Modern Scholar series (part I)

In the spirit of always trying to look on the bright side of things… One of the advantages to spending two hours or so each weekday commuting to and from work is the opportunity it affords me to listen to audio books. I was in the local public library over the weekend, and noticed that they had a new title from Thomas F. Madden in Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar series. Unsurprisingly, the series overall is a bit of a mixed bag, but, having listened to all of Madden’s volumes so far, I can vouch for the quality of all of them.

These are not actually recorded books, but sets of about seven hours worth of lectures on various subjects – in Madden’s case on the history of Christianity, broadly speaking. Madden’s work is by no means overwhelming – these are survey-level mini-courses, and an overlap in subject matter among his volumes leads to some redundancy, but he does a nice job of walking through the material briskly while still demonstrating the complexities of the historical situations. I was particularly impressed with his agility in avoiding fashionable, oversimple cliches in his surveys of the Crusades and the Inquisitions – each of which he managed to cover fairly comprehensively in what would amount to about three weeks worth of classroom lectures in a traditional undergraduate environment.

I’ve been able to fill some gaps in my knowledge of European history while listening to these CDs, and it struck me a while back just how fundamental this knowledge is to understanding the world we’ve inherited from the ancients, the medievals, and the early moderns. And yet, where is this knowledge to be found in our culture? I know so many people who have absolutely no clue about any of this – including many with college educations. What little previous knowledge I had of this history was almost entirely gained through personal reading over the years. As a product of the public schools, I had almost no exposure to this – beyond, perhaps, memorizing the details of major military skirmishes, and of changing political fault lines. I certainly was offered no clue as to how the set of ideas we call the modern world (if we can still call it that) was forged in the interplay of the ideas of our cultural ancestors.

Maybe teenagers are too young to grasp human history as the story of ideas, but if that is true, then our system of education teaches history to the wrong people. Actually, I think that is true, and it suggests a gaping question regarding how we might rectify the problem of a rampant ignorance of the meanings of ideas. And when the Daily News Product is feeding us political ‘debate’ that tries desperately to find the right marketing mix of ‘change’ branded slogans and ‘experience’ branded slogans – all in an attempt to manipulate the election of the leader of the free world – we’d be hard pressed to show that ideas are not in crisis in our culture. Ideas are packaged for consumption – as trivia.

“For $10,000 and a weekend in Barbados with an upscale hooker: Who was the father of Charlemagne?”

This series is a good place to at least start rectifying the problem – Madden’s volumes are, at any rate.

  • john, i recently completed listening to maddens audio cd the tiber and potomac and i have to say that although i feel well educated, this area of knowledge, especially the relationship of the roman republic and the subsequent empire to the united states is very surprising and his comparisions are quite interesting. i did not know of these relationships andl their impact on all of us as citizens. they are very thought provoking and i dont know why i or we were not taught about all of this. the perspective presented is one that all of us should know about. where is the education system that i went through that missed all of this or did the teachers not know or did they refuse to teach it.to know our roots from the past seems to explain so much more that the sound bites of news shows.thanks for your comments

  • John W Gillis

    Thanks for the comment, Doug.

    You ask an interesting question around whether school teachers are aware of the contemporary relevance of ancestral cultures and are just not teaching it, or if they don’t really understand it themselves. I suspect the answer is some of each. I suspect there is a significant number of teachers more interested in education than in learning, if you know what I mean, and hence not necessarily very knowledgeable in various subject areas. Others might be asked to teach outside of their areas of competence – for example, someone better suited to teach math or science might end up teaching “social studies,” or serving as a lower grade generalist.

    I doubt there are many individual teachers who understand the relevance of history yet outright refuse to teach it, but I think several obstacles are stacked against any attempt they might be inclined to make. The cultural tendency toward progressivism seems especially strong in the educational world, and progressivism has nothing but contempt for the past. The exaggerated importance placed on scientific method contributes to a fact-oriented learning environment, to the detriment of higher forms of understanding. And perhaps youth are just not mentally prepared to make the kinds of intelligent connections necessary for true historical sensibility, especially if they’re being fed a steady diet of intellectual junk food by popular culture media and consistently feeble schooling curricula.

    I don’t think the future looks too bright for improvement in this area, but it would be good to find a way to challenge the system to do better.