The American Historical Association Steps Up on Behalf of the National Endowment of Humanities

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Read about it in this letter from the AHA to Rick Shenkman, founder and editor of the History News NetworkHistory News Network.

Here is a taste:

Presidential Budget Request Released

This morning the Trump Administration released its Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2018. This document expands on a budget blueprint released by the Administration in March that called for the elimination of funding for most items imperative to the work of historians and our colleagues in other humanities disciplines. As anticipated, this detailed request reiterates the earlier calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum & Library Services, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the area studies programs known as Title VI and Fulbright Hays.

The Administration requests a small amount of funding for the NEH and IMLS for FY 2018—$42 million for NEH and $23 for IMLS. For NEH, this represents merely the salaries and expenses required to shut down the agency and the amount required to honor pre-existing grant commitments. For IMLS, the money is designated for an “orderly close out.”

The request also calls for the Woodrow Wilson Center to transition to exclusively private funding and requests $7.5 million in FY 2018 to facilitate that transition.

For the other funding priorities, the budget requests no appropriation for FY 2018.

A complete funding chart compiled by the National Humanities Alliance is here.

Next Steps in the Budget and Appropriations Process

Now that the Administration has issued its formal request, Congress will set an overall level of discretionary spending through a Congressiona22c73-neh2blogol Budget Resolution. The Appropriations Committee will then assign spending levels to its 12 subcommittees, and the subcommittees will draft individual bills. This work will probably extend through the summer.

The Administration’s budget request is only advisory. Congress will ultimately make decisions about funding. In recent years, the NEH has received strong bipartisan and bicameral support from the appropriations committees, including the increased funding for FY 2017 announced just three weeks ago. While the overall fiscal constraints that the subcommittees will face are still unclear and the budget is likely to be tighter than last year, this bipartisan support remains encouraging.

Read the rest here.

 

 

The Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative

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The Smithsonian is trying to raise $10 million for this new initiative.

A synopsis:

Women have influenced eras, changed nations and shaped history. Yet countless of their stories are not well known, their contributions not fully integrated into our national narrative.

The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future. As the preeminent institution about the American experience, the Smithsonian will tell the critical stories of women to millions of people in Washington, D.C., and around the world, elevating their pivotal roles in building and sustaining our country.

We seek donors who share our vision for women’s history to help launch this initiative. Your support will allow the Smithsonian to hire the best educators and curators to be positioned in museums throughout the Smithsonian. These experts will investigate our vast collection to uncover and illuminate women’s stories—and then plan programs, exhibitions and publications to inspire the next generation and reach a global audience.

Here is how the money will be used:

  • Recruit at least six new curators for five-year terms to work in museums across the Smithsonian and provide start-up funds for their research, exhibitions and programs.
  • Survey the Smithsonian’s collections for objects relevant to women’s history and establish an acquisitions fund to build the collection.
  • Hire an education specialist for a five-year term and allocate start-up funds to develop programs and educational materials.
  • Produce an annual symposium and other public programs, such as lectures, film series and curator talks.
  • Mentor ten paid interns each year.

OUR GOALS FOR THE INITIATIVE are ambitious. We aspire to grow far beyond the foundation of activities described above. With additional gifts, we will:

  • Recruit a senior curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and provide funds to help develop a landmark exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.
  • Create print and digital resources such as books, documentaries, podcasts and a website for a large and diverse audience.
  • Develop Washington, D.C.-based and traveling exhibitions, including a traveling exhibition of posters to reach hundreds of communities across the country.
  • Launch a venture fund, to seed new projects and provide competitive grants for emerging topics in women’s history across the Smithsonian.

Learn more here.

George Washington Asks for a Ride to Church

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Federal Hall, Wall Street, and Trinity Church, 1789

Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month.  At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.

The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.

The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet.  There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York.  This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay.  I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.

Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.

ADDENDUM: See the comments section.  It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church.  Nice work!

Solitude and the Christian Historian

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Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz riffs on my piece on intellectual loneliness by suggesting that loneliness, and even solitude, may be a good thing for Christians.

