By Evan Wilson
When it comes to history, rhetoric comes before grammar…
What has the teaching of history become in private Christian establishments? Here is a section out of a commonly used Christian school textbook, slightly rewritten to protect the innocent (namely myself), but preserving the idea of the original:
During the Second Punic War (278 – 202 B.C.) Hannibal, the famed Carthaginian general, crossed over the Alps into Italy with an army of men and elephants. Although at the Battle of Cannae, he virtually annihilated the Romans, Hannibal did not have the resources to follow up his victory and besiege Rome herself. Eventually, Hannibal was forced out of Italy and returned to Carthage in North Africa, where he lost the Battle of Zama to Scipio in 202 B.C. The Carthaginians were forced to make peace and give up their empire, and had to pay tribute to the Romans.
The glory, the greatness of the Second Punic War in two tidy paragraphs. Where is the fear inspired in small Roman children for centuries after by the phrase ”Hannibal at the gates!” The Wellington/Nelson-like status of the Scipio African us has been swept away. It is no small wonder the children we teach don’t see the point of leaming all these names and dates. They should call our schools ”lchabod,” for the glory has departed.
The Problem in Teaching History
Why do children remember every moment (even the exact dialogue) in an adventure movie they see? It’s because the movie-makers teach them a story, a fiction to be sure, but they teach them nonetheless. Not only do they teach but they teach so effectively that these movies, in some ways, have a permanent influence on our children. So, in some cases, we wring our hands and call for stricter rating systems or channel blockers.
Yet, while we often criticize the content of popular movies, we should seize upon the utterly effective storytelling method that so completely captures our childrens’ attention. For we too have a story to teach, one that is true and thus deserves to have a permanent influence.
Where do we go wrong? Instead of capitalizing on the saga, the “theatrics”, what do we do? We teach them a little song about presidents, memorize dates and produce timelines. In many ways we have the stuff of history backwards. lf the child had to sit through all the commentary and science of cinema in the DVD extras before they could watch the movie they would just volunteer to go to their room and play. The grammar of a story is studied last. If first it deadens the subject.
History, as a story, is a subject worth running the Trivium backwards, rhetoric first. All the things we do not like to see in movies (because Babylon Hollywood is the instructor) we can do with history. We can inflame, inspire, wax marvelous and bring to tears.
The Nature of History
We have to realize that history is a Tale of Humanism and the Pride of Life. We are riveted by greatness when it comes to history and Wat the Swineherd in Turtle-on-Damp, Sussex is no match for Alexander the Great. Both men yes, but only one showed the level to which man’s greatness can rise. A man’s passion for dominance in juxtaposition to others is the plot of this story. Certainly some have written histories of sociological movements and pottery fragments but they don’t have a story, only the background of the story.
The Nature of Man
The Pride of Life is one of our basic urges along with the Desires of the Flesh and Eyes. What has this to do with history? Every man seeks his kingdom. His kingdom is that region inside which his law can be policed effectively. Our self assessment is constantly wondering if we are man enough to police a greater territory yet. Our legions mobilize to march on whoever is next door. Homeless men fight over cardboard boxes, suburban men challenge neighbors over property lines (one of my relatives died in a gunfight in Yazoo City, Mississippi in just such a disagreement) and nations go out to conquer.
This is not only territorial but it is also in the intellectual and financial world, wherever man can control and dominate. A man’s greatness is the size of his kingdom. In the world of the Pride of Life “‘He who dies with the most toys wins.” Just as with wealth (the ability to command the labor of others), greatness has the measurement of how many men owe you knight service. The realms established by every man, singly and severally, eventually and often bump into each other. We want the same piece of real estate and battles are bound to occur on the boundary between the kingdoms. In the greatest of these encounters is the cast of the story of History.
The Nature of Glory
Just as beauty is the emotion of art, glory is the emotion of greatness. You know already it has to do with weight and we look for moments where the particular mass of a particular greatness comes home to us. Six thousand years are filled with mundanities and pedestrian conflict which do not rise to epic proportion, the size needed to guide our story of “what happened.” So where in history do we find such moment? On the anvil of greatnesses meeting we hammer out glory. A basic urge to dominate is sometimes lived to a great degree and it eventually meets another who challenges the line between their rule and men sacrifice their very lives on that line to win or lose the day. We like the feeling but not the serious cost of life and limb so we have invented game and sport. Make an artificial line, compete over it and then call our MVPs ”heroes.” But the plastic trophies came from something. On a pole surrounded by the dead of your enemies you could hang pieces of their annour … only if you won. There the line between real kingdoms is the distillate of the fermentation of shed blood. And it is intoxicating and the theme of history. It is history to be remembered.
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle”
II Samuel 11:1
Battle is the ultimate moment in the seeking of boundaries. Man always wants to know if the line he defends can be stepped beyond or if that one step wiII mean defeat. It is the focus of the passion of the greatest force in the story of history. The great battles then stir us deeply. They excite us, but it is the excitement natural to the forces we study. We are supposed to share in this excitement.
There are two kinds who play a role in history: the great and the decisive.
The Great: These are battles that of a scale, and a portent that plays to the territorial concerns of notable belligerents (generals or nations). They are deep with personalities and tactics and causes pertinent to the time. It mattered much to them but little to us because they are making, self-consciously, the history of their “nation” but not the history, consciously or otherwise, of the world.
The Decisive: These battles, always great battles, are the ones that punctuate the curriculum of world history as the beginning of a new paragraph or merely a new sentence. The outcome of these battles matters to where history goes (to us) and matter more to this engine of man’s pride than the men fighting could possibly realize. Like with the prophesies of the Old Testament where the prophets did not know of the things they spoke, we, upon whom the end of the ages has come, we know these battles’ import. We study the backgrounds of the antagonists and measure the hardest fought with greatest device at what ultimate cost and sacrifice. The meditation of the equation written in the decisive battles basks in the weight of history, the glory of the epic of man.
What have we done to the student of History?
We have excited him. He wants to know what came after and what led up. He wants to know the logic of these times and even the grammar. What is a legion? A Pilum? A housecarl? The Hiemskringla? You tell him or he reads the answer and tucks it away in his excited imagination. He will want to know of great men and great deeds. He will come back to you with information you did not know and of battles you had not studied.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
A tragic truism but utter bosh when you watch the Spartans combing their hair for death at Thennopylae. Our students who have honored the glory should be hopefully thinking, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to NOT repeat it.”