The Teacher, Like the Historian,… (Landscape of History Series #2)

landscape of historyIn chapter 2 of his book, The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis addresses the topic of time and space. Gaddis argues that historians have “the capacity for selectivity, simultaneity, and the shifting of scale: they can select from a cacophony of events what they think is really important; they can be in several times and places at once; and they can zoom in and out between macroscopic and microscopic levels of analysis.”[1] Gaddis later suggests that the present is like a funnel that the future must pass through to become the past, a task that is achieved by “locking into place relationships between continuities and contingencies.”[2] By continuities Gaddis means “patterns that extend across time”; by contingencies he means “phenomena that do not form patterns.”[3]

Gaddis’ discussion in this chapter is helpful, and I highly recommend reading his book, but my purpose in this article is not to go into detail on Gaddis’ work, but rather to use his conclusions here and draw a parallel with education. The teacher’s task, like the historian’s, is one of selectivity, simultaneity, and scale. Moreover, I think that our classes often form a similar balance with respect to continuity and contingency. I explore each of these four categories below with respect to their relationship with the teacher’s task.


The teacher, like the historian, cannot provide students with a comprehensive education. Even the teacher’s own knowledge, limited as it is, would require far longer than a typical four year high school education to exhaust. Instead, the teacher must be selective in his or her teaching. This selectivity relates to topics covered, books chosen, assignments given, and similar daily decisions made by the teacher. Despite the selectivity involved, this process is neither arbitrary nor uninformed, and although it is necessarily limiting in some respects, the hope is that the teacher’s selectivity is wise and leads to life-long skills that free the student for a lifetime of learning.


The teacher, like the historian, can also work in the realm of simultaneity by being in several times and places at once. Even if a specific work is chosen to discuss a specific era, this limitation need not bind the good teacher to enslavement to that text and era. As the teacher identifies points of contact with other disciplines and other eras, he or she is not only free to bring these parallels to light, but ought to do so as a means of modeling for the student the skill of integration. Education is not done in a vacuum, nor is it done in a closed system void of outside influences; instead, education is conducted in a universe of interconnected events and ideas that weave together a web of knowledge. The teacher’s ability to point out, model, and train students in this interconnectedness will make himself or herself indispensible.


The teacher, like the historian, is also able to zoom in and out to varying levels of analysis (or “scale” in Gaddis’ terms). One of the classes I teach involves covering the historical, theological, and worldview concerns of the Church from the early church to the Reformation (Worldview 10 at our school). In this course, we encounter the fourth century controversy of Arianism and the clarification and creedal formulation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In the past, I have given students what might be understood as a quick flyover, a 1,000-10,000 foot quick pass over the issue. Although students perhaps learned a number of propositional truths, they neither understood the overarching significance of the debate, nor the emotional and spiritual fervor with which this doctrine was defended by the likes of Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. So this year, I have worked hard to “scale” this topic more appropriately. First, we cover a 30,000 foot overview of the issue, giving merely a few key concepts, events, and people, and understanding how that controversy stands in the larger picture of the Church’s first 400 years. Next, however, we land the plane and actually enter into the debate, reading from Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five five theological orationsTheological Orations. By viewing this controversy first hand (at ground level, if you will permit me extending the metaphor), students better understand the specific issues, the particular reasons why and how this debate was so important to the life of the Church in the 4th century. Finally, we then re-enter the air and do our 1,000-10,000 foot flyover, looking at some of the formulations and developments of this doctrine and extending the significance of this doctrine through the Church’s next 1600 years. I have found that this low flying view is now much more understandable and meaningful because we have properly “scaled” the topic. Regardless of one’s discipline, the task of the teacher, like the historian, is to zoom in and out at varying levels of analysis in a way that brings maximum understanding and clarity to the student.

Balance of Continuity and Contingency

Finally, the teacher, like the historian, must balance continuity and contingency. This process can certainly relate to course content in several ways, but I am thinking specifically of classes year after year. Each class has its own particular dynamic. Some are more talkative, some ask more questions, some are better writers, some have a wide range between the highest and lowest scoring students, while other classes are more bunched together in ability. Despite these differences, certain patterns often emerge with sufficient regularity that the teacher can reasonably expect certain commonalities with each successive class. Nevertheless, certain individuals and/or circumstances sometimes arise unexpectedly to change the dynamic of a class quite drastically. Teachers, like historians, should not aim to predict such contingencies, but should nevertheless be aware enough to recognize them when they come and be prepared to explain and learn from the phenomenon moving forward. An example of this type of contingency may be a lackadaisical student who suddenly, quite unexpectedly but delightedly, finds an insatiable hunger for knowledge. We can’t predict it, but we can certainly see in retrospect its positive effect on the class, and such recognition will hopefully help us respond more quickly and more appropriately to such changes in future students when they likewise unexpectedly come.

[1]John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 25.

[2]Ibid., 30.


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