The History of History 6: The Classics in Our Schools?

I used to dread reading philosophy and to some extent I dread it still. Not just German philosophers like Johann Herder and Georg Hegel, mind you. All philosophers. As I plowed through Herder and Hegel for this class, I observed that, while these authors have written dense sentences, they are not impossible to comprehend. Of course, I knew on a rational level when reading Herder and Hegel that I could handle philosophy. After all, I aced a philosophy survey in my junior year of college and I particularly enjoyed reading Plato for that class. However, when reading these Germanic texts, my old fear of philosophy periodically resurfaced. I have spent some time considering the origins of this ingrained fear and its implications for historical research, as I doubt I’m the only historian who feels such anxiety.

I suspect my dread of classical philosophy has something to do with the American public school system. While I had wonderful teachers (for the most part) growing up, those teachers never assigned the formative works of Western philosophy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In English, we read old texts — Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Renaissance poems — but not Edward Gibbon, Kant, or Hegel. The closest we came to the philosophical underpinnings of modernity was in the writings of Thoreau and Emerson, whose prose is more accessible than, say, Hegel. In Social Studies, we read nonfiction writers of political importance (Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, etc.), but philosophers, even politically oriented ones like Rousseau and Locke, didn’t enter the mix. (Again, I didn’t encounter Plato until my junior year of college.) I took a fun philosophy elective in high school, but we discussed philosophers’ ideas instead of reading their words. The closest I came to proper philosophical exposure in high school was in Latin class, when we read aloud Ovid, Pliny the Younger, Cicero, Cato, and Catullus. As such, my education lacked a full foundation in the classics of Western civilization(s), and I had zero exposure to classics from Eastern civilization(s).

Given the increasing criticism of the humanities in American public discourse, I suspect that students in most public schools lack this philosophical grounding, too. The “classical education” that raised thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Adams is no longer used in American schools. That’s not entirely a problem, of course; some of the old-time philosophical discourses (e.g., James Hosmer) are awful. Nonetheless, the loss of classical education means that American students are unfamiliar with reading and interpreting philosophy. Hegel? Kant? Sima Qian? Confucius? Musashi Miyamoto? Good luck encountering them before college. As such, our public schools are raising a generation of classically illiterate students. If students study the humanities in college, particularly material dealing with the Enlightenment and the long nineteenth century, then the students have to play catch-up to understand the classical and philosophical allusions found in primary sources. Unfamiliarity breeds fear. I never read philosophy as a youth, so I assumed well into college that I was incapable of understanding or enjoying it. Sometimes I still feel that way. I am certain that I am not alone in this regard. American students today don’t know how to engage philosophical texts, having not been taught the classics in K–12 environs, so they approach college humanities courses with trepidation.

Simple solutions to this problem are elusive. There are many American books and thinkers that are already (and should be) taught in K–12 schools. Budget cuts around the country that are couched in anti-humanities rhetoric, as well as Common Core “reforms” that emphasize technical reports over literature, constrain teachers’ ability to customize their courses. Moreover, many of the country’s teachers themselves lacked exposure to texts by Hegel, Herder, et. al., so they are not likely to assign those texts in turn. We face a multi-generational problem of Americans not knowing the classics, let alone being able to critique them. American public schools do not succeed in explaining the philosophical concepts underpinning modern law, government, culture, and even scientific research. This educational hole becomes a handicap when students learn about early modern history in college.

One way that we could fix the philosophical gap in students’ education is to adjust the structure of English classes. Let’s imagine for a moment that the technical-literature expectations of Common Core weren’t a problem. Let’s say you’re in a regular, pre-Common Core classroom, like the ones I inhabited from 2005 to 2010, with a long list of books and assignments for the year. What do you do? In this experiment, I start by reviewing the written homework assignments and identifying the ones that are busywork. Those assignments re eliminated. In their place, I assign response papers, as we are doing for HIS 500 this semester. I ask students to articulate what they liked, disliked, and wondered about when reading a classic text. The emphasis thereby shifts from rote memorization to articulating one’s thoughts. The students still produce papers, which can be critiqued to teach spelling and grammar, but the assignments encourage the students to appreciate literature from a critical perspective. Moreover, students realize at an earlier age that they can read critically, that they can comprehend the classics, and that they can defend their positions on paper. I yank some contemporary books from the syllabus and replace them with, at minimum, excerpts from Hegel, Herder, Kant, et. al.

Philosophy texts are be tough, but I bet younger students would fare decently with them if they were given the time to read and reflect, rather than scrambling to memorize facts for the next pointless quiz.

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