When Free Markets Fail: An Undergraduate Makes a Conservative Case for the National Endowment for the Humanities


If you have been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home lately you know two things:

  1.  Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
  2.  We have been trying to suggest that this is a bad idea.

Malloy Owen, an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Chicago, has taken to the pages of The American Conservative to offer a conservative argument for keeping the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Conservatism also allows us to claim that living well is an art cultivated over many generations and not something that each person figures out for herself by herself. The humanities are a living body of reasoning—some ancient and some quite recent—on how to live well. Life without culture is deeply solitary because it forces us to do this sort of reasoning without any help from outside ourselves. The sorts of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from research in the humanities to museum exhibitions to programs that bring Shakespeare plays to rural schoolchildren—give ordinary people access to the history of serious thought about the good. Funding from the two endowments ensures that the old books are still read and talked about; it also supports the production of new works that may find a place in the canon someday.

Many conservatives accept these arguments while arguing that free markets are the best means to spread artistic masterworks across the country. But although markets may be useful for producing and distributing material goods, they are not especially good at regulating cultural production. Good and ennobling art is not always lucrative, and government subsidies are precisely meant to secure goods that society is not wholly capable of securing on its own.

Conservatives are also understandably reluctant to give the state the power to determine what constitutes worthy cultural work. Their arguments are all the more forceful because they can point to numerous cases in which federal grants have supported projects in the arts and humanities that were uninteresting, obscene, or both. As a 1997 Heritage Foundation report calling for the abolition of the NEH and NEA documented in gruesome detail, some funding from these programs goes to genuinely offensive projects.

But the two endowments also support work that conservatives are more likely to consider worthwhile. The NEH funds projects on Marlowe, Machiavelli, and Boccaccio. It has supported invaluable websites like hymnary.org and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It provided a great deal of the funding for Ken Burns’s magisterial documentary series on the Civil War, and it recently helped to pay for the publication of the 13-volume journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For its part, the NEA has backed programs like Live From Lincoln Center, which broadcasts serious music across the country, and Shakespeare in American Communities, which has allowed two million American students to watch Shakespeare plays performed live. An NEA grant helped the Louisiana State University Press publish the then-unknown writer John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which has become a conservative favorite. In recent years NEA money has supported new translations of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Homer, among many others.

The range of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from revisionist and progressive work to explorations of tradition—should please conservatives who do not want the government circumscribing the human good within politically narrow definitions. By assigning grants on the basis of artistic seriousness, the NEH and NEA demonstrate their commitment to ideological pluralism.

Read the entire piece here,

To What Extent are Trump Evangelicals Connected to the Racial Politics of the Alt-Right?

Trump Bible

Last month I chatted via phone with a couple of national religion reporters who were trying to make sense of evangelical support (81%) for Donald Trump.  These reporters had been reading things, mostly from progressive sources, that connected Trump evangelicals to the Alt-Right movement, Dominionism, and other forms of Christian nationalism.

Our conversations took place right around the time that the Senate was vetting Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education.  Left-leaning magazines and websites were connecting DeVos’s Calvinism to some kind of sinister attempt to turn America into the “Kingdom of God.”

These reporters found partial truth in some of these published pieces, but ultimately found them unsatisfying.  They did not seem to capture the lives and views of the evangelicals that they had been encountering in their fieldwork.

I would place Sarah Posner’s recent article at the website of the New Republic among the progressive writing that these reporters were referencing.  Posner writes:

In the end, conservative Christians backed Trump in record numbers. He won 81 per- cent of the white evangelical vote—a higher share than George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. As a result, the religious right—which for decades has grounded its political appeal in moral “values” such as “life” and “family” and “religious freedom”—has effectively become a subsidiary of the alt-right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda. Evangelicals have traded Ronald Reagan’s gospel-inspired depiction of America as a “shining city on a hill” for Trump’s dark vision of “American carnage.” And in doing so, they have returned the religious right to its own origins—as a movement founded to maintain the South’s segregationist “way of life.”

