Inspection- Rethinking How We Teach History (Historical Lessons We Have Lost or Never Been Taught)

This week, and just before Christmas, Inspection will be based around Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianites. Mr. Ehrman’s book opened my mind to possibilities I had slightly imagined: at best…. and concepts, I’m sure, beyond what he intended. This edition will be about…

Rethinking How We Teach History

Does religion belong in our public schools?

Would you be surprised if a certain columnist; whose columns are mostly featured on Liberal websites, answered, “Yes?”

For the past eight years we have had a head of State who had fundamentalists as a large part of his base, probably more so than ever before in recent history. That base played part in his reelection and many of his decisions. One might even argue, at least since Jimmy Carter, they have played an increasing role in public life and public policy. Most Americans have, at best, little knowledge about religion in general and its major influence on history: especially fundamentalism. But those who are the most fundamentalistic in three of the most major world faiths; Islam, Judaism and Christianity, have contributed much more, over the span of human history and to whom we are today, than we have been taught.

I am neither claiming bad, or good, for the purposes of this discussion. But their influence is undeniable. No matter what anyone thinks of them, we ignore them at our own peril. Lightly skip over their influence; and the influence of religion in general, then we are no longer teaching history, but a major misrepresentation of history. And they become a very efficient weapon that can be used against us by ambitious, perhaps even evil, politicians.

This is what happens whenever any large constituency is ignored, or under estimated.

We need to rethink how we teach, how much we teach and what we learn from history in our public schools. I know the trend is away from actually teaching history: combining and diluting it with other disciplines instead; wrong headed as that is. But we desperately need history to be taught… and to help us teach it well religion: in a comparative way, absolutely belongs in History courses.

I am not asking for “faith” to be taught: far from it. I think school prayers in a public school; for example, are either so generic that they would be offensive, or so specific they would be offensive. Neither faith nor belief should be taught, except as needed to explain the differences among sides in a conflict, or regarding any issue.

But religion used as an aid in organizing and presenting History; especially World History courses? Invaluable.

Studying and learning from history without understanding how the different faiths have influenced is like studying the Civil War and skipping the slavery issue. One might argue that states’ rights was far more than anything else the reason for the war; an argument I would consider faulty when it come to the qualifier “far,” but even if true… skipping slavery just doesn’t make sense. It had a major influence on those times and how we as a society developed after that conflict. One could argue that a straight line can be drawn to this year’s election from slavery and the issues that surrounded it; complete with differing religious influences that once upon a time either defended or bashed slavery. Then we have the obvious religious connections and symbolism of the Scopes trial… the absurd and quite racist claims that after Cain and Abel the Black race was born… the Klan, Martin Luther King, Black Panthers… to mention just a few examples. The line continues; drawn up to Barack Obama. We cannot deny that racial issues connect to religion… and religion: that Muslim Fundamentalist vs. Christian Fundamentalist dynamic, all played a major part in this 08 election. Then we have religion and patriotism; sometimes it’s so hard to separate the two it would be like attempting to split twins who share the same heart and mind.

The fact we do skim over the influence of religion for the most part doesn’t surprise me: or that the trend is towards teaching less and less of it. It’s easy in a society where you might anger one faith by teaching about it one way, others by choosing some other way. But teach it we must. More than anything else, who we have been has a massive influence on whom we are, and who we will become.

When it comes to teaching our past, American History courses have an unfair advantage that I would like to use for all history courses: a simple, easy: singular timeline. When Mrs. Heinlein, my fourth grade teacher, started her timeline on the board, and showed how America developed through time; history came alive for us. Indians who weren’t stupid enough to let covered wagons form a circle to protect themselves made a lot more sense. Abe Lincoln’s attempts to compromise away the slavery issue at first by providing less than emancipation breathed the reality of those days into a American icon.

If World History had been well taught as American History I might have veered towards a teaching degree in History rather than English. But I have to be fair: focus on any one country and almost any fool could damn near teach history well, but even if we just taught European history… rather than attempting to teach World History, there would still be too many ruddy countries to give history the attention it deserves. Timelines become messy, so it tends to be taught by hopping all over: hard; to damn near impossible, to organize. Aggravating to teach… boring at best.

