Developing a Respect for the Past

Classical Christian education, if it's worth its salt, educates today's kids for today's culture. But unlike other educational forms, it looks to the Past regularly, often critically, but always reverently. In the Past, it sees its ancestors, and by extension, sees itself.

Today, as Enlightenment philosophy has reached full maturity, other educational forms see the past primarily as the source of racism, sex discrimination, and narrow-minded religiosity. At best, the past is an irrelevant non-entity, a great-grandfather in a rocker chewing his wet gums. The past cannot speak meaningfully into the present.

Classical Christian education aims to see the past as a hoard of treasure, full of events, characters, and experiences that reveal what is right and wrong, wise and unwise, tested and untested, beautiful and ugly. It is a gift that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9), since it means we can know the consequences of ideas and actions if we will only listen. The past is not so much a glorious golden age (at all) than it is a means for thankfulness and wisdom. Classical Christian education does not teach students to live in the past, but it teaches them to love its good parts, avoid its bad parts, thank God for all of it, and use its wisdom to live God-glorifying lives in today's world.

To that end, classical Christian education views the past in a few key ways.

The past involves real people. Poorly written textbooks that are strong on dates, controversies, and propaganda are good at making historical figures look like figures and not people, but a true history, in all its romping realism shows them as men. It shows them as women. They lived as we live. They thought the thoughts we think. They struggled with the same temptations. They ate, slept, went to the bathroom, and dressed. They had quirks and personalities. They were great, they were noble, they were evil. This is why they are in books. But we can forget that they were human as we are human, in every particular, and this should give us perspective, respect, wisdom, and inspiration. God died for them, too.

We are also the past's actors. The present is now the past. History is not just about those people over there: it is also about us. Just as the men and the women of the past shaped events to bring us to now, so we are shaping now to make the future. This is our sobering and fantastic responsibility. We are called. We have roles to fulfill. Our children are watching us.

The past creates thankfulness, because it gives us an ability to honor our forebears. We owe everything to those who went before us. Our primary attitude should be, “How is it possible that we have so much?” and never “Why do we have so little?” Why should any of life be remotely pleasant? Why are we free? Why can we choose our religion? Why can we have any beliefs we wish? Why financial well-being? Why are we educated? Unless we are content to forget origins and assume all these things are rights, history gives us reason to be thankful in everything. Those who went before us gave all of themselves to us.

The past creates thankfulness because it gives us an ability to condemn our forebears and avoid their paths. The past is full of not-so-good people, of vice personified, resulting in slavery, bloodshed, discrimination, and abuse. Knowing and respecting the past allows us to consider and condemn, which (done the right way) furthers the goal of the gospel for humanity.

The past is teleological, not cyclical. History has an end, a goal. It’s true that the past repeats itself today because of the changelessness of human nature, but this is not the overall character of history. History is driving toward something. It is intentional. From the dawn of time, through the rise and fall of many civilizations and religions, there has been progression. Knowledge has grown steadily. The stories of law, politics, philosophy, medicine, and religion have developed and matured. We're headed somewhere, and that somewhere is the real future date when "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Hab. 2:14)

Classical Christian education teaches students to love old books, old ideas, old characters, to consider and criticize them with respect, and then to act act. We are each in a Story. What's our line? Do we know our cues? Classical Christian education teaches students to love the Story they're in, and to be thankful for the characters that gave them their parts to play today.