Jill Bergin McKinsey promotes teaching history and great books, not as isolated subjects, but as the unifying element of the curriculum.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

A common problem of education in postmodernity is that of “fragmented knowledge.”1 In most schools today, subjects are taught as discreet units. Literature, history, science, and philosophy (when it is taught at all) are treated as disciplines that can be studied nearly in a vacuum. Some reference might be made to complementary subjects, but the active study of, for example, history and literature together is often absent, as the school system, with its tidy system of periods, shuffles students off to different teachers for each subject.

The history of ideas, however, is not neatly divided into subjects. Ideas in science, literature, and philosophy, for instance, are tied together with history by innumerable interwoven strands. One cannot thoroughly understand modern scientific practice unless one knows the history
of the Enlightenment, one cannot fully understand our modern political system unless one understands Hobbes’ Leviathan, and one cannot understand Stoker’s Dracula unless one knows a bit about Queen Victoria and her England. As John Henry Newman says, “[The various subjects] are necessary mutually to explain and interpret each other.”2 Thus, the postmodern problem of “fragmented knowledge” is that while students may know things about subjects, they often do not fully understand them because they have not been trained to think of knowledge as a unified whole.

The idea of knowledge being a unified whole is ancient and Christian; thinkers from Socrates to Montaigne to J.P. Moreland have asserted that no subjects can be properly understood in isolation from one another. Indeed, Newman says, “A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge.”3 The same standard can be applied to any institution claiming to teach general knowledge, including high schools. Though one may go on to specialize later in life, it has traditionally been foundational to first get a “liberal” education: one that gives students a broad understanding of the history of ideas.

An additional problem of the fragmented method is the way that the subjects are taught; not only are students not making connections between areas of study, they are often not actually learning anything of value within subjects. Literature, and to an even greater extent, history, are often taught using anthologies, textbooks, and lectures. Facts are often emphasized over ideas. Certainly learning facts is important; Sayers emphasized the acquisition of a great deal of facts, formulae, and skills in her articulation of the grammar stage of education.4 The problem occurs when this emphasis on facts extends beyond elementary school when students ought to be learning logic and rhetoric.

Classical teachers believe that students are not receptacles to be filled by the transmission of facts. The purpose of education, according to Sayers is to teach students to think5. She says, “Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned— that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” In short, students know facts but fail to know what to do with them. Opening up the disciplines to inform each other provides dissonant content that will help students move from mere consumption of facts to dealing with conflicting ideas and come to a deeper understanding of them.

Going beyond the goals of teaching students to think and to re-integrate knowledge, learning about the past, specifically, does something particularly important. G. K. Chesterton, in his column in the Illustrated London News once said, “Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to another.”6 The article in which this quotation is found is urging the readers to maintain good traditions that are worthy of being passed down to future generations. As he says in the same column, “…we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.” Chesterton believed that education, when done well, will maintain civilization and inspire virtue in students. The modern focus on science, however, cannot do this alone, because it has little to say about society’s “soul.” He argues that without a thoroughly good “soul” society can only hope to produce barbarians.

What then does this passing on of the Western “soul” look like? Robert Hutchins argues that, “The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to this present day.”7 The Great Conversation, according to a classical philosophy of education, is the dialectic between the authors and artists who produced or recorded ideas. It is St. Thomas’ dependence on the Philosopher Aristotle; it is T. S. Eliot’s allusions to Dante; it is W. H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” in which he comments upon the painting The Fall of Icarus. If these writers and artists are dependent on each other, it would be difficult to understand any of them without looking at the books that, as Hutchins says, “… are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository of our tradition.”8 This tradition is similar to Chesterton’s idea of a “soul”; one could say the “soul” is passed on through participation in the Great Conversation. We could certainly chuck the entire thing and choose to pass on a very recent iteration of that soul, but we would be the poorer for it. The historic soul is hard to escape, at any rate, when new television shows about outlaw bikers are a retelling of Hamlet, popular science fiction writers use Dante’s Inferno as direct inspiration, and our basic beliefs about our current economic system are rooted in authors from the 18th century.