I think we could clear this up by including religion in a different type of timeline for all courses: even American History. This would provide a sense of continuity from year to year. Some of the pivotal points on the timeline may change to reflect the main focus that year, but students would begin to see the inter-connectiveness between freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year history courses.

After teaching American History in 9th Grade; before teaching a course that combines what was learned from II and III with American History in the 12th grade: here’s my suggestion for a two one year courses…

Issues, Conflicts and Resolve II and III

(By “conflict” I mean it is a far wider sense than just war. “I” would be American History. “IV” would be American and World combined. That would be an opportunity to also include discussions about countries rarely mentioned during I, II and III.)

The first year would be more religion and social oriented, the second more political and social: though they could be switch around, and referred to during both years. Other causes are, of course, discussed. I will examine; in this column, the first year. But by examining the pattern and timeline I provide, I think possible additions and subtractions from the second year should become obvious, and I think you can probably extrapolate the other two years as well from what I provide here. Anyone interested in my ideas regarding the other courses, feel free to contact me by commenting on the column.

Begin by examining major religious and social issues that have occurred and reoccurred over human history: use this overview throughout the year, and every year: adding and subtracting what issues you might need for that specific year. Then start a timeline; choosing amongst the many history-changing major conflicts over human history. I am referring to them as “pivotal points” in this column. Conflicts that deal with reoccurring issues would be crucial to our timeline, but other more era specific conflicts and causes are mentioned as well… just not as much. One should start with such a pivotal point in history… then move forward in time to another, then another. I would suggest three to four pivotal points at the most, and others as more of a minor mention.

For the purposes of this column the first pivotal point will be the beginning of Christianity vs. the Roman Empire. Why? Well, to quote the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Bart Ehrman…

“In considering the importance of the victory of proto-orthodoxy …we also reflect on broader historical implications. A case can be made that this victory was one of the most significant events in the social and political history of western civilization.”

(pg 249)

(Note: “proto” as in “before they came to be considered ‘orthodox'”)

A Roman Empire that did not become Christian? No Crusades? No Inquisition? Society developing as a collection of various faiths, rather than one bent on conversion? Possible. We tend to forget that the Roman Empire was a collection of many faiths; both the various pagan faiths, Judaism and many others. Though various versions of paganism; and one more specific version of paganism, were in the majority faith-wise within the Roman Empire; until Christianity took hold, all those differing faiths were relatively tolerated. Jesus wasn’t executed to please some Roman pagan God, or because when he was under Rome’s power he didn’t worship as the Romans did. As long as someone wasn’t an insurgent; some anti-Rome rebel, or an agitator determined to force your faith upon the Empire, you were relatively free to worship as you wished. The Romans were more interested in keep power and the peace; in a quite brutal manner, than anything you believed… or didn’t. Pilate didn’t even want to get involved and eventually “washed his hands.” Jesus was executed mostly because certain powerful Jews viewed him as a threat; demanding he be executed: giving the Empire an excuse to pull, at best, a very slightly annoying thorn out of their side and stick it into Christ’s head. One could validly claim that Jesus was a victim of too much religious influence over governance.

I’m going to repeat that…

One could validly claim that Jesus was a victim of too much religious influence over governance.

Obviously, if we are to go with my example, students would need at least as little knowledge about what different factions, sects and faiths believed.

Now introduce two to three other pivotal conflicts further down the timeline; some seemingly related… some not: draw parallels and distinct differences. Conflicts other than the pivots certainly should be mentioned, but not as a major focus. The object here is to be a linear as possible; that way the students can organize the information in their heads and in their notes. The more you complicate your timeline method, the less effective your teaching. Plus we have a four year span here where we can cover something that wasn’t mentioned before, because these courses are connected to each other. Obviously teachers will need to spend some time planning together to make this effective as possible.

One of the methods used to draw the student into this would be making it more personal. A method I recommend would be the time machine. “If you could go back… what differences would you notice between how we view the issues they had then, and now? Similarities? If you started in that nation: as they are today, and you went back in time, what might get you killed, thrown in prison or tortured then, that wouldn’t now?” Of course whatever part of the world this conflict happened in should be examined to see how they handle these issues now to make this process accurate.

