The Basic Principles of History

This year at the school where I am a headmaster I am teaching a combined history, literature, and writing class to Jr. High students. Over the past few months I have been compiling a number of what I would call "Principles of History" mostly out of my own contemplation but also stemming from my recent readings of history. My plan is to discuss these principles everyday with my class, giving them the basic list only and not the writing that goes with it. Each day I will let them pick the principle they are most curious about as a discussion starter. May they be an aid to starting your own discussions...

  1. Knowing nothing (my justification for being a teacher): Let's make one thing clear: I know nothing and you know nothing. But the nothing I know is just a little bit more than your nothing which makes me the teacher. So there.
  2. It all begins with faith:  Do we have the audacity to believe that we, little dots that we are, sitting upon a dot in our solar system, which is a dot in our galaxy, with our galaxy itself a dot within a galactic group, within the vast space that are multiple superclusters... are we audacious enough to believe that we matter? That what is happening here is of some significance? That we are important? Well, this is what faith is. We believe that God has made it all, that he has given us life, and that he even sent his son to our earth, to save us, deliver us, and bring us new life. This is a bold belief in a world who looks out at the universe and sees no meaning but only matter, assembled randomly, here for a few moments and dead forever. This is the materialistic view of the universe, that matter (material) is all there is. We stand to oppose this. No, this is not all there is. There is so much more to our world than a short life followed by an endless silent eternity. Instead, we believe our world is full of joy and meaning and beauty and goodness. But it takes faith to believe this. For you see, looking at history is a daunting task. Much of the story is a sad one and it takes much persevering faith to believe that there is a God, that God is good, and that God has a plan for us. But this is what we are called to do. So, we must look at history, no matter how ugly it gets, and continue to believe God is going to bring it all towards his glory and goodness.
  3. The tip of the iceberg: The "tip of the iceberg" acknowledges that whatever we touch on in this class we're only just scratching the surface of what's there, just like 90% of an iceberg's mass is underwater and is therefore not visible from the surface. This means that whatever you learn and memorize and understand about history there's a whole lot more yet to be discovered. The study of history is about diving below the surface to uncover and discover more than we ever realized was there about the people, places, and events we cover in this class. So "the tip of the iceberg" is important because it keeps us humble about what we know and draws us to continually have a thirst to know more. Just remember: you'll never know everything!  Here's another thing you always need to be aware of: no matter what you decide to do in life you're always limiting yourself. So, if you want to get really good at soccer, that means you're not going to get as good at another sport, like baseball. It's the same in history. If you become really interested in Russian history, that means you won't be able to spend as much time on Chinese history. If you want to learn a ton about Abraham Lincoln that means you'll limit your knowledge about John Adams. All this is OK. It's the way things should be. All of us are limited in what we know, unable to take it ALL in. This is why we need each other, to help us grow and learn because we can each become our own experts in our own field.
  4. The swing of the pendulum: A pendulum swings back and forth from a fixed point. Back and forth from one side to the next. Always back and forth. History is one big pendulum swing, with events and ideas and people locked into this endless cycle of swinging from one extreme to the other. Conservative vs. Liberal (or Right vs. Left). Times of war and times of peace. Democracies and dictatorships. Moral prudishness vs. Moral looseness. Capitalism vs. Communism. History is one long list of these swings. What one generation or era values is rejected and despised by the next generation, only to be rejected yet again by another group in the future. We seem to be trapped in the endless swing between competing beliefs and ideas. Is there no way out?

  • How does Jesus fit into the pendulum swing? The reason we find ourselves trapped within the swing of the pendulum is there are no truly just or fully knowledgeable judges, kings, presidents, or philosophers. Even the world's greatest leaders operate from a fallen and limited state. In the midst of this corrupted world walks Jesus, God's eternal Son become manifest in flesh. He lives a sinless life full of power and powerful teaching, and then he dies a criminal's death only to rise again a few days later. Jesus the Christ is the world's true king, the world's true philosopher. He alone is just. He alone contains wisdom in its fullness. He is saving us and redeeming us, laying his life down for us even as he rules us. Jesus subverts (or undoes) the swing of the pendulum. Jesus does not make life easy by any means, but through Jesus we come to know we no longer have to be trapped between all these competing ideas. There's is much more to be said about this, but suffice to say whatever we study in history we will be asking the question: Where does the teaching and work of Jesus (his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension) fit into the particular historical event we are covering? 
  • Reviewing never ends...Revisit what you learn over and over again throughout your life—your learning, that is, your state of being a student, will never stop or come to an end. If you approach life this way you will always be filled with joy, wonder, and humility and there will always be work for you do to.
  • A strange thought: everything is history! Whether it is an historical event, some kind of mathematical or scientific discovery, or a work of art, when we learn something in school (or wherever), we are in fact reliving and bringing to life in the present our history.  What I mean to say is, being a student is the process whereby something that was made in the past defines who we are now and helps us live into the future.
  • Why study history? We need to know where we have been as a people for two reasons:

