I am honored to receive the Salvatori Prize on behalf of my school, and grateful for the good work and generosity of Hillsdale College and Hillsdale Academy in supporting educational reform that reaches back to the best of our tradition. My own young school, founded only seven years ago, has drawn inspiration and resources from Hillsdale, which has paved the way in retrieving much that has been forgotten or abandoned. Without your support and example, we would be years behind in our growth as a school.
The great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. “Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child.”
In a sense, historical understanding—knowledge of what happened before you were born—is primary to all realms of knowledge. Science is the study of the great discoveries of the past in our knowledge of the natural world. Literature is the study of the great writings of past cultures that embody human experience in the form of story and poem. Mathematics is the study of how great minds of the past have ordered for us the use of abstract numbers and symbols in relation to the physical world. The arts are the studies of the varied and diverse cultural creations of the past. Historical understanding in all these areas humanizes, matures, and uplifts the soul.
Too many citizens of our country today are, in Cicero’s terms, forever children. If knowledge of the past matures the soul, it is not something we can afford to marginalize or sideline. Unfortunately, the hard work of gaining knowledge, eloquence, and wisdom is all too often skirted by teacher and student alike. Because we have neglected knowledge of the past and the great tradition of historical understanding, we live in a culture of Peter Pans, flying free in Neverland with no past and no future, only the ever-present game, the mock battle against pirates or Indians. Wendy’s stories, with their plot of real challenges to be overcome, only reveal to us our immaturity, the fact that we are forever children who won’t grow up.
In my short professional tenure as a teacher, I have had the privilege of seeing students mature through coming to know the past. After numerous classroom discussions about the virtues and vices of historical figures, making charts and lists on the board as my students came up with ideas, they have written profoundly of their desire to mature in their own lives, discerning their own weaknesses and taking steps to improve. After discussing and chuckling at the social dynamics of Jane Austen’s Emma—expressing distaste for Mrs. Elton’s haughty manner, admiration for Mr. Knightley’s gentleness, good-natured exasperation at Emma’s silly lack of self-awareness—I have witnessed the change in my students’ relationships with one another: a more mature thoughtfulness, a deeper sensitivity. Nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than seeing how interaction with the stories of the past matures the souls of his students.
As G.K. Chesterton said in another context, the great tradition has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried, found difficult, and duly abandoned. Hillsdale Academy is a model to schools across the nation, including my own, of taking the difficult path, rediscovering the great tradition, and finding in the wisdom of the past a deep well of life-giving water.