Here are a few snippets from his post “The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian“:

To varying degrees, I’ve felt several of these lonelinesses myself at various points. And this might not be unique to historians, academics, or evangelical Christians. I wonder if fear of loneliness isn’t helping to produce polarization in American society, as people seem so desperate to belong to ever-smaller groups that they’d rather conform to ever-longer lists of intersecting membership criteria than risk one of John’s lonelinesses….

What if disciplined study of the past enabled us to do like Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and many contemplatives since and, in Dallas Willard’s terms, “[choose] to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.” In the process, he argues, we interrupt “patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God” and start to develop a “freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 160)…. (Here Chris copies an extended quote from Foster on the difference between “loneliness” and “solitude.”)

I need to think more on this notion, but it seems possible that the discipline of history can foster a spiritually healthy isolation. By temporarily stranding ourselves outside of our own time and entering what A. G. Sertillanges (another recent topic of John’s) called a “laboratory of the spirit,” Foster thinks that we not only cultivate a “deeper, fuller exposure to [God’s] Presence” but gain “increased sensitivity and compassion for others… a new freedom to be with people… new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (pp. 108-109).

Read the entire post here.

Do We Really Live in a Disenchanted World?

DisenchantmentJason A Josephson-Storm, a religion professor at Williams College, thinks that disenchantment is a myth.  Over at Immanent Frame he writes about his new book The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of Human Sciences.

Here is a taste:

A great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

Read the entire piece here.

It sounds as if anyone who studies lived religion, or actually practices a religious faith, will resonate with this new book.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Bomber’s Trips to Syria and Libya Suggest Wider Plot”

Washington Post: “Britain says attacker likely had help as focus shifts to his Libya visits”

Wall Street Journal: “Police Arrest Three in U.K. Attack Investigation”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “There’s an app (class) for that: Harrisburg college among few chosen for new Apple curriculum”

BBC: “Police hunt Manchester attack ‘network'”

CNN: “The Pople leaves his mark on Trump”

FOX: “England on Edge: 4 in custody, military deployed as May warns next attack could be ‘imminent'”

Can an Independent Counsel Be Truly Independent?

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J. Edgar Hoover

I hope so.  But, as Yale historian Beverly Gage argues, history reminds us that partisanship is difficult to overcome.

Here is a taste of her New York Times piece “Can Anyone Be Truly ‘Independent’ in Today’s Polarized Politics“:

In colonial America, “independence” meant something relatively simple: freedom from economic dependence, or the ownership of land and wealth. By the 18th century, though, the word had acquired a more explicit political meaning: Men needed to be “independent” in order to think clearly about the common good and thus to rule themselves. For the founders, this came with many limitations of race, gender and class. As a political vision, though, it communicated a higher purpose: Officeholders would have to reject the temptations of partisanship and personal interest lest, as George Washington warned in his farewell speech, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” use the white-hot animosities of party politics to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

As the 20th century dawned, and Americans embraced the promise of apolitical government expertise, administrative agencies and bureaus proliferated — among them the tiny Bureau of Investigation. Founded in 1908, the bureau started out plagued by the very problems Civil Service law was designed to eliminate: incompetence, corruption and crony appointments. Then, in 1924, a bustling young director named J. Edgar Hoover set about whipping the bureau into shape. Hoover is often seen today as a tyrant and a violator of civil liberties, but when he came to office, he was considered a reformer and an enemy of “politics,” a man who could be relied upon to tell the truth when everyone else seemed to be lying for partisan ends.

He was no political naïf, however. Despite his fealty to the idea of nonpartisan professionalism, Hoover fought to keep his agents out of the Civil Service, sure that its rules and regulations would limit his autonomy as director. This sleight of hand gave Hoover’s F.B.I. its peculiar character, at once a respected investigative body and a personal fief. It also helped to insulate Hoover from the fate visited upon James Comey. As the Times journalist Tom Wicker noted two years before Hoover’s death in 1972, the F.B.I. director achieved “virtually unlimited power and independence.” No president, Republican or Democrat, ever dared to fire him.

