One of the hallmarks of a classical education is that it provides students with an integrated learning experience. For example, if medieval history is being studied, then so is medieval literature, art, and music, and there will probably also be conversations about developments in math and science during the same period. Students may even be introduced to the virtues attendant to chivalry like fidelity, purity, patriotism, and humility. The same is true for all of the various periods of human civilization. Teaching history provides a context for all of the subjects in the humanities, and the sciences as well.
Doesn’t it makes sense that if you want students to understand the 16th century in Europe, then you have to first show the seeds of the renaissance that were sown in the medieval world that preceded it? Likewise, philosophical movements like the Enlightenment and Postmodernism that have had a profound influence on every aspect of our current culture can only be understood by looking back to Renaissance humanism and the growing confidence in humanity’s ability to use reason and observation to come to an understanding of the world about them. When that history is understood, students can then see how a growing confidence in reason and science to explain the world about him led “modern man” to question whether or not God exists. Eventually, he stopped questioning God’s existence at all and the result has been radical individualism, rampant secularism, subjectivism, rationalism, and empiricism. The gradual progression away from right reason, or to paraphrase St. John Paull II, the use of human faculties to formulate universal principles of being that are both logical and ethical (JP II, Fides et Ratio, 4 ), has led us to where we are today… to a post-modern and post-Christian world.
Teaching history is fundamental to a classical education. It relates all subjects in the curriculum to their expression in time. A historian’s role is to collect memories so they can be handed down in stories that define who we are. Those stories have influenced great literature through which we can see the historical struggles and triumphs of our shared humanity. We can only truly know who we are if we know our past.
So, how important is history? If its link to understanding ourselves and our culture isn’t enough, Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase, that “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” should be sound an alarm to any skeptic. Knowledge is accumulated throughout history. We call that progress. It would be the ultimate human folly to abandon that rich source of wisdom and be forever doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
A shared history and culture are what form cultural identity and provide unity and strength. In the United States, we have always called our shared identity the American Sprit. Joined together by a common past, we have weathered wars, economic catastrophe, social unrest, and many other challenges. History teaches us that one way revolutions are brought about is by destabilizing the foundational institutions of society like family, religion, popular culture, and education – the very institutions that provide stability and social cohesion.
During the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, Mao Zedong rallied students to purge what he considered the impure elements of Chinese society, and they responded in a horrifically violent way. Artists and intellectuals who were identified as promoting the “old culture” were eradicated along with landlords and others who opposed the revolution. Millions died and Chinese history with its imperial past was erased. Mao became their God, and the story of the Glorious Revolution became the new China and the centerpiece of Chinese education. Through violence and fear, Mao wrote a new beginning for China with a new story as a nation under Marxist authoritarian control.
Forging the American Spirit
The United States was also borne in revolution, but of a much different kind. The thirteen colonies had evolved their own culture and had adapted to the new world by developing an economy that was chafing under British demands.
The first British colony was established in Jamestown in 1607, but it wasn’t until 169 years later that the colonies could no longer endure this oppression by England and began to demand independence. The Declaration of Independence put a territorial and ideological stake in the ground about a year after the first rebellion against British troops had already taken place at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. As the Declaration states:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
And those causes that impelled them to revolt against England were just. The Declaration of Independence has been acknowledged as a ground-breaking document in world history. The colonists’ fight for independence was waged against tyranny and for the freedom of self-governance and the protection of all citizen’s rights to the universal human rights the framers knew could only be granted by God and not the state:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
The U.S. Constitution was ratified by Congress in Philadelphia on June 21, 1788 and established the legal order that would protect the states and the civil liberties of their citizens by limiting the power of the federal government. Those liberties were clarified in 1791 in the first ten amendments to the Constitution that we call the Bill of Rights.
Was the newly founded United States perfect? No, but the ideal of a democratic republic that protected the rights of it citizens was codified in law, beginning a long and painful evolution toward full equality that would take another 170 years to achieve. The strength of the American Sprit, aided by the legal structure of the Constitution, sustained our nation through a Civil War that would finally end the horrible sin of slavery. The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 defining citizenship and guaranteeing all persons due process and equal protection, and then at long last the Civil Rights Legislation of 1964 made certain that justice was extended to all people regardless of race, sex, or disability.
