Monday, September 26, 2005

History from a Christian Perspective

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Joel Swagman
History 359
December 11, 2000

History from a Christian Perspective

Even forty years after prayer was taken out of public schools, religion in secular schools remains a controversial topic.  In fact, it seems that every year this issue is in the news.  Therefore, as a new history teacher, it is important for me to describe how I will teach history from a Christian perspective in the public schools.
Of course, it is important for one to have a good way of teaching from a Christian perspective whether in the private or public schools.  However, since at this point I envision myself as teaching in the public schools, this essay will be written from that point of view.
I think most Christians approach teaching in public schools from a similar perspective.  They agree that it is wrong to openly advocate one religion over another.  This advocating position is referred to by J.E. Schwartz as the Advocate/Evangelist Role (Schwartz 299).  Most Christians would like to more subtly influence the public schools.
However I have come to discover that the issues are more complex than this.  For instance, although I have spent my whole life in the Christian schools, I have in the last year or so come to doubt their value.  After all, I believe God has called us to be part of the world, and to influence it.  How will Christians influence society, and spread Christian values, if we keep ourselves locked away in our own schools?  For this reason, I would like to teach in the public schools.
Of course, I would not openly advocate Christianity in a public school.  Rather I would teach from a Christian perspective.  But what does it mean to teach from a Christian perspective in a public school?  Here lies the crux of the problem.  I consider myself committed to the ideal of public education open to all regardless of religious background.  This means I would be violating my own ideals if I were to teach from a perspective that holds some values which are not universally accepted.  The solution is to teach history from a purely objective viewpoint.
For this reason, I find myself leaning towards the role of Agent for Enculturation, described by Schwartz (Schwartz 297).  This is someone who teaches history from an objective, secularist standpoint.  The person would let the love of Christ shine through him or her though, and in this way be a witness to the students.  Schwartz portrays the Agent for Enculturation in a somewhat negative light.  (The very name has a negative ring to it, as if this is someone who has traded his or her Christianity for Earthly beliefs.)  In fact, this position is in contradiction to the very reason I stated earlier for wanting to join the public schools.  This is a contradiction I will have to leave for now, because I have not yet resolved this.
I do like some elements of the Golden Rule Truth-Seeker, presented by Schwartz (Schwartz 302).  I like the idea of giving students all sorts of different perspectives on a given idea or event, and letting the students make up their own mind.  However, is this teaching from a Christian perspective?  Schwartz might argue it is, but this seems to me something any responsible teacher, atheist, Muslim, agnostic, Hindu, Christian or et cetera, can and should do.  Perhaps this method of teaching would more aptly fit under the Agent for Enculturation.
Schwartz defends his ideal teacher, the Golden-Rule Truth Seeker, by saying that complete neutrality is impossible (Schwartz 304).  Granted, but does this mean one throws neutrality to the wind?  I believe neutrality is something that should be strived for by public school teachers, even though it can never be fully attainted.
Therefore, I find myself at the position of Agent for Enculturation, although I am not completely sure about this.  I am torn between the ideal of public education, and the question of how far one should go to accommodate society.  This will consequently make this paper difficult to complete.  After all how does one describe ways in which one will teach from a Christian perspective, if one can not decide whether or not one should teach from a Christian perspective in a public school.  Nevertheless, this dilemma will not go away for me, so I must proceed.
When people talk about religion in the public schools, science is the discipline that is the first target.  I think history is a close second.  History is the story of how different religions have originated, have spread, and how these different religions have interacted with each other.  In some curriculums, the history teacher is even responsible for describing what these different religions believe.  This is especially true at smaller schools, like the one I student taught at, where the history teacher is the social studies department.
This is a sensitive subject, as Paul Boyer alludes to when he talks about Christians upset at the lack of Christianity mentioned in history.  Boyer mentions that many Christians think the disappearance of Christianity in the history textbooks is a secular humanist conspiracy.  Boyer believes that many of these same Christians themselves are responsible for driving Christianity out of the textbooks, because they instinctively recoil whenever Christianity is put on an objective plain with other religions (Boyer 203-204).
Even if I were not a religious person, it would seem to me that religion has been a huge part of history.  To ignore it would be to do my students an injustice.  However, great care must be taken to present all religions objectively, especially religions that are not mainstream (id est, all religions other than Christianity).  In this instance, the best thing to do seems to teach from an objective standpoint, and to take great pains not to teach other religions from a “Christian Perspective”.  However, Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would like to have done unto you,” and I believe that by showing respect for other religions we are fulfilling his mandate.  So, in an interesting paradox, by not teaching other religions from a Christian perspective, in a sense I am teaching from a Christian perspective.
I believe part of Christianity is also a desire for social justice.  History can create that desire both through uplifting and depressing stories.  History is full of people who voluntarily gave up a privileged life to fight against injustices they saw.  These stories can be used to try to motivate students to fight the injustices of their age.  Conversely, history is full of stories about how one group was treated unfairly by another group.  These stories can be used to arouse the sense of injustice among the students, and again motivate them to fight against injustices that they see happening.
Here again, this is not evidence of a uniquely Christian perspective.  One would be hard pressed to find a person who did not hate social injustice, no matter what their worldview is.  However, this is an example of using the public school to spread Christian values.
However, there are several problems with characterizing history as a battle between the good-guys and the bad guys.  One problem is that things are not always so black and white.  There are several ways this could be shown as well.  World War I is an excellent example.  A history teacher could show the students how enthusiastically people signed up for this war, and how silly it seems in retrospect.  The lesson that the students would hopefully draw is to know what their cause is, and not to get swept away in the moment.  Maybe the students would also learn that the majority is not always right.  (Perhaps it would also be useful to bring up Eugene Debs and the opposition to World War I).
Another danger is that students might think that the winner is always right.  As we have seen from Peter Marshall, this sometimes takes a religious slant, but can be problematic even when viewed from a secular standpoint.  Certainly, a Christian believes that good does not always triumph, and there is much biblical basis for this.  The sorrows of Job, or the stoning of Stephen are but two of many examples where good men suffered through no fault of their own.
Since we are the result of history, it is often tempting to think that those who produced our culture were always in the right.  However, this is both flawed theological, and objectively.  Therefore, I must emphasize as a history teacher how the wrong people ended up winning many times.  This will help my students to put an enlightened face on history, and also help to teach them that they must fight hard for the causes they believe in, because being right is not always enough.
Boyer, Paul.  The History Teacher.  1996.
Marshall, Peter.  The Light and the Glory.  1977.

Schwartz, J.E.  Christian Scholar’s Review.

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