Citizens Must Keep Calling-Out Trump

Trump corona speech

Here is the latest Trump tweet:

Here is The Washington Post:

President Trump on Wednesday escalated his campaign to discredit the integrity of mail balloting, threatening to “hold up” federal funding to Michigan and Nevada in response to the states’ plans to increase voting by mail to reduce the public’s exposure to the coronavirus.

Without evidence, Trump called the two states’ plans “illegal,” and he incorrectly claimed that Michigan’s “rogue” secretary of state is planning to mail ballots to all voters. The state is planning to send applications for mail-in ballots to all voters — not ballots themselves.

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted about Michigan. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Trump later corrected the error and suggested he would not need to withhold federal money, but he did not retreat from his claim that both states are taking steps that will encourage voter fraud. A spokesman for the Trump campaign asserted that the Michigan secretary of state did not have legal authority to send ballot applications to all voters, a claim that she disputed.

Speaking to reporters later at the White House, the president claimed without proof that mail-in ballots lead to “forgeries” and “thousands and thousands of fake ballots.”

“I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place,” he said. “And you do have cases of fraudulent ballots where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign, maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. I don’t know. It’s a lot of things can happen.”

The president’s aggressive and unfounded rhetoric drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and voting rights activists, who accused Trump of intentionally sowing mistrust in U.S. elections.

And his claims that absentee voting will encourage cheating are at odds with the activity of state and national GOP leaders, who are mounting aggressive field operations, including mass mailings of ballot applications, to encourage their voters to cast ballots by mail. GOP officeholders in various states — including Nevada — are also backing expansions of absentee voting because of the pandemic.

Read the rest here.

Voter fraud is very rare. And let’s not forget Trump voted by absentee ballot in this year’s Florida primary, leading to a baffling exchange at an April press conference.

Some will get tired of people who hold Trump’s feet to the fire. They will say we have “Trump-derangement syndrome.” If such a syndrome means that one will not sit back and tolerate this president’s lies, hypocrisy, narcissism, and failure to lead during this pandemic, then I am happy to be called deranged. As Philip Vickers Fithian taught me, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.

Keep sending those e-mails! 🙂

Citizenship is More Than Just the Facts We Learned in Civics Class

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History News Network is running my piece on history and citizenship.  Here is a taste:

Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within  civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs. 

Read the entire piece here.

The Study of History Prepares Us for Moments Like This

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My daughter is home from college. Tonight at the dinner table we were talking about citizenship in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of our conversation inspired today’s earlier post on that subject.

Both of my daughters are studying liberal arts at a liberal arts college. Caroline, who is now taking classes from her childhood bedroom, is majoring in political science and considering adding a major in environmental studies. Allyson, as a senior, is a double-major in history and psychology. Their coursework is challenging them in good ways. They are learning and growing intellectually. I pray that both of them will draw upon their work in these fields to help them navigate our current moment.

The humanities, a particular branch of the liberal arts devoted to the study of history, literature, rhetoric, theology and religious studies, philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and languages, to name a few of the subjects that fall under its intellectual umbrella, offer an approach to the world that bodes well for the creation of good citizens in a democratic society.

This is why founders such as Thomas Jefferson valued an educated citizenry. In an September 28, 1820 to William Charles Jarvis, Jefferson wrote:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform them their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of the abuses of constitutional power.

The humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, teach students how to think critically about their world. How do we evaluate the information we receive about the coronavirus? What kinds of sources can we trust? In a time when news and information about this virus is changing and developing at a rapid rate, context becomes very important. News that came across our feeds two days ago may no longer be relevant today.  Historians are trained to “source” documents.  When was the document written? Who is the author? What is the purpose of this document? Does this context give us better insight into the meaning of the text?

Historians are also able to put this pandemic in a larger context. Type the words “1918 Influenza” into your web browser and notice dozens of historians trying to help us make sense of the present by understanding the past. Historians understand the human condition. They can, at times, alert us to potential present-day behavior by reminding us of what happened in an earlier era.

The study of history also cultivates the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historian Sam Wineburg argues convincingly that it is the strangeness of the past that has the best potential to change our lives in positive ways. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country–a place where they do things differently than we do in the present–set off on a journey that has the potential to transform society. An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of a “foreign country.” Sometimes the people who inhabit that country may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities.  Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.

History demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, ideal or event from the past in order to understand it. It thus, ironically, becomes the necessary building block of informed cultural criticism and political commentary. It sharpens our moral focus and places our ethical engagement with society in a larger context. One cannot underestimate how the virtues learned through historical inquiry also apply to our civic life. The same skills of empathy and understanding that a student or reader of history learns from studying the seemingly bizarre practices of the Aztec Empire might also prove to be useful at work when we don’t know what to make of the beliefs or behavior of the person in the cubicle next to us.

The study of the past has the potential to cure us of our narcissism. The narcissist views the world with himself at the center. While this a fairly normal way to see the world for an infant or a toddler, it is actually a very immature way of viewing the world as an adult. History, to quote Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”

As we begin to see our lives as part of a human community made up of both the living and the dead, we may start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. We may want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to understand why they see the world the way they do. We may  want to have a conversation (or two) with them. We may learn that even amid our religious or political differences we still have a lot in common.  We also may gain a better understanding into why their ideas must be refuted.

History majors and historical thinkers: we have prepared you for such a time as this!

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Voters in a Democracy Must Understand Something About History

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Japanese-Americans arriving at WW II internment camp

Over at The Washington Examiner, Patrick Richards, the chief communications and strategy officer at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, links historical training with civics.  Here is a taste:

A generation of students has learned of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers because of a Broadway musical with a Lin-Manuel Miranda score. Millions of middle schoolers have learned about U.S. civics because of video games developed through the vision and commitment of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Tens of millions of cable TV viewers learn pieces of history not taught in the classroom because of Pawn Stars and the personal passions of its star, Rick Harrison. Each of these and many more like them show that history doesn’t have to be relegated to dusty history books telling the boring stories of generations of white, male landowners. History can, and should, be exciting, engaging, and relevant to the learner and to the times in which they live.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of immigration and border detention facilities will also know about how Native Americans were treated in the 19th century and how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of impeachment proceedings will not only know about the Clinton impeachment but also of President Andrew Johnson’s.

Ultimately, an informed voter will move beyond asking, “What?” and will begin asking the more important questions about our history: “Why? How? To what end?”

For years now, we have been selling the 2020 presidential race as one of the most momentous, most important elections in the history of our representative democracy. If we believe that, then it is imperative that all voters, particularly the Gen Zers and millennials deemed so important to our future, begin to think and act like historians — asking questions, seeking out facts not originally taught, and understanding how we’ve confronted such issues in the past and how we can learn from those experiences, good and bad, in the future.

Read the entire piece here.

 

New U.S. Citizens Are Still Receiving A Welcome Letter From Barack Obama

Apparently the “welcome packet” for new Americans still contains a letter signed by Barack Obama.  The Independent reports:

Aisha Sultan’s UK-born husband became a US citizen and received the customary welcome letter from the President, however it was not written by Donald Trump.

The US government is still using a letter signed by President Barack Obama.

It has not been updated in the six months since Mr Trump has taken office.

Read the rest here.

Today’s Op-Ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News: : “Why study history?: A bill before the Pa. Senate is only part of the answer”

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Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home read an early draft of this piece.

Here is a taste:

First, every member of the Senate, before voting on this bill, should read the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 6-12 “Academic Standards for Reading in History and Social Studies” and the PDE’s “Academic Standards for Writing in History and Social Studies.”

These CORE Standards, released in March 2014, require teachers to cover material that would prepare Commonwealth students very well for the United States citizenship test.  In addition, these CORE standards require educators to move beyond the teaching of mere facts.

They stress the necessary skills Commonwealth students need to learn in their history classes.

Second, strongly encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to require history educators to have training in how to teach historical thinking.

Students today are bombarded with information.

The kind of facts necessary to score well on a citizenship test can be easily found by conducting a quick Google search. What our students really need is training in how to distinguish between good information and bad information. 

When they read their social media feeds they need to learn how to spot what is fake and what is real. 

They need to “consider the source” of information they encounter. They need see the complexity of the human experience as it has unfolded through time. They need to think about the forces that have shaped the world that they have inherited.

