Teaching History, Education, and Meaning, With Critical Thinking

Thesis: History is the outworking of the conflict between basic beliefs. Analyzing history gets us into basic questions especially focused on the good.   

Asking a Philosopher 

As a philosopher I was a little unsure about an invitation to talk about teaching history. That is because philosophers have always been accused of having their heads in the clouds. They are abstract and idealistic whereas history is concrete and real. The tendency for a philosopher is to get into the philosophy of history more than history itself. And we will do some of that here. What is history and what causes change in history? But we also need to look at concrete examples of this to both illustrate the point and make progress in our understanding of history. 

I’m actually going to start with a prophecy. Does that surprise you coming from a philosopher? It is a prophecy by another philosopher. The Socratic prophecy. He says:  

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophecy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are fitted with prophetic power . . . Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives.  But that will not be as you suppose.  For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them.”

They were not able to give an account of their lives. And the prophecy is that their students will not accept this and will be much more severe with them than was Socrates. To give an account is the purpose of the Academy. This connects us to the logos which we still find in the disciplines of the academy, geology, biology, astrology? The word “history” doesn’t have that term but it does have that same purpose. To give an account of human life and how humans have lived. The beliefs that have shaped their choices. To find meaning in that and teach that meaning to our students. If we cannot give such an account then the Socratic prophecy will apply to us. And this is the account he is giving of himself, his apologos.   

Giving an Account and Finding Meaning 

Are we able to find the meaning that is in history? To find meaning is to find understanding, and we are especially looking to understand the changes in history. We study the choices that people have made and these tell us about their values and the beliefs that inform them. And values, and therefore beliefs, are often in conflict. An individual person can have this conflict and we read about these kinds of things in biography. And people groups can be in conflict. History is the study of the outworking of basic beliefs in conflict. The study of how people have attempted to find meaning. There are these conflicting presuppositions that are used to give meaning to experiences. We don’t want to simply study experiences, but the meaning of those experiences. This gets us to the beliefs used to give meaning and how a person understands their own experiences. I will call these “basic beliefs” here. When basic beliefs are challenged and when they fail to provide meaning they do not last. As we identify these beliefs and how they shape institutions and cultures and motivate the changes over time we find the study of history to be full of meaning.   

Why do we study history? There are different ways to study history. The history of ideas. The history of battles. The history of culture. Storytelling. Learning lessons from our errors. Underlying all of these is history as a conflict between basic beliefs. It is beliefs that motivate change and shape choices. This underlies all the other approaches. It is this conflict that drives the change in history. Any given person may be more or less conscious of, and consistent in, their basic beliefs. Part of the study is simply raising that consciousness and working toward consistency. But all persons have basic beliefs and attitudes and actions. We use these to find meaning in our lives. All civilizations have basic beliefs. Many civilizations have decayed because they lacked meaning; only that which retains meaning will last. Do we have meaning? 

Example: The Declaration of Independence 

Permit me to use an example from my own work that also connects up to our context to answer this question. “The Declaration of Independence and God.” I was especially intrigued by the philosophical aspects of that famous statement: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It stood out to me that this is a government document, it is a secular document, and it grounds its arguments in claims about the nature of God and man. It is an example of natural religion. It is giving us answers to the questions “what is real, what has existed from eternity, what determines human nature?” These are the areas of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.   

The statement also tells us why. It answers the question “how do we know?” These truths about God and man are self-evident. Now this is a problematic answer, and I will come to that. These answers aren’t self-evident in the way that logical truths are self-evident. Perhaps it is more that they are the common ground from which the rest of the argument will proceed. And we can recognize a structure here: arguments about rights or values will rest on beliefs about what is real (God, human nature) and these in turn will rely on a theory of knowledge. How do we know God? This illustrates what I mean by basic beliefs. It gives us the order of epistemology to metaphysics to ethics. How do I know, what is real, what ought I to do? But did it sufficiently establish these foundational answers? The centuries since then have seen challenges raised at each of these points and for many they are no longer meaningful.  

Example: Thomas Paine 

Take an example from Thomas Paine. He challenged the meaningfulness of belief in God. Here he is at the time of the Declaration of Independence voicing challenges that we hear today from those called the New Atheists. Paine argues that we can know there is a First Cause but that is about it. This shows the problem in the ambiguity of the Declaration of Independence. What can we know about God the Creator? What is the meaning of this term there and has it been emptied of meaning to be at most a First Cause and maybe not that? Can we know what is eternal? Can we know God?  

