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Freedom: The Western Narrative

Excerpts from the Classical Heritage Series talk, Freedom: The Western Narrative, with David Wacholz, Upper School English Chair and history teacher.

The Center for Mission and Academics seeks to ask worthwhile questions and allow thoughtful reconsiderations of how certain topics align with our identity as an institution.

As part of an ongoing examination of how curriculum aligns with mission, Mrs. Pryor asked us to explore how and why we teach history the way we do at Brookfield Academy. To consider, especially in light of so much of the controversy surrounding education recently, what it is we value in the teaching of history and how it serves our ultimate goal of educating the whole person in the skills, values, and heritage of responsible, constructive, free people.

Whether we like it or not, schools and teachers don’t get to choose whether we teach values. Schools and teachers are always affecting values by what we decide to praise and punish, how we balance students’ differing needs, how we articulate students’ obligations to each other, how we teach the lessons of our past.  The question isn’t whether schools teach values, it’s whether we choose to be deliberate about it.

In this regard, the over-arching question that confronts us is why study history? Perhaps another way of asking the question: why study history? Is: what story should we tell about the past?

As a humanities teacher, I am sensitive to the fundamental way that narrative works in our lives both in and out of the classroom. Since narrative is intrinsic to humans, it is the most natural and potentially rewarding of studies. Reading narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, gives us intimate contact with the best and the worst in human nature, the honorable and dishonorable, and provides both mirror and lamp: a mirror for self-examination and a lamp for illumination.

For this reader, the basic truth at the bottom of this conversation is that History begins with a sense of wonder. Why and how did that happen? What’s next? Clearly, there’s a positive relationship between curiosity and knowledge and it is cause and effect that power curiosity.
So, how do we activate and engage curiosity? No small task. But these few ideas can help shape the conversation.

Firstly, history is narrative. The construction of explanatory stories is intimately related to the intellectual and existential impulse we have to organize experience and reality into something coherent.  As meaning-making agents, what we do with the odds and ends of experience closely corresponds to what we do with our collective past. We consider and absorb tensions, conflicts, and resolutions that lead to new tensions, conflicts, and resolutions. We ask questions about cause and effect and remind ourselves that at the center of it all is human agency, a usually flawed hero who, like ourselves, who must reconcile a host of competing expectations and demands.

Secondly, of all the stories we might tell about how we have become what we are, for good and bad, what story is the most compelling and complete? I would contend that it is the relentless push for freedom. It’s about going back to the beginnings of an unbroken chain of events that began in the eastern Mediterranean. Authority and liberation, convention and revolt, tyranny and personal sovereignty—these are the creative rhythms of civilization. They are as vivid in the history of politics as in the history of art and poetry, science and technology, education and religion.

Although there are many worthwhile competing narratives about the West, we may be wise to remind ourselves that we get one chance to lay the right track for students. Most people will not casually, let alone seriously, contemplate history. But, what they might remember is the narrative arc laid for them in the classroom. Will that narrative be one that is steeped in indictment and recrimination or will it be one that allows a careful deliberation of man’s complexity even as it encourages a modest celebration of his accomplishments?

When Martin Luther King declared that the arc of history is long and that it bends toward justice, he was working from a narrative assumption, an assumption millennia in the making. In this conversation, Justice is closely allied to the freedom of the individual.

Historian Russell Kirk provides a splendid historical narrative of the march of justice and freedom in his book The Roots of American Order which challenges its readers to understand that there is no understanding what happened in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, without first understanding the legacy of the four fundamental cultures of Israel, Athens, Rome, and London. That the long, slow transmission of the drive for purposeful self-mastery begins with Mosaic Law, passes through the democracies of Greece and Rome, is fine tuned in the traditions of English Common Law, and had been incubating for nearly 3,000 years by the time it finds its expression in the American experiment.
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