This is one example of how bureaucratic independence can go awry. In the mid-1970s, alarmed by abuses of power during Hoover’s nearly 48-year directorship, Congress decided that future F.B.I. directors should be subject to a 10-year limit. The policy effectively split the difference between autonomy and accountability: The president still had the right to fire an F.B.I. director, but the law established a standard period of service longer than any president’s two terms. One of several things Trump’s showdown with Comey calls into question is whether this arrangement is still enough to ensure a reasonable level of F.B.I. independence — especially under a president disinclined to observe political norms.

Read the entire piece here.

Johnson, Not Jackson

Johnson

If you want to draw a historical analogy between Donald Trump and a previous POTUS, historian and writer Joshua Zeitz thinks that Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson, “provides the best model for Trump’s collapsing presidency.”  Johnson, of course, was the first president to be impeached by Congress.

Here is a taste of Zeitz’s piece at Politico, “When Congress Almost Ousted a Failing President.”

It was an ugly scene that left reporters slack-jawed. The president of the United States—a man notoriously short of temper and stubborn in his disregard for polite convention—had addressed a howling throng of political supporters outside the White House. Rambling and incoherent, he managed to refer to himself over 200 times over the course of an otherwise wild, angry screed. He incited the crowd to violence against his political enemies, including prominent member of the House of Representatives. A moderate news outlet critically observed that he was “the first of our Presidents who has descended to the stump, and spoken to the people as if they were a mob.”

Though Donald J. Trump has attempted to situate his presidency in the tradition of Jacksonian populism, it is another Andrew—Andrew Johnson, the man who staged that lowly performance—who provides the more apt comparison. A full-throated white supremacist and rabble-rousing populist, Johnson—who came to power in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—offended friends and foes alike with his unrestrained rhetoric and rash exercise of executive authority. As president, he veered from one self-manufactured crisis to another. His political enemies suspected that he colluded closely with enemies of the state.

And Zeitz concludes:

But for Democrats, and some Republicans, who quietly hope for Trump’s impeachment and removal, the case of Johnson offers only cold comfort. In 1868, Congress established a high bar for presidential removal. It’s not enough to be obnoxious or racist, nor to incite violence and mismanage affairs of state, nor even to collude spiritually with enemies of the American government. Precedent establishes that to be removed from office, a president must manifestly violate the law, as was the case with Richard Nixon, whose far-reaching and well-documented efforts to obstruct justice, evade taxes and suborn criminal conspiracy would almost certainly have resulted in impeachment and conviction had he not resigned first.

We’re a long way from that. And Democrats opposed to Trump will have to do what Johnson’s opponents did: rely on the president to undermine his own credibility and capacity to govern, one crazy speech (or tweet), and one ill-considered action, at a time.

Read the entire piece here.

Using and Abusing History to Make a Political Point

81d67-zinnWhenever I read a writer who tries to marshal American history (or any history for that matter) to support a present day political position or agenda (it happens A LOT), I am reminded of Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin’s review of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Kazin is an accomplished historian of populism and the editor of Dissent.  Zinn was an accomplished left-wing activist who used American history to advance a political agenda.

Here is a taste of Kazin’s review:

His message has certainly been heard. A People’s History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity-although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn’s book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch’s minions backed out of the deal.

But Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, “99 percent” of Americans share a “commonality” that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent.”

History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery that “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’”

Read the entire review here.

The Socratic Method Under Fire

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I regularly use some form of the Socratic Method in my classes.  I often play “devil’s advocate” or try to speak from the perspective of an author of a text so that my students can better understand, and even empathize, with the author’s position.  I will continue to use this style of teaching, but it is apparently getting more dangerous.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins explains why.

Here is a taste of his piece “Tread Carefully with the Socratic Method“:

Whatever you may think of Neil Gorsuch as a jurist — or of his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — there is one episode from his confirmation hearing that should give all faculty members a moment’s pause.