“The overwhelming support for Trump heralds the religious right coming full circle to embrace its roots in racism,” says Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “The breakthrough of the 2016 election lies in the fact that the religious right, in its support for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator, finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or ‘family values.’ ”

These two paragraphs, in my opinion, are only partially correct.  I have long been a fan of Randall Balmer‘s work, but have never bought into his argument that the origins of the Religious Right can be traced solely to segregation and racism.  I don’t dispute the fact that Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich told Balmer that the Bob Jones segregation case  (Green v. Connally ) was the impetus for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist to unite in a political crusade to save the soul of America.  When Balmer revealed his conversation with Weyrich in his book Thy Kingdom Come, and referenced it again in his recent biography of Jimmy Carter, he was offering new insight into the roots of the Religious Right.  Indeed, evangelicals in the 1970s South were upset that the federal government was asking them to desegregate some of their schools and academies.  When Carter, a self-proclaimed “born again” Christian, supported the federal government on this matter, Christian segregationalists abandoned him and turned toward Reagan and the GOP.

But if one takes a longer look at the rise of the Religious Right, one is hard-pressed to say that race was the only, even primary, factor in its founding.  The so-called Bob Jones case was one of many historical factors that mobilized evangelical Christians in the 1970s.  One might trace things back to the Supreme Court decisions, in 1962 and 1963 respectively, that removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools.  One can appeal to the 1965 Immigration Act which brought large numbers of non-Western immigrants (and their religious beliefs) into the country.  One can appeal to Roe v. WadeI have argued that the Bicentennial (1976) got many conservative evangelicals thinking about the relationship between “God and Country.”  All of these things, in addition to race, contributed to evangelical political action in these years.  People like Jerry Falwell were able to harness a perfect storm of disgruntled Christians, much in the same way that Donald Trump was able to harness growing discontent among the white working class in 2016.  Those who gathered together with Weyrich in 1979 to discuss Green v. Connally certainly had other things on their minds as well.  Government interference in their local academies was symptomatic of a larger cultural problem.

Balmer’s “race” theory (which he always, when writing for public audiences, juxtaposes against Roe v. Wade as the true origins of the Religious Right) provides a usable past for progressive reporters such as Posner.  Once one becomes convinced that race is paramount for understanding the roots of the Religious Right it becomes easy to connect evangelical support for Trump in 2016 to the racism of the Alt-Right.

Don’t get me wrong, there are racist evangelicals.  I know some of them.  I also think Posner is right to suggest that many of them read Alt-Right websites and generally support the kind of things said by people like Steve Bannon or Breitbart news.

But I am not convinced that all evangelicals who voted for Trump are racist or were motivated by racial fear when they entered the ballot box.  I would venture to guess that only a small minority of them would associate themselves with the kinds of racist people and organizations that Posner mentions in her New Republic piece.

For example, I live just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Anyone who has lived here knows that south-central Pennsylvania is a pretty red place.  (My GOP Congressmen often runs unopposed and my county went heavily for Trump in 2016). I teach at an evangelical Christian college, attend a large evangelical church (some might even call it a mega-church), spend a lot of time with evangelicals (including folks who would say that they are tried and true members of the “Religious Right”), and think that I am in-touch with what is going on in the evangelical world–both locally and nationally. (I try to read Christianity Today and the Harrisburg Patriot-News every day).  But until I read Posner’s article I was completely unaware that there was a neo-Nazi, pro-Trump rally in Harrisburg “days before the election.” What the leaders of that rally said about Jews, Hitler, and Muslims was disgusting.  It does not represent anything even closely related to the spirit of evangelical Christianity.

Yet Posner uses this rally in Harrisburg, and the terrible things that were said, to support her claim that the “religious right” is “now at the service of the alt-right.”  Sadly, uninformed readers of the New Republic, many of whom, I am guessing, have not spent much time with evangelicals or understand them fully, will think that Posner’s piece represents most evangelicals—even the ones who voted for Trump.

Just for the record, I do not know of any people in my large evangelical congregation who attended this Alt-Right rally in Harrisburg.  While it is certainly possible that there were people from my church who were there that I don’t know about, I think I can say with certainty that the things that happened at this rally would have been condemned from the pulpit of my church and by all of the members I know.

I largely agree with Posner and some of the anti-Trump evangelicals she interviewed when they say that “evangelicals are a tool of Donald Trump.” Anyone who has read this blog over the past year knows my thoughts about this.  But evangelicals voted for Trump for all kinds of reasons—the economy, the Supreme Court (religious liberty, marriage, abortion), racial fears, immigration, etc….  Frankly, I don’t think we will ever be able to understand completely why so many evangelicals pulled the lever for the POTUS.  Just when I think I have it all figured out I run into a fellow evangelical who voted for Trump for reasons that don’t fit my paradigm.

