Monday, May 16, 2011

Catholic Historiography

Hey everybody! I'm thoroughly enjoying myself here in Sarasota and am thoroughly impressed with the FSSP priests here at the local chapel. I have been understandably busy doing vacation stuff; I will probably post this weekend after I have time to digest the new Vatican document on the Traditional Latin Mass, which is very exciting. In the meantime, please enjoy this transcript of the talk I gave two weeks ago at the homeschool conference in New Jersey on Catholic historiography. It's a little different style from my usual writing, since it was written as a speech, of course, but hopefully you will find something useful in it:

"I’m here today to talk about history, or more specifically, historiography, or more specifically, Christian historiography. But before we dive in, I’d like to say a few words about my own background with history. I don’t recall ever being particularly turned on to history in the public schools I attended as a boy. As a teacher myself, I would love to vindicate my profession by telling you that it was some dynamic, inspiring teacher who first turned me on to history, but alas, this is not the case. My discovery of history came in a much more subtle, yet powerful way. I was about ten years old and was rummaging around my basement looking for something and I came across this book that caught my eye. It was a very thick, hardcover book with a picture of what I later learned was the city of Constantinople on the cover. It was “Civilization Past and Present”, 5th edition, copyright 1974, a college textbook from when my mom was in college and had been collecting dust in my parent’s basement for about ten years when I found it. Having nothing better to do (my Nintendo must have been broken that day), I opened the book. That was the beginning.

Everything unfolded before me: the glory of ancient Greece, the grandeur of Rome and her fall from a representative Republic into an autocratic empire; the triumph of Christianity and the life of the medieval world; popes, castles, crusades, monks, explorers, the New World, then on to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the dark days of the religious wars and on into the modern era. Hammurabi. Pericles. Plato. Alexander. Caesar. Constantine, they were all there. Broad vistas swept across my mind and captured my imagination. I became conscious for the first time of the real world beyond my small circle of acquaintances in my small town – aware of empires rising and falling for millennia, millions of people throughout time living, thinking, building and striving, great men and women rising up over the centuries, each making their own contribution to humanity’s effort to understand its own place in the world. An behind all of these great achievements, the power of ideas, ideas that could build up civilization or tear it down in bloodshed; ideas that could elevate and ennoble man to perform acts of heroic charity, or barbarize him into a fiend capable of horrendous acts of inhumanity; ideas that could inspire beautiful art and architecture and turn men’s hearts to the life to come, and ideas that could debase art and architecture and keep men’s minds riveted on this present life. I saw that there is nothing more life-changing, revolutionary or world-altering than an idea.

I was hooked on history from that moment. It was the beginning of one of the greatest journeys of discovery in my life, one that is far from over.

In this talk, I hope to give you some theoretical knowledge and some practical advice. We’ll be looking at the philosophical assumptions that can lay dormant in history books – what we call the historiographical context – and then some advice on how to teach history in a way that upholds and reinforces a Catholic worldview.

The Problem: “I love history, but I hated history class.”

My own love of history would have always remained a private devotion, a personal hobby, had not I started pondering a paradox that I began running into when I shared my love of history with others. This was the phenomenon of people who told me, “I love history, but I hated history class.” How many of you have heard people say this? How many of you fall into this category? It struck me; if you love a subject, how can you not love learning about it? How could you hate a class on a topic you loved? This doesn’t happen with other classes – nobody says, “I love math but I hate math class.” In my case, I hated math and I hated math class. Yet this was not the case with history; what was causing this? We were hearing the same facts, reading about the same wars, same kings, same epic adventures, and yet what was sweet to me was bitter to them. The sheer number of people I ran into over the years convinced me that there was something to this. They were being exposed to all of the same information I was exposed to, and while they loved the content itself, they apparently hated its presentation. What was behind this?

As I came to see later, this was a problem of teaching rooted in historiography. That is, it was not a problem with the content of history, that is, the people, events and stories that make up the historical tapestry; most people really get into history when it is presented the right way to them. It was a problem with the presuppositions and assumptions behind the presentations of these tales and the way that it subsequently effected their presentation. You see, I taught myself history by reading books and fell in love with it; my companions learned history from listening to teachers, and they hated it, because it was presented as a slur of meaningless facts without any historiographical context.

What is Historiography?

What is historiography? There are many ways to describe it. Historiography can be said to be the history of history, the study of how people have viewed history over the course of man’s existence.

