Tom Gilson

College History Without Wars: Truth, Salvation, or None of the Above?

My daughter called home yesterday from college, during the first session of a course on World History Since 1500. “I’m dropping this course,” she said. “The teacher said she’s not going to cover any wars. She thinks it’s more important to study the ways people have saved other people than to talk about people killing people.”

Granted, I heard the story at third-hand. Maybe the teacher just meant she wasn’t going to cover war in great detail. I have to wonder, though, how she understands things that “save.” Did Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies save anyone when Hitler was starting his campaign of aggression? Did Churchill’s counter-aggression policies save his country? Or would this teacher just skip over Hitler, Chamberlain, and Churchill because they were all connected to war?

I don’t know, and I’m in real danger of falling off a cliff of speculation about this particular instructor. History is necessarily a selective discipline, especially when trying to cover half a millennium in one undergraduate semester. The selections any professor makes can reveal as much about him or her as they do about what happened across all those years. I have to give this one credit for revealing (some of) her biases up front.

I can’t help speculating further, though. There is the cliff before me, and here I take my dive; for I cannot help but wonder what would cause an historian to decide that undergraduates would be better off left unexposed to the ugly stories of war. But before you imagine me crashing into the treetops below, let me add that I’m no longer wondering about this particular professor, about whom I have no information but what I’ve given you here. I’m wondering more generally about anyone who would take the tack she has taken.

Can History Be Taught This Way?

What would a professor like this (I will still say “she”) say about the historically undeniable reality of human evil? Would she limit it to the fashionable categories of race, gender, and environment? But wars have certainly been fought over racial issues, and I don’t just mean the American Civil War.

If she mentioned greed, would it be strictly corporate greed? What about nations’ quest for more land, or more oil?

If she mentioned the drive to dominate, would it be strictly gender- or race-based, or would it also include broader ranges of economic and military dominance?

And if she mentioned courage and honor, would there be any instances of powerful white men showing these virtues?

These are only questions. I can’t imagine how she would answer them in a class designed only to focus on the good. More than that, though, I don’t know how she could tell the true story of humanity that way. For we are a mixed race. I do not mean by blood or by skin color, but by our ethics. We know something of the good and we do it sometimes, and yet we fail in it horribly and often.

History Without Wars: Truth or Salvation?

I have one more question yet: what could be the motive for excluding war from a course on history? She must know there’s no way she could tell the true story of world history without it.

There are many in academia who deny there is such a thing as telling true history. Even as one who believes in objective truth, I wouldn’t belittle the problems with discovering and teaching true history. History is selectively recorded, subjectively interpreted, selectively transmitted and presented, and (again) subjectively interpreted. Still, there is something exceptionally untrue about excluding all of military history. Truth could hardly be even a remotely distant objective in her plan.

So I wonder whether it’s about something like salvation. “It’s more important to study how people have saved other people,” she said. Maybe her thought would be that if a professor can concentrate on the good in humans, and downplay the bad, that this would accentuate the good in her students and in some small way make the world a better place.

To think that salvation could come through deliberate distortion, however, is to think that by increasing wrong we can increase right.

And to think that men and women can be improved by downplaying our evil is to take distortion to the highest level of irresponsibility.

Healing Wounds Lightly

The ancient prophet said (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11), “My priests have healed the wounds of my people lightly; saying, ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” Slightly healed wounds are unhealed wounds. A harder, better medicine is needed.

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8 thoughts on “College History Without Wars: Truth, Salvation, or None of the Above?

  1. I suspect she’ll mention wars – the fact that they happened and the end result – but she just won’t focus on them. She won’t go into detail about the wars.

    Maybe you’re interpreting your daughter’s statement way too literally.

    You say, “Truth could hardly be even a remotely distant objective in her plan.” I’d agree with you if I shared your extreme interpretation and thought there’d be no mention of war at all during the course.

  2. I grant that my third-hand information—another example of the difficulties involved in “true history”—may not be accurate. But I don’t think I said “there’d be no mention of war at all.” Interestingly enough, that’s your interpretation of my interpretation. Had you noticed?

    I think that whatever she meant by not “covering” wars—which could mean a range of different things—the general attitude conveyed by that announcement still raises the questions I brought up here. What do you think?

  3. Well, there is definitely truth in history apart from the truth of wars. You can’t deny that wars happened, but you can definitely talk about true things in history without focusing on wars.

    The class won’t necessarily be “designed only to focus on the good,” because there’s a lot more evil out there than just wars. I would be amazed if a college professor tried to teach a history course just talking about good things.

    Still, it’s hard to figure out what she means by “the ways people have saved other people.” It almost sounds like an evangelical Christian course.

