Culture Keepers

“O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called, which some, professing, have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen.” ~ 1 Timothy 6:20-21

What has been committed to us? What are we trusted to keep, and in what way will this guard us against vain speech and pseudo knowledge? Have you ever noticed the many repetitions of the history of the Children of Israel in various points of the Bible? It seems a requirement of any speech, any rhetoric in the scripture to include a summary of history.

At the Classical School of Wichita we are working hard on history and the transmission of culture. This is in opposition to the trend at large. In fact, most course catalogs in higher education today do not have extensive offerings in historical studies. My father, who passed a love of history on to me, confides that every year enrollment in the History of Western Civilization classes he teaches at university is dropping off; it is no longer a required course at his school. Argumentatively, humanities and social studies departments may be more diverse now, offering hyphenated versions of history courses that claim to present a special perspective on a well understood, or maybe incorrectly understood, era or place. However, in this reality of gendered or narrative-conditioned historical studies, fewer people than ever can tell you much about American or European history. Classical studies are becoming a unicorn at the college level. Why should this matter?

Education is an endowment. Someone born into an imagined nomadic tribe would not need an extensive education in what had come before in order to continue the life of the tribe. A society that has no assets to pass on does not need much time to do it. Conversely, the more a culture has accomplished, the longer the ‘gestation’ of the student; the ‘cultivating’ of the student requires more attention as more details accumulate over time. Passing on the knowledge of the past to future generations seems rigorous when described this way. And, indeed, it is.

Think of the near universal ignorance concerning the origins and workings of our own country among the “educated” people who live here. I suppose a thin minority of people could tell you much at all about the circumstances of the Vietnam War prior to watching the Ken Burns documentary that was just released. While spending much time accumulating the technical achievement that they have been pointed toward, students today have not been able or willing to spend the time and effort it would take to receive the transmission of their own history, and therefore have no grounding in culture.

Could it be, that despite the protestations of history being tainted by the prejudice of the tellers, the real work of understanding history has no short cuts? You must read the books themselves and spend precious time in contemplation apart from the pursuit of one’s economic goals. Is this the real reason most students are not equal to it? Perhaps the course catalogs exist now to flatter and not offend, both in effort and in focus. History does not flatter us. Too much has happened—and we suspect it is irrelevant. Are the course offerings in modern universities a reflection of what students will stand for, and not a canon of excellence or comprehensiveness?

History is the evidence of man’s choice in the world. It is the sum of his fruits. We read the good, and yes, the very bad; one as a miracle and gift, the other as the weary repetition of the ‘dog returning to his vomit’. History is the measurement of man against nature, both his own and that of the cosmos, under the force of providence. How can we understand our limits and possibilities with a disregard of the accumulated memory of the cultures?

Being ‘Innocent of History’, a phrase used by Arnold Toynbee, a great historical theorist, will lead to perplexities and disappointments. You have heard it said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time is a definition of insanity. Could it be that induced amnesia through an indifference to study is a refusal to be sane?

A school that values history is conservative by definition. Conserving the lessons of the past indicates a desire to live well in the present. Passing these lessons forward is the heart of education, and the heart of what we’re doing at CSW—celebrating a God who enters history, in a time and at a place, performing the work of salvation and securing those who seek him for all time.

~ Dan Snyder, CSW logic, omnibus and rhetoric teacher