History studies people and events; historiography studies historians and their methods. History studies how ideas have influenced culture; historiography studies how ideas have influenced historians. History challenges assumptions and presuppositions we have when looking at historical persons or events; historiography challenges assumptions and presuppositions we have when reflecting upon history itself. The historian studies the content of history; the historiographer looks at the philosophy of history itself.

Just like all politicians have an ideological approach to how they do politics, so all historians have a certain historiographical approach to history; even you do, when you teach history to your kids. For example, ask yourself what do you believe really drives history? In the long drama of the ages, what has been most important? Do you tend to emphasize battles and military campaigns, or perhaps you view history in terms of economics. Some people, especially the moderns, have said that history is moved by the masses of nameless people, whose ideas and aspirations filter upward to their leaders who subsequently effect change; others have insisted that the masses are largely static, and that history is driven by the presence of powerful, charismatic leaders who remake history in their own image (the so-called "strong man" theory of history). Some people like to dwell on the role of ideas and philosophies to history, whilst others will say that factors of land, production and climate are most important. The French writer Montesquieu is famous for this latter approach, saying that the global north was prosperous because it was colder, compelling its inhabitants to work harder and avoid idleness in order to survive, while the warmer climates of the south encouraged people to lie around all day and bred laziness.

Other historiographical questions: Where is history going? Is it going anywhere? Does our history, whether of our country or our world, tend towards some end or goal, or is it drifting aimlessly like a barren rock through empty space? Or perhaps it circles around endlessly, like the pagans asserted, whose symbol for the passing of history was the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail.

And why do we study history at all? Is it for purely academic reasons, or do we derive some tangible benefit today from our knowledge of the past? Is history subject to laws and principles, the same way as math, chemistry and physics, and should we therefore always be searching for the most scientific, mathematical application of history? Or, since history deals with individual human beings and an infinite amount of free choices that make predictions impossible, is there nothing we can say about historical laws?

Perhaps most important from our perspective, do we believe there is a force or intelligence behind history, using the deeds of men and kingdoms to guide history to a certain point, a certain final consummation, in which the ultimate meaning of history itself will become clear, where “the mountains will fall away and the sky wind up like a scroll” before the Master of history; or are the events of history leading us nowhere – is all the striving of men and civilizations for millennia vain, ultimately as meaningless as a fistful of sand thrown into the wind?

I’m convinced that to the degree that our history is dull, uninspiring or downright boring, it is because we have tried just teaching “facts” apart from any larger historiographical context. The historiographical context is what gives the facts cohesion and makes them interesting; it is like the ship upon which all the content of history is contained – it keeps the facts together, gives them organization, and leads them somewhere. Without an historiographical framework, the facts are just out there floating in the sea, and when asked to learn these disjointed facts, the disgruntled student is likely to shrug and ask, “Why?” When presented with the great deeds of the past, he is likely to roll his eyes and say, “So what?”

The Catholic Application

Thus far I have only introduced the concept of historiography; it now falls to us to see how we can make use of this concept as Catholics when teaching history to our youngsters. Not all historiographical systems are good or helpful. There is Catholic historiography, yes, but are also historiographical systems that are atheist, secular, Marxist and hostile to Christian revelation. Our goal is to organize our historical studies along Catholic lines, in a way that will be exciting (so our kids don’t remember that they “hated history class” when they get older) and that is edifying.

A Catholic historiography should present history as linear; that is, history that began somewhere and is going somewhere, tending towards a final end. This ever reminds us that the world itself is in the hands of God, is guided by His providence, and that we ourselves are pilgrims, viators, ourselves moving towards our own final end. The world is not yet what it will be, nor are we ourselves – but we are all moving towards it, and our approach to history ought to reflect this movement. 

Our teaching should also focus on all aspects of history – many people, wanting to teach Catholic history but not knowing where to begin, think that to teach Catholic history simply means to teach the history of Catholics. For example, a lot of books are passed off as U.S. history textbooks which are in reality just books on the history of Catholics in the United States. Now, our kids need to know this as Catholics, but as educators we need to realize that studying the history of Catholics in the United States is not the same as studying the history of the United States in general. Catholic history doesn’t mean just teaching about Catholics. Teaching Catholic history is really about embracing certain principles in how we approach history; once we understand this, we can teach European history, American history, Chinese history, economic history – and we can do it in a way that excites kids, that leaves the, saying, “I love history, and I love history class.” I have done this again and again with U.S. history, medieval history, ancient history, even economic history, and it works every time. 