  4. College courses do have discretion as to what will be covered. The mission of the class as it relates to its declared aims for the student’s degree need to be understood. A BS or BA needs to “mean something” and that something does have at least a degree of common ground which the student is “expected to know” and hence the instructor is “expected to cover”. Beyond that, it seems ten classes in ten institutions will probably have ten different emphasis-laden foci. But that bit about “expected to know” is a fairly standardized X, even if only a minority of the overall content. That is the aim of the student – to obtain X, and so ought to be the aim of both the institution and the instructor. Once that foundation is assured, well, all sorts of lenses can be applied to all sorts of times, places, and happenings.

    “World History Since 1500” seems that by the end of the semester one would have a basic grip on the radical changes which have shaped the world stage since then and it seems hard to achieve that without covering wars. Of course, one could couch war X in the language of inherent human worth “feelings” leading people to have sacrificed blood and treasure for such “good/saving”. I think that would allow both wars and the aims of the professor to be covered. Only, there are several wars which are of purely utilitarian/atheistic undertones and so those wars, at least, really have no mechanism whereby to surface inside the stated framework of the stated professor. Evil as Cause must be – well – ignored. Whereas, Human Value as Cause would be covered. So, in a real way, some very real part of our very human story could not find the means with which to emerge into the classroom. There is Good which fights/saves in the name of human worth and liberty (covered) and there is Evil which claims to fight/save in the name of some very different philosophical views, and it seems those would not be covered. Perhaps one could couch Lennon, Stalin, and others in the tone of trying to help people, but the “good” of that “help” would have to be unpacked. Just as would the “good” of those who opposed such means/ends in the name of innate human worth would have to be unpacked.

    So, all in all, it seems very hard to enter into “the business of unpacking” if one wishes to avoid any mention of Evil. Unless one couches all Evil in the semantics of Good-Motives. But that must reject this: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive….” (CS Lewis)

    But again, there is only a minimum of “expected ground to cover” and that is probably something easy to cover in less than half the course. The rest is whatever the professor and institution value, and that is a very, very good thing – that we have such liberty to express and rant and raise an X which we, and not another, value. How we got such liberty – well, that most likely will not be covered in that class. God is funny…..He refuses on grounds of love to employ the means of Stalin and simply pours His Own Means, which is Himself, into the Cup and leaves it for us to drink or discard. Such non-enslavement, such liberty, came at such a price. It seems freedom just is expensive. Perhaps “Good” and “Expensive” can’t be isolated in our current actualized state of affairs, full of Good and Evil. The instructor’s aim, however, reveals a discordance then with reality. But then, perhaps she is on to quite another reality, her intuition teaching her, leading her, into yet another actualized state of affairs, full of Good – Hard Stop. It’s funny she should think that way about reality. It’s revealing.

  5. Tom,

    If deliberate withholding of factual content is the “means” to increase good in the world, it seems the means are flawed. Also: There is a real category difference in teaching “WORLD history” and teaching “the positive effects of kindness in human interactions across time”. As humans we leak-out categories which matter to us – the professor being like all of us. This leaking goes on all the time to some small degree. If she meets the minimum “world” history pictures which do her students fair justice, the rest seemes “okay”, semantics and definitions on her end being assumed to be sophisticated with a few rain drops mixed in rather than partial to leaking “floods’. That flexibility is rightly granted her, us, and is – was – expensive, immutable and self-evident truths having leaked through – emerged – across time.

  6. It is literally impossible to have any real understanding of history without an understanding of warfare.

    Battle of Vienna
    30 Years War
    English Civil War
    Seven Years War
    American Revolutionary War
    French Revolution
    Napoleonic Wars
    War of 1812
    American Civil War
    Opium War
    Boer War
    World War 1
    World War 2
    Vietnam War

    There are many more that could be mentioned, but the major historical developments of the last 500 years all depend on an understanding of war in some form. Nationalism, Colonialism, the fallout of the protestant reformation, the rise of democracy, totalitarianism and the rise of ideology in the 20th century….you can’t talk about any of these subjects without talking about war.

    If the account is accurate and the professor really does intend to largely skip over most of these topics, it really shouldn’t be called World History since 1500, but some far more limited aspect of World History.

  7. ” It almost sounds like an evangelical Christian course.” Come on now, everybody knows that we evangelicals are war mongers, full of hate and rage for all those who are different from us.

    By suggesting that an Evangelical Christian course would focus only on the good, how others have helped others, while shunning the history of warfare for the last 500 years, you are breaking all the liberal progressive stereotypes that have been developed about Evangelicals over the last 100 years. In fact you make us sound like pacifists, in which case liberal progressives should love us.

  8. I think you are probably being far too literal in your interpretation of what the professor said. I cannot see how anyone could hope to cover such a vast, vast topic as “World History Since 1500” in one academic term without focusing on a relatively narrow number of topics.

    Perhaps she meant the development of medicine, or of mass education, or transport, or universal suffrage? Or, here in the UK, the NHS and welfare state post WW2? Who knows.

    I certainly believe that it’s possible to teach a term of history without focusing on war in any way.

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