I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of the Asvins.
I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrificer who presses the Soma and offers the oblation.
I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skilful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice. The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms.
The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me. Listen, you whom they have heard: what I tell you should be heeded.
I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men. Whom I love I make awesome; I make him a sage, a wise man, a Brahmin.
I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the hater of prayer. I incite the content among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth.
I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread out over all creatures and touch the very sky with the crown of my head.
I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures. Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so much have I become my greatness.
Rig Veda 10.125
E. Christian Kopff goes a step further than most advocates of classical education today in his insistence upon a return to an authentic classical education that not only focuses on the “great books” and the great ideas they contain but that includes as its centerpiece a thorough study of classical languages and the classics in their original languages. Borrowing, perhaps, though without directly citing, the old motto of the Catholic schools in the United States that “language saves faith,” Kopff makes the case for a return to the study of Latin and Greek as the key to our heritage. As our culture has been handed down in these languages, the loss of knowledge of these languages must necessarily result in the loss of our culture.
From this, Kopff goes on to an assault upon the liberal establishment and the various changes it has instituted in public education in the United States from graduate schools to pre-kindergartens. With the loss of our past and the resultant “alienation from our own history” (p. 99) we have dived head first into the Enlighten Project of creating the new from nothing and forging our own “brave new world.” As Kopff points out, however, with the loss of the antecedent ideas upon which the status quo is based comes an inevitable disjointedness and lack of direction within modern thought. With the loss of the age old ideas and eternal truths which have hitherto informed our civilization comes the loss of the basis upon which that civilization was built. Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King have drawn upon unique ideas of Western Civilization to advance the cause of human rights and dignity. With the loss of these ideas, goes the effects they have had.
Kopff proceeds then to a series of vignettes, examining the lives of outstanding individuals, certain important ideas, and some recently published lists of books and movies that ostensibly rank as “the best” of the past century. With each look, Kopff further illustrates his overarching thesis about the consequences of the loss of language in the loss of culture. Along the way, he provides a great deal of insight on topics as diverse as James Joyce andThe Godfather movie series.
Finally, Kopff concludes with a treatment of some practical concerns. Without delving too deeply into what a curriculum might look like at the grade school level, he offers some sound insight, advising that early education should focus on language and mathematics, thereby planting the seeds for further growth later. Language, of course, is the key to all of the humanities and mathematics the key to all of the sciences. With a firm foundation in these one will indeed have access to a liberal education. He also, helpfully, offers some suggestions on books from which to learn the classical languages as an adult as well as from which to teach the classical languages to children.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in education, particularly to those who wish to discern where we have gone wrong and what can be done to correct the many and great problems which currently define the American system of public education.
For most of the time we have existed humans have been nomads. Nomads are people who move around from place to place rather than building cities, towns, and farms in one area and settling there permanently. These nomads would follow the animals and search out the plants they used for food. Around 12,000 years ago, however, people began to plant gardens and farms of their own. They probably got the idea by watching nature very closely and trying to imitate the way that wild animals and plants live and grow. About 5000 years ago these groups of people who had settled into one place began to form the first civilizations. Most of these civilizations formed around rivers. Rivers provided a source of drinking water for people as well as the plants and animals they raised. Early civilizations also used the water of these rivers for transportation. Travel over land was very difficult before cars and roads, especially when that land might involve things like deserts and mountains. In China, civilization began along the Yellow River. In India, the members of the earliest civilization built their cities along the Indus River. In Egypt, the first cities were built along the Nile. In Mesopotamia, a place whose name means “land between two rivers,” the people built their cities in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
All of these civilizations started at almost the same time. Egypt and Mesopotamia, though, are the ones that are most important to us. These are the places that Western Civilization began. Both of these places are located in the region that we now refer to as the Middle East. It was here that some of the basic ideas of Western Civilization first developed. Among the ideas that began in the Middle East nearly 5000 years ago are the ideas of immortality, writing, law, and the city-state. Each of these ideas has been important to the history of Western Civilization and each of them is still important today.