So what are these principles? What concepts do we need to incorporate into our teaching to achieve this? To bring this over to the practical level, I want to propose for you four concepts that we should incorporate into our history lessons:

1) Teach history as a story: First and foremost, we need to get back to the idea of history as a story. This was the classical method (until the moderns messed it up like they messed up everything else that they touched) –presenting history as a series of stories about the deeds of exceptional men and women and, implicitly, how the deeds of one person can alter the life of nations. This gets kids interested in the narrative aspect of history; they can identify with the challenges faced and overcome by historical characters because they have challenges in their own lives. They learn to cheer for William Wallace, share Napoleon’s loneliness on St. Helena, and mourn with the nation at the death of Lincoln. These are all things they can easily relate to that make the characters from history come alive; it also serves to stir up interest in other historical characters as they realize that everybody from history is a person who actually lived, actually had thoughts, desires, ambitions, triumphs and losses.

To get this through, use examples from their lives. The classic example is Washington and the Cherry Tree, though it’s of questionable historical accuracy. Anything will work if it helps them remember. I was trying to get my class to remember the Roman emperor Valentinian I and succeeded in doing so by talking about his legendary temper and how, when he heard that a peace treaty he had worked for years on was broken by the Germanic barbarians, he blew such a gasket that he had a stroke and died. Now that’s the kind of things kids remember! They will not remember the intricacies of the currency problems of Rome’s economy in the late 4th century; but they will remember a guy who got so mad that he had a stroke and died. That’s the way kids are.

And, by the way, remember that all of history is ultimately the narrative of God’s saving works. All of human history is God’s narrative, Christ is the supreme hero, whose life is the center of all history. Thus, we have a context against which to view larger events, such as the rising and falling of nations – the working out of God’s providence in history.

2) Teach the power of ideas: Now that we have gotten our students interested in the characters of history, we have to get them interested in what drives these characters; that is, we need to introduce them to the world of ideas. Why did the French Revolutionaries do what they did? What ideas were in Jefferson’s head when he wrote the Declaration? Why did thousands of Europeans, nobles and commoners alike, forsake their homelands in the 11th century to go over to the Crusades?

This may be more challenging for younger kids, but even elementary age students can understand how an idea can drive somebody’s actions. My 9 year old daughter does not understand fully the Catholic concept of the evangelical counsels and how those under religious vows anticipate, even on earth, the kingdom to come where we are neither married nor given in marriage, as the Catechism says. But she does understand that St. Francis of Assisi was motivated by a love for God and a desire for poverty. Our kids need to not only know the stories, but know why men and women do what they do, especially when discussing men and women of Faith. This is so important – It shows them the transformative power of our Faith, even if they are too young to experience it themselves. It brings up, in a seed form, the concept of motivation and intention in human morality and assists them in forming judgments about the rightness or wrongness of human actions – a great story exemplifying this from the Scriptures is Jesus’ contrast between the Tax Collector and the Pharisee praying in the Temple (Luke 18). Both pray, but our Lord reveals the motivations behind their prayers and allows us to form a moral judgment based on them – the Tax Collector is justified because of his humility, the Pharisee is not because of His pride.

Finally, teaching the power of ideas lays the groundwork for the later study of philosophy. Philosophical knowledge is so important these days, and ultimately the understanding our kids get of ideas will help them sort out the life-giving ones from the poisonous ones. But it can all start it in history class.

3) Emphasize the rewards of virtue and the punishments of vice: This point logically flows from the first two. Once we have gotten our students interested in the lives of men and women, and once we have helped them understand how ideas motivate them and drive their actions, we can lead them on to reflect the temporal rewards and punishments that are consequent upon following certain ideas to the end. For all Caesar’s ambition, where did it ultimately get him? An excellent opportunity to reflect on the principle of He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. How is this different from the fate of St. Joan of Arc, who also suffered death, but for different reasons and in a different manner? In this case, the lesson is He who confesses me before men I will confess before My Father in heaven, and If the world hates you, know that it hated Me first. What about the peaceful end of George Washington and the honor subsequently heaped upon him by an ever-grateful nation for his sacrifice? He will keep the salvation of the righteous, and protect them that walk in simplicity. How do the various paths chosen by historical characters, for whatever reason, lead us on to contemplate the rewards of virtue and the penalties of vice? These are great discussions to have with kids, and very much in the classical tradition going right back to Cicero and Herodotus, who said that the primary reason for studying history is to be edified by the examples of moral men and to be appalled by the wickedness of the evil. In this manner, our kids not only learn history, but see how different actions lead to different consequences. History becomes an occasion for practical moral instruction.