As readers who followed the hearing may know, one of the people who wrote to the Senate to object to his nomination was one of his former students at the University of Colorado Law School, where Gorsuch — then serving on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — had taught as an adjunct professor. In her letter, the student accused Gorsuch of demonstrating bias toward women, based on comments he allegedly made in class. If you’re unfamiliar with the details, you can find them here.

Other former students, including women and self-described liberals, quickly came to Gorsuch’s defense, as did 11 of his former law clerks, all women. Some commentators pointed out that Gorsuch was merely utilizing the Socratic method, a common teaching strategy in law (and other) courses that seeks to draw out a student’s underlying assumptions and foster reasoned debate by asking pointed questions and assuming a contrary position. Gorsuch himself explained that in the particular situation raised by the objecting student, he had been using a case study from a popular law textbook.

Whether or not you believe Justice Gorsuch is sexist — personally, I don’t — this incident might send a slight chill up your spine. Because many of us also use some version of the Socratic method in our classrooms, in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking. What if a student takes offense to something we said — perhaps while we were playing devil’s advocate — and accuses us of some form of discrimination? On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.

I like Jenkins’s ending:

What I don’t intend to do, though, is stop using the Socratic method — or my own version of it — because it works. It helps students think more deeply about where they stand and why, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, and gain a better appreciation for other points of view. Those are the cornerstones of effective argument. And if the ultimate goal is to seek truth — as I believe it is — then backing away from this highly effective method would be cowardly, not to mention a disservice to my students.

At the same time, I can’t help but regard the accusation leveled at Neil Gorsuch — apparently for employing a teaching approach that many of us use — as a cautionary tale. Because I also can’t helping thinking about one other thing: what Socrates’s enemies did to him in the end. 

Read the entire piece here.  The key phrase here is: “On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.”

Stop Reading in Bed!

Meijer Bleekrode Els Bleekrode lezend in bed, Nederland, ca.1935-1936

Unless, of course, you want to burn to death or be perceived as a self-interested threat to society.

Check out Nika Mavrody‘s piece at The Atlantic on reading in bed in early modern Europe.

Here is a taste:

As sleep transformed from a more public to a more private social practice, the bed became a flashpoint for that anxiety. Ultimately, the real danger posed by reading in bed wasn’t the risk of damage to life or property, but rather the perceived loss of traditional moorings.

Changes to reading and sleeping emphasized self-sufficiency—a foundation of Enlightenment thinking. The new attitude untethered the 18th-century individual from society. A social environment with oral reading and communal sleeping embeds an individual in a community. Falling asleep, a young woman senses her father snoring, or feels her younger sister curled up at her feet. When she hears stories read from the Bible, some figure of authority is present to interpret the meaning of the text.

People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.

The celebrated soprano Caterina Gabrielli was presumably reading one such novel when she neglected to attend a dinner party among Sicilian elites at home of the viceroy of Palermo, who had been intent on wooing her. A messenger sent to call on the absent singer found her in the bedroom, apparently so lost in her book, she’d forgotten all about the engagement. She apologized for her bad manners, but didn’t budge from bed.

Read the entire piece here.

What is the Purpose of the University?

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Writing at City Journal, Heather McDonald argues that “students would scorn free speech less if colleges honored their mission to transmit knowledge.”

Here is a taste:

Conservatives have, of late, stressed a process-oriented notion of education that shares certain similarities with the “false narratives” approach. This emphasis reflects their understandable revulsion at the silencing on campus of politically incorrect views. Education should be about reasoned debate and the airing of all opinions in the pursuit of the truth, critics of campus political correctness say. Students should take courses from professors who challenge their views and should attend lectures by visiting scholars whose ideas they find uncongenial, Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Students should not be so “deeply in love with [their] opinions” as to not listen to “others who see things differently,” George asserted.

This ideal of the Socratic academy is so reasonable that it may seem foolish to quibble with it. Of course, students should engage with ideas that they disagree with rather than silencing anything that challenges their worldview. But there is a universe of knowledge that does not belong in the realm of “opinion.” It would be as absurd for an ignorant 18-year-old to say: I have an opinion about early Mediterranean civilizations, but I am willing to “listen to others who see things differently,” as it would be to say: I have an opinion about the laws of thermodynamics, but I am willing to listen to the other side.