Relativism and Perspectives 

It is at this point that we will encounter the relativists in history. This is the view that says we cannot actually have a definitive view of history. We never get to Truth with a capital T, only many truths that can always be revised. This is academic skepticism applied to history and it extends not just to history but to our basic beliefs. Can we know what is good? The academic skeptic says no. So this has far reaching implications not just in history but in our lives as well. On the other hand, if we can know some things, including what is good, then we can apply this to our understanding of history. It is the place we start in studying history. 

There is a danger when we come to the controversial parts of history that we will train up sophists. We may be tempted to say that there are just so many different perspectives and we need to teach our students how to understand all of them. This is a fine first step. But if we end there we have only trained sophists who can argue well for any point they are given but do not know the truth of the matter. We can go that next step by helping our students identify what are the basic beliefs involved in each perspective. What did the persons involve believe about value and our highest good? How is this belief itself a reflection of other beliefs, presuppositions, about what is real?   

So the study of history begins with learning to identify basic beliefs and I’m going to especially focus on the belief of the good. Our choices are shaped by our values which are shaped by our highest value, the good. And a person’s highest values tells us about the rest of their worldview; it tells us their view of human nature and of God. So history is the outworking of the conflict between basic beliefs, or, the conflict between competing views of the good. Why do people choose what they choose? Knowing what they think is good answers this.   

The Declaration gives us this framework, the structure of these questions and their relationship, but we see how the answer there has been challenged. This can account for much of American history after that time. We need to do more if we are going to get the answer in place. As educators we have a call to do just that. They will love what we love. We love what we believe is good. Students will pick up on what we love even if at an unconscious level. Do we love the good?  

Example: Early Princeton 

How does this help us study history? Here is an example from my book “Reason and Faith at Early Princeton.” How do we understand the changes in that institution over time and do these reflect other changes in American education and culture? Princeton was founded with the goal of teaching students piety and the knowledge of God. It no longer has though as its goal. Why? These did not retain meaning. Princeton connected piety to the knowledge of God. Piety by itself can be misguided, aimed at an idol (consider Aeneas). Piety as character is a means and it needs an end. The goal of the knowledge of God was given as that end. But we see challenges to the knowledge of God in the next two centuries. Is belief in God the Creator and Redeemer meaningful? Deism and Unitarianism challenged the idea of redemption. Naturalism and higher criticism challenged the idea of the knowledge of God from creation and scripture. Marxism challenged the otherworldliness of heaven. After these challenges was the idea of piety and the knowledge of God still meaningful? This is the study of change over time.  

The changes brought about by challenges were exposing lack of meaning in the beliefs. Let’s connect the time periods of the founding of Princeton (first great awakening) and the Declaration of Independence. Piety and knowledge. If rights are grounded in our having been created equal how do we know there is a God that created us equal? Even among the more religious of the Founders there is a tendency to downplay the need for showing this. James Madison (Princeton grad) said that he did not think theistic arguments did much and instead emphasized common sense. William Tennent Sr (founder of Princeton) said something similar about common sense. A religious conversion is important and the redemptive truths in scripture help keep one from strange religious enthusiasm. Ultimately the goal is heaven. God is needed for that. 

Now, the Founders of the country are focused on this worldly goods and providing a stable framework for pursuing those goods. God is needed as the source of equality which gives rights. But not much more is needed. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison can have their own personal beliefs about this and still agree on a secular framework. And that is one point Madison made about the reality of factions. There will always be factions, he said, and a framework is needed to keep any one of them from oppressing the other. This is a kind of skepticism about our ability to come to agreement on what divides us into factions. Instead, what we know is about this worldly goods. It is in the next century that the challenge arises to the otherworldly view of religion: this is the opiate of the people. Why do we even need belief in God? Let’s keep rights and this worldly goods and get rid of the other things about which we cannot know anyway. What is meaningless does not last. Now Princeton’s unofficial motto is: serving the nation and humanity. No need for piety or the knowledge of God. Basic beliefs in conflict and change from challenges. Is what we have now meaningful? 

So we see this change over time and how it is connected to the outworking of this conflict between basic beliefs. It gives meaning to the history but also brings those same questions before us. We also have attempted to give answers to those questions. We also want to pursue truth and the good. And this is why history cannot just be about what other people thought.   


We don’t simply want truths. The many true things. We want the true. Definite article. What is true about the real, permanent, unchanging, eternal. This truth connects the many truths and helps us make sense of them. Can you begin to see the structure of that statement in the Declaration of Independence? And how this gets us to the idea of a worldview. Not just beliefs but a set of beliefs. A worldview. And we want to teach critical analysis of worldviews.   