This kind of thinking should happen every day in a history classroom.  Students read documents from bygone eras and analyze them critically. They look for bias. They understand voices from the past in context. They move back and forth between the past and the present and get a good mental workout in the process.

History students learn to listen to voices from the past before judging them. In the process, they cultivate the democratic virtue of empathy.

They learn to look beyond themselves to see the world through the eyes of others–those who are dead and those who are alive–who have experienced it in different ways.

These kinds of historical thinking skills are acquired through an immersion in the past guided by a skilled history teacher.  I would thus, thirdly, encourage the Senate to initiate legislation that requires Pennsylvania history teachers to have a college major in history. 

At Messiah College, a private institution in Mechanicsburg where I chair the History Department, pre-service teachers graduate with both a Pennsylvania teaching certification in Social Studies and a full history major. 

Earlier this year the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Messiah’s history education program as one of the sixteen best in the United States. 

By taking 39-credit hours in history, our students enter the classroom prepared to deliver content and cultivate the historical habits of the mind desperately need in our society today.

The Rafferty/Dinniman bill is not a bad start. Facts and civic knowledge is the foundation of a good history education. But it is only a foundation.

Read the entire piece here.

The New York Historical Society Offers Free Civics and U.S. History Workshops for Immigrants

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The New York Historical Society has launched the Citizenship Project.  In conjunction with the City University of New York (CUNY) it will hold free civics and American history workshops for green card holders.

Here is a taste of Claire Voon’s article at Hyperallergic:

The museum, which hosts naturalization ceremonies in its auditorium, has been considering a program to help with studying for the naturalization exam for several years now, understanding that even American-born citizens would find it difficult to pass. But the need for one became more timely after President Trump’s incendiary January 27 executive order that restricted travel for thousands, from refugees to permanent residents.

“When the first travel ban initially included legal immigrants, we realized that we could put our skills to use helping green card holders learn the civics and history they need to know to pass the test, so that they could participate fully in American civic life as citizens and also be protected under the Constitution,” Mirrer said. “The project would draw attention, as well, for Americans, to the high bar set by our nation for citizenship.”

For citizens who want to see how they would fare on knowledge of American history and civics, questions and answers to the hunt will be on display at the museum’s entrance, on interactive tablets, and online.

Read the entire article here.

Can You Pass a United States Citizenship Test?

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Matt O’Brien of the Associated Press reports that school systems around the country think it is important that children “know as least as much about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist papers as immigrants passing a citizenship test.”

That’s a start.  Read the entire piece here.

And now let’s see if you can pass a citizenship test.  According to O’Brien, “an applicant must correctly answer six of 10 questions, selected from 100 possible questions, to pass the civics portion.”  Here is a sample test:

Questions

1. What does the Constitution do?

2. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?

3. What is an amendment?

4. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

5. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

6. What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

7. Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?

8. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the Constitution. Name one of the writers.

9. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

10. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?

The answers are in the comments section.  Good luck!

Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens?

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Parmer Hall, Messiah College

An organization of conservative academics and intellectuals known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a 525-page report titled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”  It is a critique of what the NAS describes as the “New Civics.”  The report focuses on this approach to civic education at four western universities in the United States.

Here is a taste of the abstract:

A new movement in American higher education aims to transform the teaching of civics. This report is a study of what that movement is, where it came from, and why Americans should be concerned.

What we call the “New Civics” redefines civics as progressive political activism. Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.

The New Civics seeks above all to make students into enthusiastic supporters of the New Left’s dream of “fundamentally transforming” America. The transformation includes de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international “norms” over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals. New Civics advocates argue among themselves which of these transformations should take precedence, but they agree that America must be transformed by “systemic change” from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.

The New Civics hopes to accomplish this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.

New Civics builds on “service-learning,” which is an effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists. By rebranding itself as “civic engagement,” service learning succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics. In practice this means that instead of teaching college students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government, colleges teach students how to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations. These are indeed forms of “civic engagement,” but they are far from being a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.

New Civics has still further ambitions. Its proponents want to build it into every college class regardless of subject. The effort continues without so far drawing much critical attention from the public. This report aims to change that.

Pretty standard conservative stuff.

