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How to Teach History

There are too many theories, critical and otherwise, and not enough stories, valuable for their own sake, in the way we talk about the past.

“No folk tale has ever begun thus: ‘Once upon a time there was a president.’” I have always liked this aphorism of Nicolás Gómez-Dávila, not because it is entirely true—one can imagine a fanciful children’s version of the life of, say, Cincinnatus that plausibly rendered the Latin dictātor as “president”—but because it draws our attention to the very real question of how children engage with historical narratives.

What, I wonder, could be more alien to a child’s imagination than modern liberal democratic politics? The unedifying, frequently meaningless pronouncements of elected officials, the ad-hoc principles articulated with a lunatic urgency matched only by the speed with which they are abandoned (and taken up by an opposing faction that had only lately afforded them a roughly comparable degree of opprobrium), the frenetic decontextualized argument, and, above all, the endless recriminations about third and fourth-order violations of supposed norms, or offenses even further afield: How much more mysterious these are than “Open Sesame!” To the extent that a child is capable of understanding any unit of social organization larger than the family, she is likely to think in terms of monarchies or tribes: romantic queens or chieftains, beautifully aged dowagers and sinister viziers and wide-eyed shaman, and wandering princes who dare to guess the secret names of ogres.

Properly understood, all education begins with wonder, with feelings of awe and impressions of beauty and strangeness. For this reason, I think, conservative participants in what I have come to think of as the “education wars” currently being fought over the teaching (hypothetical or otherwise) of critical race theory in American public schools are missing the point. The response to a curiously bloodless and mechanical account of the all-encompassing depravity of, e.g., the European-descended portion of the American population or (if we are being generously narrower) the Jesuit missionaries to 18th-century Canada should not be an equally endemic and reductive account of this country’s founding, much less a doomed attempt to teach natural law as anything except a topic within the history of ideas, but a blissfully undertheorized romantic attitude toward history that by definition precludes each of the various competing reductivisms on offer.

It is precisely because American history in particular is taught as the inevitable unfolding of a dialectic—either one of omnidirectional cruelty and wickedness from which it is essentially impossible to extricate ourselves or else of an eternal progress toward the realization of some basically ineffable ideal America prophesied by 18th-century Freemasons—that most publicly educated children of my acquaintance regard it as (with the exception of English, about which more anon) unrelentingly tedious.

Which is why my brief is not for an anachronistic account of the social ontology of race that projects the scientific racism of 19th-century Darwinism endlessly backward into the medieval past or meaningless abstractions about the Constitution and its supposed origins in a grasping familiarity with the classical political tradition, but history simpliciter, as a branch of speculative literature with no object more exalted than the diversion of young readers. What we fail at present to communicate to children is not that our leaders have in the past, including the very recent past, frequently been brutal demagogues or that the consequences of their follies (or worse) remain with us today—indeed, in an unemotional sense, this inchoate realization is probably the only thing of which they are aware—but that there is, once these principles have been established, any point in inquiring about persons and places who are remote from us both temporally and geographically. Instead of an inexhaustible source of wonder that at once renders the past familiar and defamiliarizes the present, history has become, under the two competing theories, either the locus of an interminable quasi-Marxist “critique” of race relations or a kind of substitute for Holy Writ, the record of a chosen people.

The approach I am suggesting instead is valuable for its own sake. It does not require justification on the grounds that it is conducive to the fortunes of a political movement any more than does the teaching of botany or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Nevertheless, it does seem to me likely that “conservatives,” however broadly defined, who wish to reach children in public school settings would do better to focus their efforts on the kind of education I have in mind, if only because the ostensible truths which they wish to impart—rejection of the unlimited potential of man to remake himself in the image of whatever idols he has constructed, a sense of the transcendent glimpsed in those small moments when he stands utterly outside himself and whatever digitally augmented conception of “politics” is meant to subsume his attention—will only be available to children for whom these things have not been precluded by the impression that history itself is reducible to a series of well-meaning didactic clichés. 

The same holds true for the teaching of literature. When imaginative literature is reduced to a series of ponderous allegories about the perils of communism (or, indeed, anti-communism), children can be forgiven for wondering what the point of all these stories and characters and descriptions are. We need more Coleridge, and less Animal Farm (something with which I am certain George Orwell would have agreed). We likewise need to teach the names of the trees and the flowers in a way that we do not need to impart the speculations of theoretical physicists or the shopworn axioms of materialist philosophy masquerading as the heirs of old-fashioned naturalism.

From the vantage point of a child who has read about Roman Britain and the medieval kingdoms of Africa and the rise and fall of scores of Chinese dynasties before the birth of Christ, the conquest of the Americas will take on a very different appearance—tragic in the classical sense, no doubt, inevitable, irreversible, certainly not irredeemable. So too will all men and women in all ages, whom, they will discover, often did things that seem to us cruel and believed things we find inexplicable while being in some indescribable way utterly like us—for the not very complicated reason (which may not even be articulated consciously) that, like us, they were made lovingly in God’s image.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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