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“Does History Have a Purpose?”

By Doug Wilson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #8, 1995.

Douglas Wilson asks, is hitting the history books worthwhile?
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Douglas Wilson

History is the study of what actually happened. Many other things did not happen back in those old days; therefore they are not history. One obvious example: the planet Krypton did not exist or explode, and Superman was not sent to earth as a baby. That is why stories about Superman belong in comic books instead of in textbooks.

To the modern mind, this way of understanding history is not very sensitive. If you assert history happened only one way, you are steering perilously close to absolutism, intellectual despotism, and narrowness.

The contemporary scene is populated with assorted educators and textbook writers who really want history to have been different from what it was. This means they seek to understand the nature of history itself differently. Unlike harmless Superman fans, who like to pretend, but who are content to attend conventions and dress in silly costumes, these people want to control the history our children are taught.

For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities recently placed a real trout in the milk. They commissioned “The National Standards for United States History.” The standards provide guidelines for what history they want taught in any surviving government schools in the next century. Albert Einstein, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Robert E. Lee, and Alexander Graham Bell receive no mention in these guidelines. This contrasts with 17 mentions of the KKK, and a whopping 19 for Sen. Joe McCarthy.

And Now for Something Completely Different
(From What Actually Happened)

This is far more than simple “liberal bias.” It does not represent a difference of opinion over what “really happened”; it represents a far more important theological difference—did anything “really happen”? For example, the current popular rejection of “Eurocentrism” and the elevation of “Afrocentrism” in ancient historical studies is not just a difference of opinion over which continent was the more important. The Afrocentrists are not just rejecting Europe and western civilization; they and their feminist/gay/socialist allies are attacking historical objectivity itself.

Make no mistake about it; this is George Orwell’s “memory hole,” introduced in his chilling masterpiece 1984. If the facts don’t fit their philosophy, they want you to throw out the facts.

Because in the view of the politically self-anointed there is no such thing as objective history, then we are free, so the thinking goes, to teach “advocacy history.” This enables us to give the poor and oppressed a leg up. In teaching advocacy history, whether or not something really happened is not really important or material. If there is no such thing as objective truth, Thomas Edison did not have to invent the light bulb. Kwanda Kuu did, if that works for you.

Deconstruct Till You Drop

This approach to historical studies grew out of a movement within literary criticism called deconstruction. This radically relativistic school of thought teaches that you can read and interpret a book any way you want. No longer do you have to worry about what the author really meant. He said what you want him to have said. You think Hamlet as a comedy? Fine. Nobody is supposed to be able to comprehend what Shakespeare truly meant, let alone what his audience experienced. So now we have come to the point where the whole world is a text, and there are so many interpretations, none of them “true.” Truth does not exist, and if you say that it does you are a nasty old Eurocentric.

For such people, the real enemy is the providence of God over history —the idea that nations can and have been judged morally by a righteous God. That some nations are better than others should never be taught, in their view, unless you are teaching that Pagan Nation X is better than Christian Nation Y. Thus the Aztecs are happy, creative people (never mind that they tortured children and ripped people’s hearts out on a daily basis), while the colonists and pioneers were virtual demons of evil, spreading over America for the sole purpose of killing harmless Native Americans and enslaving defenseless Africans.

History = His Story

In the light of this, what course should Christian parents take to teaching ancient history? As discussed above, first we need to know that objective history exists. This idea is not difficult—small children master it easily. The foolish relativism outlined above can easily be rejected. It refutes itself. The claim that there is no objective truth is itself an attempt to state an objective truth.

Secondly, we know that history exists and has a meaningful purpose because God is the Lord of history. He is not watching it as a bemused spectator. Rather, He is sovereign over it. As the Gospel song has it, “He’s got the whole world in His hands!” God has perfect knowledge of how events transpired, and why they happened the way they did. Although we have imperfect knowledge, our knowledge of history can therefore approximate His, to greater or lesser degrees.

History the Classical Way

Samuel Butler once said, “The public buys its opinions as it buys its meat, or takes in its milk, on the principle that it is cheaper to do this than to keep a cow. So it is, but the milk is more likely to be watered.” To prevent the problem of “watered down milk” a classical approach to history will always emphasize primary sources. Poor textbooks provide little more than a pabulum hash. A good textbook can provide the student with the big picture—a survey of the period in question, and an outline of key figures, dates, events, etc. But reading primary sources will provide everything else, so the student will really come to understand that time in history.

For example, suppose your child has undertaken the study of ancient Greece and Rome, and he has gone through a textbook of that period. Then what should he read? I would recommend Tacitus’ The Annals and The Histories, Herodotus’ History, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars, Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, the Apocrypha and the New Testament. A student who does this will have lived in that period for a short space of time. In doing this, the student will also be very pleasantly surprised. This is because the old books are almost always far more interesting, and better written, than modern textbooks are. Your dinner table conversation will circle around interesting historical tidbits for months. You’ll be asking each other, “Did you know . . .?”

In his essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis commented, “If the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf . . . he would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about isms and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.” But as we all know, homeschooled students are not average! So dust off those old Greeks and Romans. They may surprise you!

In conclusion, Christian parents must affirm that there is such a thing as objective history, and that the God they serve is the Lord of that history. Seeking to teach this objective history to our children, we should direct them to the primary sources. It takes hard work, but the intellectual and spiritual rewards are considerable.

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