One of the few things on which most Americans will agree is that dates are not worth remembering. A typical conversation might run like this:
“Oh! You’re going to college?”
“Are you taking history?”
“I suppose history courses are all right, but don’t you think it’s a waste of time learning all those dates?”
Of course today’s student can answer, “Well, you know, we’re up to date at my school. The professor agrees that dates are a waste of time, so if we know the trends, that is all he requires.”
The reasons for this conversation are many: First, the subject matter of today’s courses in history has been so filled with socioeconomic material to which no definite date can be applied that professors, who are primarily interested in this one aspect, come to believe that all the other things that ever happened on the face of this planet must likewise be better dated if you know “in what century they occur.” Briefly, this is part of the “Truth is relative” movement, since, post facto, dates do have an alarming amount of absoluteness.
Second, the taking of copious notes and the eminent availability of reference books has led us to toss aside remembering with a curt “I can always look it up,” if not with an obsequious “Of course the value of an education is not in teaching things so much as in teaching you where to find them.” This last statement is not true because it is valueless to look something up if you have no framework of knowledge in which to place it. And it is this very framework of knowledge, this body of values in which an education should chiefly consist.
Further, the taking of so many notes prevents us even from getting — in its fullest impact — the very broad outlook for which we are told to seek. Truly, to them that have is given, and from them that have not, even what they have is taken away.
Third, the gearing of teaching to the least able minds in the class “because they, too, deserve an education” results ultimately in the failure truly to educate many finer minds.
Fourth, the sheer sloppiness of an elective system which causes a professor who requires work of his students to find himself with a class the half of which wishes they were in another section, — just enough so that the remainder, who do want to learn, are slowed almost to a standstill.
Curing all these evils is not a matter of starting a great new movement. It is simply a matter of going back to a tried formula. Returning history to the study of people (who are important) and turning it away from the study of trends (which are only valuable as they bear on people) will be one great step. A return to the wax tablet of the Middle Ages for notes might aid greatly, since a notebook that will be rubbed out will be memorized on the spot, and the exigencies of a wax tablet will make it necessary to choose what is most important. Teaching the matter to the finer minds in the class will make it possible for them in turn to help those who are better in other fields. And setting up a rigid program designed to teach men how to think, to write, to speak, and thus how to learn all things and to set proper values on them, will eliminate the sheer absurdity of an elective system which supposes that the boy who starts the course already knows all that is known by the man who completes it.
When these things are done we will have an end of the man, whom we meet ever more frequently, who must take out his little note-book in order to find out even what he is doing on the following day.
But the best defense of dates is to see them in action. We can make up about every important man in history a little rosary of dates which will not only place him in the right century but will clarify his whole life. Suppose, for instance, since Our Lady gave the rosary to St. Dominic that we take him for our example. We find that we can divide his life into the sets of mysteries, which would be his secret life, his life as a preacher in Provence, and his founding of the Order of Preachers. Our rosary then comes to look like this:
1170 St. Dominic is born
1177 He goes to school to learn Latin
1184 He starts in at the University of Palencia
1194 He becomes a canon of Osma
1199 He becomes a sub prior of Osma
Life as a Preacher
1201 St. Dominic becomes prior of Osma, which led to his being chosen to go,
in 1203, on a mission to bring back a bride for his Duke. On the way back,
in 1204, he makes his first contact with the Albigensians, with whom he decides to stay in order to bring them back to the Faith
1205 is most likely the date of Our Lady’s gift of the Rosary because it marks the beginning of the preaching crusade in Southern France.
1206 is the date of the Signadou (sign from God), which pointed out to him that his further work was to stem from Prouille.
The Founding of the Order
1206 Marks the founding of the Dominican sisters at Prouille
1215 The brothers who have been preaching with him adopt the rule of St. Augustine
1216-17 The promulgation of the four bulls of Honorius III by which the order was confirmed
1217 The dispersion of the brethren through the length and breadth of Christendom
St. Dominic goes home to God from whence by his intercession he has guarded his order down to our own times.
Open Letter to St. Francis
St. Francis: I have often heard
You preached a sermon to a bird,
Or flock of birds; lark, wren, and sparrow.
Now you may think me rather narrow
But did you talk or preach the Word
Of God? I do not mean to harrow
The fields you’ve sown and soil your seed,
But of your answer I have need
To ease my mind. For many men
Quite often cite your act, and when
They do they never heed
The words you spoke to jay and wren.
And so, St. Francis, though I’ve heard
You preached a sermon to a bird,
May I, St. Francis, proudly say:
You preached the Catholic Faith that day?
(This article was originally published in From the Housetops, Volume III, No.1, September, 1948.)