Competitions / Multiple Choice
The prevalence of competitions which encourage children to learn history as a type of trivial pursuit is symptomatic of a time when the meaning of history is not honestly sought. Little floating facts are the measure of a fragmented historical consciousness. This can only be challenged if we come to believe that history is worth studying as an instructive account of the way men can and cannot live together, and how they can and cannot generate cultural progress.
I might have offered this critique of multiple choice testing at any point in this essay, and I do not want to discourage any honest motivation for learning a few more facts, either of history or of anything else. I only want to insist that we cannot win the culture wars without going to the heart of the matter: truth in the very largest sense can be known and must be sought.
What is Culture?
Culture in general is the sum of the deliberately, even passionately conserved beliefs and hopes, and the consequent way of life, of any group of people. It’s their religion, their family life, and their social concept of education and leadership, and their sense of the universe. Because America has such a multiplicity of religious faiths, family styles, and local customs, it seems hard to define — or to build — our culture. Public school represents one effort to smooth out the differences in favor of a Protestant, Deist, or even, as the 21st century advances, a pagan culture. Television is another proposal; music is a third.
While these influences have homogenized America to some extent, the difficulty is that the new “culture” is proposed, not lived, and lacks both coherence and genuine passion. It’s a fake. It includes (as it would have to) an effort to loosen family ties in order to advance an agenda; but the loosening of family ties is simply an anti-cultural act. Culture passes through the family or not at all. Even the Church cannot be the conduit of culture, only its servant:
“The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”
Culture and Civilization
In the study of history, we are comparing civilizations — the outward living together of people in a civitas — but also at cultures — their shared inner life.
The important question is, what kind of civilization and what kind of culture supports the depth of human life; what destroys it? How are positive civilization and culture nurtured, and by what kinds of people, indeed by which people in the long train of human biography?
Surely culture is the most misunderstood concept and also the most important question to clarify. Sometimes it is claimed that all cultures are equal, and it is taken as a form of racism to compare them.
In this connection, let me just remind you that the ships that carried Columbus across the Atlantic were manned by men of several different races, but one culture, so racism is not the issue. Culture is not about race, but about a concept of human nature and how to nurture it.
Enforced cultural relativity — insistence on the equality of all cultures — is simply ignorant, ridiculous, or tyrannical. The Mayas practiced infant sacrifice. The communists destroyed family-based agriculture in favor of government farms. A few moments' thought — and some historical study — will quickly bring up many examples of ways of life that are not merely backward or badly worked out but fundamentally opposed to the nature of the human person, his freedom, his love, his interior necessities.
The study of history should help students become aware of these examples, be warned by them, and be prepared to avoid the political and social decisions that could resurrect bad civic arrangements. Some students will be called into government and social service as surely as some are called to religious life. The study of history is their foundation.
History of the East
I just don’t know what is a good resource for China, India, Japan, Australia or any of the countries that did not belong to the core of Christendom.
It is very helpful to understand that the Chinese Lao Tse was a Gnostic compared to Confucius. It is interesting that Chandragupta Maurya, first emperor of India, was brutal and his son became a gentle Buddhist so that Hinduism briefly lost its hold over India.
India has a work called the Arthasastra of Kautilya, a piece that, had it been known in the west, would have made Machiavelli’s The Prince redundant. I still wonder whether it had somehow made its way west...
And I found Gavin Menzies’ account of the Chinese circumnavigation of the world (his book is called 1421) very persuasive and insightful.
But these are snippets. At some point, a student needs to take a semester or more to study these non-western countries and get a clear picture of their history, politics, literature, music, and art. It will help to prevent him from taking western standards for granted. It is clear that there were great minds in every culture -- but they lacked the comprehensive confidence of the west. See Fr. Jaki’s contribution in the science section.