Wednesday, April 08, 2015

History in the College Curriculum

I love history. Even those areas of history that I have no interest in studying become interesting to me if I have just a little taste of them.

My son has an excruciatingly boring world history AP textbook for high school right now. To me, it's a sin for history to be boring. People are just too funny, evil, and their antics too bizarre for history to be boring. It's not noble for me to admit that I started this walk with him with little interest in the history of India, China, Japan, and so forth. But even a taste of their history quickly piques my interest.

1. Why study history?
  • The past provides insights into the present and the future. "Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them." This utilitarian function is the one that promises to sell most people on history. Why study leaders of the past? To avoid their mistakes and imitate as much as possible their successes. Why study military tactics in past wars? To be successful in future wars.
  • We regularly use the past to define ourselves and our values. These tellings are highly perspectivized but are a reminder again that the most powerful use of history is in shaping our sense of the present and our decisions for the future. Whether we like to admit it or not, this is far more how Scripture functions for us than as anything like a window on the past.
  • History is valid as a study in its own right, truth for truth's sake. But this is a minority report, people like me who love the past.
2. So if I were to write this novel series, there would be history in the curriculum. I've already decided that they would learn history in situ, onsite at the places where the history took place. But how would the learning be arranged?

For example, one could arrange all learning by history. Twenty years ago, when IWU came up with its four "180" courses, the idea was that students would study history, literature, art/music, and philosophy from a historical perspective. If you had two of these courses at the same time, you would roughly be studying the philosophy of Greece at about the same time you were studying the art of Greece, the literature of Greece, and the history of Greece.

You could of course teach science and math the same way.

It was a grand idea but didn't really work. For one, students didn't take the four courses at the same time. For another, a course like philosophy is really better taught topically than historically.

3. So I'm thinking out loud here. In my proposed novel, I suspect the history would largely be taught from a utilitarian perspective. However, there are going to be different centers of teaching in the novel, so there's room for different perspectives on history and identity at these different centers.

With an emphasis on Spanish and European languages in the first proposed novel, it makes sense that the first year would cover the history of Europe and the Americas. The later three novels would then engage the history of Asia, Africa, and Australia. There's an implicit teaching of geography here you can see as well.

4. I've always thought there was a certain genius to the way the Seminary course called Cultural Contexts of Ministry had a component where students started with their current church and moved backward in American history. Approached backward, the most relevant aspects of the immediate past for the present are brought extremely clearly into view. Then the further you go back, less relevant pieces of the puzzle are automatically de-emphasized.

Of course there are many lessons to be learned by playing history forward as well.

History, in my opinion, can only really be learned accurately in smaller vignettes. Any attempt to systematize long sweeps of history into simple ideological patterns (and this includes biblical narratives) inevitably skews history from a historical perspective. That doesn't mean these grand narratives don't present truths. They're just not accurate or precise with regard to history itself.

But then again, this is my philosophy of all meaning. Truth is best ascertained in small units that are connected to others by similarity and dissimilarity. I think numskull the myriad Platonic thinkers who want to move in the real world from big generals to subsumed particulars. It works fine for ideological systems. For concrete realia, not so much.

5. So my protagonist will spend three months at Cambridge at the beginning of the novel. Fair enough to overview 1000 years of British history including the key intersections with the US (Revolution, WW1 and 2). Then I think he will go to Bologna, Italy for three months, where he will study Roman and Greek history. Next Paris for three months. Napolean features in the early years of the secret society I have in mind, so Napolean and the French Revolution would play a fair role in those three months.

He would then finish the last three months of the first year in Göttingen, where he will finalize his study of WW1 and 2, as well as a study of the Holy Roman Empire from where Roman history left off. The first novel then would end back in Cambridge.

6. These four locations also feature in the other three proposed novels, so all of the history does not need to be learned in the first novel. (Indeed, it all doesn't need to be learned at all.) Concentric circles is the ticket, circling round the same territory first in large and then adding more details each time...

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