Non-expert Thoughts on Education

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?

Readings in American History

With American history as the topic for the year, I have been reading some books to prep my own mind and memories and ideas.

Last May, when we went to Wheaton College to fetch Nicholas home for the summer, I found this book:  I Wish I Had Been There, edited by Byron Hollinshead.  Twenty prominent American historians mix a bit of fact and fancy by choosing a favorite event where they wish they could have been present.  This book was a fun read and review of American history.  The contributors are a distinguished lot of modern historians and writers.

One more in the long line up of great books by Thomas Fleming.  A Disease in the Public Mind is a good history of the slavery controversy from the Founding Era to the War Between the States.  Although I thought I knew much of this story, I was surprised by how much I learned and helped by how much I was reminded of.  I will soon post a more complete review of this book.


American Phoenix:  John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence by Jane Hampton Cook is almost all new ground for me.  This book reads like a novel.  I have not yet gotten far into it, but have enjoyed the style and pace of the book.

Medieval Humanities 2013 in Retrospect

Can you even imagine a 1000 year period when the Christian faith marched, morphed, mobilized, and maintained the whole of civilization? When faith was centralized, not marginalized; when Church rebuked tyranny from the State; when the piety of a parish priest could shame the highest ecclesiastical office holders? Such were the Middle Ages. Medieval history has lots of rot, corruption, hypocrisy, pettiness, cruelty, and ugliness. It reminds us that this world is fallen. But Medieval history has lots of grace, restoration, progress, hope, mercy, and beauty.  It reminds us of the triumph, slow and unsteady, of the Gospel.

I have loved teaching through the Medieval Humanities course for the third time. (This was actually the fourth time since there was a pre-Humanities class many years ago.) Yet, I always feel more challenged, less prepared, more confused, less chronologically certain in Medieval Humanities than in any other facet of the four year program. (Next year, we do the American Story; after that, the Modern World: Reformation and Revolution; and then the Ancient and Classical World.)

Thankfully, each year through the curriculum clarifies and enhances my understanding. This year has certainly taught me a lot.

It all began in the cold northerness of the threatened Meadhall of Heriot.

Here are the books that the class read over the past school year:

1. Beowulf. I read the Seamus Heaney translation, and I am still unsure whether I like it or the Frederick Rebsamen translation best. One thing for sure, both I and the class really enjoyed this work. We also watched the movie Thirteenth Warrior in conjunction with reading the book.

2. Eusibius’ Church History. We read the translation by Paul Maier. Eusebius is vital to understanding the early era of the church. His writings are disjointed; his methods of research are uncritical; and he makes some great mistakes. But, there is much gold in Eusebius regarding the early history of the church and its leaders. We need to understand the faith of the martyrs and the importance of Constantine. We also read selections from Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity. Gonzalez is a better historian than Eusebius, but only because Eusebius fathered the study of Church History.

3. Augustine’s City of God. We only read from the first 13 books of Augustine this year, roughly half the book. But we did more intensive reading and discussion than ever before. Augustine is defining as a theologian and philosopher. We also read a few (too few) selections from Augustine’s Confessions.

4. The Rule of St. Benedict. This is a marvelous and beautiful handbook of the Benedictine Order. In conjunction with this, we had a very quiet and meditative St. Benedict’s day at school. The students were basically silent and devoted to serving others. In conjunction with this, we read a large selection of Psalms from the Wycliffe translation since the monks read or heard Psalms throughout the day.

5. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. I have long loved teaching and re-reading this book. Cahill surveys the history of the fall of the Roman Empire and the conditions of pre-Christian Ireland. The applications and insights from this book are many. We watched portions of a documentary on Patrick and a movie version of his life, neither of which are really satisfying.

6. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. This was a defining book in Medieval history and scholarship. We read it together in class and discussed the philosophical and theological ideas from it. This was my first time through the entire book, and I loved it.

7. Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church. This is where English history begins. This is not an easy book to push through, but it yields quite a bit to understanding how the faith seeps in and changes a nation. In conjunction with this, we studied the old Christian poem “The Seafarer,” Columbanus’ “Boat Song,” and the very first English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn.” The students memorized Caedmon’s work, and most memorized it in the original Anglo-Saxon. Also, one student, Liz Woll, put the words to music, and it was sung at graduation.

8. Song of Roland. It does not get any better than this in Medieval history and literature. This is a great story of chivalry, knighthood, and war. It also highlights the Medieval conflict between Christian Europe and the Islam.

9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as translated by J. R. R. Tolkien. This is another defining Medieval story. It upholds the highest ideals of knighthood.

10. Canterbury Tales. We read almost the entire work, and the students read the Prologue up to three times, in some students’ cases, in the original Middle English. This is the best picture of life in Medieval England. It is, as poet John Dryden noted, “God’s plenty.”  Everything good, bad, ugly, and beautiful about the era is found here. In conjunction with this, we watched the movie classic Becket, which explains who it was that gave Canterbury its significance as a shrine.

11. From Dante’s Divine Comedy we read Hell, which is often called The Inferno. We read this together. Most of the students had Dorothy Sayers translation, but I used the one by John Ciardi. I only wish we could have continued journeying along with Dante and Virgil through the end of this salvation epic.

12. Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages. This is a fun and informative history of Medieval Europe. However, it focuses more on social history (knighthood, religion, towns and trade, labor, and architecture) than on political history.  I loved this book and look forward to another reading next time around.

We also read selections from Edith Hamilton on Norse mythology, an essay titled “The Six Ages of the Church” by Christopher Dawson, the Book of Acts,  and other short selections.
We watched several of the outstanding documentaries by Simon Schama from his History of Great Britain series. We also watched documentaries on the Crusades and King Arthur.

Add to that, the month of December was devoted to practicing and performing a Madrigal Dinner, It was titled “A Gift for the King,” and it was a play, a concert, and a meal that celebrated Advent from a Medieval perspective.

Post Script: Some students read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for both extra credit (partially) and for fun (mostly).