In the end, Posner’s piece plays to her base, perpetuates the idea that evangelicals–even those of the Religious Right–are a bunch of racists (I am guessing that she does not really believe this), and does very little to help us understand the complexity of the evangelical movement in America.

A New History of Race?

StampedI am not a historian of race, but, as an American historian, I do teach a lot about the role that race has played in the history of the United States.  This week in my Pennsylvania History class we have been discussing the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution and the framers’ decision to restrict voting rights to free white men.  The new constitution allowed Pennsylvanians to get up to speed with the universal (white) manhood suffrage that was pervading much of Jacksonian America, but it also represented a step backwards for free blacks.  The original 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution gave voting rights to all free men, including blacks.  The 1790 Constitution limited voting rights to taxpayers, but did not distinguish taxpayers based on race.

Studying these three Pennsylvania constitutions reminds us that history does not consistently bend toward progress.

I do my best to keep fresh on new books related to race in America.  The Author’s Corner helps.  So do my attempts at curating the history Internet in an attempt to keep this blog going.  I thus always appreciate historiographical posts like Eran Zelnik‘s piece at U.S. Intellectual History Blog: “Should we be talking about the new history of race?

Here is a taste:

Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.

Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emergedover the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.

Guyatt’s book provides a much-needed inquiry into the intellectual history that made the patently contradictory and heinous notion of “separate but equal” thinkable and compelling for Americans. It also offers historians a crucial template for assessing anti-black and anti-Indian racism within the same intellectual landscape. Parkinson’s book is an exhaustive account of how ideas about race galvanized the opposition to the British during the American Revolution. It is the best attempt so far to finally wrest the intellectual history of the American Revolution from the stranglehold of the republicanism/liberalism debates. Kendi’s book is quite a marvelous achievement of intellectual history that charts the history of anti-black racist ideas. Cutting through numerous Gordian Knots with impressive intellectual precision, I believe that it will replace Winthrop Jordan’s classic White Over Black as the seminal intellectual history of race in American historiography.

Read the rest here.

Is Christopher Lasch’s *Revolt of the Elites* Really a Reflection of America in the Age of Trump?

revoltKevin Mattson, Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and a student of the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch, reflects on the relevance of his mentor in the age of Trump.  He questions whether those calling attention today to Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites really understand what the book is about.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Chronicle Review:

The first time I saw Lasch’s name invoked recently was in the Trump “syllabus” in these pages. Jill Lepore cited Lasch’s posthumous book, The Revolt of the Elites (1995), for its “uncanny” prediction of “a democratic crisis resulting from the fact that ‘elites speak only to themselves,’ partly because of ‘the absence of institutions that promote general conversations across class lines.’” Writing in The Baffler, George Scialabba reminded readers of Lasch’s ire toward capitalism. But conservatives have also been touting Lasch’s work. At The American Conservative, Gilbert T. Sewall cites Lasch in describing a “white, yeoman flight from the Democratic Party.” Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, argues that Lasch offered an “angry” but important critique of “the professional upper class’s withdrawal from the society it rules.” And none other than Stephen Bannon has reportedly cited The Revolt of the Elites as one of his favorite books to understand this juncture in history.

I’d welcome this renewed interest, but what worries me is that much of it is driven by a desire to explain the phenomenon of Trump, and particularly the politics of the white working class in 21st-century America. The Revolt of the Elites, a book that was hastily written and not Lasch’s best, has drawn the most attention, which is unfortunate. Lasch left behind a number of important, thoughtful works of history that serve simultaneously as eye-opening social criticism. But if you go back to him to find answers as to why large numbers of the white working class voted for a man whose wealth and fame are built upon a lavish hotel business and reality television, you will be left scratching your head.

Read the entire piece here.

What Would the Founding Fathers Think About Originalism?


Andrew Shankman, author of Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding and the author of my favorite review of one of my books, says “not much.”

Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court likely ensures the continued significance of originalism for constitutional interpretation. Originalism is a complex legal theory. But boiling it down, it means that judges and lawmakers are bound by the meaning the words in the Constitution had when it was ratified. The original public meaning of those words cannot change. Pressing contemporary issues and compassionate wishful thinking cannot allow the words of the Constitution to justify actions that were not intended when the Constitution became the nation’s fundamental law.