Then we come to an important question regarding the first year of World History… what would be the best pivotal points? If you feel other conflicts are more important, of course the method is the point, but my choices for the religious/social conflict focus in year one would be…

1. Roman Empire and Christianity. Without a doubt a pivotal point in history, which I will explain some more in a while.

2. The Inquisition, the Crusades and the Thirty Years War; between Catholics and Protestants.

3. Religious influence on other conflicts and issues, with a special focus on WWII. (WWI would be year two, since it’s more about misunderstandings and political…far less religious: though a case could be made for it being the result of that somewhat religious trend of the time; Social Darwinism.)

4. The world confronts terrorism. This brings us around full circle.

Year two would have some different pivotal points, but a timeline that generally follows along with other years: with obvious mentions specifically back to the first World History course.

Now there’s a timeline concept that can include true world history and the influence of many faiths.

But let’s get back to the start of that school year: our first pivot in course I. An important point needs to be made that shows how everything is connected in a way we don’t even realize because history has glossed over, and glamorized, Christianity. Some of this is caused by a reluctance to refer to religion at all, but a lot because even Christians don’t know much about the nature of how their movement developed slightly post execution. Here is a partial posting at smirkingchimp.com I responded to…

“I have never seen such vitriolic, baseless, fear mongering as I have observed among Christians in this election season.”

– a Christian posting at The Chimp

My response…

“Early Christians, slighty post-lion, would be familiar with it though. The Ebionites, Marcionites and Gnostics; to mention a few, battled amongst themselves and those whom we would consider more orthodox these days. The rhetoric was quite steamy. Paul and Peter were often used against each other and, in life, differed dramatically. Mary was presumably forming another folk group in disgust… chuckle…”

Sounds interesting. We might even find out what group Mary formed. Could it be… DaVinci? Ah, what started as a joke now reveals more history and uses popular culture to bring history a little closer to our students.

Perhaps we should examine this time period more and see how it’s all connected? But before we take our time machine and head back to that time, let’s observe a small smidgen of 2008, featuring headlines from magazines, posts on blogs, newspapers and coming our of our radios, our TVs, like…

Is Barack Obama a Muslim, a Socialist, or the Antichrist?

I admit, this last election there was a lot of rather nasty framing of Sen. Obama, Gov. Palin, Sen. Clinton and Sen. McCain. With all the religious influences that have poured into our political rhetoric and debates, we’re living through a rather unprecedented time in history, right?

Hmmm… “True.” Or… not?

Let’s hop into our time machine! Flip the switch; listen to the giant egg beaters open up a time portal… maybe we’ll use them to make blueberry pancakes after. But it’s your job (point at someone if using this to teach) to clean them up when we’re done. “No?” Well, let’s just go back inn time. Now… watch the ages melt before our eyes,,, backwards: oh, good, no one burned a building where our machine stands, or built a big rock wall that would crush us as we pass… and here is what we find arriving at our historical apex…

“We have seen a wide range of strategies used by various combatants in the literary battles for dominance in early Christianity: …stereotyped but harsh attacks on the views of others, forged documents in the names of apostolic authorities heartily advocating one… or maligning another… falsification of literature…

(pg. 226)

If you think the campaign against Barack, or what was said about Bill or Hillary, was the ultimate of outrage, imagine what christian groups who were not part of what would soon become part of the accepted; orthodox view, felt at the time. Here is what Ephiphanius; powerful, vitriolic opponent of all who didn’t follow the orthodox line in the fourth century, charged the Phiobionites; a sect within the Gnostic Christian community, with…

“…after satiated with food and drink… married couples separate to engage in a liturgy of sexual intercourse… the couple then collects his semen in their hands and ingests it together while proclaiming, ‘This is the body of Christ.’ When possible, the couple also collects and consumes the woman’s menstrual blood, saying ‘this is the blood of Christ.’ If the woman… becomes pregnant, the fetus is allowed to develop until it can be manually aborted. Then… it is dismembered, covered with honey and spices, and devoured by the community…”

(pg. 199)

Dear God, Karl Rove’s tactics, and the tactics of the John McCain’s campaign, were peace loving and hippie-like in comparison.

(Please note, I am definitely not suggesting a public school teacher include this exact quote in his or her course, any more than I would suggest bringing in hacked limbs as an example of sword warfare… unless you really don’t wish to teach anymore.)

While Mr. Ehrman, in Lost Christianities, states that charges like that were probably unfair, he did admit that they were related to Gnostic understanding of the cosmos. Just like, in my opinion, one could claim that orthodox Catholic communion has a relation to cannibalism: transubstantiation be damned.

