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

Citizenship

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.

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.

Lamar Alexander’s Statement is Full of Historical Problems

lamar-alexander

If Lamar Alexander wants to oppose witnesses in the Donald Trump impeachment trial he has that right.  But spare us the “history” lesson.

Alexander statement says:

I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses, but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.

So it sounds like Alan Dershowitz’s “absurd” and “baffling” argument convinced the senior Senator from Tennessee.  In embracing the Dershowitz argument, Alexander has chosen to reject the consensus of legal scholars and American historians.

Alexander continues:

“There is no need for more evidence to prove that the president asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter; he said this on television on October 3, 2019, and during his July 25, 2019, telephone call with the president of Ukraine. There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’ There is no need to consider further the frivolous second article of impeachment that would remove the president for asserting his constitutional prerogative to protect confidential conversations with his close advisers.

“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law. But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.

So what is the difference between an “impeachable” offense and an “inappropriate” offense?  Again, Alexander has been swayed by Dershowitz’s argument.  Alexander believes that the president is guilty, but he does not believe that Trump committed an impeachable offense.  (Dershowitz doesn’t think Trump is guilty of anything). This is also clear from the next part of Alexander’s statement:

“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday.  

“The Senate has spent nine long days considering this ‘mountain’ of evidence, the arguments of the House managers and the president’s lawyers, their answers to senators’ questions and the House record. Even if the House charges were true, they do not meet the Constitution’s ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’ standard for an impeachable offense.

Alexander goes on:

“The framers believed that there should never, ever be a partisan impeachment. That is why the Constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate for conviction. Yet not one House Republican voted for these articles. If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist. It would create the weapon of perpetual impeachment to be used against future presidents whenever the House of Representatives is of a different political party.

“Our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress. Let the people decide.”

On the issue of “partisan” impeachments and the founders, here is historian Joanne Freeman:

Moreover, as historian Kevin Kruse has been reminding us, there were no political parties when the founders wrote the Constitution:

Alexander also suggests that the “founding documents” teach that “the people” should decide whether to move a president.  Here he is connecting “impeachment” with the vote and will of “the people.” But the Constitution makes no such connection.

First, as James Madison made clear in Federalist 39, “The President of the United States is impeachable at any time during his continuance in office.” In other words, the president can be impeached during an election year.

Second, the framers were skeptical about trusting the people to make decisions about important matters such as impeachment.  The framers did not trust the “ballot”on impeachment.  Read the Constitution as it was written in 1787.  Senators were not directly elected by the people.  They were appointed by state legislatures. This is precisely why the framers believed that the Senate was best suited to serve as judges in an impeachment trial. The “people” in the House of Representatives brought charges in the president (impeachment), but the Senate, those so called “gods on Mount Olympus,” would decide whether or not the people were right (removal). As Madison wrote in Federalist 10, the passions of the people needed to be filtered through “a medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  In fact, the framers of the Constitution had such a mistrust of the people that they did not allow them to vote directly for the president.  It is worth noting that they did not even record the popular vote in presidential elections until 1824.

In the end, Lamar Alexander can oppose impeachment trial witnesses for all kinds of reasons, but please don’t appeal to the founders.

Alexander’s sketchy use of the founding-era is particularly troubling considering that he has always been a strong advocate for more history and civics in public schools.

Robert Westbrook Reviews Jill Lepore, *These Truths*

These TruthsOver at The Christian Century,  University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbrook reviews Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.  Here is a taste:

Even if Lepore in some respects falls short on her own terms, it would be churlish in the end not to salute her for realizing her ambitions as fully as she does. She has laid down a marker for anyone who would try to contain the history of the United States within a single volume. She says that “the work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist.” I find it hard to believe that she really believes this assertion. In any case, she has fashioned a work of history that is at the same time a telling work of social criticism and of expansive moral imagination.

She also says that her book “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” It does. This is not a particularly distinguished genre, but her contribution to it is among the best ever published, despite its shortcomings. She is right to say that “the past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.” We Americans might all profitably include her effort to get to know our past among the books we stuff in our backpacks to read by flashlight as we try to ascend from the deep, dark hole into which our republic has fallen.

