Does a good education demand an appreciation for history? It would seem so. What arguments are there to support such a contention?

Neil Postman writes,

There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

Lewis also makes an important methodological point about the preeminence of primary sources, as compared to secondary sources. That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

Christians know too that “the human dilemma” is to be understood within the narrative of redemption history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation).

Those paying close attention to the developments in Christian higher education will take note of the increasing popularity of “great books” programs (see St. John’s College and The College at Southwestern). These are in some sense an extension of the impulse toward a classical academy model of elementary and secondary education.

For more on “what makes a great book,” visit this Scriptorium Daily podcast, which includes the insights of faculty of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books program at Biola University.


  • David Pendleton

    C.S. Lewis was absolutely correct when he pointed out that our understanding the past is a key to facing the future. History and the Great Books are precisely the prescription we need today to face the pressing problems and recurring challenges society faces at this moment. Because human nature has not changed, only the sophistication of our technology, we tend to find ourselves in similar situations. The Great Books are great because generations of thoughtful men and women have found in them enduring wisdom that is ever relevant and true.

  • http://ndsnow.googlepages.com Nathanael Snow

    Southeastern Baptist College is also offering a great books program modeled after St. Johns. I’m envious of all the Johhnies I’ve known. It seems I may never have the time to read all the books they know, let alone discuss them in depth.