EDUCATION: by Jason BarneyNews Weekly
We live in a culture of Peter Pans
, March 2, 2013
The great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. “Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child.”
In a sense, historical understanding — knowledge of what happened before you were born — is primary to all realms of knowledge.
Science is the study of the great discoveries of the past in our knowledge of the natural world. Literature is the study of the great writings of past cultures that embody human experience in the form of story and poem. Mathematics is the study of how great minds of the past have ordered for us the use of abstract numbers and symbols in relation to the physical world. The arts are the studies of the varied and diverse cultural creations of the past.
Historical understanding in all these areas humanises, matures, and uplifts the soul.
Too many citizens of our country today are, in Cicero’s terms, forever children. If knowledge of the past matures the soul, it is not something we can afford to marginalise or sideline.
Unfortunately, the hard work of gaining knowledge, eloquence and wisdom is all too often skirted by teacher and student alike. Because we have neglected knowledge of the past and the great tradition of historical understanding, we live in a culture of Peter Pans, flying free in Neverland with no past and no future, only the ever-present game, the mock battle against pirates or Indians. Wendy’s stories, with their plot of real challenges to be overcome, only reveal to us our immaturity, the fact that we are forever children who won’t grow up.
In my short professional tenure as a teacher, I have had the privilege of seeing students mature through coming to know the past. After numerous classroom discussions about the virtues and vices of historical figures, making charts and lists on the board as my students came up with ideas, they have written profoundly of their desire to mature in their own lives, discerning their own weaknesses and taking steps to improve.
After discussing and chuckling at the social dynamics of Jane Austen’s Emma — expressing distaste for Mrs Elton’s haughty manner, admiration for Mr Knightley’s gentleness, good-natured exasperation at Emma’s silly lack of self-awareness — I have witnessed the change in my students’ relationships with one another: a more mature thoughtfulness, a deeper sensitivity. Nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than seeing how interaction with the stories of the past matures the souls of his students.
As G.K. Chesterton said in another context, the great tradition has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried, found difficult and duly abandoned.
Hillsdale Academy is a model to schools across the nation, including my own, of taking the difficult path, rediscovering the great tradition, and finding in the wisdom of the past a deep well of life-giving water.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Jason Barney, a Latin teacher at Clapham School in Wheaton, Illinois, on the occasion of his being awarded, by Hillsdale College in Michigan, the prestigious Salvatori Prize for Excellence in Teaching, at a ceremony at Hillsdale College on November 12, 2012. The speech is reprinted by permission from Imprimis (Vol. 42, No. 1, January 2013), the national speech digest of Hillsdale College.