What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

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.

24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

Kansas 3

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:

  1. 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
  2. All K-12 teachers are public historians
  3. 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:

Kansas 1

It was great to see Nathan McAlister, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year

Kansas 2

Great to catch-up with Diana Moss, a Princeton seminar alum who teaches history in Galena, Kansas

Kansas 4

Kansas 5

Emily Williams (KCHE President) and Don Gifford of the Kansas State Department of Education

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study 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):

Historical Thinking

Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:

Grayam

Grayam 2

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!

Introducing *Contingent Magazine*

If you care about history and want to hear from historians working outside of the academic tenure-track, then you should be aware of Contingent Magazine, a new startup from historians Erin Bartram, Bill Black, Emily Esten, and Marc Reyes.

Here is the mission:

Contingent is our idea for a nonprofit online magazine driven by people’s desire to understand the past and, inevitably, themselves. We have a threefold mission which can be broken down into the magazine’s creators, content, and audience:

  • Our creators will largely be historians working outside the tenure-track professoriate—those hired on a course-by-course or year-to-year basis, working in public history, or not working in a history-related field at all
  • Our content will be ethically produced, rigorous, and accessible to the public
  • Our audience will be those who have a deep love for and interest in the past but are often not catered to

We hope to challenge people’s assumptions about what historians, historical writing, and lovers of history look like. We’ll do this through a variety of genres, from features to book reviews to photo essays to comics.

The magazine will tap into a pool of severely underused talent: the thousands of historians who have been left adrift by the collapse of the academic job market.

American Historical Association chart illustrating the decade-long downturn in full-time work for history PhDs. Graph displays Advertised Job Openings Compared to the Number of New History PhDs, from 1973-4 to 2016-17.
American Historical Association chart illustrating the decade-long downturn in full-time work for history PhDs (source: American Historical Association)

These historians have lots of stories that they want to share with the public. But the outlets that will usually publish them (paywalled academic journals) aren’t accessible to the public, while the outlets that are accessible to the public often won’t publish them. Frequently in the latter case, and nearly always in the former, the historian isn’t paid. Contingent will be somewhere they can tell these stories, and will pay all its writers and contributors.

We believe there is a hunger among the larger public for well-done, accessible history beyond the Trumpocentric hot take. Unfortunately, history-related stories from mainstream journalism outlets are sometimes poorly sourced and argued (or just lift a professional historian’s work wholesale), while good work done by professional historians is often inaccessible to the public thanks to the dysfunction and paywalls of academia. We hope to help bridge this gap between historians and the public, and provide something of real value which neither the 24-hour news cycle nor traditional academia have the structural incentive to provide.

Why Contingent?

Our name refers in part to the historical concept of contingency—the idea that any single historical event is dependent on a multitude of causes. In other words, there is no single thing that can explain a historical event, and therefore no way for historians to ask every possible question about the past. There is always more digging to do.

The name is also an allusion to the growing percentage of professional historians who are contingent workers as opposed to full-time, long-term employees. Over the past few decades, and especially since the 2008 recession, colleges and universities have increasingly adjunctified their faculty, since it is cheaper to pay two part-time people to teach two classes each than to pay one full-time person to teach four classes.

Chart showing broad Sectors of employment for history PhDs, 2004-13. Sectors of employment include: 4-Year Tenure Track (47.41%); Retired, Unemployed (1.64%); Not Found (6.57%); Non-Profit (7%); Government (3.85%); Private Sector (6.81%); Higher Ed Admin/Staff (5.90%); Postdocs and Researchers (1.24%); 2 Year Non-Tenure-Track (2.94%); 2 Year Tenure-Track (3.41%); 4 Year Non-Tenure-Track (13.21%).
Chart showing how, of the 8,523 people who received a history PhD in the United States between 2004 and 2013, fewer than half are now tenure-track professors, and one-third don’t teach at a college or university at all (source: American Historical Association)

Non-tenure-track faculty, including adjunct faculty as well as “visiting” professors who are usually contracted to teach for one year, provide a disproportionate share of the teaching in US colleges, upward of 70%. In short, even while there is increasing demand for the work historians do, their work is being increasingly devalued. We want to show what is possible when their work is properly valued.

Help them get started with a donation.  Click here to donate.

I am really excited to see this project develop.  I know that a lot of it stems from Erin Bartram’s experience in the academy, as told in Episode 37 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Here is my daughter, an undergraduate history and psychology major, listening to that episode:

ally podcast

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 3

Last temptation

Click here for previous installments of this series.  Click here to read Gerson’s article in The Atlantic.

Here is Gerson on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.

The consequences, especially for younger generations, are considerable. According to a recent survey by Barna, a Christian research firm, more than half of churchgoing Christian teens believe that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” This may be one reason that, in America, the youngest age cohorts are the least religiously affiliated, which will change the nation’s baseline of religiosity over time. More than a third of Millennials say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 points since 2007. Count this as an ironic achievement of religious conservatives: an overall decline in identification with religion itself.

Of course we can’t be sure what would have happened if fundamentalists decided to wage war against eugenics or social Darwinism, but this is interesting to think about.  Historians talk a lot about “contingency,” the idea that the past can be understood by choices that people make.  What would evangelicalism look like today if the fundamentalists decided to focus on race?

Gerson does some interesting historical thinking here.

More to come.