Is the claim for an original intent historically defensible? Exploring the constitutional thought and actions of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison shows that it is impossible to ascribe a single original intent to even so small a group of critically important founders. Instead, we find multiple original intents and competing meanings. With Hamilton and Madison, two of the most vocal members of the Constitutional Convention, we find, though in very different ways, endorsement of a living, expansive, and flexible Constitution, one that changes with the times and over time.

Testing originalism by investigating the first great constitutional conflict after ratification undermines the claim that the Constitution had one single and stable public meaning for the founding generation. In December 1790 Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, issued a report calling for the national government to grant a corporate charter for a national bank. The bank would manage the large public debt and safely house federal tax revenue. Madison, a national congressman, and Jefferson, the Secretary of State, were appalled and insisted that the bank was unconstitutional because the Constitution did not grant the national government the authority to charter corporations.

Read the rest here.

I also recommend Jonathan Gienapp’s piece at Process, “Constitutional Originalism and History.”

The American Historical Association is Looking for Summer Bloggers


Here’s the skinny:

The AHA is seeking two aspiring graduate-student bloggers, each to write a series of posts on historical documents from their research projects. If you are looking to hone your blogging skills and share the process of doing history with a wide audience, consider applying to be a summer blogger on AHA Today, and show readers how historians’ habits of mind shape the way they see the world.

This year, we’re challenging our summer bloggers to select a historical document and write about its significance to their research. (Think of “document” expansively—it could be a letter, a memo, an article in a community newsletter, a photograph, a map, an oral-history interview, a sound recording, or a nontraditional primary source.) We especially want to hear about how engaging with this particular document led you ask different questions and how it took your research in exciting new directions. You might also consider these questions:

Read the entire call at AHA Today.


New Summer Online Graduate Courses Through Gilder-Lehrman

The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History has just announced their summer graduate course offerings.  These courses can be applied to an M.A. in Humanities (American History concentration) at Adams State University.

They are:

America in an Age of World Wars: World War I (Michael Neiberg, Army War College)

Historiography and Historical Methods (Multiple scholars)

Lincoln and Leadership (Michael Burlingame, University of Illinois-Springfield)

State Histories (Richard Loosbrock, Adams State University)

Learn more about these courses here.

Teaching Abortion


Rose Holz is associate director of the Women’s & Gender Studies program and director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  She also teaches a course on the history of sexuality.

And if her piece at the website of The American Historian is any indication (and I think it is), she is a great history teacher.

Here is a taste of her “Why the Classroom Is a Sacred Place for Me and Why I’ll Keep Venturing Out into ‘No-Man’s land’…Even during These Abortion Wars”:

Of course, I’ve always prided myself in teaching in a way that allows for diversity of opinion. The classroom, as I see it, is not a place where I impose my views. It is a place for the free exchange of ideas even—no, especially—if they differ from my own. Otherwise, how else are we going to learn? Otherwise, how else are we going to get to know each other—maybe even like each other—even if sometimes we hold radically different views? And of course again, I would be lying if I didn’t mention just how many times I’ve miserably failed in this regard. But I’m also happy to report how over the years I’ve managed to achieve a few moments of success, in particular when facilitating conversations about abortion.

The cornerstone to my approach is Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is, hands down, the best book on the subject, and students are fascinated to discover just how little they know about an issue everybody talks and has a strong opinion about, despite how little most people know about its history. Thus, each semester Reagan’s book is required and each semester students must do a take-home exam. We then spend two days discussing what we’ve learned.

But first I lay down a few ground rules. When writing their exams, I tell the students that they are to keep their politics out of their answers. As I explain, “I don’t care if you’re pro-choice or pro-life. Your job is to stick with learning about what happened in the past.” Easier said than done, however, particularly once the conversation begins. Thus the creation last spring of another helpful ground rule. Sensing how high the students’ emotions were running already, I came to class on our first abortion discussion day armed with a Zip-lock food storage container and little slips of white paper. “Write your position on abortion down here, on this little piece of paper,” I told them. “And if it makes you feel better, feel free to surround your position with exclamation points, as many exclamation points as you feel the need to announce.” But then, as I further instructed them, “you are to put that little piece of paper into this Zip-lock box. And this Zip-lock box is going to sit up front—with me and all my stuff—for the duration of the class.”

It worked like a charm.

