The following is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the headmaster at my school explaining why we teach Literature, Theology, and History together as a single subject, called Humanities, in the seventh and eighth grades. I hope it helps explain the joy I’ve found these last few months doing what I do.
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The primary, and most obvious, benefit of teaching Literature, History, and Theology together is that doing so allows the students to discover the interconnectedness of knowledge. In our Humanities courses, there are three primary areas of intersection:
1) The historical and cultural qualities of literature. While literature, especially of the classical sort we read, speaks to the human condition (and thus has universal application and appeal), it was also produced in and spoke to particular cultures and societies. Understanding the original context can help shed light on its universal application.
2) The literary and historical qualities of Holy Writ. While the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the Bible is also literature written in particular times and places. Like Jesus (the Logos) being both fully human and divine, so too is Scripture both human and divine. Understanding more of the human elements will help students be better formed by God’s Word because they will be able to recognize not only themselves in the Scriptures, but also the sweep of history and the narrative power of the human imagination.
3) The literary and theological qualities of history. History is far more than dates and names. History, authored by God, is a story that unfolds throughout time. Understanding history narratively is thus very important because it helps students see in history patterns, cycles, and recurring ideas. There is nothing new under the sun. In an age of rabid historical amnesia, it seems that understanding, recalling, and applying the lessons of history would be of paramount importance.
Here is an example of the kind of intersection I’m talking about: My students have recently been reading T.H. White’s Once and Future King about King Arthur. In conjunction, we have been studying the high Middle Ages. In a recent lesson, I had students read extracts from St. Thomas Aquinas’s On Kingship and then discuss his insights about kings in connection to Arthur (a fictitious king) and William the Conqueror (an actual king). We discussed the relative merits of popular sovereignty in liberal democracies with the divine right of kings in the medieval monarchies of Europe. We discussed the justification that Arthur gives for war with what Jesus says about love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. We examined Merlyn’s seeming pacifism with what St. Augustine says about just war. This kind of conversation is only possible in an interdisciplinary course like Humanities.
A secondary, but no less valuable, benefit of teaching literature, history, and theology together is that doing so allows students to grasp what another culture valued and felt. I am more interested in students walking away from my class having a sense of what it felt like to be a Christian in the Middle Ages or under Roman persecution than I am in them being able to regurgitate a list of the Roman emperors. Of course, that is a false dichotomy. My students do, in fact, learn most of the Roman emperors (for instance), but they do so in relation to reading Revelation (and thinking about the ancient Jewish/Christian genre of apocalyptic), learning about the ancient church, and reading pieces from some of the apostolic and later church fathers. While Cleanth Brooks and the rest of the New Critics in the middle of the twentieth century persuasively argued that close reading of literature can be enough to lock down a good reading of a text, their literary theory was (and remains) an anomaly. Literature, like all other art forms, derives its first meaning from the cultural and historical milieu into which it is born.
While separating history, literature, and (especially) theology into their respective disciplines is important for their mastery in high school and in college, seventh and eighth graders are just learning how to think about meaning–just learning how to make connections between ideas. Their emotions, supplemented by their overwhelmingly concrete way of thinking, guide their ability to learn. Doing our best to teach human thought and activity (expressed as art, politics, religion, and culture) holistically and as an unfolding narrative helps these students to better absorb not only important information, but also its meaning. The result of absorbing the meaning of an unfolding grand narrative of a world and culture far different from our own contributes to the spiritual, ethical, emotional, and intellectual formation of our students. Our Humanities classes, it seems to me, aim toward, and tend to succeed at, educating the whole person.
Aside from these two great benefits, there are a number of others. Teaching Humanities as we do allows us to model the kind of inter-relational thinking that is valuable for engaging a complex world and that (among other things!) colleges look for. It also allows the teacher to be more flexible in instruction, to dedicate ninety minutes one day to Literature if that is what it takes to go deep into a particular passage while making up the time in History the next. Another benefit, from both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s (and parents’!) is that the Humanities class emphasizes quality over quantity. We want students to read a handful of works, but we want them to go deep into that handful. Having a single class, with a single teacher, facilitates an atmosphere conducive to quality over quantity that is not as likely with three teachers and three classes.
Despite these benefits there is, of course, at least one obvious objection. The main objection I can think of concerns whether enough attention and energy is paid to each subject. I sympathize with this objection, but I think it misunderstands the purpose of the Humanities course. Humanities is, itself, a subject worth studying. While I have talked about History and Literature and Theology as distinct subjects that have been synthesized for seventh and eighth grade, I have done so only because these courses were created to replace three separate courses that each covered a separate subject. While prevailing categories separate History, Literature, and Theology from each other, I am not so sure that they are any more different from each other than Physics and Biology and Chemistry are from each other. And, yet, Science remains a unified subject until high school.
The purpose of the Humanities course, then, is not so much the amalgamation of three separate disciplines as it is a holistic inquiry into the bigger family into which those disciplines sit. As I argued above, the point of the course is to give students context and to help them make connections. Nevertheless, I do believe that equal air time is given in the class to History and Literature, and I think a sizable amount of the class is focused on the Bible and on other questions of Theology. I admit that the courses as currently organized tend to feature a primarily historical interpretation of literary works. This is because the courses are organized in chronological order rather than by theme. I could well imagine redesigning the Humanities courses around major themes, but I firmly believe that historical rootedness is deeply important for the place of narrative in the course and because it gives the course a natural, rather than artificial, organization.
I will conclude with a quote from N.T. Wright (New Testament Scholar and Former Bishop of Durham, England) that summarizes my point neatly; namely, that the authority of story is paramount for grabbing hold of the imagination:
Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others. Great revolutionary movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed.