Thursday, April 8, 2010

History 9 -- Christendom -- the method and approach

The last post outlines my understanding of the "what", the matter or content, of the Christendom series by Warren Carroll. Now I am trying to outline the "how" -- the approach he uses. This is to help me figure out what I'm trying to accomplish by using this book and perhaps, if I need to add to or modify anything.

"The attempt is made in this history to combine vivid narrative in the text with thorough scholarship in the extensive notes at the end of each chapter..... The writer firmly holds the perhaps unfashionable belief that any good history should be a good story."
As he mentioned previously, he wants to focus on people and how they influenced their "polis" and their religion. This relates to something else he says -- that he didn't devote a lot of effort to including economic, social and institutional trends in the books. Partly this would be due to lack of space, but the reason is also somewhat philosophical -- he thinks it is people (and Providential direction) that influence history, and not so much "extrinsic...forces".

"Persons in their earthly lives are indubitably very much affected by social and institutional structures and by economic conditions. But the person is ultimately, metaphysically independent of them.... Christians do not see men as primarily shaped or dominated by extrinsic and namless forces, structures and trends. They see the drama of human life as primarily composed of personal thought and action, above all by the working of the will."
This idea of a narrative or drama focuses his selection of details. Another point he makes related to this is that every history book makes a selection of details which shape the work. History may be a sort of science in that it is a method of investigation of things. However, inevitably there will be a sorting through and filtering of a wealth of information to make some sort of thesis. Sure, you must be fairminded and truthful. But no one is "objective" in the sense that they can totally stand apart from history. Their writing is informed by their own cultural context and their own philosophical worldview, and also, of course, by the selection of details from the chroniclers of earlier generations (the "primary sources"). This will be important to bring out with my student because there is a "myth" of impartiality nowadays that boils down to somewhat naive rationalism, especially in the minds of the populace.

Dr Carroll employs mostly secondary rather than primary sources for his citations and discussion, though he says he goes to the primary sources when there is a point of controversy or scholarly dispute. He also says he makes sure they are scholarly, non-crank type secondary sources, though he does generally search out reputable Catholic historical scholarship rather than standard secular sources. This has been seen as a flaw in his work, though certainly I do not think it's peculiar to his work especially when we are talking about high school survey courses. I've read through several and I am not even sure if they use distinguished second-hand sources -- I think they generally follow a standardized scope and sequence that includes talking points like "the darkness of the medieval period and the intellectual rebirth of the Renaissance" . Anyway, I'm off on MY pet peeve here. Dr Carroll justifies the use in this way.
"This is simply because of the scope of this work..... many painstaking and conscientious scholars have already investigated the primary sources with the utmost care and reported thoroughly on them. The overriding need is not for more monographs on original sources, but for synthesis from the Christian point of view, in a time when this kind of history has virtually ceased being written."

He makes sure that his secondary sources are carefully documented, however, which means that the reference section is often a good proportion of each chapter. His hope is that this helps revive some of the past scholarly histories of Christianity, and also provides a starting place for future researchers and Catholic historians. So in this sense I think he hopes to do something like the work the monasteries did in preserving Christendom through collecting and preserving works.

Also, though he does not often cite primary sources he does use quotes from primary sources, mostly literature and Scripture, to set the tone for each chapter and evoke key ideas. This means that it will be relatively easy for me to supplement the book with source readings. "Supplement" is probably the wrong word here -- I want the source readings to be the heart of the course. The text will be the "spine" to help me organize the course readings.

I notice as I read through the first volume that because of the survey nature of the book, there is little time to do more than highlight key people and events in various ancient civilizations and that this is done mostly in relation to what the Church calls "Salvation History". This brings up a final point about the researching and selection of details. Dr Carroll holds that the Incarnation is the central point of history -- that God carefully prepared the world so that the greatest event in history could be like a seed planted in ready ground. So a lot of the discussion of various pre-Christian cultures will concern how these cultures pre-shadowed (in natural terms) Christendom or how they (unintentionally, inadvertently) enabled Christendom to take root and grow. This method means that some things thought important in secular histories -- like, say, Egyptian burial procedures or Hatsheput the female pharoah -- will hardly get a mention in this book, while a more quirky side-aspect like Akehnaton's monotheism will be discussed at more length. And while Caesar's share in Romanizing Europe is gone into in some detail, his assassination gets barely more than a paragraph at the end of a chapter on Rome. For this reason I am planning to have another textbook or survey on hand in order to use it for an occasional contrast or for perspective. I have History of Civilization by Crane Brinton which is my favorite of all the ones I've seen so far. He even has recommendations for historical fiction after each chapter. It covers all of history from Prehistoric Man up to the Age of Revolution in one volume : ).

Perhaps Warren Carroll's pinpointing method will help me be more ruthless about MY focus -- see my dilemma above about needing more time to do the thing justice. He does well with combining a lectio stataria with a lectio cursiva -- ie, treating certain key things more thoroughly and skipping through other things that aren't as valuable in making his case, while still leaving openings (he mentions this explicitly) for the next generation of historians to develop more detailed treatments of the things he passes through quickly. This suggests that I could do something roughly similar in the course -- emphasize certain things and have more accountability for those things, pass quickly through other things, and encourage some research opportunities.

I'm planning to have my 9th grader read 3-4 pages at a time, spend the rest of the lesson focusing on some aspect or doing more research or reading related literature, and then every 3-4 weeks do some research/writing project that will take several days. This is how K12 did it and I really liked the approach though the emphasis was obviously more informed citizenry than religious or moral formation per se.