4) Bring up the coincidences: Finally, history is so full of “coincidences”, freak accidents, dare we say, “Acts of God”, that changed the fate of nations that it is astonishing; these really should really be a distinctargument for God’s existence, in my opinion. I’m talking about the miraculous wind that aided the Christian armies at Lepanto; The bloody-nose that caused King James II to retreat from, and lose, the Battle of Naseby; the accidental and tragic killing of Stonewall Jackson by his own men that did the South irreparable harm; the dream of Constantine that altered the course of world history; the one Carthaginian ship that the Romans happened to find washed up on the shores of Italy, studied, copied, and used as a prototype to build an entire navy that would defeat Carthage and shift the balance of power in the ancient Mediterranean; Pope Innocent’s dream of the falling Church that led him to approve the formation of the Franciscan order; the cannon wound that sent Ignatius Loyola to the sickbed, and to a new life as founder of the Jesuits. These are the astonishing tales from history where we can look at them and truly say, “History would have been entirely different had this one event not happened or happened otherwise.”

We could go on and on. In my own life I have a tale of my grandfather who was shot in World War II in Italy by a German sniper. The sniper was aiming for his head, but as the sniper fired the shot, my grandpa, tired of carrying his weapon on his shoulder, swung his gun around and placed upon his opposing shoulder, thus blocking his head with his forearm. He was thus struck in the arm with the bullet, but had he not been tired and thought to do something as simple as shifting the burden of the gun to the other shoulder, the bullet would have struck his head, and I would not exist.

Even if skeptical adults have trained themselves to write off such occurrences as mere chance, children are not yet so cynical; they love this sort of things because they see God’s hand behind them, and stories like this remind them that there is more at work in the world than what they see; that history is not the product of blind forces of economics, culture, climate or politics. History is made up of the free-will actions of men and women, driven by ideas, and sometimes helped along by providential “Acts of God” that can change the course of whole civilizations. This is a truly Catholic approach to history, one that will not only not be “boring” to your kids, but will enthrall them and draw them in deeper to historical study.


History is the most fascinating of all subjects, and kids should find it so. In history are all the lessons of virtue and vice played out before us in a million examples across thousands of years and a multitude of kingdoms, the most accurate study of human nature one could undertake. In history is the knowledge to understand the problems of the world, both past and present. In history is seen the working out of God’s providence across time, from the gathering of peoples into civilizations in remote antiquity to the classical cultures of Greece and Rome to the coming of Christ at the center of history to call all men unto Himself; history is the canvas of God’s drama, in which everybody has a part. In history is the ultimate inspiration for young boys and girls to look up to their heroes for imitation, especially in the saints. If we keep in mind the bigger picture, and remember that history is not about the movements of blind forces of economics and class warfare (as the moderns would have us believe), but is rather one great story, then kids will be both edified and educated, because after all, who doesn’t like a great story? I’ve found it to be true in my life and my teaching experience, both as a Youth Director and as a tutor for Homeschool Connections, as well as a homeschool parent myself."


JD said...

Father Fryar is a good priest isn't he? I go to Mass at Queen of Peace in Ocala when I can and he comes every Sunday to offer the traditional Latin Mass. I'd love to get to Sarasota sometime but it is several hours away. Glad you are enjoying it although it is quite hot right now isn't it? Alot different than Michigan. I say that because I moved here from Brighton.

Boniface said...


Yes, I find the heat unbearable, and it is only May! I would never move to Florida...just too blasted hot. My favorite weather is the kind where you can wear a hooded sweatshirt and not be hot or cold...Brighton, eh? I am from Howell.

I am finding that, though much smaller of course, I think Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are more beautiful than the Gulf of Mexico.
Fr. Fryar is a great priest. I've been to his parish for Mass twice and confession once...really good.

Anonymous said...

this is bitchin!

Musicofjustin said...

It sounds like a once in a life time opportunity! I'm glad you are making the most of it! Thank you for the great ready, keep up the good work! Following for sure=)