Sunday, August 3, 2008

Fighting the Whig Narrative in the Classroom: a Modest Proposal

When we last talked about the Whig narrative I said that attacking the Whig narrative could be useful as a way to fight secularism. I offer, here, a possible way to go about this.

Since the Whig narrative is a historical issue the first and most obvious place to go after it is within the confines of history and how it is taught to the public, particularly in classrooms. Judging from my experience of talking to non-historians, the fact that historians as a whole have rejected the Whig narrative is not something most people are aware of. On the contrary they take it as a given that the history that constitutes the Whig narrative is fact. The blame for this must be placed on the doorstep of grade school history teachers and textbooks, the source of most people’s knowledge of history. When I was in school my teachers taught what essentially amounted to the Whig narrative and I went to religious schools. I remember one teacher in high school, and this was an otherwise excellent history teacher, openly connecting what she was teaching to her being a deist. I take it as an operational assumption that the situation in public schools is if anything worse; particularly considering the demand to teach multiculturalism and tolerance for which the Whig narrative and its whole line of reasoning are quite suitable.

This situation is analogous to that of evolution. Despite the fact that evolution is accepted fact by the scientific community, including those scientists who are theists, evolution is not accepted by the general public to the same degree. One can still reject evolution in polite company without having ones sanity questioned. This situation was made manifest in the recent court room battle over Intelligent Design. The scientific community has made an effort to reach out and make its case to the public. I suggest that historians and those interested in history make a similar effort.

Secularists, joined by many people of faith, rightfully and successfully challenged the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design as a means of selling a religious ideology. I suggest that all people of faith follow this example and challenge the direct or indirect use of the Whig narrative in the teaching of history. The Whig narrative amounts to nothing more than the teaching of secular ideology and passing it off as history.

To give an example: when I was in fifth grade my teacher opened up her discussion of the Middle Ages by telling us: during the Middle Ages people decided that the Greeks had discovered everything that there was to know about the world and that no further study was needed; people, during the Middle Ages, were therefore content to simply study the works of the Greeks. At age eleven I was quite well read in history and knew enough to realize that this teacher was not particularly qualified to teach history. I did not yet know enough, though, to challenge her on this particular issue.

As a parent you could call such a teacher and, in a polite and friendly manner, ask her to explain how she could say such a thing in light of all the various attempts by the Church to crack down on Greek thought. What about the 1210 ban on various teachings of Aristotle, or Pope Gregory IX’s attempt to curtail the Aristotelian curriculum taught at the University of Paris? How about Bishop Etienne Tempier, who, in 1277, issued a condemnation of 219 Aristotelian theses? (We will deal with this in greater detail later.) You could then offer the teacher a way out by giving her the chance to correct herself in front of her students. Hopefully you could leave this conversation on friendly terms. The teacher could acknowledge that she is ill equipped to teach history. You could tell her that you do not hold it against her, considering all the other subjects she has to teach as well, and recommend a decent medievalist for her to read; maybe someone like Norman Cantor, whose work is quite accessible for a lay audience.

If the teacher chooses to be obstinate then the fun begins and we drag this teacher in front of a board and if that fails a courtroom, to have her fired. Contact a professional medieval historian; you should have no trouble finding someone willing and able to explain to a lay audience why this teacher is incompetent to teach history. Gather a large collection of statements by the teacher that are Whig in nature and historically incorrect. Hopefully you will also manage to catch her pontificating to her students about her secular beliefs, which would allow you to place them side by side with her Whig statements. The most obvious way to do this would be to have your child take good notes and record her classes.

If, and this is quite likely, she was teaching based on a specific curriculum then we go after the curriculum. This is of course the real goal of such an exercise. While going after individual teachers may be fun, it is inefficient. The goal must be to change how history is taught right at the source, the curriculum. The Whig narrative can stand only through bureaucratic inertia. The moment it the Whig narrative is hauled out to stand on its own merits it falls apart like rotten timber and not even the most ardent secularist can defend it.


James Pate said...

Hi Izgad,

Was the church always against Aristotle, or did it turn against him at some point? In college, I learned that Galileo did not fear the church as much as he did the Aristotelian scientists.

Izgad said...

The Church's relationship to Aristotle, during the Middle Ages, was complicated. It defies easy pro or against statements. There were a number of different camps, accepting different elements of Aristotle. Not to mention all the different schools of Aristotelian thought that existed.
A good book to look at is Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy.