An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Far Side’s Fractured History

I like to spice up my classroom presentations with appropriate cartoons. In my post yesterday, I mentioned some of my favorite comic/cartoon sources: “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Mallard Fillmore.” I failed to mention another one that deserves recognition—Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

Larson’s humor is often zany, but so much the better when he chooses to rewrite history. Now, normally I’m not a fan of revising history without solid evidence, but for the sake of humor, I can laugh along with certain comic revisions. It’s like being able to enjoy a National Treasure movie even though all of the history is pure bunk.

Sometimes Larson’s humor is subtle, and you have to know some of the history yourself to appreciate it. For instance, we know Manhattan Island was sold for what we now consider a mere pittance. Here’s how Larson envisions the native chief explaining that decision:

Then there’s Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Larson imagines he practiced it first:

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” cautioned an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That advice was not welcomed by one particular British soldier:

Then there is the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Perhaps he crossed other things as well:

And haven’t you always heard of this famous expedition being called “Lewis and Clark,” never “Clark and Lewis”? If only Clark had listened to his mother:

No, Lincoln didn’t throw together his Gettysburg Address as a last-minute jotting on the train to Gettysburg, but if he had, he might have gotten some help with it:

Everyone’s heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but why do we focus on that one? His parents were probably more interested in this instead:

For the more literary among us, here’s a take on the problems that can overcome a writer:

And if you’re a military man not used to writing as much as someone of Poe’s stature, the wording may be even more difficult. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was looking for just the right words to inspire the Filipinos that he would one day come back and free the islands from the Japanese invaders:

I’m glad he came up with something better.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into fractured history. In our day of cultural and political polarization, we need to be able to step back once in a while and simply smile.

Lewis on the Ancient vs. the Modern

C. S. Lewis exchanged Oxford for Cambridge in 1955. He never received the recognition he deserved at Oxford; Cambridge offered him a special professorial chair designed with him in mind. It was a major event when he gave his inaugural Cambridge lecture, speaking to a full house about the distinctions between the ancient and the modern.

It’s in that lecture, De Descriptione Temporum,” that he made his oft-quoted comment about being a dinosaur because he was an Old Western Man, a type he claimed would not be around much longer.

Another passage in that lecture that is well worth contemplating is the part where he critiques the idea that just because something is new it must naturally be better.

“How has it come about,” he queried, “that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence'”? He continued,

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Acceptance of Darwinian evolutionism as applied to all aspects of society was one answer, he affirmed. We are all supposedly evolving and getting better all the time. But along with that, the coming of the age of the machines helps explain it more fully.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated.

Technological improvements, Lewis opined, become milestones in people’s lives. He used examples from his day: the development from an old push-bike to a motorbike to a car; from gramophone to radio to television. Today, we can use other examples: the latest I-Phone simply must be purchased because it’s so much better.

This way of looking at things—this approach to life—has left “footprints on our language,” Lewis asserted, and is the very thing “that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world.”

What if those ancestors could somehow make a trek into our modern world?

Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

As a historian, I love Lewis’s analysis of the differences between the past and the present. I agree that we have changed our language and definition of terms sometimes in a downward direction.

As a Christian, I resonate with his attachment to the permanent. Our society lives for the new, the more advanced, the latest novelty. Yet our society has little regard for that which needs to be preserved—ideas that permeated an earlier era: we are all made in the image of God; there are moral absolutes given by God; man, in society, needs to get as close to those absolutes as possible, and attain the moral character that they embody.

Will we see that kind of society again? It’s an open question.

Lewis’s Apologetic for Historical Knowledge

Many readers of Lewis are familiar with a comment he made in his “Learning in War-Time” essay with respect to the importance of knowing history. As a historian, it truly resonates with me, and I was reminded of it again when I assigned the essay to my students last week. Lewis wrote,

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

In other words, we need perspective—historical perspective—to properly understand our own time and to, as he says, make us somewhat immune to the “cataract of nonsense” that emanates from our media. In Lewis’s day, that was mostly via magazines and radio; what would he say about the vast social media networks that exist now?

