West Dallas Community School

Monthly Archives: February 2016

Don’t Know Much About History – Part 2

by wdcs

IMG_3395“Don’t know much about history” – Sam Cooke’s lyric is cute and catchy, but when it accurately reflects a nation’s citizenry, we have a problem.  By many accounts, this is where our country finds itself today, but at West Dallas Community School, in our curriculum and by offering experiences like the Washington D.C. trip, we seek to provide an education steeped in history.

Why emphasize history over STEM and 21st Century Skills?  To answer this I’ll revisit last month’s blog and a few additional highlights of our annual 8th grade trip:

After touring Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, we drive north to our nation’s capital, along the way stopping to visit Thomas Jefferson’s famous home: Monticello.  We skip the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s center and opt for the scenic, if not slightly vigorous, walk down the hill that leads us past the Jefferson family cemetery.  Jefferson’s gravestone, with an epitaph he penned himself, notes that he was “Founder of the University of Virginia.” Conspicuously absent is any mention that Jefferson served as the third president of the United States.  Thus he accentuates what he values: Jefferson was committed to his vision of an educated citizenry, and was most proud of his accomplishments which aided this vision’s realization.  Reflecting on education, Jefferson noted the importance of history:

“History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men…”

Jefferson was not alone in this conviction; our founding fathers knew the fledgling nation’s future success depended on efforts like the University of Virginia.  Our country has a proud, albeit troubled, heritage of esteeming and emphasizing education both as a great equalizer in society and as the key institution for producing an informed and capable citizenry.

The fathers’ educational aims went far beyond the study of history to include science, philosophy, and agriculture, but one who did not posses a broad and deep understanding of mankind’s past was not truly educated.  Consider this from Charlotte Mason, an educational philosopher and practitioner of the late 19th century whose work significantly influences WDCS:

“It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts.  We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but, ‘the imagination is warmed’; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action.  The present becomes enriched with the wealth of all that has gone before.”

A few things she says are worth emphasizing.  First, she is not advocating that sad practice of reducing history of a list of dates and names, or suggesting this or that “circumstance” to be memorized and regurgitated – this approach is frankly mind-numbing and has most certainly led many to find History class a bore.  History according to Mason can “warm” the imagination (here I think of Moral Imagination) and works in the “background of one’s thoughts.” History, properly approached and studied, can be formative and work on us almost at a subconscious level.  Lastly, it is to be prized as a great “wealth.”  How very different from today’s zeitgeist when it comes to studying our past.

Debunk, Dethrone, Deconstruct – these are the attitudes currently in vogue and lauded in our halls of higher learning.  C.S. Lewis’ phrase “chronological snobbery” comes to mind. This is his name for the rather uncritical assumption that whatever has gone before is inherently inferior when compared to contemporary society’s thought and accomplishments.  Too often we assume a posture of superiority and sit in confident judgment over people and practices of the past.  Is there nothing to be learned from Incan culture despite their violent practices?  Do we summarily dismiss Columbus’ contribution to our continents’ heritage and characterize him as a one-dimensional villain?  Does Frederick Douglass forfeit his bona fides because he married a white woman in his later years?  Do we remove Thomas Jefferson’s likeness from our currency because of his moral failings and a life filled with paradoxes if not blatant hypocrisy?  I hope I don’t belabor the point but I fear the study of history, particularly that of our own country, has become a practice in deconstructing our historical narrative and recasting it as litany of oppression and failed promises.

How does such an approach create conditions where the student can, in humility, learn from our past and care about our present?  If we want our schools to produce an educated citizenry, able and willing to contribute to our nation’s future, should they not at some level show care, admiration, even love for our country? (For more on this idea read here from Yale classicist, Donald Kagan).

Rather than Debunking, Dethroning, and Deconstructing, perhaps our approach to history should be about Reflecting, Revering, and Redeeming. I’m not suggesting a curriculum that promotes a jingoistic blind patriotism. No, we reflect honestly on our past- the good, the bad, and the ugly. We revere the heroism and sacrifices of those who have gone before. And we resolve to redeem what which is broken.

Lincoln modeled this for us. I think of his Second Inaugural Address, written with sensitivity and grace not often seen today. He reflected deeply on our nation’s past with great reverence for Washington and the other fathers who, “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Any yet, Lincoln knew the “peculiar institution” of slavery was an offense to God and he wondered aloud at the nature of divine providence and if the Civil War was indeed God’s judgment on our nation. I wonder, could he have written this without that famous, self-taught education of his, reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and biographies of Washington and other historical figures?

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I mentioned last month how much I relish sharing this speech with our students when we visit the Lincoln Memorial.  There is so much there to ponder and discuss, particularly his attitude towards his adversaries.  Devoid of the cynical, snarky tone that marks our contemporary public discourse, Lincoln forcefully argues for the justness of his cause.  The closest he gets to sarcasm is, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”, but then, almost in an act of self rebuke he adds, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”  Lincoln is magnanimous.  Lincoln is gracious.  Lincoln is a reconciler resolved to redeem that which is broken.  There in the final lines he states so beautifully his determination to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

We are contextual beings.  For our students, our context is that of being citizens of the United States of America.  It follows then that to be intelligently equipped to serve the particularities of this common good, one would need to know the history and great ideas that founded and shaped this nation.  This includes the moments in which we revel in glory and those that cause us to hang our head in shame. But shame can’t have the last word.

Shortly before heading to the airport for our returning flight, our 8th graders gather around the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave site. Looking back over the Potomac with an iconic view of Washington D.C., they are confronted by a granite engraving of John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural address:

And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Why study history? By God’s grace, we believe their study of history can help shape their character, cultivate wisdom, demonstrate the power of human agency, and nurture a love for country and neighbor. In an age of entitlement, I pray our graduates would heed JFK’s challenge; as I like to say, all for the good of the city and the glory of God.

 

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Bentley Craft
Head of School