“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Winston Churchill is often mistakenly attributed this quote from a Spanish philosopher and poet named George Santayana. This creative misattribution combines the power of the original quote with the brutal reality of our recent past. This provides one simple reason to study history; to apply the lessons of yesterday to the problems of tomorrow. This all sounds very fine when thinking of our immediate past, or when reflecting on the significance of Remembrance Day, but this year in the classroom we are studying Ancient history, from Creation to the fall of the Roman Empire. When looking at ancient history, we are tempted to ask, ‘Aren’t all these achievements superseded by our new knowledge and experiences?’
This question is often presumed to be rhetorical today, but it was not always so. Isaac Newton, a 17th and 18th century natural philosopher, once wrote to a friend about a 13th century metaphor. Bernard of Chartres, the medieval philosopher and scholar whom Newton quoted, has been immortalized in this modern summary of his metaphor: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Literature, art, thought and historical events are products of a great conversation unfolding throughout history, one historic figure picking up where the other left off, down to the present day.
True education helps a student climb up onto the shoulders of these giants. We start with the earliest civilizations that learned so many things we take for granted. These were not stupid peoples; they computed complex astronomical calculations without computers, built enduring monuments without machinery, and pioneered written language. The summit of the ancient world is in the Greco-Roman civilization that prepared the world so marvellously through its structure, language and philosophy for the coming of Christ. Saint John himself pays homage to this culture – he writes in Koine Greek, ‘And the logos became flesh’ taking, filling, and redeeming the Greek idea of logos. It is this Gospel that then transforms Roman society and lays down the foundations of Western civilization.
These historic roots are living sources, giving new life to culture. The Renaissance mined Ancient Greek culture to revitalize art, culture and philosophy. The Reformation has been called an argument in the mind of long-dead Augustine. The Enlightenment sought to revive the tradition of Greek deism and philosophy. The European Union reaches back to the Roman days of a united Europe. ISIS seeks to restore an Islamic caliphate and claim to be justified by the example of the Crusades. In our own times, Christians are finding themselves in a culture with a striking resemblance to ancient Roman culture complete with a pluralistic, pragmatic spirituality expressed in both superstition and a plurality of cults; a sense of cynicism and despair; a culture of abortion and honorable suicide; and an unfriendly attitude toward Christianity. Modern atheists often repeat Enlightenment era arguments while adopting heroes from history like Voltaire, Galileo and Copernicus. These are but a few connections that could be made.
Yet many people ultimately want to forget the past; some because the present is better, some because we can’t know the past for sure anyhow. Public Ontario education only requires a single history class to graduate high school, for example. In Australia, the public school system is reducing the amount of time dedicated to history to devote more time to computers. For many, history is not ‘utilitarian’ enough to merit more time. It is Christians who must learn about history.
History has sometimes been called ‘His story’ and indeed it is a story that God is telling through all of Creation and all the years of all the ages. Christ is the pivot of history, on which all else rests, even for those who do not acknowledge the reason we stop counting down and start counting up. The story of the height of ancient civilization, the Roman Empire – a height that atheists and agnostics romanticize and often wish to return us to – is that the greatest thing we could produce was conquered and transformed by the Cross. Jesus, with his life, death and resurrection, forever changed the ancient world with his Gospel. Christianity is deeply rooted in this historical sequence of events though which God showed His grace. Many children grow up not knowing or knowing this story imperfectly. As a result, they subsequently reject the faith that springs from it. Parents and teachers must impart knowledge of the past or fail their children.
What does this look like in the classroom, and what does this do for learning? In the classroom, we study achievements in literature, history, thought and art. This furnishes us with the exemplars, patterns and chain of causation we need to make sense of the world. Even basic historical literacy allows students to critique the judgements others make every day about what has happened in the past and what that means for our present. For example, my class participated in a simulated federal election a few weeks ago, and my students perceptively noted a number of instances where politicians misused history – arguing that ‘Syria is 800,000 years old’ or that the First Nations always welcomed European settlers with open arms. Another time, one of my students asked a historical question that led to a discussion of the four Greek loves – agape, storge, philia and eros. The student was then able to ask the question differently; instead of asking, ‘Why didn’t ancient people value love in marriage?’ we can ask, ‘What sort of love ought people to value most of all?’ For Christians, of course, it is the agape self-sacrificial love of Christ, not the eros romantic love venerated by our culture or even the philia brotherly love of the Greeks.
We return to our original question. Have we superseded the need for knowledge of the past? No! History allows the learner to crest the shoulder of Bernard’s giant, and to see further than anyone he or she learned about in history. In all things, the learner is able to comprehend what they see and do only by joining the conversation. To ignore history is to limit oneself to going through the motions; one may be successful as a mimic of sorts, but action without understanding is much like works without faith – incomplete and open to subversion. Classical education is about going beyond this incomplete mimicry to true understanding, and that is precisely what the study of literature, art, thought and especially history builds.
This was originally delivered as a short talk by me for an event at the school I work for. Please, feel free to comment below.