This is not to say that When Abortion Was a CrimeWhen Abortion Was a Crime lacks a political message; it is clearly pro-choice, a conclusion I let the students discover on their own. And most do. But this prompts another interesting question for us to debate: how would a solidly researched historical account of the same subject read if the author were pro-life? Very quickly we then find ourselves eyeball deep in my favorite historical themes about subjectivity, objectivity, historiography, and evidence. Yes, these days, especially about evidence.

The subject of abortion rarely comes up in my courses.  But if I had the opportunity to teach it I would definitely follow Holz’s lead.

Read the entire piece here.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Are Christian Colleges on the brink of a golden age?

Healthcare in historical perspective

Trump’s troubled relationship with the truth

History and the courts

History and originalism

It there an assault on ideological diversity on today’s college campuses?

In defense of hierarchies

Is healthcare the GOP’s Waterloo?

Religious charities and the welfare state

What happened to Mike Huckabee?

The surrealness of Mount Rushmore

Massachusetts’ first language

Trump and white Christians’ loss of power

More Christian America stuff

A review of the Museum of African American History & Culture

Lessons from the Gilded Age

Pope Francis: Historian

Donald Trump and the Religious Right

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

Episode 19: American Prophets

podcast-icon1America has long been a home to prophets. Tenskwatawa, Joseph Smith, Anne Hutchinson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have all spoken truth to power. In today’s episode, John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss America’s prophetic tradition. They are joined by documentary filmmaker Martin Doblmeier whose film, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, documents the life and theology of one of America’s most outspoken and revered prophets.

Andy Crouch on the Benedict Option

BenopWe have done a few posts here on Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.  

Over at his website, Christian writer Andy Crouch offers a very witty take on the reception of the book:

1. Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.

Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 20%

Portion of journalistic coverage of the book devoted to this claim: 90%

Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 98%

Likelihood of this claim being true: 50%

How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 5%

2. Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularized modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.

Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 80%

Portion of journalistic coverage devoted to this claim: 10%

Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 2%

Likelihood of this claim being true: 90%

How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 100%

Hat tip to Eric Miller for bringing this post to my attention.

On the Road in April (and Beyond?)


My travel schedule this Spring has been light.  I have been enjoying teaching this semester and the students in my Pennsylvania History and United States History to 1865 courses have been excellent.  I have taken some time to tweak some of my lectures, experiment with some new assignments, and become a better discussion leader.  This is my third year teaching Pennsylvania History and I think I am finally starting to like the content.  It has also been fun and invigorating to be back in the U.S. Survey lecture hall after a year on sabbatical.  I am sure all of the social and political changes in American life have had something to do with that.

It has also been fun to get back into the studio for Season 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  I have been so thankful for all of the support we have received through out Patreon campaign.  It is very rewarding to see that so many people have affirmed our work in this way and truly care about the role that history can play in our democratic life together.  Thanks again.  By the way, Episode 19 drops on Sunday.

But I am also increasingly aware of the need to travel outside of the college campus in an effort to bring good history and historical thinking to public audiences. With that in mind I am in the process of scheduling talks and lectures for the Summer and Fall of 2017 and the Spring of 2018.  You can learn more about the kind of speaking, workshops, and seminars that I do here or here.

2016 was a busy year.  I was at West Shore Evangelical Free Church (Mechanicsburg, PA), Derry Presbyterian Church (Hershey, PA), Centre College (Danville, KY),  Trinity College (Deerfield, IL), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), University of Chicago, Houston Baptist University, Eastern Nazarene College (Quincy, MA), Lincoln Memorial University (Harrogate, TN), National Presbyterian Church (Washington D.C.), Arch Street United Methodist Church (Philadelphia), Cairn University (Langhorne, PA), St. Francis University (Loretto, PA), The George Washington Library (Mount Vernon, VA), and Oxford University (Oxford, England).

Next month I will be heading down to New Orleans for the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians. (We are still looking for correspondents!) On Saturday, April 8, I will be co-leading two “chat room” sessions for historians.  One session (which I will co-lead with Kevin Schultz of the University of Illinois-Chicago) will be on the ways that Twitter (@johnfea1) can help us disseminate good history to a larger public.  The other session (which I will co-lead with Elizabeth Marsh of the OAH)  will be on the History Relevance Campaign.  If you are in New Orleans I hope you have some time to stop by and participate in one of these sessions.

After New Orleans I fly to Boston on April 10 to deliver the 2017 Frantz Lecture  at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.  My lecture is titled “Why Study History?”  As far as I know, this lecture is free and open to the public.