The Egyptians are probably most famous for their pyramids. The pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, the kings of ancient Egypt. Inside of each of them was placed the mummified body of a pharaoh. Their internal organs had been carefully removed, their bodies wrapped in bandages, and special prayers and spells said over their bodies. The coffins of these kings were often decorated with expensive gold and jewels. The walls of the tomb were painted with scenes of parties, fishing and hunting, and feasts with tables full of foods and drinks. These structures are sometimes very large and have lasted a very long time. While the pyramids themselves are both important and interesting it is the idea they represent that makes them especially important. These giant tombs were built because the Egyptians believed in immortality, the idea that people continue to be alive even after the death of their bodies.
This idea of immortality had a big effect on the way people thought about themselves and other humans. The Egyptians believed that a person’s place in the afterlife, the life you live after you have died, would be determined by how they behaved while they were living this life. After death, the god Osiris, who ruled the world of the dead, judged each person by weighing their heart. If it was heavy with sin and evil, the person would be eaten by a creature that was a combination of a crocodile, a lion, and a hippopotamus, three animals that were especially feared by the Egyptians. If his heart was not weighed down with sin, the person would be allowed to enter into the kingdom of the gods and enjoy all of eternity in paradise. With this judgment after death in mind, Egyptians were encouraged by their beliefs to live moral lives.
We would not know about the Egyptian idea of immortality, however, if they had not developed another very important idea, the idea of writing. The Egyptians were able to write books about their views of life and death because they had developed a writing system. The Egyptian writing system, called hieroglyphics, consisted of a set of small, simple pictures that represented words and sounds. The Egyptian word for “bird,” for example, was represented by a small picture of a bird. The Egyptians developed their own unique and complex writing system, but they were not the first ones to develop the idea of writing. They learned about the idea from the people of Mesopotamia.
The first writing system was developed by the people of Mesopotamia shortly before 3000 BC. The idea probably developed because they needed to remember things that were too difficult for the human mind to remember on its own. The earliest written texts include lists of items a person has sold or bought, myths and other stories, and religious rituals and prayers. These are all things that it would be very important to remember but that it might be difficult for people to remember if they rely only on their mind. A person who sells things, for example, needs to keep track of what he has in stock and how much he wants to charge for it. A priest has to remember the rituals and prayers he is supposed to say in the temple. And the entire community wants to be able to tell the stories of their gods and heroes in their myths.
Another important use for writing was making sure that everyone knew the rules. Even today we use writing on speed limit signs and stop signs to make sure everyone knows the rules for using a road. One Mesopotamian king, Hammurabi, used writing for exactly this purpose. Early on, the Mesopotamians had been divided up into several city-states. Although they shared a common culture, including a similar language, religion, and way of life, they did not have one king over all of them. Instead, each city-state had its own king who ruled over it.
In about 1792 BC, however, Hammurabi became the king of Babylon, one of these Mesopotamian city-states. He then led the warriors of Babylon in a conquest of all of Mesopotamia. When the city-states of Mesopotamia had ruled themselves, each had its own code of laws. Now that Hammurabi was in charge of all of the cities of Mesopotamia, he decided that all of the cities would have the same laws because they were all part of one empire. In 1772 BC, Hammurabi wrote his code of laws, called the Code of Hammurabi, and had it written on large stone tablets he placed throughout the conquered cities. By doing this Hammurabi used writing to make sure that everyone in Mesopotamia knew he was their king and these were the laws they had to follow.
The importance of law is another idea that comes to us from Mesopotamia. For the people of Mesopotamia, laws were very important. They believed that having a set of laws that everyone followed made it possible for society to work well. Imagine trying to play basketball with a group of people who do not know the rules. They would all be double-dribbling, traveling, and fouling while you were trying to play the game; it would be chaos! That is the way Mesopotamians thought about laws. If there are no laws or if people do not follow the laws then society will be chaos and nothing will get done.
All of these ideas that began in Egypt and Mesopotamia 5000 years ago had a big effect on later developments in Western Civilization, as we will see when we move on to later times. All of them are still important to us today as well. The idea of immortality, which began in Egypt, is still the belief of most people in the United States today. The idea of writing is the reason why you are able to read this right now! The ideas of the city-state and of law eventually led to our ideas of government and liberty and had a big effect on the development of our laws today. As we continue, we will see the way that the ideas of Egypt and Mesopotamia acted as the seeds for our civilization.
