Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lowest Common Denominators

This Texas Controversy compounded with the years of meticulous study I've done on religion & the American Founding got me thinking about what K-12 students should be taught.

The problem is history is complex and there are great complex nuances to the religion & the American Founding issue. Given rational fear of K-12 historical ignorance I conclude we should be concerned they learn 1) raw facts, and 2) narratives both sides should be able to agree on, narratives "experts" like me might find too simple, but K-12 students might not.

Issues such as "was George Washington a Christian?" compounded with "what is the proper definition of Christian and does orthodox Trinitarian doctrine have anything to do with it?" are WAY beyond the call of what K-12 students should be expected to understand. Rather, we should expect them to be able to accurately recite who were the first X Presidents, what dates did they take office, where were they born and so on.

On three issues of contention -- Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and the American v. French Revolution -- the real story is too complex for K-12 students and teaching it the way the conservatives in Texas want distorts the record and will lead to misunderstanding.

First Aquinas: After years of intense study, I understand a case can be made for Thomas' silent influence on the Founding. Thomas Jefferson listed Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney as the four chief influences on the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson probably would never have heard of Aristotle but for Aquinas who incorporated his teachings into Christendom. And Locke positively affirmed Richard Hooker, the Anglican heir to Aquinas' Roman Catholic natural law. Still, the FFs were, for the most part, anti-Roman Catholic bigots and thus, rarely if ever cited Aquinas as positive authority.

Second Calvin: Reading his Institutes, Calvin seemed to endorse an almost absolute duty of believers to submit to even un-godly pagan tyrannical rulers. He did leave one exception where lower magistrates, pursuant to a legally established and recognized mechanism, could work within the system to veto the rule of higher magistrates (similar to when Congress impeaches and removes the President).

Calvin did not recognize revolution. And whatever else the Founders said they were doing (i.e., resisting the unlawful actions of the British King), they said they were revolting. They used that specific term over and over again.

Yet, Calvin's exception, in the hands and minds of later Calvinists, evolved to a point where the concept of "revolt" could be sold to Presbyterians (with a little help from the natural law teachings of Locke).

Finally, the French Revolution. Texas wants to teach that this was a "different" event than the American. Of course, all individual events are different from all other individual events. The problem is, the two events had striking parallels along with meaningful differences.

The French Revolution, like the American, was theistic; both appealed to "God's" imprimatur. The two events seemed so similar at first that a great deal, probably a strong majority of, "Christian" American Founders supported the FR and THOUGHT it a continuation of the American.

Notable biblicists -- some orthodox and some heterodox (most sympathetic to the Democratic-Republican Party) -- thought Jesus would return in France at the success of their revolution to triumphantly usher in a global millennial republic of liberty, equality and fraternity. This was the first "End of History" thesis.

The French Revolution was similar to Iraq II. Both events had initial bipartisan support, with one party leading the way. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans more enthusiastically supported the FR than the Federalist Party. And the Federalists, as a whole, jumped ship, before the DRs.

Historical hindsight being 20/20, the meaningful differences between the French and American Revolutions, why one worked and the other didn't, became more apparent after the FR's failure.

I think I've accurately detailed three complex historical dynamics. The problem, as I see it, is all three exist at a level of complexity that is appropriate for college and graduate level study.

K-12 students won't properly understand Thomistic or Calvinistic nuances during the American Founding anymore than they would Leo Strauss' theory of the esoteric, hedonistic, Hobbsean John Locke.

Rather, teach them, just the facts, ma'am.

Update: Don't take my "teach just the facts" too literally as some of the commenters at Positive Liberty have. Of course, good history teaching at whatever level involves telling compelling stories and making them come alive.

It's about what we expect students to learn. This is the kind of thing I would want K-12 students to master. And this I would save for college or graduate level history.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Since it is not agreed as to whether history is "science" or an "art", then how can we teach facts, withoug bias?

These Texas supernaturalists think that Providence superimposes itself upon history. So that view will "distort" (according to another bias) the "facts".

Naturalists should not be under any delusion either, when it comes to "art". One's "self" will commit to the greatest value (reason via empiricism) and make judgemtns based on criteria that is superimposed upon the "evidence" or "facts" of critical analysis. Others will be biased toward "revelation" (faith) via aesthetics. But, aesthetics will still need definition.

So, are we really talking about who is ultimately in power and therefore determines what is taught in the public school system?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do we as a society, then adhere to what has been always taught and not perspectivism? (such as Native AMerican views of American history, etc.)