What do we look to when looking to pass on the historic soul of our society? In the West, at least, the Great Conversation can be traced from Athens, through Jerusalem, and on to Rome, Paris, London, New York, and beyond. Students ought to read the important works from each time period and place. In addition to looking at the facts (who did what and when), and in addition to learning about the craft of authors, we ought to be looking at what those in the past knew and how that knowledge informed what they did. We must honestly assess this knowledge; it is far too easy to dismiss older beliefs. In fact, it is quite popular to discredit, for example, anything to do with Christianity and its “uninformed” adherents. While it may be true that we know more things about how the world works, about ancient history, or about psychology, it is not true that those in the past were unlearned. The rich history of ideas in the Great Conversation still ought to inform our beliefs; as Chesterton would say, our ancestors ought to have a voice in our current society.

The past is also often treated as fodder for ridicule. We mine it for examples of what not to do.9 How often have you heard sermons treating the disciples as prideful and hot-headed? Surely none of us in the modern age would ask St. Thomas’s questions! Surely none of us would deny Christ! We would never be backwards enough to accept something like slavery. We would never step aside as Hitler overran Europe. Aside from the obvious misunderstanding of human nature, this view of the past keeps us from a very great opportunity to look to those who did do well, and whom we should emulate. Certainly we want to be as courageous as Joan of Arc, we want to be as good as St. Edmund, and we want to be as self-sacrificial as the clergy during the fall of Constantinople. In looking at honest failures and triumphs, we also see God’s work in the world and truth about human nature.

Given that we want students to have access to the knowledge of the past, we must look at everything that contains this knowledge. It is certainly contained in real history books. It is also contained in the literature of the time period, as well as its philosophy and theology.10 Literature, in particular, can add a depth of understanding to history because a society’s literature shows the outworking of its beliefs in a meaningful way. A few examples will show this.

If students are studying Tudor England, we not only want them to look at political and military history, we want them to understand what the English believed about God, themselves, and their world. We want them immersed in the “soul” of Tudor England. This is not to say that we want to pass on Tudor beliefs wholesale; rather, we want them to understand the knowledge of the past in order to better understand God, themselves, and their world, as well as understand the interconnectivity of ideas in the Great Conversation. Thus, in addition to reading a good history text, they will need to read philosophy and theology from the time period, and they will need to read literature. Shakespeare’s works are an obvious necessity. However, we cannot look at these things separately and think we know about the Tudor era. The transition from the Wars of the Roses to the Tudor dynasty has serious implications for the future of the monarchy in England. When reading Shakespeare’s Richard III, we not only want to look at it as a work of literature, we want to look at it as a way of understanding Elizabethan attitudes toward the Plantagenets and the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare played an important role in the demonization of Richard III in favor of the favored Henry Tudor. The play is, in part, a commentary on the English Crown and legitimate government. This raises interesting questions about the nature of monarchy and government, and Richard III, being literature, is as much a part of the Great Conversation of these topics as political philosophy.

Likewise, if students are studying Soviet Russia, an appropriate literary choice would be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Though it is a fictional account of life in a Soviet gulag, it contributes a first-person perspective on the harshness of Soviet punishment. Solzhenitsyn’s commentary, and even the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication, contribute to the Conversation in ways that a “purely historical” study cannot.

In conclusion, classical educators have a unique opportunity to teach about the past using several genres of text, an opportunity not afforded to most teachers. We need to keep in mind the totality of the Great Conversation, and not be tempted to treat different kinds of texts as isolated from each other. Though history and literature are often not studied together, when taught holistically, they can help students understand knowledge of the past in ways a study of each alone cannot. We ought to make sure that our questions help students make connections between texts, so that, as Chesterton says, they can inherit the soul of society, not in pieces, but as a unified whole.