1. List and define all four of the ideas we get from Egypt and Mesopotamia which are discussed in this chapter.
2. Choose one of those ideas and write a paragraph about some ways it is important to us today.
City-state – a city that rules itself independent of any outside power
Hieroglyphics – a writing system in which words and sounds are represented by small, simple pictures
Immortality – the idea that life continues after the death of the body
Mesopotamia – an ancient Greek word meaning “land between two rivers” that refers to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq
As has already been mentioned, writing is perhaps the most important aspect of being a historian. It is through writing that historians are able to share their ideas with others. For this reason, the historian must be able to communicate clearly and in a way that makes people want to listen to his story. If a historian does not have both of these abilities, all of the detective work he put into gathering and analyzing the clues will have been for nothing.
To write well one must first have a good grasp of the basics of writing. First and foremost among these are, of course, spelling and grammar. Someone who frequently misspells words, especially words that are very common or that are important to the topic he is writing about, is not someone that people want to read. Similarly, people do not want to listen to someone who cannot speak or write with correct grammar. Both of these are fundamental, which means basic but important, aspects of writing well.
Another of these basic aspects of writing well is having a large and growing vocabulary. Words are the way human beings express their thoughts and desires. Without words we would not be able to do things either great or small, from something as simple as asking for a glass of water to something as big as discussing the meaning of life. The more words you know, then, the more thoughts you can have. The less words you know, the less thoughts you are capable of having. Being able to find the right word for the right situation is an important part of writing well.
Mastering all of these basics of writing, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, applies to writing well on any topic, whether that topic is history or science, mathematics, literature, or your favorite sport. In addition to these basics, there are writing skills that apply specifically to history as well.
Because the historian is both a detective and a storyteller, he has to find a balance between these two roles. The historian has to be able to tell a story that is both interesting and informative. The historian has to be able to educate as well as entertain. Nobody wants to read a dry list of dates and names. At the same time, a historian must not be so interested in telling a good story that he forgets the facts and starts to write fiction instead. An example will help us understand the sort of writing we want to avoid. We will then look at an example that strikes a perfect balance between entertainment and education.
First, here is a short sentence describing an event from history:
Charlemagne was crowed Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day of 800.
While this works as an entry on a timeline, a tool a historian uses to keep track of when events happened, this would make a terrible paragraph in a book or an essay. Imagine if learning history was just reading a bunch of paragraphs like this one!
Now, here is the description of the same event given by a historian:
Charlemagne lingered in [Rome] until Christmas Day. He went to morning mass, knelt for prayers, and as he began to get to his feet, [Pope] Leo III came forward and put a gold crown on his head. The crowd, which had been coached, cheered: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, the great, peace-loving Emperor, crowned by God!” He had been crowned imperator et augustus, two titles that belonged to the emperor of Rome…1
Notice that instead of just listing the facts Bauer has given us a narrative, or story, of the event. She has also provided us with details about where the crowning took place, which pope crowned Charlemagne, and the reaction of the people present. We get a better idea of what happened from reading this narrative and it keeps our attention. You should also notice that Bauer does not give her own opinion about whether what Pope Leo did was right or wrong. This is called impartiality. Being impartial means not picking sides in a fight. Although we are allowed to have opinions, historians should be as impartial as possible when presenting their stories. We should try to be as fair as we can to the people we are writing about and present the truth to the best of our ability.
Good writing in any subject is writing that includes correct spelling and grammar. Good writing also demonstrates a large vocabulary and the use of thinking skills by the writer. In history, this means doing the research well and presenting our research in a way that is both interesting and informative. It also means keeping an open mind and avoiding being unfair to the people we are writing about. In short, good writing is writing that effectively communicates well thought out ideas. This is the sort of writing we should strive to produce when we write about history.
1. In a paragraph, identify some of the qualities of good writing. Use your own words.
2. Now, write another paragraph identifying some of the aspects of good writing that are especially important in history. Use your own words.