After reading this report, literary scholar and public intellectual Stanley Fish turned to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and published a piece titled “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job.”  He has mixed feelings about what the NAS has produced.

Here is a taste of Fish’s piece:

...I have felt for some time that the integrity of academic work has been under pressure from forces that would politicize it, either from the outside in the form of external constituencies eager to have colleges and universities reflect their agendas, or from the inside in the form of student protests aimed at getting colleges and universities to toe their preferred ideological line. The NAS report stands squarely against the second form of politicization (as do I), but participates fully in the first. Consider the following key and representative sentence: “We view the liberal arts, properly understood, as fostering intellectual freedom, the search for truth, and the promotion of virtuous citizenship.” Fostering intellectual freedom? Yes! Search for truth? Yes! Promotion of virtuous citizenship? No! Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because, like the programs the report derides, it is a political goal.

A simple question makes my point. What is the content of “virtuous”? The answer will vary with the varying views of what obligations citizenship brings with it. For the authors of the NAS report, virtuous citizenship means love of country and “a commitment to our form of self-government.” For the faculty and students who practice civic engagement, virtuous citizenship means a radical questioning of our forms of government and a resolve to restructure them so that they reflect (insofar as possible) the ideal of social justice. This difference is obviously political and amounts to a quarrel between opposing views of what form of citizenship universities should foster. But because my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect — I find both parties off base because they are in their different ways deforming the educational enterprise by bending it to a partisan purpose.

A director of a service-learning institute quoted in the report declares that “The crux of the debate is whether education should provide students with the skills and knowledge base necessary to fit into the existing social structure or prepare them to engage in social transformation.” The right answer is “neither of the above.” Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience. The report declares that the proponents of civic engagement “cannot distinguish education from progressive activism.” The NAS cannot distinguish education from conservative activism…

I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy. I agree that while volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic good thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so. I agree that students “should possess a basic understanding of their government” and that colleges and universities should play a part in providing that understanding. I don’t agree that the content of that understanding should be dictated by government officials, and I find it odd that an essay claiming to defend traditional liberal education against the incursion of politics ends by inviting the politicians in. One might say that the cure is worse than the disease, but that would not be quite right: The cure is the disease.

Those familiar with Fish know that he has been making this argument for a long time.  It is best formulated in his book Save the World on Your Own Time Earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association he made a similar case.

I largely agree with Fish’s critique of the so-called “New Civics” and the NAS report. As I have written before, my understanding of liberal arts education is probably best captured in this conversation between Robert George and Cornell West.  The purpose of liberal arts education, in other words, is the pursuit of truth and the “examined life.”

My views here have been no doubt shaped by fifteen years of working as a bit of an outsider at a college that privileges a Christian view of the “New Civics” rooted in historic Anabaptism. Anabaptists are very good at service and justice, but they have never been on the front lines of cultivating intellectual life. (There are, of course, exceptions.  I know this because I work with some of those exceptions).

Moreover, the college where I teach has a lot of students who have been raised in evangelicalism.  Many of these students have already learned some basic things about how to be activists.  They have participated in youth group service projects and mission trips and they want to “change the world.”  But because of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” they have not learned how to cultivate an “examined life.”  Few of them see learning for learning’s sake–the worship of God with their minds–as a legitimate part of their life of faith.  It is my job to expose them to this way of encountering God and suggest to them that it is a vital part of their responsibility as a Christian.  The Anabaptist and evangelical ethos of my college does not make this easy.  (I discussed this in a chapter I wrote for this book).

But where I differ with Fish (and I am not even sure we differ) is best captured in a few lines from his Chronicle piece.

Fish says: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect.”  I would rephrase Fish’s sentence this way: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship–at least not as part of a design, but citizenship should result as an intended side-effect.”  (I should add that I think such an approach fits squarely within my understanding of the Christian liberal arts, but that discussion will have to wait for another post).

Fish also says: “I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy.”  I would only add that civic literacy–and this includes historical thinking, not just facts–should result in some form of civic responsibility.

As I argued in my 2013  book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Pastthe study of history (and all of the humanities) teaches us empathy, humility, and even love. It relieves us of our narcissism.  It teaches us hospitality.   It challenges us to pursue truth. These kinds of virtues go beyond mere civic literacy and, when applied in an individual life or community, extend well beyond any particular political or social agenda.

“Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion”

eacac-fithian2bbookI was watching the news last night and remembered this passage (p.142) from my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Philip reached maturity in this patriotic culture.  He was taught at Princeton that it was appropriate to exercise the passions in the defense of liberty.  In his 1772 commencement disputation he echoed the words of the eighteenth-century political tract of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, by defending the notion that “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” His speech distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful, and “political jealousy,” which was “rational & uniform & necessary.”  As Philip had learned all too well through his courtship with Elizabeth Beatty, “jealousy” was normally a dangerous “disease” that could blight friendships and lead to “suspicions” among acquaintances.  However, when channeled in the right direction, it was also a useful passion.  The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption.  Political jealousy served as a unifying force–a common political ideology of resistance grounded in a common morality–that held a community togehter in times of strife and preserved societal order.  Philip said that it had a “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests that were closely associated with the preservation of the nation.”

Ross Douthat Compares Evangelicals Relationship to Trump With Syrians Relationship to Assad

douthatNew York Times columnist Ross Douthat was at Messiah College last night where he presented a lecture titled “Christian Citizens in a Post-Christian Republic.”

Douthat argued that we may now be living in a post-Christian nation and he offered some ways that Christians should begin to think about their role in such a republic.

I have live-tweeted the lecture.  You can read my Storified tweets here.

In a post-Christian nation, Douthat argued, Christians might proceed in one of two ways.

First, Christians might find themselves relying more heavily on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization.  This is the approach that many evangelicals who support Donald Trump seem to be taking.  In one of the more stinging lines of the lecture Douthat suggested that some evangelicals seem to need Trump (a man with no real Christian convictions to speak of) to protect them in the same way that Syrians need the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad to protect them.  (I should note that Douthat was quick to say that Trump was “not as bad” at Assad).

Second, Douthat suggested that Christians might be influential in reshaping the two-party system and promoting a political approach that is decidedly Christian in orientation.  This kind of approach might not fit well with the agenda of either the Democratic Party or the GOP.

As might be expected, he preferred the second potential scenario over the first potential scenario.

One of the highlights of the night came during the Q&A session.  A very articulate, bright, and spirited Messiah College student who was clearly frustrated with the choices available to her in this, the first election in which she was eligible to vote, asked Douthat for advice about what she should do in November.   She feared that she would one day regret voting for either major candidate.  Douthat showed empathy toward this student and told her that her contribution to a better society did not have to come through politics.  Rather, she should work to change the world in the context of her local circumstances.

It was a great lecture. I am looking forward to hearing Earl Lewis, Ken Burns, and Michelle Alexander, among others, later in the year at Messiah College.

The Author’s Corner With Andrew Diemer

Politics of Black CitizenshipAndrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History at Towson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: Historians have made a fairly persuasive case for the centrality of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the emergence of radical abolition. What is less clear is the role that free blacks played in the political turn that antislavery took in the decades before the Civil War. Certainly many African Americans applauded the growth of broad-based parties committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, even if some of the leaders of those parties sought to distance themselves from the radical, interracial abolition movement, but what role did free blacks play in antebellum politics? I set out to write a book about black politics across the North, but at an early stage realized that the nature of nineteenth-century politics makes this difficult. As much as antislavery dealt with national issues, for free black people in the North, many of the most pressing political issues were state and local matters. Philadelphia, home to the largest free black population in the North (depending on how and when one measures this) was a logical choice. At the same time, it struck me that while we often think of Philadelphia in connection with other major Northern cities, it also had significant connections with Baltimore, and Baltimore had an even larger free black population than Philadelphia. Of course, between these two cities lay a legal boundary between slavery and freedom. I became increasingly interested in these connections, in the movement of African Americans within the region and across that boundary.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Politics of Black Citizenship?

ADThe existence of such large numbers of free African Americans and their movement (or fears of their movement) across the legal boundary between slavery and freedom made black citizenship rights particularly contentious in this region. Free blacks though largely disfranchised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, shaped the legal and political system which determined their citizenship rights, in particular demanding the right to the equal protection of state and local laws.

