You'll often hear proponents of whole-book education methods talk about the benefit of learning history through literature. They aren't talking about the kind of history you might learn in a textbook—for them, knowing the dates of the Thirty Years' War or the name of the first prime minister of Australia isn't that important. The kind of history you'll learn in novels and diaries and essays is cultural history.
How people live, what they learn in school, the weapons they use, their religion, how they perceive their role in the world: these are all elements of culture that fiction and private documents reveal much better and more thoroughly than books simply detailing facts. Source documents are the product as much of the culture in which they're written, after all, as they are the result of the authors' own invention.
Books simply about the customs and daily life of a people group do have their place, too. You might not have as intimate a portrait of Victorian England after reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew as you would after reading Great Expectations, but you'll learn plenty. Sometimes you just need the straightforward facts, and at times like those novels are not your friends.
The real question for many, however, isn't how do I learn about different cultures?, but WHY should I learn about different cultures? Well, there's no law saying you have to, but aside from the fun you can have doing so, learning about foreign or lost cultures is one way to better understand your own place in the grand scheme of things.
It's not that the Chinese New Year festival will shed any great light on your own situation, but the deeper you study the cultural contexts around the globe, the more you realize how similar people really are. Understanding connections is one of the great advantages of a well-rounded education; the connections between people a solid grounding in cultural history can offer are especially poignant.
Of course, reading about the origins of your own culture will help you understand why you do things the way you do, why you think the way you do, why the people around you are the way they are. As Christians, this knowledge can help us share the Gospel easier than if we knew nothing of the background of the people we try to reach, and that is the one reason for studying cultural history that trumps all the others.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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