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Finding freedom and truth in history

Leading schools is like being a helmsman of a ship journeying across the ocean. In charge of navigating, a helmsman has a significant task: if the excursion begins to veer even one degree off the coordinates of the destination, the boat will arrive at a much different place than was intended. 

School and diocesan leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver spend a lot of time wondering and considering why our Catholic schools exist, what is their aim, and how each aspect of the school can serve that end so that we are navigating to the right destination.

Schools are tasked with the education of the whole person: heart, soul, body, and mind. ⊲

Each year, the Office of Catholic Schools spends time revising our academic content standards to determine if what we are teaching in our classrooms to form the whole child is as aligned to our aim as possible. This year, we have a new set of revised history standards. Thinking like a helmsman, let’s consider why a Catholic school even teaches history. 

Embarking on the study of history could be seen as setting out into a dark tempest. Is there any meaning in that barrage of names, dates, and places, especially with all of the horrific events that it contains? From a Catholic point of view, however, history has meaning and purpose. It is the study of the human story, thinking through and understanding the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  It’s a drama that we can recognize on a grand scale and in our own lives, as our students set sail on their own adventures. 

When we teach history in our schools, we give our students a chance to see what’s possible when people tap into the creativity, ingenuity, contemplation, and action inspired in them as human people who were created with reason and intellect. In history, we see the masterful organization of societies through peaceful governments, periods of creation of beautiful art and music, courageous voyages, advances in medicine, space travel, and more. Studying history also gives students a chance to see many moral and ethical failures of human people, the fall of civilizations, and the consequences of evil choices, and students learn through counterexample how to act virtuously, and how passing this temporal world is.

History provides a map for the voyage of life, providing the cultural literacy we need to understand our society and our place within it. Studying history plays a crucial role in Catholic education and has practical benefits for reading comprehension, too. A recent study from Fordham Institute titled “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension” determined that an increase in time spent studying social studies (history, civics, and geography) is associated with improved reading ability. The more students know about history, the more they understand what they’ll need to read. If we hope to deepen students’ reading ability, then we would do well to deepen what students know about history. 

Learning history helps us become more human. Catholic schools aim for liberal education, “liberal” from the Latin word liber meaning “free.” This means that we prioritize what we teach not simply because it is useful to us through some utilitarian end, but because it makes us more free. The Roman statesman Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” A mature thinking person considers the thing before him or herself and wonders, “From where did this come? Why is this the way it is? And should it stay this way?” Studying history helps us look at our own lives and wonder, “From where did my life come? Why is this the way it is?” and consideration of these questions leads to maturity. ⊲

History also inspires us to reflect on how God navigates us toward eternal life. Each human person is made for a definite purpose, as part of God’s plan. We have been rescued from death, the fear of death, from every anxiety, and from sin. We were all born into an adventure, a great drama, a cosmic battle of good against evil. Our own stories take on deeper meaning within the story of Jesus. Jesus went to battle against Satan for each one of us so that we, too, can become sons and daughters of God. The Incarnation, culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection, is the moment in history that changes everything for us. Jesus, by taking on our nature, transformed the reality of our lives — triumphing over death so that we could live eternally with God! Each of the smallest details and choices of our lives are part of this great battle for our eternal destiny, and the eternal destiny of the people with whom we are called to share this great news of hope and life made possible by Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ entered history, transformed all that came before him, and is the goal of all that comes after him.  In Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II wrote, “Christianity is a religion rooted in history! It was in the soil of history that God chose to establish a covenant with Israel and so prepare the birth of the Son from the womb of Mary ‘in the fullness of time’ (Gal. 4:4). Understood in His divine and human mystery, Christ is the foundation and center of history, He is its meaning and ultimate goal.” 

This is the greatest story that has ever existed! Our minds should each be formed to receive it. Our new history curriculum standards aim to form students to receive this story and we encourage teachers to teach history through this story. When we hear stories, they shape our imaginations for what is. Consider being taught history as simply a memorization of dates and names — how dry!

The pyramids, Roman roads, medieval cathedrals, the world wars, and the civil rights movement all speak into the human search and the spiritual drama of life. We see both the power of evil and the greater forces of mercy and love. It all points to our inclination for something greater than ourselves. In the face of evil, we realize that we need a savior. For a Christian, history becomes the means by which God works out his plan for salvation, allowing human freedom a wide berth, while silently working in the human heart underneath the surface. History inspires a hope that God will save, God will answer the longings of the human heart, and that the longings of each one of us cannot be satisfied in this world alone.  

Students will find freedom in this truth, that Jesus Christ is the answer to every longing of the human heart that has ever been asked in the history of time, and this should be explicitly shared with them in the study of history. 

Our lives have a story, one thread within the larger tapestry of human life. We receive the wisdom of the past so that we can help weave the next layer of the story. Catholic schools aim to help students be free, and the greatest work we can do is forming students to be so, for this is what it means to be navigating to our destination!  

Abriana Chilelli
Abriana Chilelli is the Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal​ for the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Denver.
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