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”

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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.

Let’s Rank Colleges on a "Civic Scale"

Ellen McCullough-Lovell, the president of Marlboro College in Vermont, proposes a new way to evaluate colleges and universities.  Rather than reward them on the number of “degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned,” why not evaluate them based on how courses contribute to democratic behaviors and how alumni demonstrate “key civic attributes.”

I am sympathetic to this idea, but if colleges want to train students for democratic life they are going to need to invest heavily in the humanities.  This will mean bucking the STEM trend that Obama has been pushing and throwing money and resources into strengthening humanities-based learning.

Here is a taste of McCulloch-Lovell’s post:

We should survey our alumni at least every five years to ask questions like:

  • Do you vote; how often?
  • Do you volunteer with a community organization?
  • Have you run for office?
  • Have you written to someone in elected office or published a letter to the editor?
  • Do you give to your favorite causes?
  • Do you attend civic meetings or organize to make change?
  • Do you participate in your children’s schools?
  • Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?
  • Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts or social justice?
  • After college, did you join the Peace Corps or Teach for America?

We may find out that the more civically engaged students are also those who are the informed activists of today. Their behavior may even correlate with both economic success and the more elusive “pursuit of happiness.”

Christians Doing Politics Right

My friend and colleague Dean Curry offers ten propositions for Christians as they think about politics.

1.  “The Christian faith is not irrelevant to political life, but there is a right and wrong way to understand that relationship.”

2.  There is no distinctive biblical or Christian approach to politics.

3.  A proper Christian understanding of politics is grounded in biblical authority and natural law.

4.  The Bible is not a textbook of politics

5.  The Bible does provide a mandate for Christians to engage the world, a glimpse of the purpose of history, and  principles that should guide a Christian’s engagement in politics.

6.  The Bible does not provide “the missing ingredient” for translating its teachings into policy.

7.  Christians cannot just practice their faith on Sundays, they must also be Christian citizens.

8.  The Church’s primary responsibility is to be the Church–to proclaim the good news of redemption.

9.  Confusing the roles of the church and the responsibilities of citizenship undermines the witness of the church and the activism of the Christian citizen.

10.  Christians should not be intimidated to abandon the political sphere.

Thanks, Dean.

Progressives Need to Reclaim Citizenship

It is good to see a progressive journal such as Democracy: A Journal of Ideas call its readership to the responsibilities, even the duties, of citizenship.  In an editorial leading off a special issue on citizenship, the editors of Democracy make a three fold case for why liberals need to be more responsible citizens of the United States:

1.  Citizenship is simply the right thing to do.  It demonstrates the kind of loyalty to country that the founders would have wanted.

2.  Citizenship is one of the areas in which progressivism has “yielded vast territory to the right.”

3.  Americans will not respond to a “rights-centered” message that does not also emphasize civic responsibility

Here is a taste:

We at Democracy, while not for a second denying the need for constant vigilance with regard to rights, have long felt that progressives frankly don’t care enough about the other side of citizenship: responsibility. Here, we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. These obligations can sound quaint and as fusty as something delivered by the Wells Fargo Wagon. But they’re real: the need to contribute to one’s community and country; to understand that one’s rights must exist in balance with other prerogatives; to commit oneself to the idea that political disputes should be resolved more or less amicably; to pledge loyalty to the ideals of reasoned debate, majority rule, protections of minority rights, and so on.

How can we enhance the idea of citizenship from our own areas of work and vocation?  As I have argued here and here and here (among other places), we need to make education for citizenship in a democracy more of a priority than education for the marketplace or the capitalist economy.  And I think the study of the humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, has the potential to do this quite well.

Barack Obama’s New Tourism Initiative and American History

If President Obama is serious about enhancing tourism in the United States, then he should also be serious about promoting American history.

Last Thursday Obama went to Disney World to announce a “new national tourism strategy” focused on creating jobs and making the United States the “top tourist destination in the world.” He reminded his audience about the Travel Promotion Act, a bill that he signed into law two years ago that resulted in a nonprofit organization called Brand USA.  By making it easier for
foreign tourists to visit the United States, the President envisions a boost to our economy.  It is a great idea.