I hope to see you on the road!  We always need good American history, but it is especially needed in times of great change.  I would love to talk with you about setting something up as your school, college, university, historical society, library, church, museum, or virtually any other public space where these kinds of conversations take place.

Nostalgia is a “valid, honorable, ancient, human emotion.”


I have always been a very nostalgic person.  If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait.  I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey.  My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….”  But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons.  The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice.  This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation .  Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.

Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.

Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia.  Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way.  In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home.  For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together.  In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.

I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.”  I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?)  In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

Read the entire piece here.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1.  Where Does Neil Gorsuch Go to Church?
  2. The Junto’s Blatant Attempt to Undermine Democracy
  3.  Mark Noll Talks Trump, Hawkins and the Evangelical Mind
  4. Today’s Piece at Times Higher Ed
  5. Sean Hannity: Where Is Your Integrity?
  6. Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business.  Study the Humanities
  7. Historian Heather Cox on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event”
  8. Trump is Heading Back to Liberty University
  9. “And then the murders began…”
  10. The Virtue Solution Project

The Author’s Corner with Eric Hinderaker

BostonsMassacre.jpgEric Hinderaker is Professor of History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Boston’s Massacre (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Boston’s Massacre?

EH: The book is about the Boston Massacre, which occurred on March 5, 1770, when a group of British soldiers fired into a crowd of civilians and killed five of them.  Initially, I was interested in the eyewitness testimony, which is voluminous but fundamentally irreconcilable.  As my research progressed, I became fascinated with the problem faced by commander-in-chief Thomas Gage and his subordinate officers, who had to manage military-civilian relations throughout the colonies of British North America at a time when many thousands of troops were stationed there.  In the end, I realized that, above all, the book is about memory: how we interpret what we see and argue about events when they’ve just happened, how we commemorate them to solidify a particular interpretation of their significance, and how they are eventually reshaped through selective remembering and forgetting.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Boston’s Massacre?

EH: As the apostrophe in the title suggests, the book argues that the “massacre” belonged to the town of Boston: the town created the conditions that gave rise to the shootings; it championed the view that the shootings were a massacre rather than an “unhappy disturbance,” as the soldiers’ defenders would have it; and it kept the memory of the massacre alive in print, in commemorative orations, and in local culture throughout the war of independence.  Boston was the crucible of the American Revolution—its indispensable community—and the Boston Massacre was the catalyzing event that forged the town’s collective sense of grievance and purpose.

JF: Why do we need to read Boston’s Massacre?

EH: Today, when we inhabit an era of sharp and continuous political disagreement, many people look fondly on the past—and especially the era of the American Revolution—as a time of widespread consensus and rational political behavior.  Boston’s Massacre makes clear that the politics of the revolutionary era were no less divisive than our own.  Nor were opinions shaped by an impartial press or high-minded statesmen.  Fundamental principles were at stake, then as now, and people disagreed about everything, including the bare facts of an event like the Boston Massacre.  Were the townspeople innocent and aggrieved victims of excessive force, or were the soldiers being assaulted so fiercely by a mob that they had no choice but to shoot?  Boston’s Massacre allows us to observe the process by which confused impressions were deployed in the service of competing narratives, and then to trace the evolution of those narratives across a long span of time, even into our own.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EH: I majored in history in college, but I did not initially intend to become a historian.  When I did decide to apply for graduate school, I thought I wanted to study modern European history.  But I had the good fortune to arrive at the University of Colorado at the same time that four brilliant early Americanists joined the department: Fred Anderson, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Gloria Main, and Jackson Turner Main.  I was introduced to early American history at a moment when the field was undergoing a renaissance, and I discovered that its core issues resonated deeply with my own curiosity and interests.

JF: What is your next project?

EH: I have three main projects in the offing.  With Rebecca Horn, my colleague in colonial Latin American history at the University of Utah, I am working on a very broad-gauge account of the colonization of the Americas.  François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University and I are writing a reinterpretation of Frederick Jackson Turner that casts him as a colonial historian rather than a western historian, and that argues for his extraordinary prescience in anticipating the current shape of the field.  And on my own, I am just beginning work on a project that will explore the outpouring of energy and capital in the Restoration era (ca. 1660-1690) that reshaped England’s colonial enterprise in North America.  I hope they’ll keep me busy for awhile!

JF: Thanks, Eric!

