Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis… Cicero (De Oratore, II. ix. 36)*
The experience of listening to a Classical Conversations Foundations student recite the History Timeline is more than memorable, it is impressive. I will certainly never forget the first time I heard my older son, then eight, accomplish the task. It sent a thrill through me. That he could master so many pieces of information, in flawless order, was a feat I have to admit I wasn’t convinced he would be able to accomplish. Until he did it. Then he did it again, four more years in a row.
A tremendous amount of hard work, time, and attention to detail went into mastering all the information needed to commit that timeline to memory, not to mention all the other facts he had to acquire in order to become a Memory Master. He learned to focus carefully, to drill and to over-drill, to create his own mnemonics and connections so that he could reach a place where all that data was at his fingertips.
All that diligence was vitally important as an exercise in learning how to memorize—how to teach his brain to retain. It wasn’t about the depth of knowledge of the historical facts he so easily recalled. Yet each of those factual data points, recited in careful, precise progression, were significant, for they laid the foundation for him for all future learning in his life which would correlate in any way whatsoever with history—which meant, of course, it laid the foundation for everything. Even things we tend to think of as abstract, conceptual, and divorced from the mundane (like obscure mathematical theorems) are firmly rooted in historical context. Every insight and discovery in every area of human endeavor has intricately woven connections to the time and place in which it emerged, and will have ramifications that ripple into the future.
How much did my twelve-year-old Memory Master understand about all the history he had resolutely committed to memory? Well, he understood much more at twelve than he had at eight, but all in all what he had truly achieved was a skeletal outline of history—a structure of the general movement of time through some of the most significant moments in human experience. That is immensely important, because all things that have meaning have a structure in which they are placed. Just as a house holds all its rooms together, the structure gives cohesion, stability, and purpose. The structure is the frame—the form—in which all the components make sense. Without that form, meaning is often difficult, if not perhaps impossible, to find.
Just as my son was about to embark on the dialectic stage of his education, his mastery of the History Timeline had equipped him for travel into deeper thinking, greater comprehension, and richer learning in several ways: It had given him organized data upon which to practice the vital skill of memorization—something which would serve him well in the Challenge programs in all areas from studying Latin to debating to preparing impromptu speeches and delivering persuasive dramatic interpretations. My son had been equipped with the ‘pegs’ of information which he would then naturally begin integrating and assimilating with other subjects as he grew in additional knowledge and understanding. And he now had a structure, which he could then continue to fill in, flesh out, and color with the hues of history as he continued his instruction.
So when my son entered the Classical Conversations Challenge programs, he had been provided with a significant learning skill (memorization), an important body of foundational knowledge (historical ‘pegs’), and a fully fleshed out structure (a form) into which to organize and continually add information and ideas. He had been beautifully equipped to embark on an exciting learning journey in history:
- In Challenge A, my son added detailed knowledge of geography to his arsenal, mastering the ability to draw the world from memory. Now he is able to place all those historical events—and all future ones with which he will come into contact—on the map, literally.
- Challenge B will enhance his understanding of history by the study of science through the biographies of extraordinary scientists and through discussions of current events (necessitating some investigation into the past, as all current happenings have their roots in those that came before them).
- My son will incorporate vital information about American history through the study of original American documents in Challenge I. He will also be given the opportunity to ponder how economics, politics, and the principles of government connect into and flow through history.
- In Challenge II, he will encounter a panorama of history examined through the lens of Western Cultural development as he studies famous artists and composers and the periods of art history in which they created. As this unfolds, he will be invited into the depths of antiquity to enjoy a personal encounter with Julius Caesar when he begins translating Caesar’s original work, The Gallic Wars. It is in Challenge II that he will begin to actively compile an extensive timeline and history book of his own, to be added to every year thereafter.
- Challenge III will further enrich exploration with intricate study of American history and the history of Western Philosophy. As my son’s knowledge of history broadens and deepens, his focus on governance and statesmanship will blossom. Fittingly, he will begin a conversation with a remarkable master statesman and rhetorician, Cicero, as he continues honing his Latin.
- In the capstone of the programs, Challenge IV, my son will view the history of mankind through the lens of human innovation and discovery, watching the ebb and flow of nations, conflict, and power through the quintessentially human gift of creative invention. All that will be accompanied by a parallel study of the Old Testament and apologetics.
- Finally, throughout all the Challenge programs my son will read great literature, tracing the tales men tell about life, its meaning and purpose, leadership and heroism, and the rise and fall of civilizations from modern times back to the very dawn of written story.
It is an exciting privilege to watch my son make this journey, and to walk alongside him as he traces the footsteps of those who have come before him—those who have paved the way for this present time and place in which he will live out his life. Without a full study of history which gives us a view of the road maps that have led us to where we stand today, we cannot really know who we are; we cannot really know who we ought to be, because we do not know who we have been. We cannot even know our potential, for we do not truly understand what has been either lost or achieved. As the so-called father of history once wrote:
Herodotus of Helicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds…not go unsung…
-Herodotus, The Histories (Book I, Proem) c. 450-420 BC
That my son should be heir to this rich heritage of historical studies in the Classical Conversations Challenge programs—the nature of which I have barely skimmed here in my descriptions—is a great gift, for I know it will serve him well. Through him, it will also serve his companions and his communities. Through them all, it is to be hoped that future people will be blessed by the history that his own generation will make through informed and discerning stewardship.
*”Indeed history is a witness of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the mistress of life, the news of antiquity…” from Cicero, On the Orator II. Ix. 36 (see https://archive.org/stream/cicerodeoratore01ciceuoft/cicerodeoratore01ciceuoft_djvu.txt)