Burn Before Reading (and Other Activities to do with History Textbooks)

the regime

This blog will serve as the introduction to a new series of blogs that I will be producing over the next several weeks. The series is called The Regime[1]. It will be focused on applying the dialectic of Socrates in Plato’s Republic to classical Christian education. For those familiar with the Republic, you may see how the below relates to the allegory of the cave.

News headlines are the pollution of email inboxes. Usually I delete them without paying them any mind, but the other day the headline caught my attention. Sports Illustrated tweeted the headline: “Broncos’ Derek Wolfe questions player protests: ‘If you don’t think America is greatest country, why do you stay?’” Like any well-trained American, I didn’t read any further but instead skipped right to the re-tweets and replies. One of the first I came across said, in reference to Derek Wolfe’s comment, “Here’s someone who hasn’t taken a history class.” This was then followed by a number of tweets to the same effect. As if responding to a catechism question, the string of “tweeters” seemed to know exactly how to respond.

I don’t know anything about Derek Wolfe, what school he went to or what history classes he’s taken or failed to take. I also know very little about the current climate in the NFL politics and its relationship to oppressed peoples in the United States. I knew nothing of President Trump’s comments instigating more protests until a friend asked me about it. So what I say below has no intended connection to the current drama surrounding whether a team takes the field or stands during the National Anthem at NFL Football games. What I do want to focus on is that statement above: “Here’s someone who hasn’t taken a history class.”

Apparently someone who had taken “history classes,” or at least the right kinds of history classes, would have known the proper response in this situation. Apparently taking the right “history classes” would help people avoid making the embarrassing mistake of having and sharing an opinion that dissented from the party line. Apparently taking “history classes” has little to do with exposure to a long series of people and events throughout the course of our world, but rather has more to do with producing a certain response upon completion of the course.

A few years ago I was on a tour of Gettysburg with the school for which I work. If you have ever taken a tour at Gettysburg, then you likely know that becoming a Gettysburg tour guide is no small task, and only authorized tour guides are allowed to give tours. We had a great tour guide on our trip, though an agnostic with a progressive view of history. He was very knowledgeable and engaging in his presentation. But at one point one of our students asked a question that caused him to become defensive. In defense of himself and his knowledge of history, he made a statement that I found very telling. His defense of himself was, “I know. I have read all the textbooks.” Really? Read all the textbooks?

So what is a textbook? According to dictionary.com a textbook is “a book used by students as a standard work for a particular branch of study.” Textbooks have this quality in common: they are written by people who are considered authorities in the field telling you what you need to know about a particular subject. Most often in the field of history, textbooks are written by people who did not witness the events firsthand, but instead have gathered what they consider the relevant data, and disseminate it to you with the “standard” interpretation. This means that you as the students are a least two steps if not three steps removed from what actually happened.

But aren’t textbooks objective? No. Contrary to popular belief, textbooks by their very nature are not objective. They cannot be. All kinds of decisions are being made for you: Which primary sources are most relevant? Which are authentic? Which are “orthodox” or dissenting? How should the material be arranged? What texts should be included/excluded? Who is the victor? Who had the just cause? Who are the most noble actors? Who are the least noble actors? Should minority perspectives be omitted or included and to what extent? Etc., etc., etc.

Each answer to the questions in the paragraph above cause the textbook to follow a particular course. Does that mean that the authors of textbooks always answer the questions above wrongly? Not necessarily. It just means that when you read a textbook, you are eating a predigested meal.

So how do textbooks get chosen? It’s quite simple. Here are some key questions:

  • Do they conform to the standard?
  • Do the authors have their credentials from the right institutions?
  • Do the authors end up making the right conclusions?

If the answer to each of these questions is “yes”, then you just might have found the right textbook to use for your “history classes”. And finding the right textbook for your “history classes” is vital if you want to save your students the terrible public embarrassment that Derek Wolfe had to suffer. Indeed your students will know the proper response to the social catechism as all the re-tweeters knew.

But seriously, what are we to do about this? The answer is simple. Burn your history textbooks. If burning them is too Fahrentheit-451ish for you, then you could recycle them. Turn them into a paper mache project. Drill holes in them for fun. Use them to balance out that wobbly couch. There are so many good uses for history textbooks!

So do we throw history out of our curriculum then? No. Instead we return ad fontes—to the sources. You return back to what keeps history professors up at night—to what haunts them in their dreams—to what threatens their very livelihood. So what do textbook history professors find more threatening than anything else? Students who have read the primary sources themselves. By God’s grace the primary sources of history are available in vast numbers, and they usually can be purchased for $4 or $5 dollars each. There is no time in history that actual history has been so easy to access. It also seems that there is no time in history that actual history has been so easy to ignore.

It’s probably unlikely that Derek Wolfe will ever return to school to take those history classes. He may have to continue in the dark, trying to figure out how he missed the cue card with the proper response on it, like the fool who laughs at a joke before the punch line. But the good news is that it’s not too late for you. You don’t have to suffer the embarrassment that Derek Wolfe suffered. The catechism can be found by simply opening that “history class” textbook.

[1] The title The Regime is chosen reflecting Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic. He argues that “regime” is a better rendering than “republic” due to how we have come to understand the word “republic” in the context of the American system of government, which is not at all what Plato has in mind.

Background of series photo from Leo von Klenze, Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens, commons.wikimedia.org.

2 thoughts on “Burn Before Reading (and Other Activities to do with History Textbooks)

  1. Great post – thx, Josh. I’m a little mad that are making me go back and re-read all my Western Civ 101 History books and actually pay attention to the sources! Ugh.
    I think I know what you mean by “catechism” in your last sentence, but can you briefly flesh that out?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jared.

      In using the language of catechism, I mean a set a questions in which a particular response is expected. This is an excellent pedagogy for young children.

      In adapting this term to a “cultural catechism” I mean that the culture has developed its own set of questions and particular answers. When a question is asked such as “should statues of confederate generals be removed?” There is no discussion needed. The answer is clear. If you don’t know the catechetical answer, then you clearly have not taken the catechism class, AKA “History class”.


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