Read the entire review here.

It’s Not The “Teaching American History” Grants, But It Is Something

Here are the details from The National Coalition for History:

Federal Funding Opportunity for K-12 History and Civics Grants Announced

Federal Competitive Grant funding is now available for K-12 History and Civics Education professional development! The US Department of Education has published a Federal Register Notice announcing the grant competition for the National Activities grants we successfully advocated for in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Click here to read the Federal Register Notice.

NOTE: The timing on this is tight! For those wishing to apply for funding please note the following:

The deadline on notice to apply is August 10th (this entails you telling the US Department of Education you intend to apply).

The Department of Education will host a pre-application webinar to provide technical assistance to interested applicants on July 18, 2017-next Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. eastern time. To join the webinar please go to the event address: at https://educateevents.webex.com/educateevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e0ff2dd5c36144d0f8e4ba71d69d03484.

The deadline to submit applications is August 21st.

For further information contact: Christine Miller, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Avenue SW., Room 4W205, Washington, DC 20202–5960. Or by email: 

Christine.Miller@ed.govDetails about the K-12 History and Civics National Activities Grants Program (click here):

The new program is designed to promote innovative instruction, learning strategies, and professional development in American history, civics and government, and geography, with an emphasis on activities and programs that benefit low-income students and underserved populations.

This is the first year the new grants program received funding from Congress. It is expected the grants will be awarded in October 2017. The estimated amount of available funds for FY 17 is $1,700,000. Contingent upon the availability of funds and the quality of applications, the Department of Education may make additional awards in subsequent years from the list of unfunded applications from this competition. The estimated range of awards is $200,000–$700,000 per year and the estimated average size of awards is $500,000 per year. The estimated number of awards is 2–7. The project period is up to three years, with renewal of up two additional years if the grantee demonstrates to the Secretary that the grantee is effectively using funds.

 

What Does the Trump Budget Mean for Civics, History, Archives, and Education?

make-america-great-againThe National Coalition for History sums it up pretty well:

On May 23, President Trump sent his proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request to Congress.  As expected, it includes devastating cuts to federal history and humanities funding including elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and K-12 history and civics grants and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays international education programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Click here for a link to a chart summarizing the proposed budget for these and other federal history-related programs. There will be an in-depth agency-by-agency analysis posted on the NCH website shortly.

Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.

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?

parmer

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.

Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

three-immigrantsIn my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I wrote:

Philip’s “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one.  His passion for “home,” which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey) and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry), frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement.  In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical.  It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain.  Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism.”  However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting.  His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”  My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated.  It could be lived locally–even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

As some of the readers of this blog are aware, The Way of Improvement Leads Home argued that people living in the eighteenth century could not easily separate their cosmopolitan ambitions from their local attachments.  In an earlier piece I published in The Journal of American History (2003) I wrote:

Fithian’s story reminds us that the abstract, urban, and elite-centered republic of letters that has so captivated early American historians over the past two decades had a real impact on individual human experience. While the Thomas Paines and Benjamin Franklins of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world could move freely within that republic, there were others who struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for their commitments to family, friends, faith, tradition, and place. Throughout his short life, Fithian asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries.

On one level, Fithian’s attempt to live Enlightenment values in a given place define24172-fithian2bbookd by a given tradition resonates with recent theoretical work on contemporary cosmopolitanism. Today, scholars have largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called home or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Theorists now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism, or a truly “placeless” individual, does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship–the highest of all moral values–and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually existing cosmopolitanism.”

Many middling, relatively unprivileged, and educated early Americans living in places teetering between the medieval and the modern, however, understood local attachments–not world citizenship–as the necessary starting point in the construction of a modern self. Rather than rejecting commitments to the particularities of place and tradition, as Wood has suggested, good patriots and republicans such as Fithian strove to participate in the eighteenth-century equivalent of intellectual and cultural globalization in the context of their locales. Fithian’s Christianity, networks of friends, letter-writing circles, admonishing societies, and reading groups were all means of being cosmopolitan in a given place. He thus pursued a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” In the end, Fithian’s life challenges us to be ever more mindful that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could have a profound influence on the remote precincts of British America and the social worlds of the people who inhabited them. For him, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.