When we think about the conflict between basic beliefs we might be tempted to think that there are so many it is hard to imagine. Perhaps a different basic belief for each person. But this is why I mentioned consciousness and consistency. There are not that many competing world systems. In one way there are only two. All is eternal and only some is eternal. Sometimes this is put as nothing is transcendent, all is mundane, or something is transcendent. There are many different expressions of these with varying levels of consistency. At what point are we content with our understanding of God? Is belief in God needed for the good, in this life, in the next life, not at all? 

Can we know that only God is eternal, and is knowing this truth our highest value, the good? You can begin to see how this structures the idea of an education about truth, goodness, and beauty. Do we want this for our students? I’ve heard it said that they will love what you love. And love also relates to the good. We love what we believe is good. Think of the many ways that students might pick up on what we love and through that be affected by our view of the good. What is our view of the good? What would we say of an education that does not teach us the good? 

This Truth with a capital “T” connects us to worldview. This is what the Declaration illustrates. Truth comes connected in a system. In the largest sense this is the relationship between ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. The Great Books take us to the conversation between worldviews that are in conflict. The conversation model didn’t capture this. And it didn’t teach the reality of these different worldviews. We are looking for the accumulated insight in history not just a history of what has been said by who, but what insights have been built as we see people answer these great questions. 

Socrates and Critical Thinking 

We can look again to Socrates as an example. But there might be different versions of Socrates. He might be used simply as an example of asking questions but with the idea we never actually come to know. And even when we think of the kinds of questions he asked these could be secondary or more basic questions. But there is another version of Socrates as pursuing knowledge of the good. Acknowledging he does not know is the first necessary step in pursuing this knowledge. So here I’m thinking of him as the example of critical thinking about basic beliefs. And these are basic beliefs to a worldview. When we get to the basic beliefs of a worldview we have the thread that holds the rest of the system together. Think of how quickly things unraveled when he asked “what is wisdom” to persons putting themselves forward as teachers. That’s a basic question for any position of leadership. Wisdom connects the good with action. What is good and how do we achieve it?  His challenge brought about change.   

Socrates said that the youth picked up on his method and enjoyed seeing him question. This might be a specific developmental stage and not just the love of philosophical inquiry. I’m thinking about the classical model of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. It is at the dialectic stage where the student especially learns how to think critically about basic beliefs and argue. The dialectic student should be able to not only answer the question “how do I know?” But defend the answer through reason and argument. The same is true for the other basic questions: what is real?  What is good?   

This is getting us to truth. Worldview as the answers to basic questions worked out over time and into all of life. Critical thinking about basic beliefs. And great books as historically accumulated insight. Let’s think about how this applied to the example from the Declaration of Independence. There we are presented with answers to the basic questions about knowledge, reality, and value. Epistemology, metaphysics, ethics. But these answers have been challenged since that time. Is it really self-evident that we are created by God? Or did we come about in some other way? Do we know what has existed from eternity? Can we name the possible options and then argue for one?   

And what about the idea of human rights? Is there a permanent human nature on which to base rights? What is it and where did it come from? And how do rights relate to value? We may have the right to do something and not want to do it. We have the right to pursue happiness but what will provide lasting happiness? This is the good. And we need to distinguish between the good, virtue, and happiness. In the history of ethics we have had thinkers that emphasize either virtue or happiness (think of the Stoics and Epicureans). The good is the end in itself. Virtue is a means to this while happiness is the effect of possessing it. So we need to identify the good in order to be able to define and explain these other two.   

A Liberal Arts Education 

I was tasked last year to think about the outcome of a liberal arts education by the ASU Senate. One question I wrestled with was this: what if a student gets a liberal arts education but does not know the good? And is this limited to the college student? At what age should a student know the good? Returning to the stages of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, this belongs in the dialectic stage. There are many different traditions that say at age 13 one can demonstrate knowledge of what is most important in life. At 13 the student can know the good.   

Once more let’s return to the Declaration of Independence. This document gives an argument for the world to consider. It is for all persons to think about. It begins with its beliefs about basic things, first things. And yet it is a secular document. The kinds of questions I have been considering are sometimes set aside as religious questions. They are fine for religious people but they don’t concern the secular world. The public square. Public philosophy.  