The free-speech model of education tends toward a focus on the present. The issues about which students are going to have the strongest opinions concern current political and policy matters: Is Donald Trump a fascist? Is immigration enforcement racist? Does the criminal-justice system discriminate against blacks? Which bathrooms should “trans” individuals use? The fact that only one answer to these questions is acceptable on college campuses is indisputably a problem. But they are not the questions that undergraduate education should focus on; there will be time enough after students graduate to debate current affairs. While defenders of the open university rightly fight for free speech, they should not lose sight of the knowledge that is the university’s core mission to transmit. If students had been more deeply immersed in acquiring that knowledge and less taken with challenging “false narratives about the marginalized,” we might not have seen the narcissistic campus meltdowns after the last presidential election.

Read the entire piece here.

I would not go as far to say that the university is only in the business of transmitting facts.  I think it is important that our students learn certain habits of the mind–ways of thinking about the world that will inevitably be linked to the virtues necessary to function in a democratic society.  But McDonald certainly makes some fair points in this piece that we all must take seriously.

Plowing the Sea

Plow the Sea

In the wake of my recent post about my sense of professional isolation, I received this e-mail from a friend:

I’ve been thinking a lot about your confessional post from last week.  While I was doing some yard work Simon Bolívar’s famous despairing line, uttered in the last weeks of his life, came to mind: “All who have served the Revolution have plowed the sea.”  While the scale is of course very different, I think many of the human/social elements Bolívar was thinking of are the same.  You and so many of us went into [Christian college education] with an honest hope that we could be agents of change.  It’s a fatiguing and often isolating pathway.  And  it’s not a moment in history that seems to be conducive to much reform at all, let alone revolution.  Yet what choice do we have but to try?

The *The Wall Street Journal* Weighs-In on the Duke Divinity School Controversy

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I just came across Peter Berkowitz‘s commentary at The Wall Street Journal on the recent controversy over racial sensitivity training at Duke Divinity School.  Also check out the more than 500 comments.

I think religious-affiliated institutions, such as Christian colleges and divinity schools, are actually more prone to these kinds of controversies than secular institutions because there is a temptation to bless or Christianize identity politics as a non-negotiable part of the institutional mission.

Any discussion of the Duke Divinity School situation should begin with the fact that most Christian institutions do not uphold academic freedom in the way that the secular academy defines it.  At my institution, Messiah College, I am not free to be an atheist.  If my intellectual journey should lead me down that road, I think it would be fair for the administration to ask me to leave.  I teach at Messiah College because I do not have a problem with my academic freedom being bound by the teachings of orthodox Christianity.  In fact, I welcome such boundaries.

Paul Griffiths also seems to understand that academic freedom is limited at Duke Divinity School. In his e-mail to his faculty colleagues he writes: “We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to think, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession.”

If this is indeed the mission of Duke Divinity School, then it makes sense that those who do not uphold a belief in the “triune Lord of Christian confession” would not be welcome on the faculty.  But does a faculty member who has a legitimate critique of racial sensitivity training or does not embrace identity politics as a way of addressing race on campus, but still upholds the theological and confessional mission as stated above, still have a place in such a Christian institution? And if they do have a place in the institution, will it be a marginalized one?

So when I say that religious-affiliated institutions are more suspect to controversies over academic freedom I am referring to the potential of undermining academic freedom within the Christian tradition.

Don’t get me wrong–Griffiths did not handle this well.  But I do think that his views on racial sensitivity training should not be out of bounds at a Christian college, nor should his opposition to this training imply that he somehow doesn’t care about racial injustice on campus.

Is the Smithsonian American History Museum Too Corporate?

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Colette Shade, writing at Current Affairs, thinks so.

Here is a taste of her piece:

The Smithsonian has long carried a special virtuous sheen in the American imagination. It feels like one of our country’s few genuine projects for the common good. It was established out of the bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist who gave his estate to the young American nation in order to create an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, it became a trust administered by a special Board of Regents to be approved by the United States Congress. No other museum in the country has such an arrangement. And because its buildings line the National Mall, and admission is free, it has been regarded as something like the American people’s own special repository for knowledge. The Smithsonian helps define how America sees itself, and carries a weighty sense of dignity and neutrality.