I have been thinking a lot about this in light of some minor push-back I have been receiving on my recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?” Some of that push-back has come in response to my suggestion that American historians should not abandon a national narrative.  Here is what I wrote in that post:

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

This, of course, raises a lot of questions about how the field of American history is moving. Don’t get me wrong, I think that some of the resistance to a neo-Whig view of American history is useful, especially when we are teaching students that a civic-minded approach to history can often result in a form of presentism.  For example, I spend an entire week every summer at Princeton trying to get K-8 teachers to think about British-America on its own terms rather than as a forerunner to a “revolution” that no one in the eighteenth century really saw coming until the 1760s and 177os.

But the American Revolution did happen and I think it goes without saying that it triggered a conversation about American national identity that we are still having today.  It seems like those of us who teach broader surveys of American history cannot ignore a national narrative.  (I say more about this in my exchange with California history teacher Leslie Smith).

I have also been thinking about the relationship between national history and globalization/cosmopolitanism in light of historian Johann Neem’s 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age.”  Here is a taste:

neem

Johann Neem

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Teaching national history is vital to ensuring a public that is capable of sustaining our democracy. National history promotes patriotism. Readers inclined to dismiss patriotism as a regressive and aggressive ideology may be inclined to dismiss national history for that very reason. We all know the violence that has been committed in the name of nationalism over the past two centuries.

National stories should be both celebratory and critical. Teaching national history does not mean promoting a glorious narrative of America, nor does it mean focusing exclusively on its worst moments. Like the history of any nation-state, American history is full of glory and high ideals as well as their all-too-frequent betrayal. Celebratory stories foster love for one’s nation, while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion. It is the combination of love of one’s nation and awareness of its failures that makes acts of citizenship possible. Without love, who cares? Without critical awareness, how will citizens ascertain the truth about their nation’s actions and seek to make things better?

Read Neem’s entire piece here.  I think his final paragraph is on the mark:

The nation is not the only source of one’s personal identity. We each belong to religious, ethnic, professional, and other communities that shape us and to which we feel responsible. These communities make us complex beings, capable of balancing our obligations to our nation with those to others locally and around the world. But even as we Americans become more aware of our responsibilities to the larger world, democratic politics relies on our shared responsibility to each other.

Show Your Support for the Funding of History in Schools

I strongly encourage you to write your member of the House of Representatives.  STEM may produce good workers in a capitalist economy, but history and the humanities are essential for the preservation of our democracy.

From the Organization of American Historians via History News Network:

Negotiations to finalize a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will resume when Congress returns after Labor Day. Members of the House and Senate will be meeting to iron out the differences between the versions of the bill passed by each body. Quite simply, the Senate bill restores federal funding for K-12 history and civics education while the House bill does not. 

The Senate version includes four provisions that create funding for high quality American history, civics, geography, and economics education.  Some House Majority Conferees, however, have already declared their top priority in conference to be eliminating as many new programs and grants as possible.  This poses a direct threat to the Senate provisions that could inject much needed funding into history, civics, and the social studies.

The Organization of American Historians and the National Coalition for History (NCH) urgently need you to contact your member of the House of Representatives. Congressmen Ross (R-FL) and Cicilline (D-RI) have drafted and distributed a sign-on letter urging their colleagues to adopt the history and civics provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill.  We need your help collecting as many signatures on this “Dear Colleague” letter as possible before September 11th so that this letter can have an important impact on the negotiations. 

Please urge your representative to sign the “Dear Colleague” letter supporting key provisions that benefit history and civics education.   

Send an email directly to House members! 

Follow this link to NCH’s website for more information.  

We cannot overstress the importance of this effort. Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA in 15 years so this is likely our only opportunity to get funding restored for K-12 history and civics education.  Time is of the essence, please act today!

Jon Butler
OAH President 2015-2016 Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies,  Yale University
Adjunct Research Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Katherine Finley
Executive Director 
Organization of American Historians