Susan Wise Bauer on Medieval History

Every class at school is dominated by either a skill set (the arts, liberal and fine) or ideas (history, theology, etc.). In either case, the content learned will serve the idea or the skill. To avoid confusion, ideas classses also develop skills and skills classes also think about ideas. They cannot be laid into air tight chambers.

The classes that are dominated by ideas were called sciences under the classical curriculum. The classes dominated by skills were called arts.

The arts were seen as foundational to the sciences because before you could contemplate ideas you had to learn how to think.

This changed in the nineteenth century when German philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and others (following the French revolutionaries) determined that either there were no ideas (classically understood) to know or that any ideas there were to know had no connection to the actual world around us.

Ideas set free from reality were what gave us the revolutions and radicalisms of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

They are also what unhinged the classical tradition and the focus on the seven liberal arts as  prerequisites to an educated mind.

In that context, knowing what to teach in a history class, for example, becomes problematic. The conventional school is lost, being dominated by text book publishers who take their cues from arguments at school board meetings in Texas. They don’t have a philosophy of history and if they did they would be shot down by the establishment for imposing it on their students.

Susan Wise Bauer has been writing history books into that context for the last decade or so, and on February 22 she will be releasing a new volume: A History of the Medieval World.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting comments on this work from a number of different angles. For example, I’ll point out that I appreciate that she at least occasionally uses complex sentences, without which a child can never learn to read and think complex thoughts. I’ll also reflect on the question of what one ought to include in such a study; whether it is fitting, give what she includes, to call it medieval history; how to make use of the text in your school or home; and a few other things.

I’ll begin by giving the book a qualified thumbs up, while acknowledging that Susan Wise Bauer has produced a very useful artifact. If you are a teacher or parent seeking knowledge of the medieval era as a source of wisdom, you’ll want this book nearby.

For reasons we’ll explore later, I’m not sure if I would make it my primary text to teach the middle ages in a classical school. However, I would absolutely want my students to have it nearby as a resource.  

Over the next few days I’ll be with the apprentices close to 24/7 so I’m not likely to post much – maybe a great quotation here or there. But I’ll be back at it on Monday, reflecting on medieval history, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and whether there is a necessary relationship between education and freedom.

Let me remind you again that our conference on Liberty will be held in Dallas on July 14-17 and the early bird registration fee is available, though the conference is filling at a surprisingly rapid pace. You can register for 245 (225 in groups of three or more) and I’d love to see you there. We need to think hard about liberty if we expect to keep it.

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