I hope that Obama’s new plan to increase tourism does not forget our most treasured destinations: historical places and the organizations that promote them.  I wonder if he knows that a key product in “Brand USA” is not doing very well right now.

In the last couple of years, the federal government has made drastic cuts to American history programs.  For example, “Save America’s Treasures,” a program that offered grants to rescue local historical buildings and artifacts in jeopardy of being lost, was eliminated.  So was the Preserve America Grant Program, an initiative designed to support heritage tourism and historic preservation.

Similarly, funding for the Institute of Museums and Library Services, an organization with a mission of inspiring libraries and museums to foster civic and cultural engagement, was cut by $44 million.  The Teaching American History Program, which provided support for the strengthening of American history in schools with the goal of creating a generation of young people who would be engaged with our past (and might even spend money some day on history tourism), has been recently eliminated.  

In my own backyard, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state agency commissioned to promote the Commonwealth’s history, continues to struggle to fulfill its mission after massive funding cuts. Over one hundred employees were furloughed.  The Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg is now opened only four days a week.  Other historic sites were forced to close or drastically reduce operating hours.  Some are being run entirely by volunteers.

One of the largest sectors of tourism in the United States is in utter disrepair.  The President’s bold, new initiative will be useless unless something is done to fix our broken historical infrastructure.  International tourists will not come if the destinations they hope to visit are closed.

I am sure that places like Independence Hall. Gettysburg National Park, and Faneuil Hall will continue to attract visitors.  But less popular sites, scattered across the American landscape and currently struggling, should also be part of the story that we tell to visitors.

While I am optimistic that Obama’s plan to target foreign tourists will help our economy, we also need to make visits to historical sites and parks a more attractive option for American citizens. As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them will be looking for opportunities to learn new things, stimulate their minds, and keep busy. Many will accomplish this by visiting historical places and, in the process, spending money on hotels, restaurants, and visitor fees.

But there is an even greater reason why the promotion of history tourism could help America.  History serves a civic function. Without history, our collective identity is erased. We look to the past to understand who we are in the present.

At the same time, history teaches us that the past is sometimes like a foreign country – a place where they do things differently.  By learning about the lives of people who lived in this foreign country we can develop a deeper appreciation of people in our contemporary lives with beliefs or lifestyles we do not understand.  When everyone has this kind of empathy, society improves.  We learn to listen and understand before casting moral condemnation on those with whom we differ.  Barack Obama used to talk about these kinds of things.

When we take it seriously, history teaches us to see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the moment in which we live.  It cultivates citizens – active participants in our local, state, and national  communities. A visit to a historical site or museum, where visitors get to experience the past first-hand, is a wonderful way of promoting this kind of democratic culture.

More Bad News for the Teaching American History Grants

Another sad day for the study of American history. Lee White of The National Coalition for History reports:

The House Education and Workforce Committee this week approved, by a strict party line vote of 23-16, H.R. 1891 the “Setting New Priorities in Education Act.” This bill would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including Teaching American History (TAH) grants.

An amendment was offered by Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), and cosponsored by Representatives Davis (D-CA), Woolsey (D-CA) and Wu (D-OR) that would have potentially preserved TAH. The amendment would have required the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence to determine if the United States was experiencing a shortage of linguists. If it was found that was the case, Department of Education funds could have been used to improve foreign language education, economic and financial education, arts education and the Teaching of Traditional American History. The Holt amendment was defeated by the same party line vote of 16-23.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MI) has decided to adopt a piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the ESEA, considering a series of targeted bills instead of one large one. H.R. 1891 is the first of those bills to be introduced and passed by the panel.

H.R. 1891 will now be considered by the House where it is expected to pass. While this is disheartening, the bill would still have to pass the Senate and be signed by the President which is unlikely. Traditionally, there has been strong bi-partisan support in the Senate for the TAH program.
In the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) will soon introduce a single all encompassing ESEA reauthorization bill. It was expected he would introduce the bill right after Easter, but that has not occurred. There is no indication at this time what Chairman Harkin’s position is with regard to TAH in particular or history education in general. 

This makes me angry and sad, so before I write something I will regret I will just stop here.