Clio in America:
Teaching American History Classically

By Travis Copeland

American history, spanning only a few centuries, hardly seems classical. Is there even a way to teach it classically?

Within the world of classical education, there are many who argue against teaching American history. The classical tradition, they contend, maintains deeper roots and a longer past than the brief, experimental stint of the United States. Even more than the length of U.S. history, there remains too much other, excellent material that needs to be perused, covered, or pondered in the classical tradition. Whole civilizations, their histories, and their literature need to be mined and reflected upon. Most classical schools maintain an allegiance to literature, history, and language that existed prior to the American experiment, and often American Humane Letters, United States History and Government, or American history are regarded as secondary to what is truly classical education. Even the subject of history is occasionally rejected as not genuinely classical—understandably, if we consider its absence from the list of the seven liberal arts.

While there is a solid case for having an American Letters class in a classical curriculum, the more immediate question for schools that teach American history (or feel they need to add it) is: how can American history be taught and learned classically? If students find themselves in an American history class in a classical school, or if a teacher discovers that they are asked to teach United States history as part of their classical school curriculum, they must be able to answer this question thoroughly. If American history is taught in an un-classical way, under the standards of the state or some outside parameter, then a little leaven is apt to leaven the whole lump and threaten the cohesive nature of the school and its tradition. But, if American history is taught classically, as much as possible under the subject label “history,” it can reinforce the beauty of the classical humanities. 

First of all, teaching American history and literature can and should draw from the classical tradition generally. American history textbooks typically argue that Americans need to understand who they are in this present moment, how they arrived here with these ideas and visions of the world, and what kind of government and society they live in today; the argument is that learning American history will be useful to you as a student and a citizen. Utility is a useless, arrogant, and baseless starting point for any subject or education in general. Even more, students throughout the nation are given this early-year talk in favor of “caring” about the American history class and its subject matter. However, the first thing a classical American History teacher must do is to make it not about history, and certainly not about America. This early pitfall would put self-centered utility at the center; virtue falls by the wayside. It is in part because of this dangerous mis-ordering of loves that classical schools stray away from American Humane Letters or American history in the first place. Yet, the basis for all history, literature, and language must be eternally rooted in the character of the student and their call to love the true, good, and beautiful, and this should include American studies.

I have read somewhere or other ... that history is philosophy teaching by examples.

Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

So what can be done practically to cultivate virtue in historical study and in particular study of American history? Two suggestions, not novel but specific, have been beneficial to my thinking on teaching American History classically. In my American history classes, students were given six virtues and six corresponding themes, which they defined as a class.

Justice—Race
Honor—Constitutionalism
Courage—War
Judgement—Sovereignty
Hope—Expansion
Diligence—Industry

Definitions for each of these terms, guided by student debate, were hammered out for the use of the class. These are specific to every individual class, and they are written by every student. Guarding against using them in pride, the class can then consider the periods of American history through the lens of these specific virtues, while the themes offer a touch point. Students can write, dialogue, and assess how virtue is disregarded or upheld in the American story. The challenge of discerning justice, or seeing the magnificent endurance of hope, can (hopefully) cultivate humility as students encounter the great complexities of the American story. It can return students to considering virtue in themselves and its formation in their lives and education. Using these virtues and themes, students can then be asked to write and reflect. Virtue thus takes center stage. A call to value the good and reflect on how those in history have related to it offers breadth and depth to the class and the study of history.

As an extension of such reflections, tests or quizzes that merely call upon students to tick multiple-choice boxes or memorize lists of facts are woefully insufficient. Any history class taught this way really is sub-classical. Assignments and exams should move beyond rote memory: essay questions, which do not merely recount events but ask students to consider the events in light of the true and the good, require them to see history as something more than a set of abstractions. Assessing images, virtues, themes, and character moves beyond rote memory into true classical education. The assessments, and even other assignments, are themselves learning periods, not regurgitation. These practices bless, and they can in turn lead to a kind of wonder and delight.

American history is important. As citizens of the United States  (speaking to classical American schools) living in the present, a working knowledge of the American experiment is extremely valuable, but it should never be the pragmatic starting point for teaching the class. Just as classical education is about character formation first, so too American history must begin where the tradition begins and sit alongside the ancient curriculum of Latin, medieval literature, or theology in pursuit of virtue. Most importantly, how we impart history, no matter whether ancient, medieval, modern, or American, ultimately matters more than the subject itself. To put it another way, as David McCullough has remarked, “The study of history is the antidote to the hubris of the present”—even the hubris in us.

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Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this essay, take a look at some of Mr. Copeland’s other contributions to the Journal, like this one on classical education as a kind of play or this profile of Benjamin Franklin; or check out some of our other guest writers, like Fr. Robert Nixon OSB on humility, or our outstanding student Julia Dudek on the character of Mark Antony as depicted by Shakespeare.

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