Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF

I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.

Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.

Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.

Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.

The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.

24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

Kansas 3

This weekend (Sunday and Monday) I made my first visit to Wichita, Kansas.  The Kansas Council of History Education (KCHE) invited me to deliver the keynote address at their annual meeting.  It was held this year on the campus of Newman University.

My address was titled “History for a Democracy.”  I began the talk with three introductory premises:

  1. The current state of American democracy has once again proven that the nation’s founding fathers were right when they connected the strength of the American Republic with an education citizenry
  2. All K-12 teachers are public historians
  3. Our democracy needs public historians

I then spent some time discussing the debate over whether history educators should be teaching “knowledge” or “skills.” This is a debate that culture warriors, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and elected officials lose sleep over, but teachers know that the pundits and bureaucrats often understand very little about what happens in their history classrooms.  Good history teachers integrate facts and skills seamlessly in the history classroom through what we call “historical thinking.”

I concluded the talk with Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrew’s famous 5 “Cs” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causation, contingency, complexity.  I explored the ways these “Cs” are present, and not present, in our public discourse. We talked about:

  • A CNN discussion between Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones on the history of race and Democratic Party.
  • The way the SAT examines reading comprehension
  • Providential history
  • Whether there is really a right and wrong “side” of history
  • The story of the “Umbrella Man” as a way to think about causation
  • The 1619 Project

Thanks to Emily Williams and Nate McAlister of the KCHE for the invitation.  It was also good to see Dave McIntire and Diana Moss, alums of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar” on colonial America.  And thanks to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for sponsoring the lecture.

Here are some pics:

Kansas 1

It was great to see Nathan McAlister, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year

Kansas 2

Great to catch-up with Diana Moss, a Princeton seminar alum who teaches history in Galena, Kansas

Kansas 4

Kansas 5

Emily Williams (KCHE President) and Don Gifford of the Kansas State Department of Education

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study History

I love it!  High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.

Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):

Historical Thinking

Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:


Grayam 2

Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.”  That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke.  But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?

If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

Teaching Middle-School Kids About Historical Significance and Causation

Causation:  One of the 5cs of historical thinking

Jonathan Gold, a middle school teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island, appears to be doing some very good things in his history classroom.  Over at the “Teaching Tolerance” blog of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gold writes about the ways he tries to expand his students’ thinking about significance and bias in history. 

Yes, these higher-order historical thinking skill can take place in the middle school classroom.  

Here is a taste of Gold’s piece:

In my middle school history classes, understanding this question is at the heart of our learning. Asking it of my students inevitably leads to fascinating discussions about perspectives, bias and representation—exactly the conversations I want them to be having. We return to the question throughout the year to remind ourselves that what matters from the past is always up for debate. Indeed, many students’ struggles to develop their historical thinking skills can be traced back to the pernicious belief that history is a fixed, objective set of facts rather than a collection ofhistorians’ interpretations and analyses. The challenge for history teachers is how to push students’ thinking past this static concept of the past in ways that are developmentally appropriate and explicit.
Cause and Effect
Students quickly arrive at the idea that something or someone is significant if it/they “did something important.” In this line of thinking, George Washington is significant for leading the country through the Revolutionary War, or the Battle of Gettysburg is significant as a turning point in the Civil War. The impact is clear, and students can capably reduce these well-known aspects of the past into simple “domino effect” relationships by the time they reach middle school.
To begin complicating their sense of causation, I introduce them to this chart that lists 28 different phrases for expressing cause-and-effect relationships. (For an elementary class, this chart could easily be reduced to fewer terms.) Now, the discussion gets down in the weeds and forces students to evaluate their criteria for significance. Different events and people come into focus. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation may have “set the stage for” a federal ban on slavery, but the work of activists within the abolitionist movement “highlighted” the injustice of slavery, “demonstrated” the breadth of support for abolitionism and “helped bring about” the end of slavery.
Although students intuitively understand that historical events and figures make varying contributions to history and have different impacts, it can be difficult for them to demonstrate a mature grasp of those relationships. This is due, I think, to a lack of sufficient language for expressing causes and effects. Asking students to choose from a list of 28 (and it could easily be more) phrases makes the diversity of available relationships explicit; it also allows them to see that historians are making choices about what matters by virtue of the actual words they use.

Why Do Historians Ask "Why?"

I am very grateful for the way that Chris Gehrz and his students at Bethel University have been so engaged with my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris reflects on why historians are in the business of asking “why.” In the process, he dabbles in a variety of historical issues, including the so-called “5cs of historical thinking” and providential history.  Here is a taste:

Perhaps it was his publisher’s decision, but I’m struck that Fea’s book is asking a question of why-as-purpose: when he asks Why we study history, he’s not asking What Causes Us to Study History? but For What Purpose Do We Study History? In his prologue, he sets out not to “write a defense of historical knowledge against postmodern critiques,” but to explore “the pursuit of history as a vocation” — and even to “win some converts” in the process (p. ix).
So even as he largely rejects providentialist approaches that would make history into a “subfield of theology” (p. 69), Fea also quotes approvingly Walter McDougall’s contention that “history must do the work of theology,” since history is, “for all practical purposes, the religion of the modern curriculum.” What McDougall means here is that history, more than any other discipline, teaches humility and thence “wisdom—and if it doesn’t, then it is not history but something else” (pp. 127-28).
History can make its students more knowledgeable by asking why-as-causation questions; I’m not sure it can make its students more wise without asking why-as-purpose questions. The former might teach the humility of understanding that history is contingent and complex, but it still tempts us to think that we can (as all undergraduates seem to believe) “learn lessons” from the past and not be condemned to repeat it.
To achieve the humility that is indeed central to wisdom, history must underscore what McDougall calls the “gaping disparity between motives and consequences in all human action, and how little control human beings have over their own lives.”
Thanks again, Chris!  Great post.