Until fairly recently, this is the proud history taught in American schools. Now, however, there is cultural revolution being attempted here in our own country that is promoting a contrary view of American history. This revolution isn’t a bloody one like the Cultural Revolution in China, but at an alarming rate, schools across the U.S. are joining in the attempt to rewrite our history according to a racist narrative intended to cause guilt and division rather than pride in our past and hope in the future.
Critical Theory and the American Classroom
On August 14, 2019, the New York Times Magazine published an inaugural essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones called “The 1619 Project” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to the Virginia Colony. Jake Silverstein, editor of the New York Times Magazine explained the revolutionary goal of this project: “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” He wrote that, “Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her essay and the Pulitzer Center has helped turn the initial New York Times essay into a full-blown curriculum that is now providing resources for Critical Race Theory to be taught in classrooms across the United States.
We discussed the origins of Critical Theory in a previous blog and there mentioned the 1619 Project as an example of how Critical Theory has impacted the teaching of history. You can read a critique of it here (lengthy critique here), but it is important to place the 1619 Project in the broader historical, cultural, and political context of Critical Theory.
Critical Theory reduces history to competing narratives. The narrative of Critical Race Theory is a counter-narrative intended to advance a political or ideological Critical social justice agenda. These counter-narratives of Critical Theory are about systems of power that are intended to subvert what is perceived as the dominant group, or to use Marx’s language, the oppressor. In Critical Theory, those who control the narrative, hold the power.
Critical Theory is fundamentally cynical. Its endpoint is not truth or justice, but power and its method is the suppression of any opposing view. Critical theorists offer plenty of criticism but accept none. The counter-narrative offered by the 1619 Project is that the U.S. has been built on a system of racism that existed from the beginning and still remains in place to reinforce the oppression of people of color. To them, racism is everywhere, ordinary, and permanent.
The investigative reporter, Christopher Ruffo, has exposed how this indoctrination is taking place in American schools. In an interview he stated that his investigations have found:
…a California public school forcing first-graders to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, then rank themselves according to their “power and privilege”; a Missouri middle school forcing teachers to locate themselves on an “oppression matrix”; a Buffalo public school curriculum teaching that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism”; a San Diego public school training claiming that white teachers are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children; a New York City public school principal telling white parents they must become “white traitors” and advocate for “white abolition.Christopher Ruffo, The Atlantic Interview
This is only a small sample of similar incidents taking place in public and private school classrooms everywhere. Some Catholic parish schools are flirting with Critical Race Theory and other high-profile private Catholic academies have fully adopted it into their curriculum.
Truth at the Regina Academies
We say it often, but we can’t say it enough… at the Regina Academies, we teach our students that Truth is a person named Jesus Christ and we believe he can be known with certainty through revelation supported by evidence from history and the natural world. Jesus prayed earnestly before his horrible crucifixion that all would be one in his name (John 17.21-22). Jesus unites – the Evil One divides.
Critical Theory is a dangerous manifestation of the skeptical age in which we live. Some call this era of history postmodernism. It is a time characterized by skepticism, the denial of objective truth, and of radical individualism. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned us in his last homily before becoming Pope of the “dictatorship of relativism” that is the outcome of the denial of objective truth. When there is no longer truth – an object outside ourselves to which we all aspire together – there can be no justice and the only thing left is power.
Patriotism is an important virtue taught at the Regina Academies. The politically charged environment in which we live has obscured the beauty and importance of this virtue. Patriotism is an aspect of the virtue of justice and is similar to the respect one owes to one’s parents. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” (ccc #2239) But like love, patriotism cannot be blind. It demands that everyone see injustice clearly and work for equality and respect regardless of any social division the critical theorists wish to impose to destabilize our country and gain power.
Why the Western Tradition?
As Catholic classical schools, the Regina Academies see truth manifested throughout the Western tradition because our tradition grew out of contemplating the human person through the lens of the Incarnation. Catholic classical learning explores the truths of revelation, but also truth as it has been revealed in creation (science) and in contemplation of the human consequences and outcomes of being made in the image of God (the humanities). That is not to say that there is no truth in cultures that haven’t known Christ, but in the words of St. John Paul II from his first encyclical letter as pope:
Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension definitively-in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God-and he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity, and in considering the errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with amazement the words of the Sacred Liturgy: “O happy fault… which gained us so great a Redeemer!”Redemptor Hominis, 1.
At the Regina Academies, Truth has a name, and that name is Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is an objective reality that demands our attention because within that truth resides the real power to radically transform and unite all people in the image of Truth himself.
Image: William Barnes Wollen: The Battle of Lexington, 1910.