JF: Why do we need to read The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: The study of slavery and abolition, along with so much of the historical profession, has taken a strongly international turn in recent years. As important as this turn is, and there is certainly an international dimension to my book, I think that it is essential that we balance this international perspective with close attention to the intensely local dimensions of American politics. Free African Americans were acutely aware of the overlapping geographies of their identities and rights. My book helps to show how the tensions between these local, state, national, and international connections generated a politics of black citizenship. Beyond this, and despite the profoundly different historical contexts, we are living in a time when it is particularly important to think about the history of black struggles for citizenship rights. This is a book about how free African Americans challenged a white dominated political system that often denied them fundamental citizenship rights and which therefore left them vulnerable to violence, kidnapping, and enslavement. This is a story which resonates with our own times.

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

AD: I had some great high school history teachers, so I think that was a big part of my interest in American History. My older brother was a big World War II buff and I was always sort of competitive with him, so I think I wanted to one up him by going back to earlier American History. I also remember watching Ken Burns’s Civil War as a really important influence on my historical imagination. When I went to college I thought at first that I wanted to study classics, but a few semesters of conjugating ancient Greek verbs helped me find my way back to American History!

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I am in the early stages of a new book project, a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still. While hardly unknown, he is someone who I think has been somewhat overshadowed by some of his peers, especially Frederick Douglass but others as well. Still is best known for his work in the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia where he was one of the key participants in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. In that work he was part of some of the most exiting stories of that decade: Christiana, Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, John Brown, to name only a few. He also went on to become a businessman, activist, philanthropist, and author.

JF: Thanks Andrew!

“The People” and “Citizens”

we-the-people-graphic-3

Eric Miller writes so well that whenever I read him I am inspired to work harder on my own prose.

In his recent essay at Comment, Miller, a professor of history at Geneva College, discusses the meaning of “populism” in American history and how it is being used in contemporary politics..

Here is a taste:

Is the solution, then, to turn away in high-minded dismay from “the people”? Only if elitist, oligarchic rule is suddenly our best hope. Laclau, writing from within Latin America’s volatile political cauldron, confesses his “suspicion” that beneath the “disdainful rejection” of populism lies a “dismissal of politics tout court,” replaced by a dubious confidence “that the management of community is the concern of an administrative power whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a ‘good’ community is.”

It was this deluded conceit that gave rise to democratic aspiration in the first place. There can be no evasion of politics. There is only bad politics or good politics. And good politics—and this is America’s founding claim—requires equality as an incarnate ideal.

Our governing political impulse must not be to despise the people but rather to understand ourselves as the people. The institutions of formation, the networks of care, and the broader political economy itself we must, as equals, seek to reform with the enlivening virtue that life itself requires. James Baldwin’s observation in 1963 was, after all, simply the summation of ancient wisdom: “The political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.” It’s our spiritual state that most requires our constructive attention, in the hope that from civic renewal a politics will emerge befitting our heritage and fit for this age.

If the odds are against such reformation, it’s for precisely such reasons that hope exists. Hope, alongside faith and love, reminds us that we don’t need a perfect union. Just a more perfect union.

Read the entire post here.  This is long-form writing at its best.

David Blight on the 14th Amendment

The Atlantic.com is running a digital symposium on the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction with particular focus on the history and legacy of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.  

Here is a taste of Yale historian David’s Blight’s contribution on the 14th:


Among all the enactments of Reconstruction, none embody the lasting significance, or the heart of the conflict in this revolution and counter-revolution better than section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. It ought to be embraced as a holy writ that binds our national community, that fortifies even the very idea of America born of this second founding. Based, in part, on language proposed by John Bingham of Ohio, an evangelical Christian and former abolitionist, it reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

No more important language exists to this day in the Constitution than Bingham’s two sentences. His goal, as he said many times in the floor debates of 1866 in Congress, was to “federalize the Bill of Rights,” and make the federal government responsible for enforcing the basic human rights of Americans, now meaning blacks and whites, “within the states.” An endless array of complex, heroic, bloody, confused and scurrilous legal history has flowed from this clause.  And at this very moment, a concerted, extremely well-funded crusade is underway among elements of the modern Republican Party, who now gleefully desecrate the ideas of its founders by effectively eroding and destroying the essence of Reconstruction’s greatest achievement—birthright citizenship and equality before the law.

