Saturday, February 28, 2009

History as Story -- "Man at the Cross-roads"

I once read a mention by CS Lewis of one of the history books used in Ambleside's early curriculum, Henrietta Marshall's Our Island Story:

I think it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study. The stories are best when they are handed on and accepted as stories. I do not mean by this that they should be handed on as mere fictions (some of them are after all true).

But the emphasis should be on the tale as such, on the picture which fires the imagination, the example that strengthens the will. The schoolboy who hears them should dimly feel - though of course he cannot put into words - that he is hearing saga. Let him be thrilled - preferably "out of school" - by the "Deeds that won the Empire"; but the less we mix this up with his "history lessons" or mistake it for a serious analysis - worse still, a justification - of imperial policy, the better.

When I was a child I had a book full of coloured pictures called Our Island Story. That title has always seemed to me to strike exactly the right note. The book did not look at all like a text-book either. What does seem to me poisonous, what breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious if it lasts but not likely to last long in an educated adult, is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or baised history - the heroic legend drably disguised as text-book fact.
I thought that was interesting.

The point, I think, is that when history is taught through narrative, through Story, it becomes personal and elevates one's thinking. One doesn't think of it as straight objective fact, though one draws a general sense of how things are from it. Whereas when propaganda is taught in standard textbook form, taught as plain fact, it can lead to a narrow parochialism that pretends to be patriotism, or to cynicism when the child grows up and realizes things aren't really that way.

Though CS Lewis assumed that books like this wouldn't be used for actual history lessons, I wonder what he would have thought of Charlotte Mason's PNEU if he had been acquainted with it. I know he rather disliked school the way it was done to him, though he got a lot out of his relationship with his tutor, a Scottish skeptic who Lewis called the Great Knock, who questioned almost everything.

Lewis was an admirer of GK Chesterton though, and his thoughts on patriotism and its attribuest had some overlaps with Chesterton's (scroll down) .

Chesterton's wife, Frances Blogg, worked as the Secretary at PNEU (editing notes, for one thing, writing articles, giving talks and so on) before her marriage to GKC (scroll down). It looks like Chesterton spoke at least once at a PNEU meeting, according to this biography written by Maisie Ward:

Gilbert.... speaks for the Richmond and Kew branch of the P.N.E.U. on "The Romantic Element in Morality"
I couldn't find that talk or any version of it online, to my regret but this is nice.

To a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't....

All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that?--that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a fabulous C.S. Lewis quote. I really like Chesterson's quote too -- the image of man at a crossroads is a very powerful one. Thank you for this food for thought.

Poiema said...

I was very interested in the CS Lewis quote. Can you tell me what book/article it came from?

We're cycling thru Island Story for the 3rd time--it is a gem!

I enjoy your thought provoking articles very much.

Willa said...

It is from The Four Loves

Thank you! This is our third time through OIS too -- I am enjoying it more this time because we have more time to spend on it.