“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana
By Teaching History, We Shape It
History, in a broad sense, is not really a discussion of dates, treaties, governments and wars. It’s something much more complicated...and much more consequential. It’s the study of good and bad ideas. It’s a look at the ideologies and core beliefs that have ultimately shaped human behavior.
The fundamental belief that people are born with certain inalienable rights birthed a nation, and the notion that it was deplorable for one person to own another ultimately took that same nation to war against itself. The belief that equality meant eliminating differences or proclivities among people led to genocide while a genius’ theory of relativity paved the way for the GPS app on your smartphone. Whatever the event in human history, a human idea instigated it.
So history, then, is understanding the events of the past in the context of the ideas (however good or bad) that shaped them.
And that is what makes Mr. Vaala’s role at Liberty Classical Academy so unique.
Jonathan Vaala is the history teacher for Liberty Classical’s upper school students (9th through 12th grades). Starting with ancient history and moving to Medieval, Renaissance, and then Modern History, students spend an entire school year on each era of history. They read original, and some difficult, sources. They discuss the material with Mr. Vaala and each other, and interact with it in a variety of ways. They learn history in order, based on the sequence of time and events, and in the context of the other subjects that relate to the era they’re studying.
History and the Classical Education Tradition
History within the classical structure of Mr. Vaala’s classroom reflects the overarching theme and purpose of a Liberty Classical education. Learning is not for the purpose of passing tests and trivia contests. Learning produces life. If we study it and learn from it, it protects our future by helping us understand our past. It gives us context for every decision we make by understanding that true education sharpens the mind while it refines the soul. It equips a life with virtue while training the will with courage and truth.
Education has always been a part of Mr. Vaala’s plan
...at least once he realized that his plans to play for the Minnesota Vikings were...unlikely. Having grown up in Anoka, Minnesota as the grandson of a high school teacher, and with an early discovered love for learning and reading, he moved from his private school education and on to the University of Northwestern, St. Paul and then to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago for his Masters degree. Education and learning is one of his loves. His wife, Emily, is also a teacher.
What wasn’t always a part of his plan was classical education. In fact, much of what Mr. Vaala learned of classical education came as his potential for employment at Liberty Classical increased. The more he investigated, the more his excitement grew. As he began to see it’s impact in the lives of students, he found a new vigor for teaching.
The passion, as Mr. Vaala puts it, is because, “in (most schools), you get taught a bunch of strategies and instructional formats, but with no end goal or overarching big picture. Learning lacks purpose or context. But classical education challenges kids toward a goal. They can become academically educated while also becoming virtuous citizens and followers of Christ. Everything is connected. Everything is given meaning.”
How does this happen with teaching history at Liberty?
History at Liberty Classical is different
Classical education exposes students to ideas...to everything they are going to encounter in culture. Some parents may become uneasy when seeing their student bring home excerpts from Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto to prepare for the next day’s discussions in Mr. Vaala’s class. The goal is not to only inform our students on the content of events in history, but also on the ideologies that fueled them and the consequences of them. It’s to get students to think...to engage with the material so it can be properly assessed in light of what is True.
Mr. Vaala says, “Regardless of what we read, I always want kids to engage with the content…then we’ll evaluate it as a class and consider the implications of the beliefs and ideologies.”
With this approach to history, what do students really get?
First, they get an overview of history that few can claim, with a solid knowledge of history’s big picture and an understanding of what it takes for ideas to take shape.
Second, they are prepared in practical ways. They are able to discuss and contemplate. They’re forced to ask and answer big questions in the context of Truth. They are prepared for other classrooms...in college and life.
Third, students are given a lens through which they can view every event, past, present, and future. They are able to think about history and apply its lessons to real life.
Ideas have consequences…and Mr. Vaala’s students can interact with that in the most tangible ways.
If you were to ask Mr. Vaala when he is most satisfied in his classroom, he would say, “When upper school students start to lead discussions, they’re demonstrating an ability to engage with difficult content and invite others to do the same. They’re owning their education…even if they don’t realize it yet.”
Mr. Vaala teaches our students the facts of history. Yes...on paper...technically...that is exactly what’s happening in upper school history classes. But really, he’s having a much larger conversation. He’s studying history, which means he’s studying ideas...Where they came from and how they take shape in human behavior.
By helping our students understand how ideas have shaped our past, Mr. Vaala is helping students see the potential for their own futures...for their own stories. And isn’t that what history is...individual stories?
So how do we keep from repeating history?
Every idea that has ever existed has had a consequence. The pages of Mr. Vaala’s history books tell those stories. The ideas that our students take with them will play out in their lives...and ultimately in culture...in one way or another.
So when our students can clearly learn what was, and when they can clearly see what is, they can go after, with strong minds and virtuous hearts, what can be.