Trump is Heading Back to Liberty University…


…as the university’s 2017 commencement speaker.  I wonder who got dumped to make room, at this late date, for The Donald.

Here is a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Liberty University announced on Wednesday that its commencement in May would feature President Trump as the keynote speaker, making him the first sitting president to play that role at the Christian university since George H.W. Bush, in 1990.

The invitation from Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., may not be a surprise given his associations with the U.S. president. Some students protested Mr. Falwell’s endorsement of Mr. Trump during last year’s campaign. In January, President Trump asked him to head a new task force to recommend changes in the Department of Education’s policies and procedures.

“It is a tremendous honor and privilege for any university to host a sitting U.S. president, and we are incredibly grateful to have President Trump be a part of this historic day,” Mr. Falwell said in a statement.

At the University of Notre Dame, where six presidents dating to Dwight D. Eisenhower have spoken at commencements during their first year in office, this year an invitation was extended instead to Vice President Mike Pence. Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, has criticized Mr. Trump, saying his executive order banning travelers from some Muslim-majority countries would “demean our nation.”

President Trump told CBN News: “I look forward to speaking to this amazing group of students on such a momentous occasion. Our children truly are the future, and I look forward to celebrating the success of this graduating class as well as sharing lessons as they embark on their next chapter full of hope, faith, optimism, and a passion for life.”

You can read CBN’s David Brody’s report here.

Get caught up on what we have written about Trump and Liberty University over the past year or two here.

Today’s Piece at *Times Higher Ed*


I took a stab at defending the humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities today at Times Higher Education.  Here is the piece:

Donald Trump has issued his first federal budget plan. It eliminates, among other things, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Practically speaking, the NEH operates on a minuscule budget of $148 million. This represents 0.003 per cent of federal spending in 2016.

Apparently, our president thinks that this money would be better used to pay for a massive border wall or the build-up of what is already the largest and most powerful military in world history. Trump, it seems, wants the government to get out of the business of funding projects that might lead to compassion for those, such as refugees and immigrants, who are in need.

It should alarm us that Trump prefers spending more money on fighter jets than he does on research that might bring peaceful and humane solutions to global problems.

The NEH was created by the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act and was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Several things are worth noting about this act.

First, it affirmed that “an advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone” but must also support “great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future”.

Second, it affirmed that “democracy requires wisdom and vision in its citizens” and must provide citizens with education and access to arts and humanities to “make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants”.

Third, it affirmed that the arts and humanities reflect Americans’ respect for “the nation’s rich cultural heritage” and foster respect for our country’s vast diversity.

Fourth, it affirmed that “the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rely solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit”.

Perhaps Donald Trump has not read the text of this important act. Or perhaps he has read it and simply does not care.

I have seen two basic but ultimately unconvincing arguments for eliminating the NEH.

The first argument suggests that American society does not need the humanities, rejecting the entire philosophy behind the 1965 act that created the NEH.

Trump wants to eliminate an agency that will help our democracy to thrive. The humanities cultivate the pursuit of truth and evidence-based arguments, empathy for the views of others, civic understanding and an awareness that we are members of a human community that is larger than ourselves or our current moment in time.

The second argument against the NEH is made by libertarian-leaning politicians who appreciate what the humanities bring to US society but do not think that the federal government should be in the business of promoting them.

I would be sympathetic to this argument if I believed that private and corporate interests would step up with the money necessary to support the humanities and the cultural institutions that bring them to life for millions of Americans.

Our shared culture and traditions are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of the people who invoke them. The preservation and reinterpretation of these traditions, and the democratic virtues that come with such activity, need support. Do we really want to trust the treasured traditions, stories and markers of our collective or group identities to a capitalist market that is driven predominantly by the pursuit of profit at all cost?

The grand stories of our national identity have a good chance of surviving under such privatisation. We will continue to hear, read and learn about Gettysburg, Paul Revere, women’s suffrage and Martin Luther King Jr.

But what will happen to our ability to tell the local and regional stories that have given meaning to life in small places? Who will fund the work of telling stories of everyday world-changers who have been forgotten because they do not conform easily to our national narratives? Can we rely on those in the private sector to care about the experience a child might have at a small museum or historical site – an experience that could change her life and reorient her way of seeing the world?

In Donald Trump’s America, study and reflection on these kinds of things do not matter. We may be on the brink of a cultural holocaust, and we all have a responsibility to prevent it from happening.