Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF
I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.
The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.
Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.
Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.
Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.
The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.
This weekend (Sunday and Monday) I made my first visit to Wichita, Kansas. The Kansas Council of History Education (KCHE) invited me to deliver the keynote address at their annual meeting. It was held this year on the campus of Newman University.
My address was titled “History for a Democracy.” I began the talk with three introductory premises:
- The current state of American democracy has once again proven that the nation’s founding fathers were right when they connected the strength of the American Republic with an education citizenry
- All K-12 teachers are public historians
- Our democracy needs public historians
I then spent some time discussing the debate over whether history educators should be teaching “knowledge” or “skills.” This is a debate that culture warriors, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and elected officials lose sleep over, but teachers know that the pundits and bureaucrats often understand very little about what happens in their history classrooms. Good history teachers integrate facts and skills seamlessly in the history classroom through what we call “historical thinking.”
I concluded the talk with Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrew’s famous 5 “Cs” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causation, contingency, complexity. I explored the ways these “Cs” are present, and not present, in our public discourse. We talked about:
- A CNN discussion between Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones on the history of race and Democratic Party.
- The way the SAT examines reading comprehension
- Providential history
- Whether there is really a right and wrong “side” of history
- The story of the “Umbrella Man” as a way to think about causation
- The 1619 Project
Thanks to Emily Williams and Nate McAlister of the KCHE for the invitation. It was also good to see Dave McIntire and Diana Moss, alums of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar” on colonial America. And thanks to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for sponsoring the lecture.
Here are some pics:
The responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.
Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.
Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s. Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:
The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”
By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”
Read the rest here.
Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.” Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project. I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history. This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:
…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past. Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited. This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination. Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….
Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.
The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.
A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life. In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century. In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.
I love it! High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.
Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):
Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:
Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.” That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?
If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!
We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions. I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.
Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story. In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes. (The tapes will be released in 2027).
Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians. Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research. Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos. (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.” Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources. He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”
From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute. It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.
I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this. I will monitor this as best I can.
Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true. Historians will offer interpretations. The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications. I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks. And, I might add, this is a good thing. Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.
Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos. They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.
Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources. This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover. I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments. The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process. I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes. Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.
We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife. Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.
And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King? This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people. Stay tuned.
This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly. (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here). Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.
Carey Latimore is a scholar of African-American history who chairs the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Over at the website of the San Antonio Express-News, Latimore explains why it may not be a good idea to pull down every Confederate monument that crosses our paths.
Here is a taste:
I can understand the reasons to remove these monuments. However, if the past decade has demonstrated anything to us, it is that we should not be too quick to view small victories as symbolic of racial progress or transcending race, especially if these victories do not force us to address race both intraracially and interracially.
Moving forward will require us to directly confront the meaning of racial progress.
For many years, I tried to separate my identities linked to both masters and slaves, but now I realize that this was an impossibility. Such a sentiment is shared by many in this great nation. Whatever the manner in which diverse communities met, erasing any of them will not move us forward. Indeed, the lives of the masters and slaves are so connected that removing either of them from our collective memories erases the other.
Nonetheless, Confederate monuments should not be allowed to remain without clarifying the connections the organizations and people represented in these monuments had to slavery and racism. Such clarification needs to be more than a footnote, and it needs to be placed where the monuments stand.
The current conversation about Confederate memorials is a sign of our collective failure not only to accurately tell the stories that we memorialize but also a failure to celebrate diverse stories. If we are truly a multicultural nation, we should aim to do a better job pulling together the nuance and complexity that connects us all.
Perhaps then we can move forward together.
Read the entire piece here.
Thanks to Paul Thompson for bringing this piece to my attention.
Over at Politico, Utah Senator Mike Lee, the author of a new book on the Anti-Federalists titled Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, warns against using history to “seek out confirmation for our pre-existing beliefs.” He then goes right ahead and uses history to seek out confirmation for his pre-existing beliefs.
His article “How the ‘Hamilton Effect’ Distorts the Founders” calls us to remember the Anti-Federalists, those men who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution. Lee paints a picture of the United States Constitution as a “compromise” between Federalists and Anti-Federalists” and argues that Alexander Hamilton was not in favor of “big government.”
Here is a taste:
It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.
Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.
If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach.
Our Constitution was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy. During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what it would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just.
We are the beneficiaries of the Great Compromise between those two factions, but too many of us don’t fully understand or appreciate that fact. And that is because history, over time, tends to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment.
Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.”
Read the entire piece here.
A few thoughts:
First, I agree with Lee when he says the Anti-Federalists do not get the attention they deserve. This is largely because they lost the ratification debate. It was close in some states, but they eventually lost and the Constitution was ratified. On this story I highly recommend Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828.
