The Obama Oral History Project

Obama Scandals

Columbia University and the Obama Foundation will be teaming up to tell the story of the Obama presidency.  Here is a taste of an article at The New York Daily News:

He can’t get in the 2020 race, but Barack Obama will be the talk of the town this summer when Columbia University researchers launch an oral history project about his groundbreaking presidency.

With the pols and pundits fixated on the upcoming presidential election, Columbia University and the Obama Foundation announced Thursday that they are joining forces to tell one of the most important stories in American history.

Using the voices of aides, elected officials, appointees and everyday people, the oral history team will preserve diverse accounts of how the Obama administration affected the lives of Americans.

“The pride we feel in counting President Obama as an alumnus involves much more than the recognition of his time as a student here many years ago,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.

“This is a relationship built on shared values and interests that is producing public spirited projects of enormous, even transformative, potential at Columbia. The latest venture will capitalize on the university’s unsurpassed talent for assembling oral history and will, I am sure, create an invaluable resource for understanding an historic presidency,” Bollinger said in a statement.

Read the rest here.

What Can Low-Income, Minority, Urban 16-Year-Olds Learn From the Great Books?

Tamara Mann teaches in the “Freedom and Citizenship Program” at Columbia University. The program is directed by American Studies scholar Casey Blake and brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus during the summer to read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, DuBois, Dewey, King, and other authors.  In a piece at Inside Higher Ed, Mann discusses how this program has transformed her and her students. Here is a taste:

As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.

Columbia University Religion in America Seminar

Last night I was in New York City where I was speaking at Columbia University’s Religion in America Seminar.  If you read my earlier post, you know that I gave a paper on David Barton and Christian nationalism.  I thought we had some stimulating discussion about Christian nationalism and, as always, I learned a lot from the questions and conversation.

We talked a lot about what David Barton gets right when he talks and writes about the role of religion in the United States.  He may not get the founders right when he says that they were trying to establish a Christian nation, but he does get most of the early 19th century correct.  As I argued in the early chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, Americans have always seen themselves as living in a “Christian nation.”  This sense of Christian nationalism was especially strong between 1790 and 1860.

My beef with Barton is less about the accuracy of his historical books and presentations (although he does peddle some significant errors that cannot be ignored) and more with how he uses the past to promote his culture-war agenda.  I hope this point came across clearly to the group last night.

We ended the night with dinner at Pisticci’s, located somewhere in the Morningside Heights/Harlem area.  Good Italian food and some very enjoyable conversation.

Thanks to Evan Haefeli and Joseph Blankholm for all their work in bringing me to Columbia and to the assorted array of professors, teachers, and graduate students, including Stephen Koeth and Melissa Borja, who came out on a cold New York City night for the seminar.  Thanks as well to Stephen Koeth for covering my subway fare back to my hotel in Columbus Circle.  I really appreciate it.

American Religion Seminar at Columbia University

Next Tuesday I will be in New York presenting a paper at Columbia University’s Religion in American Seminar.  I just finished the paper last night and sent it off for distribution.  The title is “God’s Historian: David Barton and American Christian Nationalism.”  A lot of it draws from my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, but there is also some new stuff in the paper.  Perhaps one day I will publish it, but right now it is an initial attempt at trying to get some thoughts together for a possible memoir/”on the road” book on Christian nationalism in twenty-first century America.

Here is a taste of my conclusion.  Those of you have read Why Study History? will find it very familiar:

David Barton is engaged in what historian David Lowenthal has called a “heritage crusade.”  When he sings the praises of America’s Christian heritage he is really talking and writing more about the present than the past.  The purpose of heritage, writes Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted for “present causes”…Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective or national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity.  As Lowenthal notes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling—it answers needs for ritual devotion. 
            Heritage crusades, of course, are grounded in the events of the past.  This is what makes them so powerful.  Barton is correct when he claims that Christianity was important to the founding generation.  When he carefully shows how many of the original state constitutions written after independence included references to Christian test oaths for office he is on the mark.  And he may even be right about the subtle attempts made by textbook publishers in the 1960s and 1970s to remove Christian themes from American history textbooks.  But one is hard pressed to find much in Barton’s work about slavery, the negative effects of industrialization on urban workers, the European exploitation of Native Americans, or a host of other matters that do not fit his rosy picture of the United States as an exceptional nation guided by the hand of God. 
            Barton gives his followers what they want—a patriotic and Christian version of American history that can be used to do battle against the forces of evil found in the Democratic Party and the halls of academia.  It is a past that is easily consumable and immensely useful, especially when it comes time to bludgeon one’s political enemies.   As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have argued, we Americans love the past as long it helps us to improve our lives, enables us to promote our political agendas, provides us with a sense of selfhood, inspires us, or provides us with an escape from modern life.  This is a past that serves our pursuits of happiness and propensity to consume.  Barton’s approach to the past is thus so appealing, and attracts such a large audience, because it is quintessentially American.  It seldom forces us to look back upon our own failures and come to grips with them.  
            But there is another way of thinking about the past.  History teaches us that we are part of something larger than ourselves—a community made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs.  If forces us to see the world through the eyes of others and empathize with their joys and struggles.  History can decenter us by demanding that we understand life from another person’s perspective.  This is the kind of history that has the power to strengthen our democracy, bring restoration to the brokenness of everyday life, and strengthen the civic bonds that hold our republic together.  Unfortunately, it is an approach to the past that David Barton has no interest in promoting.