History must take into the consideration the time and place, the social custom and not re-read today's values back into historical accounts.

This is hard to do when we are biased because of our own situatedness. And if this is the case with the 1700's how much more about ancient documents?

There is a move against AMerican exceptionalism. From what I understand, it demeans America for "past sins"...how can anyone be culpable for today's standards of ethical behavior before that time has arrived? So, I disagree about AMerican exceptionalism. i do believe that our nation's form of government is the best.

Aaron Reese said...

I hope we can move our education system in a direction where our 12th graders are able to understand the nuances of Religion. But right now, yeah, it belongs in college curriculum.

Christianity, specifically, should absolutely be taught in high school social studies. I think the U.S. is still something like 70% Christian. It also played a pivotal role in world history and warrants special attention there.

However, unless an event in American history was a direct result of Christian dogma, I don't see why it should be taught after the Revolution. Churches did wonders for many aspects of "American" development for the 150 years after the pilgrims landed, but once we obtained religious freedom for all, I'm not sure what else would need to be said about it (except perhaps background info on the players involved). That ended the story of national religious persecution (exceptions notwithstanding at the K-12 level). There just aren't too many "Christian Events" that should be taught in High School American history.

Jonathan Rowe said...


This is a tough issue. I proposed the "teach the basic facts" as a way to try and avoid propagandizing history, something the Left certainly does, but Barton and Marshall do as blatantly as anyone.

Then some commenters accused me -- perhaps my fault for word choices -- of wanting to teaching robotic like boring facts. Which is why I added the update with the two "edutaining" videos as examples.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The French Revolution, like the American, was theistic; both appealed to "God's" imprimatur.

French Rights of Man:

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

No appeal to God.

Declaration of Independence:

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions...

Appeal to God.

Jonathan Rowe said...

recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

"under the auspices of" sounds like an appeal to God to me.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's not an appeal, it's a presumption. It does not ask for God's imprimatur; it takes it for granted.

And this "Supreme Being" is "cold" deism at best, an inert observer: compare and contrast to the "Supreme Judge of the world" in the Declaration, and the later "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."

I'm not just parsing terms here, Jon. These are different views of God, and different approaches to Him. That's why the French slipped into despotism and atheism and the Americans did not.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"He did leave one exception where lower magistrates, pursuant to a legally established and recognized mechanism, could work within the system to veto the rule of higher magistrates (similar to when Congress impeaches and removes the President)."

I do not think this is correct if you read what he says about God raising up people to dispose tyrants. I have quoted this many times with no response. The story of Othniel that Calvin uses as one of his examples completely undermines your interpretation of Calvin's teaching on interposition.
Maybe I need to do a post on it and let you comment for clarification.

King of Ireland said...


I would add that facts without underlying concepts based on critical thinking make it boring and ineffective. I think the biggest thing the kids should learn is what I call the George Will style of OP-Ed in which he brings up a current topic, goes back into history to find a similar time when this issue came up, and use that historical example to prove his modern point.

Obviously not at the complex level that Will does but they do need to do this to learn history the right way and apply in to now. The best thing I ever heard as a teacher was that if History does not effect the Present then why study it.

I might add that Will's classical education was similar to that of Madison and other Ivy types of the Fouding. Witherspoon emphasized history a great deal in attempting to creat a better world of virtue. Much of or structure of government came from Madison's meticulous study of what worked and did not work in ancient and modern times. He connected the past with the present of his day.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I do see it as parsing words. I also see how thoughtful observers could see the God talk in both revolutions as parallels. Many of them did. And many still do.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'm still checking on one footnote of Calvin's that was written separate from his commentaries in "Institutes." But in Institutes, regardless of how you interpret how Calvin interpets the story of Othniel, Calvin states in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that REVOLT IS FORBIDDEN and that believers are to submit to tyrants.

His exception has to do with lawfully recognized mechanisms in the positive law like the Congress impeaching and removing the President.

I keep on repeating this because it's what Calvin teaches there.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'm working on a very looooooooooooong post which I hope addresses your concerns. It's long mainly because Calvin has so much to say on the matter in Institutes and I'm reproducing most of what he says.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, if you have any evidence of more than a nominal, "cold" deism in the French Revolution, I'd like to see it. The D of I is clearly "warm."

We're told that Robespierre was "religious," but his Cult of the Supreme Being was absurd if not obscene.