When the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment arrives next June, it is my modest proposal that willing organizations provide every American who will accept it with a simple small-pocket item (the size of a business card, perhaps laminated for durability), inscribed with section one. Willing Americans, with a sense of history, can whip these cards out of their pockets when necessary and debate their fellow citizens about Reconstruction’s two great lasting legacies—the enduring struggles over racism and federalism—which are likely to be with the U.S. forever. But as Americans keep the excerpts in their vest pockets or handbags, they would do well to remember a piece of Frederick Douglass’s wisdom from the Reconstruction years.

Read the entire piece here.

James Grossman: History for Patriotism

Jim Grossman

In this month’s Perspectives on History, AHA Executive Director James Grossman describes why he thinks history education in the United States should be “patriotic.”  I love his answer.  Here is a taste:


Whether history education should be “patriotic”…begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others?…

Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just “happen.”

All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions.

But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” reads as mere rhetoric.

I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.

Read the entire piece here.

The History Relevance Campaign

Does the study and practice of history lead to a strong citizenry?  Yes.  Or at least this is my argument in chapter six of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It is also the mission driving a group of public historians who have started the “History Relevance Campaign.”  Tim Grove of the Smithsonian writes about this new campaign at History@Work.  Here is a taste:


Certainly the topic of history’s value to society is not new. It has been discussed many times before. This particular effort was sparked in a conversation at the Seminar for Historical Administration (@SHA) last year. A small core of people then instigated an initial working group meeting of twelve people during  American Alliance of Museum (AAM) Museums Advocacy Day last February which brought together representatives from the Smithsonian, American Historical Association (AHA), NCPH, National History Day, American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), and three state history organizations. A lively conversation ensued, and it continued at last year’s NCPH conference, AAM annual meeting, at National History Day’s national competition, and most recently at AASLH’s annual meeting, both at the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Forum and in general session. The HRC working group is trying to seize opportunities to gather history folks of all shapes and sizes to hold discussions that will eventually lead to an action plan. Let me provide a brief overview of what the group has done and what it is and isn’t…

The group’s ultimate challenge is how to define where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. If there is widespread agreement among most history organizations that the discipline of history does not have the best public perception, then perhaps the time is now to plan a course of action, get broad buy-in from the spectrum of professional history organizations, and effect change so that future generations will recognize the value of history. Whenever we have raised the topic, we have been affirmed by the overwhelming response of enthusiasm and passion.

The effort has a LinkedIn group – History Relevance Campaign – open to anyone. The conversation continues there and in other locations. If you want to be part of the conversation, and we hope you do, please join the group in order to be notified of future efforts. And, we plan to continue the discussion at the 2014 NCPH meeting in Monterey next March.

"Religion and the Making of American Citizens"

In November I will be speaking at “Religion and the Making of American Citizens,” a weekend teacher’s institute to be held at the University of Tennessee. Conference co-organizer Jonathan Yeager writes:

My colleague Lucien Ellington and I are organizing an institute at UTC for teachers. During the weekend of Friday, November 15 to Saturday, November 16, teachers will hear various experts speak on the theme of: Religion and the Making of American Citizens: Past, Present, and Future.” This weekend institute is sponsored by the Apgar Foundation and the Center for Reflective Citizenship at UTC, which was founded by Lucien and former SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, Wilfred McClay.

This weekend institute is meant to offer training for local educators, approximately two dozen of whom will hear speakers talk about the importance of including religion in their teaching. The Center for Reflective Citizenship hopes to convince teachers that religion has played a vital role in America, from its founding to the present, and should be included in any basic courses on American history. As sponsors of this event, Lucien and I believe that religion is a subject worthy of serious attention by educated people, and so we hope to remind teachers of the influential religious traditions that have permeated American history and culture. 

Speakers include Tracy McKenzie, Daniel Dreisbach, Wilfred McClay, Molly Worthen, and Michael Cromartie.

If you are a teacher and are interested in attending this institute contact Jonathan at his UT-Chattanooga website.