I have The Quotable Lewis, a very useful volume edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, in front of me right now, and under the category of “Prejudice,” I discover that Lewis said something very similar in his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in a chapter on the poet Edmund Spenser. Here’s how he described the same concept in somewhat different language:

There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time.

It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.

For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.

A key message I always want to communicate to my students is that just because we are farther along the historical timeline, that doesn’t automatically mean we are smarter. Sometimes, the things we believe and the actions we take are more foolish than the beliefs and actions of those who came before us, and that it might be wisdom on our part to study them and find out what they have to offer us.

We are an arrogant age, thinking we know so much better than our ancestors, yet we are also a historically ignorant age. We have much to learn.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part Two)

C. S. Lewis 2C. S. Lewis’s ruminations on the need for learning, even during times of war or other periods of great stress, in his “Learning in War-Time” essay, are so fulsome that it requires more than one post to cover his key points. This installment focuses on the life of the scholar, so it has special meaning to me.

“The intellectual life,” Lewis explains, “is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.” He then points out the greatest danger on this road:

Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

Let me interject here that I realize this danger clearly in my own life. It’s so easy to write something and hope that it will get published and solidify one’s reputation as a scholar “with something important to say.” I have to go back to the Lord continually to keep my heart right on this point. Sometimes, when we achieve our goals, we are at the height of the danger. As Lewis notes,

Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

Yet we are not to allow the threat to keep us from pursuing God’s call on our life, as long as we keep our hearts right before Him. And God does want His people in this field, able to answer challenges and help direct the thoughts of others:

To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Then comes the phrasing I have seen others refer to most often in this essay:

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

As a historian, I appreciate, in particular, his next few thoughts:

History CloudMost of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Probably the second-most quoted portion of this essay comes next:

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Shall we now add “the Facebook postings and Twitter tweets” of this newest age?

Yes, we need a sense of history to see the full context of the drama playing out in our day. Thanks to Lewis, we have that reminder today.

The Pause

Life sometimes needs a pause button.

I’ve been in Williamsburg, Virginia, since Wednesday. My main reason for being here is to show students some of the most significant sites related to the history of the nation, a task that’s hardly a task for me—it’s a joy to do so.

Bassett HallYet I’ve had some free time just to stroll and not feel rushed about anything. On Thursday afternoon, I walked from the Visitors’ Center to the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the man who put upwards of $68 million of his own dollars into the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. It probably was about two miles to the home, Bassett Hall, and I’ve not been accustomed lately to extended walking. Later in the evening, I had “charley horses” in both shins, something I don’t ever recall experiencing before. But it was worth it.

It was worth it not so much for the home itself, although it was interesting, but simply for the time to saunter over there and not be subject to a schedule for a change. The rest of the afternoon I spent in the museum, listening for a while to a humorous and informative Q&A with “Martha Washington,” then on to some truly fascinating eighteenth-century portraits. Again, no rush, just relaxation.

House of BurgessesLast night, I had a sandwich at the well-known Cheese Shop in Merchants Square, then a nearly one-mile trek to the Capitol, where I spent a pleasant hour taking in a harpsichord concert of music from the era. The concert took place in the House of Burgesses room in the reconstructed Capitol. This is the same spot where Washington, Wythe, Henry, Jefferson, and so many others helped make history. Although I’ve been in that room many times previously, I had the same sense of historical presence as always. For me, it never gets old.

Afterwards, in weather that was cool, but not too cool, I leisurely retraced my steps back nearly one mile to Merchants Square, got a coffee, and sat on a bench outside, watching tourists going to and fro from one specialty shop and restaurant to another, all under a sky that slowly shifted from dusk to dark. Peace prevailed externally, but more important was the peace within me. On the walk and on the bench, I had a conversation with the Lord about being content with life, no matter what the circumstances. We also spoke of being able to enjoy the small things and treasuring those moments.

No, I didn’t hear an audible voice on the other side of the conversation—but He was there. And where He is, that’s where life is as well. Without Him, and without the peace He brings, we are the most miserable of all creatures.

Life sometimes needs a pause button. Thank you, Lord, for all those pauses that renew our strength and restore purpose.