It’s strange, then, that in certain parts of the Smithsonian, you may feel rather as if you’ve walked into the middle of a corporate sales pitch. When I visited the Smithsonian American History museum in December, for example, a “Mars Chocolate Demonstration” entitled “From Bean To Bar” was set up in a vestibule between exhibits. A half dozen people stood at a long table, showing how different stages in chocolate production worked. I had assumed they were docents until I noticed that most wore shirts embroidered with the Mars logo.

The lead presenter passed around a silicone model of a cacao pod, describing the process of growing the trees, explaining the role of hot chocolate in the American revolution, and telling us that the Aztecs used to consume only the white pulp that grows around the beans in the cacao pods. He informed us that nobody knows how the Aztecs discovered that the beans themselves had value, but offered a theory that they left the discarded beans by the fire, where they burned fragrantly. Then he passed around a bowl of roasted cacao nibs.

Later, I asked him whether he was a historian.

“I make M&Ms for a living,” he told me.

The demonstration was sponsored, I learned, by American Heritage Chocolate, a sub-brand of Mars that is sold exclusively at museums and historical sites. It is hard to critique a candy-making exhibit without seeming like a killjoy. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the Mars promotional demonstration has somewhat limited relevance to the core mission of Museum of American History, or that having chocolatiers speculate about Aztec history is possibly below the expected Smithsonian standard of rigor. Having a chocolate-making demonstration is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and we did get free hot chocolate samples. But one cannot escape the suspicion that Mars, Inc. is using the Smithsonian to advertise chocolate to kids.

Read the rest here.

Abraham Lincoln: Internationalist?

BlumAn alternative title for this post might be “Abraham Lincoln’s Rural Enlightenment.”

Over at “Just Security,” Lincoln biographer and former Bill Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal argues that the 16th POTUS would have probably rejected the idea of “America First.”

Here is a taste of his post:

During the decade of the 1850s, Lincoln befriended many German exiled revolutionaries, who would become his indispensable allies in the formation of the new Republican Party. Lincoln’s identification of the “spread of slavery” and “monstrous injustice of slavery” with the struggle for democracy abroad drew the parallels of American slavery with European tyrannies and the antislavery struggle with European revolutions. It was also a direct appeal to the large German community in Illinois, composed of refugees from the suppressed revolutions of 1848.

Defending the American “just influence in the world,” Lincoln raised the perspective of liberal Europe to advance his case to Americans. “Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.’ This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it? Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro, let us beware, lest we ‘cancel and tear to pieces’ even the white man’s charter of freedom.”

In his little law office in Springfield, Lincoln further deepened his cosmopolitan understanding of the issues at stake. He subscribed to newspapers from across the country and journals from London. His line referring to “the liberal party throughout the world” was quoted without attribution from the New York Times, which had reprinted an article from the London Daily News, whose conclusion warned against “the one retrograde institution in America.” Lincoln’s phrase, “cancel and tear to pieces,” was an unacknowledged quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a scene in which assassination of the rightful king is plotted. In a letter written in 1855, Lincoln also unfavorably compared the rising nativist movement of the Know Nothings against immigrants to Russia, “where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

As president, Lincoln presented the Civil War as an international event of the greatest magnitude, the cause of the United States as a liberal republic opposed by the same oppressive forces that had crushed the 1848 revolutions, and which sought the defeat of the American experiment in democracy. It was this idea that led Lincoln in 1862 to call the United States “the last best hope of Earth.”

Read the entire post here.

Lincoln scholars, what say ye?