    1. We need to uncover where we have been in order to discern who we are now.
    2. Based off of who we are now we also need to know how we should live in the future or where we are headed in the future if we do not change our ways. So in discovering where we've been, sometimes we discover we are in the right place and need to continue on the path we are on, but sometimes we discover we are very much on the wrong path and need to turn around, find another path, and perhaps even destroy the path we are on.
    1. There would be no history if... people had not first developed a way to write things down! Think about that. The greatest person could have lived and done the most amazing things ever, but if someone had not gotten down what that person had done we would have no record of it and it eventually would have been forgotten. The only reason there is such a thing as history is people decided to record what was happening in their world and developed a way to get it down somehow to last for generations. In many ways history did not start until people started writing things down that had happened. Without language and then written language there would be no history. This is not exactly true as we have archaeology and anthropology, but as they say, archaeology is about digging and history is about reading. Archaeology tells us the types of clothes people wore or the dishes they ate out of. History usually does not mention those things but instead tells us what was most important to those people's nation and culture (many of these thoughts come from Susan Wise Bauer's narrative history series.)
    2. Eh...whatever...” Most of history is people going “Eh....whatever...” and then looking the other way, not doing anything. That is, they have made themselves passive and not active members within history. They LET things happen to them instead of MAKING things happen. We certainly can't know about EVERYTHING in history (every event or person or issue) but the point of going through a history class is for us to determine what events are most important (both universally and generally) so that we can then determine how to best become active participants within history. This way, we can decide which cause to take up, which cause of our own to start, or perhaps which cause or causes we should be opposing.
    3. A second pendulum swing: when something awful happens in the present day, we are often tempted to think that this thing is special or significant (think of the 230 or so girls abducted in Nigeria this past spring). It's an awful tragedy, we say, and this shows our society is going down the tubes or that the end times are near. However, when we look at history, we see that all these things have happened before: what about all the women who have been enslaved and raped and kidnapped throughout history, what about the millions of slaves in existence right now and throughout history, what about all the wars, natural disasters, and injustices that have taken place throughout time? So here is the pendulum swing: in looking at history we can be tempted in two ways: either to think that our time is the MOST significant out of all times that have come before it or, in reaction to this, to think that our time isn't significant at all, since it's all happened before and will happen again. Both swings of these pendulums are not right. Looking at history should help us learn from the past so we can best live in the present. Both the past and present are significant—all things should be either grieved or rejoiced in. BUT, we people who are following Jesus know history is headed some place, that our King is returning and is re-making the world. So when we look at injustice and evil and sin, we know that the present isn't the end (and neither is the past), but one day it will all be put right.
    4. The unifying principle to all of history is... (gather in close) People's struggle to find and keep hold of food and water. Nearly all historical events are about people's basic needs in one way or another. Never underestimate the power people's basic needs have when it comes to how countries behave. If people don't have proper food, water, and shelter, if they don't have healthcare or jobs or basic human rights, watch out, something is going to have to change and things will get ugly one way or another. Surely the great tension of human history is the dual desires to both be alone and have everything to oneself but also to share life with others, enjoying the pleasures of companionship. Stated negatively, we don't want to have to share our space and possessions with others but we also don't want to be alone and lonely. These principles are at play in basically every historical event in one way or another. (I must cite my sources here: Darron Lawing of Rockbridge gave us the "unifying principle" quote at the teaching training I went to as well as the Susan Wise Bauer work reference above.)
    5. History is about discovery: In many ways, history about those moments when we as humans come to realize something new, to understand something about our world that was previously hidden: whether that be fermentation, making clothing, writing down as opposed to orally retelling our stories, irrigating and cultivating crops, domesticating animals, drying meats, exploring our solar system, discovering micro-organisms, the elements, metals, weapons, etc., etc.
    6. Filling in the Gaps: Every time you read something that could be called "history" it is merely a snippet of an event, a person's life, or a nation's heritage. History is never complete, just like a map is never the size of the area it is depicting. If a map were the actual size of a country it would not exactly be a map anymore, now would it? And thus history has many gaps, many instances where we are left wondering "I wonder what happened next? I wonder what happened to so and so after that one event took place" But we usually never get to find out—we are left to wonder, leaving a gap or an empty space in the story. These gaps in the historical record for both those in power in a society as well as for those who are powerless. Historical records tell us a lot about those in power and yet those records are usually really incomplete—we know kings and queens fought in wars and had big castles but we might not know what their personality was like or what their favorite foods were. (NOTE: history is made much more interesting in modern times with the possibility that all of one's entire life could be captured onto a video for all to see, though achieving this feat is unlikely). The other types of history gaps occur with those who had no power at all. For instance, what were the people like who made the king's food or built the castle he lived in? These questions mark the beginning of a historian, for they drive the historian crazy enough to go in search of answers, which often taken many years and much patience to uncover.
    7. Embracing your disgust: Much of history is ugly and conflicting. Embrace this, lean into it, for this is where you will find a great revelation. If something makes you irate, if it disgusts you, then good. Much of art and history can do this. Turn your disgust into critical thoughts about that art or event or person or idea. And then turn those thoughts into action. Learn to consider all the ideas and events coming at you so that you may then learn how to react to them properly, according to those filled with the Holy Spirit, ready to be used for God's good purpose.
    8. Just the facts...? History is about two things at once that continually have to converge: a bunch of facts (times, places, people, events) and a whole lot of meaning (what is going on behind and beyond those raw facts?). Nothing is just a mere fact. Every fact is attached to a meaning, a motivation, a context. When we think about what Isaac Newton accomplished we connect that to the world in which he lived. For instance, we know computers were not around to help him develop calculus, we know he lived under a monarchy, and we know somebody had to make him food and that it took more time to do so than it does today (there were no McDonalds!). So, everything about Newton's Laws of Motion, for example, is connected to the time in which he lived and the particular way in which he lived his life. No person or event is just a set of dates attached to a place. Instead, these are the starting points from which we then attempt to discover what was really going on and why.
    Now we can finally begin our journey of becoming students of history!

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