History is Philosophy Teaching by Examples. – Lord Bolingbroke
People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward
to their ancestors. – Edmund Burke
The Greek historian, Herodotus, whom Cicero calls “the father of history”, begins his History of the Persian Wars by famously declaring:
These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory….
Herodotus’ desire to remember and to glorify the great deeds of the past is still an important reason for studying history today. Glory is classically defined by St. Augustine as clara notitia cum laude, a brilliant celebrity with praise. The student who brings to mind the worthy deeds of the great men of the past, by that very remembering, gives them glory and as a member of the human family renders payment on a debt that will only be fully paid by the Lord of Glory at the General Judgment.
This Lord of Glory is also the Lord of History and it is only with His revelation that history truly becomes a story. Here is a second and more important reason for studying history. The otherwise disparate events of history only form themselves into the elements of a drama and become meaningful when seen within the framework of the Fall, Incarnation, Redemption, Second Coming and other doctrines of the Catholic Faith. Without this structuring we may have the story of Alexander the Great or the story of the American nation but no overarching plot that ties the characters and subplots together. The Catholic student of history has assuaged the fundamental human need to find meaning in the world, and is thus able to live his own life meaningfully.
As we strive to live meaningful lives of virtue, we find another reasons to study history: it offers us a storehouse of exempla, models of virtue to emulate and models of vice to avoid. In the first place is the first born of all creation, Jesus Christ who reveals to fallen man what he was meant to be, offering Himself as a model for imitation. Teaming around Him are his Saints who having successfully imitated Him offer us an incarnate instruction in every possible time, place and circumstance: Christ at play in ten thousand faces. But even from those who have missed the mark of sanctity we can learn much. Only a fool would reinvent the wheel when he could learn from and build upon the efforts of those who have gone before him. Why strain our necks when we can stand on the shoulders of giants? In every endeavor—politics, science, sports—the witness of the past provides a sure foundation for success.
In the beginning there were giants on the earth, but clearly we have fallen far from such heights. With every passing year, what for centuries was taken for granted as healthy and normal, becomes less and less visible and more and more vilified. In such times the voices of our forefathers speak to us with an uncommon and refreshing sanity. As we listen to their words, it is often not what they say, but what they assume that instructs, assures and even astounds us. In coming to know their world and assimilating our thoughts to theirs we begin to overcome the pride and narrowness of contemporary culture and arrive at a fuller and more realistic assessment of the world and human nature.
The course of historical studies at the Academy begins with American History in the 9th grade. This is followed up by a broad survey of World History in the 10th grade. In grades 11 and 12, History is taken up into the study of a Humanities curriculum where it is situated together with Literature, its next-of-kin. History courses are taught as much as possible in a narrative manner trying to capture the drama in the stories of great men and great events. While students are expected to know the data of history (names, places, dates, etc.) this data is not presented in abstraction from the context of the stories themselves. Thus, students begin to develop a historical sense: a real and profound understanding of men and events, together with the recognition of progress and decay in human culture.