So the challenge I’ve heard is this: we can’t cover these kinds of questions in secular, or public, education. Or, we can cover them but only by looking at what various other thinkers said about them. I want to think critically about the assumptions here. I actually have a book out this spring (Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty) that I edited and contributed a chapter in which I raise problems with this understanding of religion. The Declaration is such a helpful example precisely because it helps us see that this narrow view of religion doesn’t fit. These are not religious questions in that sense. They are human questions. They are foundational to all else that we think about. This objection is itself resting on answers to these questions and we need to teach our students how to think critically about them.   

Philosophy and Critical Thinking 

It brings us to the way history is built on the foundation of philosophy. Although we may not normally think of philosophy as having much of a role in K-12 education it is the foundational discipline even there. Perhaps because it is foundational it does not always get explicit expression. But part of loving what is good is learning to be more conscious of our own values and consistent in our pursuit of what is actually good versus what is temporary and not lasting. Philosophy is a discipline that teaches us both how to become more aware of our own values and also how to critically examine them for meaning. As we learn about these beliefs in conflict in history and think about the challenges that brought about change we also begin to wrestle with these questions ourselves. We begin to do philosophy and find the meaning in history. 

Philosophy is uniquely situated to ask the most basic questions. These are the questions assumed by the other disciplines. Physics studies matter. Psychology studies minds. History studies human activity in time. Art studies beauty and symbol. Philosophy studies the basic questions underlying all of these disciplines. How do we know? What is real? What is good and of lasting value? 

Philosophy teaches us the attitude of the love of wisdom. Wisdom is sought for its own sake but is also expressed in the skillful or well lived life. We can tell if someone loves wisdom or loves something else by considering how they live. What we love is coupled with what we fear. Do we fear ignorance and failing to know what we ought to know? If so, we will love wisdom.  

Philosophy uses the method of critical thinking. To think critically is to become aware of one’s assumptions and test them for meaning by the laws of thought (reason). We first clarify what something means before we can know if it is true or false. Meaning is especially connected to philosophy: The meaning of life.  

The first application of philosophy is self-examination. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. To examine your life involves coming to know yourself. What is it to be a human? What is the final end of human nature? What is our origin and what is our purpose? You are bringing your answers to these questions to your understanding of history; let’s find the meaning that is in history. 

Philosophy is also presented as a system. This is also what people mean when they say “someone’s philosophy”. We build on our assumptions into all areas of life. Philosophy of politics, philosophy law, philosophy of science, philosophy of art.  

Philosophy as described here is for educators, parents, and students. This is different than simply doing continuing education where we add to our store of facts and information. It is calling for continuing philosophical education where we become more conscious and more consistent in our understanding of our assumptions and our applications of them to our life.  

Understanding how we know, or what has existed from eternity, or what is the highest good, may involve words that we today call “religious.” To know God sounds religious but our founding document asserts it is self-evident we are created equal and endowed by our Creator with rights. We need to renew the skills needed for thinking about these questions. Critically thinking about worldview and the study of the great books. Can we find meaning? 

Do You Know What is Good? 

Socrates ended his defense with a prophecy.  He said he was on trial because he had shown that they could not give an account of their lives.  And he would be killed. But there would come others after him, the youth, who Socrates had restrained.  They will be more severe in their accusations and will censure them for not being able to give an account.  This question cannot be avoided. It is not possible or honorable to try and avoid it by destroying Socrates.  The only solution is to improve ourselves by coming to know the answer.  The study of history is part of this giving an account.  History is full of meaning.  If we do not know what is good, we cannot teach our students what is good, and we cannot teach them what is good in history. 

We can call this the existential challenge. It is the need for meaning. We are not simply a source of information to students. They want a meaningful life. They will know if their education provided this or not. This returns us to our definition of history. There is conflict we are studying. We are looking for meaning. It presses each of us individually to ask if we know. One of the ways this becomes manifest to them is in suffering. Why do we suffer? Suffering sets aside pretensions and puts us face to face with ourselves. What do we really think and why? To suffer well is not merely to endure suffering, or to pursue some kind of self-improvement so that you suffer less in the future. It is to find the meaning that is there. It is to understand.   

The questions we have identified in the Declaration of Independence, and seen challenged in early Princeton to the present, are the questions that will help us and our students find that meaning. They will love what we love. Have we found meaning? What are we teaching about the good? To end with the Socratic prophecy: This is what we will be judged on. 

Professor Owen Anderson, professor of philosophy and religious studies with books on natural law, natural theology, the Declaration of Independence, and religious history in America.   

© Retained by author and Institute for Classical Education 2020