He also states…

“Lying behind such slurs is the notion that those who side with God will lead moral, upright lives and be unwilling to do anything to defile themselves or others.

pg 198

That notion would amaze those abused by priests, or the victims of various scandals that have haunted protestants. No matter how valid any faith or sect may be, there is little doubt that claiming to be on the correct side, the “only” one God approves of, isn’t always a sure of sign of purity.

Things haven’t changed all that much, have they?

(Please note: I am not claiming that non-proto-orthodox groups were innocent lambs in this discourse.)

Back to just post crucifixion…

The disciples didn’t stop bickering amongst themselves after Christ was executed. Mr. Ehrman noted, previously in the text, that Peter and Paul gathered their own followers: formed their own churches, and attacked each other for what they considered not only heresy, but being demonic. Followers splintered into various churches and faiths, most of them unfamiliar to us now, but that dynamic is crucial here. Splintering will happen even after heretical groups are, sometimes literally, torched out of our history. Burn libraries, gut people and spread their parts to different parts of the globe and other people will rise up; the original Martin Luther, Mormons, Unitarians, Universalists. Many will also claim to be theologically pure, what Jesus really wanted: the only ones on God’s side… or Allah if you wish. That aspect to our timeline heads not only to the Inquisition, the Crusades: but the Axis vs, the Allies where Gott Mit Uns was proudly stamped on belt buckles and Hitler proclaiming God was on his side… or a new “Crusade” led by our soon to be previous president, as he so unfortunately first named our adventure in preemptive warfare.

See a connection? Well to quote our soon to be president, “Yes, we can.” All traceable to those disciples and their arguments amongst themselves.

At the end of each year: two papers. One speculating “what if,” and another examining overall observations. These would be graded far less on accurate observations or predictions than honest attempts to address the questions asked, though the student’s inaccurate observations and problematic suggestions should be commented on.

Some questions that might be asked of students each year…

A. How did the sides in this conflict attempt to resolve that conflict?
B. What further conflicts may have occurred due to these issues, these conflicts and all the attempts to resolve?
C. What influence may this conflict have had on other conflicts; both past and present?
D. How did this conflict cross the “lines” between social, theological, political issues and institutions?
E. What other conflicts may different countries, regions and humanity as a whole face in the future? Extra credit: possible solutions.
F. What might you have suggested would have been a better way to resolve these issues? Extra credit: has this “solution” been used before? More extra credit: how did it work? More: how might today’s world look today if that solution had been used? (Note, a sincere attempt should mean more than accuracy here, though they should be informed of possible flaws in their solutions.)

The object here is to get students to not only learn history, but to learn from history; and use the past develop skills that might help generations to be able to learn how come up with creative solutions to future conflicts. The most important goal: get students to think… not just regurgitate. We already have too many self made pundits declaring “the” reason why Roman Empire. (I’m always suspicious when anyone claims “one” anything.) We need to grow in-depth analysis abilities in our students before they are even capable of coming close to being able to do that kind of analysis. Scholars still don’t agree on the most important reasons why the Empire fell, yet we have hordes of adult ignoramuses who claim they know… due to their preconceived, highly partisan, notions.

As a community we can no longer have such vast ignorance regarding human history, or how very crucial factors like religion has influenced it. We are raising children who will have to solve tomorrow’s conundrums, and these problems include religion as well as social/political elements.

Every time a Karl Rove starts a campaign of slime, an Iraq is invaded in an act of supposed preemption, gays get bashed, Islamic jihadists fly into towers, or someone walks into a school and starts pulling a trigger, we can see and hear an echo of what was. It’s about time our children study the reasons, the sources: the inter-connectivness inherent in conflicts and resolutions. Being able to recite dates and names is meaningless make work that seeps out of students heads as fast as we put it in. When was the last time you needed the exact dates of when the Civil War started? But to be able to understand the reasons, the whys, and how the past still affects us now and in the future… that is a way to both lessen conflict and increase our knowledge of whom we are, and who we can be.

The future waits. It will be here no matter what we do and it will arrive with us… or without us. We just need students smart enough, thoughtful enough, to help us towards the best possible future; and to make sure we are here to greet it.

-30-

Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over thirty years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.