Second, by calling the Constitution a “compromise” between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Lee can conveniently affirm his present-day states-rights position and not appear to be challenging, like the actual Anti-Federalists did, the very existence of the Constitution. This makes for a shrewd political move since Lee has strong connections to the Tea Party movement, a conservative political movement that prides itself on defending the Constitution. The very fact that Lee has to do this dance means that he is using the past for political purposes and does not really care about doing history.
Third, since Lee is a Mormon who supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 election, he might be interested in knowing that there were some Anti-Federalists who opposed the United States Constitution because it did not mention God. Here is what I said about these Anti-Federalists in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:
While Anti-Federalist opposition was always more political than it was religious, many Anti-Federalists rejected the Constitution because it did not make any appeals to God. Even some statesmen who were prone who were prone to give their support to the Constitution on political grounds wondered why the framers had not made the slightest mention of God in drafting the document. The writings of these constitutional skeptics present an interesting dilemma for those today who want to argue that the Constitution was a Christian document. In the eighteenth century it was those who opposed the Constitution who made the strongest arguments in favor of the United States being a Christian nation.
When Luther Martin reported on the events of the Constitutional Convention to the Maryland state legislature, he could not help including some editorial comment about the way that the convention handled the question of religion. According to Martin, “there were some members so unfashionable as to thin, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some secuirty for the good conduct of our rulers.” For Martin, the United States was a “Christian country” and the Constitution should “hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”
One of the more scathing critiques of the godlessness of the Constitution came from William Petrikin, an Anti-Federalist from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Writing under the pseudonym “Aristocrotis,” Petrikin attacked the framers of the Constitution as elitists who preferred a refined religilon of “nature” over a religion of “supernatural divine origin.” In doing do, he sounded a lot like a twenty-first century working-class evangelical complaining about the so-called secular liberal elites who had no respect for the Constitution. The difference, of course, was the Petrikin was attacking the U.S. Constitution and the men who framed it. Using stinging sarcasm, he argued that the framers believed that the Christian religion was the religion “of the vulgar in this country” and its “precepts are…so rigid and severe, as to render it impossible for any gentleman of fashion or good breeding to comply with them in any sense, without a manifest violation of decorum, and an abandonment of every genteel amusement and fashionable accomplishment.” Petrikin did not stop there. He chided the members of the Constitutional Convention for denying a belief in God, the “immortality of the soul,” the “resurrection of the body,” a “day of judgement,” and a “future state of rewards and punishments.”
Anti-Federalists especially attacked Article VI because it placed no Christian qualifications on officeholders. “Samuel,” an Anti-Federalist from Massachusetts, worried that the lack of a religious test for office would mean that “Pagan” or a “Mahometan” might serve the country in the “most important trusts.” “A Watchman,” writing from western Massaschusetts, feared that the Constitution opened a door for the “Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into the publick office, and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.” A “Friend of the Rights of the People” also feared the possibility that “a Papist, a Mohomatan, a Deist, yea an Atheist” might be elected to the “helm of Government.” And a New York Anti-Federalist, writing under the name Curtopolis,” was particularly harsh on Article VI because he feared it would allow the following kinds of people to serve in the national government:
“1st Quakers, who will make the black saucy and at the same time deprive of us the means of defence–2dly, Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the trinity–3dly. Deists, abominable wretches–4thly, Negroes, the seed of Cain–5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback, will ride to the devil–6thly, Jews & c. & c. It gives the command of the whole militia to the President–should he hereafter be a Jew, our posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.
I am not sure if Senator Lee is willing to endorse this kind of Anti-Federalism. (His connections to Ted Cruz might be relevant here). I guess I will need to read his forthcoming book.
Fourth, I agree with Lee when he says that Alexander Hamilton could never have imagined the kind of “big government” we have today. I would take this idea even further. The founding fathers could not have imagined most of what happens in the United States today–that includes political partisanship, rampant individualism, corporate capitalism, etc… This is why we need to be careful when we appeal to them in order to promote this or that agenda.
Fifth, Hamilton believed in an active, centralized government modeled after Great Britain. His view of government was fundamentally different from the one the country was experiencing under the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton’s belief on this front deserves more than the mere caveat that it gets in Lee’s article.
Sixth, when we use the phrase “big government” today we usually associate it with progressive reforms such as those put forth by so-called “progressive” presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. We also think about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. Some of us might associate “big government” with Ted Kennedy’s late twentieth-century vision for the nation. Of course one can also trace activist government back to the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). These Republicans used the full power of the federal government in a failed attempt to integrate the South in the wake of the Civil War. In the end, states rights triumphed over these “big government” humanitarian efforts and the racist South managed to uphold their way of life for another hundred or so years.
I hope Lee’s book, unlike this article, acknowledges that history is complicated and does not easily fit the molds of our political preferences.