1 Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 393.
As you might have guessed already, a historian has a very big job. You learned in our previous reading that a historian is someone whose job it is to preserve our heritage and help us remember and understand our past. That is what Herodotus, the first historian, did when he wrote his book. It is what historians still do today. You might also recall from our previous reading that remembering our past can help us make good choices about our future. You might be interested to know that many of our presidents were professional historians, including:
• Theodore Roosevelt
• Woodrow Wilson
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
• John F. Kennedy
• Richard Nixon
• George W. Bush
• Dwight D. Eisenhower
Even those presidents who were not historians were very interested in history. They knew that history contained information that would help them make important decisions about our country. Thomas Jefferson, for example, collected a huge library of books – more than 6000 of them! – and many of these books were about history.
A historian’s job is very important and every time you step into your history classroom you become a historian. We want to do this important job well. Future decisions can depend on what we say about the past. So how do we do it?
In order to be a historian, you have to be part-detective and part-storyteller. You have to be able to piece together clues in order to figure out what might have happened. Once you piece these clues together, you then have to be able to present your ideas about what happened in a way that makes sense and that other people will want to listen to. In other words, you have to be able to tell a good story.
The clues that a historian has to work with include things that archaeologists discover, such as pottery and art. Sometimes these archaeological discoveries are easy to understand. If we find a sword, for example, we can usually be pretty sure this was used as a weapon. Other objects we find, however, might be more difficult to understand. Imagine being a historian in the year 3000. In your time people clean their teeth by using a laser they point into their mouths. Now imagine an archaeologist finds a house from 2014 and discovers a set of toothbrushes. It is your job to figure out what these were used for. You have never used a toothbrush before and do not know anyone who knows how to use it. This might be difficult. Some archaeological discoveries are like this.
A historian’s clues also include maps and the things other historians have written about our subject. The most important clues we use are the descriptions of events we read about in some very old books. You might have seen a detective show in which the detective interviews witnesses in order to find out what happened. A historian’s witnesses might be people who lived thousands of years ago, but we can still interview them! We interview them by reading the books they wrote in a very close and careful way. Sometimes witnesses misunderstand what they saw or even lie about it. We have to be able to compare different witnesses and use our thinking abilities to figure out who is telling the truth. When we do this, we are, in our own way, interrogating the witnesses, even if our witnesses are texts written by people who died a very long time ago.
There are three kinds of texts a historian uses and they are classified by how far they are from the original event we are studying. A primary source is a text that is very close to the original event. In order to be considered a primary source, a text has to have been written by either a witness or someone very close to a witness. For example, if you wrote about a Fourth of July parade you watched you would be writing a primary source. A secondary source is a text that is written by a historian about the primary sources. If a group of your friends went to the Fourth of July parade and each wrote about, then you took what your friends wrote and told your own version of what happened during the parade, you would be writing a secondary source. A tertiary source is what someone writes when they write about what the secondary sources say. Most dictionaries and encyclopedias are considered tertiary sources. They are just summaries of what historians say about something from history.
Bringing together all of the clues and the testimony of the witnesses can be quite a job. What do you do, for example, when there are only two witnesses and they disagree with each other about what happened? What if you find some archaeological evidence that shows that neither one of them is telling the truth? These are the sorts of problems historians have to solve. And this is just the first step in the job of a historian.
Once a historian puts the clues together he has to tell the story. In order to do this a historian has to be someone who writes very well. The ability to write well might be the most important quality of a historian. This means a historian has to have the ability to think and communicate clearly using correct spelling and grammar. A historian also has to make sure he is telling the truth and not just repeating gossip or telling tall tales.
As you can see, being a historian is a job that requires some hard work and a great deal of thought. Historians have to be able to play different roles, being a detective and then switching to become a storyteller, and they have to be able to fill both roles very well. This is the challenge we will take up over the course of your history class.
1. Given what you have already learned about history, why do you think learning about history has been so important to leaders such as the presidents named here?
2. In your own words, explain what primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are.
3. In your own words, explain why a historian has to be both a good detective and a good storyteller.