The Discipline of History as a Spiritual Discipline

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

St. Augustine

From Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

History is not only a discipline in the academic sense in which philosophy or literary criticism or sociology are disciplines.  It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the “other” in a hospitable way.  Doing history is not unlike the kind of “disciplines” we employ in our spiritual lives–disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others.  As historian Beth Barton Schweiger writes, “The discipline of history can be a means of grace in the life of the historian.  The writing of history, rightly done, can challenge and change the historian.”  For generations, historians have seen the pursuit of objectivity–the need to cast aside personal bias in order to tell a story about the past that is as accurate as possible–as an effort of the will.  Historian Thomas Haskell, a noted authority on the subject of historical interpretation, writes:

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers….Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human being, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming…Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.

While Christian historians need willpower as well, we can also rely on prayer, the Holy Spirit’s power, and other spiritual practices in order to pursue the kind of self-denial, hospitality, charity, and humility needed to engage the past in a proper way and be open to the possibility of it transforming us.  How often do we pray over our scholarly historical work?  And I don’t mean a prayer for help in getting the paper done on time or a prayer that we keep our sanity amid the heavy workload.  I mean a prayer that the Lord would use our study of the past in all its fullness to change us.  Similarly, when we uncover sinful behavior in the past, it should cause us to examine our own imperfect lives.  It might even lead to prayers of confession.  When we are open to using the past as a mirror that forces us to come to grips with our own flaws, we relieve ourselves of the “humanly inescapable desire to judge, and ultimately to be the judge, to be the author of our own story, to be God.” The practice of confession draws us closer to God and others, but it also enables us to be more effective historians–scholars and students who are better able to understand and tell the stories of people who live in the “foreign country” of the past.

I have posted above my desk (in the office where I do most of my historical work) a “prayer before study” written by the Catholic scholastic Thomas Aquinas.  Though I am not always as consistent as I would like to be, I try to pray it whenever I sit down to write or conduct research into the past.  I have even brought it with me when I visit archives.  Though the prayer is not specifically geared toward historians, I often make adaptations to fit the particular historical task at hand.  Praying this prayer settled me in my work and decenters me.  It is a reminder that God is with me, helping me to get out of the way so that I can listen more attentively to the voices from the past that I will be encountering that day.

When we see our work as a historians as a spiritual exercise, we also find that we grow in wisdom.  An encounter with the strangeness and diversity of the past, or even a part of the past that we might find familiar, will force us to come to grips with new ways of thinking and looking at the world.  This kind of encounter, as theologian Charles Mathewes describes it in the context of civic engagement in contemporary life, “brings us repeatedly against the stubborn, bare there-ness of the people we meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and remain ourselves.”  We do not have to agree with every idea we encounter in the past. Sometimes we cannot “inhabit” an idea and still “remain ourselves.”  But education–to be led outward–does require a degree of risk.  As historian and educator Mark Schwehn writes, we must “be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true.”  Without taking a risk, without being open to transformation, genuine education cannot happen. A history education, like education in most of the humanities-based disciplines, can be painful because it requires self-denial and a “willingness to surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion.”  But wisdom, “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

I often tell my students that when their study of the past exposes them to a new way of thinking, they need to grapple intellectually with such an idea to the point of losing sleep. (After all, college students don’t sleep, right?).  They need to discern whether or not they can incorporate this new idea into their way of viewing the world.  Or perhaps they need to change their way of viewing the world in order to accommodate an idea that they believe to be true.  This kind of wisdom requires prayer and spiritual discipline.  It also requires community.  This might mean conversations–with roommates, friends, classmates, family, professors, and pastors–about whether the idea is worthy of embrace.  Christians who study the past must be prudent.  They must be slow to speak and quick to listen to the people they meet in the past.  And they must seek wisdom.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “22 Killed in Bombing at Pop Concert in Britain, With Children Among Dead”

Washington Post: “Children among the 22 killed in ‘callous terrorist attack’ in Britain”

Wall Street Journal: “Suicide Bomber Kills 22 at U.K. Concert”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Ariana Grande concert explosion kills 22, injures dozens; event treated as terrorist attack”

BBC: “22 dead in “callous terrorist attack”

CNN: “Man arrested in connection to attack”

FOX: “‘Evil Losers in Life’: Trump offers condolences to victims in UK concert attack, lambastes those behind attack”