A School for the Love of History

20140714-121852-44332327.jpg I wrote, in my last post, about a practical use of history: we're living in history, and we'll be at a loss to say what's happening right now (and, to some extent, incapable of making good decisions) if we don't grasp the past.

Today I'd like to talk about something different: an existential use of history. Together, these two purposes of history will set the stage for how our school will actually teach history.

But more on that in a bit. First, one of my favorite quotes.

Some context: a few years ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, (the highest authority in the Anglican church, and a brilliant poet and thinker to boot) Rowan Williams, was having a public conversation with the author of the (controversial) children's book The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman. (Pullman is an atheist, and his books have been accused of being anti-religious. Determining whether or not that was true was one of of the goals of the conversation.)

Near the end of their dialogue, they took questions from the audience. One man asked what they thought education should look like. Pullman responded with one of my very favorite quotes (I've actually memorized it) —

“the true end and purpose of education… has to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches — the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches — of the whole world.”

Oh I love that.

Our students can participate in the full experience of the human race. They can have the richest minds in history, because they can learn from the most diverse and wonderful sources.

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An excursus:

Now, there's already an educational philosophy that focuses on this: classical schooling. I won't go into classical schooling here, except to say that I love it, and want to have its babies.

(I mean that! Metaphorically, though. Part of my hope for our school is to cross-pollinate the best aspects of many approaches to schooling. The classical approach is, I think, the best, and any fans of it will see their favorite ideas popping up on this blog.)

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The sort of education that Pullman (and the former archbishop) advocate is not instrumental. It's goal is not to prepare students to compete for the global jobs of the 21st century.

It's about building a self. It's about life. It's about human flourishing.

This is what we need in a history curriculum:

History for self-making. History for life. History for human flourishing.

What we need are ways to help students see that the whole human event isn't something apart from them — human life is the ocean that they themselves are swimming in, are part of, and can contribute back to. How can we achieve such a history curriculum? We'll use a whole heap of methods (some which I've been writing about, some which I will type out soon).

There's one major trick we'll use, though: we'll understand history as the subject that integrates, rather than separates.

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History as additive

As it's sometimes conceived, "history" is merely what's left after we tweezer out all the good bits of humanity.

I mean: the human experience over the last 10,000 years has been a veritable jambalaya of many realms of thinking: drawing and religion and math and ethnicity and botany and economics and sociology and physics and politics and architecture and gender and war and painting and zoology and literature and film and chemistry. (And some other things I'm forgetting.)

Schools, obviously, teach quite a few of these. It's standard practice, though, to slice the whole human experience apart — to divvy it up into individual subjects, and treat them systematically.

There's wisdom in this, of course, but there's also great danger: we lose track of the subject-matter as vivid and human and (metaphorically) alive. It's as if we've drawn and quartered the K-12 curriculum, and then are surprised it's dead.

So we need some way to hold them together — to see how they're all one big human thing.

That's hard.

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A better way

There are a number of attempts to do just this — to connect. Most go under the heading "interdisciplinary learning." They differ, but tend to be pretty good. I'm in favor of most the interdisciplinary curricula I've seen.

I've noted, however, that the interdisciplinary curricula I've seen tend to be short on emotions. They tend to be short on understanding how we got to this knowledge in the first place.

They tend to be short, that is, on story.

This is a tragedy, as story (as I've suggested on this blog before) may be the most powerful tool for learning — particularly when students are young.

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A still better way

There is, however, a natural way of connecting everything, one that brings out the emotions and origins and stories.

History.

Each of the academic subjects stems from the human story.

Each of the academic subjects is imbued with particular human fears and hopes.

Chemistry, thus, is history. Economics is history. Painting is history.

And so are all the rest.

They're all history, not (most assuredly not) in the sense that they should be sliced and diced themselves, scribbled out in mind-numbing prose, and randomly peppered with pointless dates (c. 1711 – 1768†). (Ack!)

Rather, these subjects are history in the sense that they're shot through with human desires, defeats, and triumphs. Each of these academic disciplines was invented to give a truer view of the world's majesty — or to solve the problems that keep us down.

Learning with an eye to history — to the underlying stories — can make learning richer.

Learning the story of chemistry (insane experiments, bizarre discoveries, perplexing mysteries) can bring you into a much deeper understanding (and love) of it than starting with the periodic table.

Learning the story of economics (horrendous injustices, best-intentioned tragedies, brilliant insights) can bring you into a much deeper understanding (and love) of it than starting with the supply-demand curve.

Learning the story of painting (vexing limitations, grand competitions, controversial innovations) can bring you into a —

Well, actually, painting might best be initially encountered through an imaginative engagement with particular works of art. (More on this anon!) But the works themselves are but the tip of the iceberg, and oh, what a fascinating iceberg it is! A world-class art curriculum will have to incorporate the stories of the artists that produced it — and the grand story that those artists are a part of.

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History über alles

There's a real sense in which, as classical schooling guru Susan Wise Bauer writes,

"History, in other words, is not a subject. History is the subject."

History is everything, seen through the perspective of time.

Now, that said: this "history above all" idea shouldn't be misunderstood as "our students will only take one course, of history." That'd be unwise. Our grade school will have separate class time set apart for science, and math, and art, and (specifically) history.

But "history" will hold a special place in our curriculum: it will lay out the huge universal story that everything else grows out of.

What could this look like? That I'll present in my next post.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA