for all the cultural and spiritual deviations, culminating in the post-Diluvian world, man–by nature and necessity–exercised dominion over the earth. Man solves the biggest problem, which is getting a surplus of food, through thinking, experimenting, and improving existing conditions. From there, the door opens to further conquests, dominion, and development of nature, earth, and the production of other things.
But there is another dominion that has worked alongside the development of resources: Man’s dominion over man. This squares with the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. It is witnessed when Cain kills Abel, when Lamech, the father of incredibly resourceful sons, blatantly kills a man, and when the whole earth goes corrupt in the time of Noah. God imposes the death penalty for murder in the post-Diluvian world. That is a brake on the human propensity toward evil, tyranny, and murder. But it is not the complete cure.
So kingdom conquers kingdom. Strong men rule over weak. People in the mountains develop iron weapons and chariots to conquer the more agrarian oriented and peaceable valley folks who think iron is for making plows. History becomes a bloodbath, a battlefield, a contest of wills. The goal is not merely to produce more grain and better herds of livestock. Rather, it is to conquer and dominate those who will harvest the grain and tend the livestock.
None of this is separated from the devolution of religion. The knowledge of God is suppressed and man stoops to worshipping kings and powerholders claiming divinity. As the decline continues, the gods multiply and the things created are acknowledged as gods.
All that is a powerfully good story and history worth considering. So where is my complaint?
The course I am teaching is a dual credit course. By that, I mean that it is being taught in a high school, but students get college credit for it. No complaint there, for I think I am providing a college-level challenge to my students.
It is the nature of the survey course that I question. Here is why: The book had something like 3 or 4 paragraphs that covered the civilization of ancient Israel. Disregarding some differences in perspective, I question the usefulness of surveying the Old Testament in 4 paragraphs. It is like teaching the Battle of Gettysburg by saying, “A lot of guys got killed.” Now thankfully, students in a Christian school have had a much richer experience in learning the Old Testament. From classes to chapel services, and usually a home and church life reinforcing the same, they are quite aware of the Old Testament stories, people, and history. But recapping that in four paragraphs adds nothing to the knowledge of somewhat Biblically literate students and is probably even less useful to those students in freshman college classes with little or no Bible background.
The second example is a similar one. Greek literature gets two paragraphs. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are mentioned, along with Hesiod’s Theogony. Granted, the diligent student can now answer one of the twenty-five multiple choice questions, and those with good memories are better equipped for Trivial Pursuit. I say this because it was my own autobiography. I was successful at the multiple choice questions and quite good in some categories of Trivial Pursuit. It was only after teaching in a classical Christian school that I was force-blessed into reading, teaching, and discovering many of the classic works that are now the bedrock of my teaching.
At Veritas Academy, we have relied heavily on our Humanities Program for the last twelve years or so. It is partially modeled after the King’s Meadow Study Center Curriculum developed and taught by George Grant. It also has borrowd heavily from the Veritas Press Omnibus Series, of which I have contributed a few chapters. The Omnibus series covers grades 7 through 12 and is an incredibly rich study of history, literature, and culture. Additionally, our program has been supplemented by the work of Dr. Louise Cowan and the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture. Finally, I have been personally influenced by the vision, the writings, and the aims of the Vanderbilt men who congregated around different ideas that gave birth to the Fugitive Poet Movement, the New Critics, and the Agrarians.
What Humanities has been wary of is the survey, the textbook, the mention of facts without mastery, the multiple choices without the thought and discussion. Instead, Humanities has been part of what Mortimer Adler and others have called the Great Conversation.
So, we have devoted a year to studying Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I sailed through high school, college, and graduate school without having to dodge spears on the battlefieds outside Troy or having experienced the wine-dark seas that Odysseus traveled. I only thought I had been educated. We also study quite a few other Greek classics. Students also read large portions of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which still gives the only viable (but depressing) alternative to a Christian worldview. Gilgamesh gets a 3 sentence coverage in the World History text. A few details of the Code of Hammarabi are covered in the text, whereas students in our school have read the law codes of Hammarabi in conjunction with the Mosaic Laws of the Old Testament.
Colleges typically require surveys courses of World or American History. Some may still opt for Western Civilizations over World History, but they are becoming fewer and fewer. “All” history from the beginnings (and we won’t even begin on the topic of origins) through the Renaissance are flown over from late August to early December. Many independent facts are in the crunch. You can find Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustine, Attila the Hun, Aquinas, and dozens of other names in the mix. The classic works of literature, history, theology, and philosophy are easy to spot on the pages since they appear in italics. The student gets a big dose of everything and a real understanding of ….. (Should I say “nothing” or be more kind and say “not much”?)
In depth study is the best. Less is more. One book, especially a classic, mastered is better than a dozen scanned. One journey to Narnia would surpass a thousand facts about Narnia. The same can be said of Middle Earth, Yoknapatawpha County, or the City of God.
A careful reading of two dozen or so essays from the Federalist is a course in American politics. If more is needed, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is unsurpassed. Obsessions can be mastered by time and care devoted to Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare pulled the curtain back to show us England, Scotland, love, power, humanity, and the world.
Leave the broad sweeps and surveys and fly-overs to the realms of higher education. The graduate student laboring over gender roles in the French and Indian Wars might better read about all wars.
But, what do I know?