Out of the Zoo: “Listening Ears”

Saturday Serve

gracespring Bible Church students pour coffee for Kalamazoo’s homeless population

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her experience working with the homeless and how it connects with her study of history.  Enjoy! –JF

When I was in high school, my youth group went into Kalamazoo every month or so to serve our community’s homeless population. We would meet at gracespring Bible Church  bright and early on a Saturday morning, pray together, and head into the city armed with coffee, notebooks, and sometimes a pot of chili or a garbage bag full of winter clothes. When we got downtown we would set up camp next to the railroad tracks between The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission and Ministry With Community, pulling a tent and table from the back of one leader’s truck and loading it up with the supplies we brought from church. Some students stayed at the tent to serve coffee by the railroad tracks, while others split off in satellite groups and wandered down the streets with a pitcher, to pour a cup for any of the homeless men and women who remained scattered throughout the city.

We didn’t usually have much more than a cup of coffee to give the people we met on those cold Saturday mornings. Sometimes we had chili or doughnuts to offer, but we usually ran out pretty quickly. Other times we brought donations of warm clothes to give out, but those didn’t last much longer. We did have coffee though, and lots of it, a notebook to write down prayer requests, and several listening ears.

My youth pastor Kenneth Price taught me a lot through high school, but I’ll always remember his emphasis on learning people’s stories and learning their names. He showed me that the most important part of our interaction with the homeless isn’t the food we serve them or the clothes we offer them, but rather the conversations we have with them. Kenneth challenged us to not only learn the names of our homeless brothers and sisters, but to say them and remember them. We were not there to make ourselves look good or even to save fellow Kalamazooans from poverty, but rather to hear voices that aren’t often heard. By our listening, we offered the dignity, respect, and love inherent in being sincerely listened to.

I know a cup of coffee probably won’t change someone’s life, no matter how I wish it could. As believers, though, I think we are obligated to do what we can to hear people’s stories and to learn their names, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.

As historians I think we’re compelled to do the same thing. No, we don’t serve coffee or hand out warm gloves, but we do go out of our way to hear people’s stories, whether they’re still living or they died centuries ago. We learn their names, and we do our best to remember them. We listen to voices that have been ignored for years, and dig up others that were buried for years. We make eye contact with the ones some might choose to avoid, and uncover parts of our past that others would rather forget. Good historians are good listeners; they don’t have an agenda or some ulterior motive, they aren’t there to save lives or to make themselves look good. They listen.

What if Trump Were a Democrat?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

George Marsden teaches us all an important lesson in historical empathy.  Here is a taste of his guest post at The Anxious Bench:

For those who are (as I am) puzzled and sometimes troubled by how so many fellow believers support and even celebrate Donald Trump and so seem to be ready to subordinate some of their religious and moral convictions to political expediency, I suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that in some slightly altered historical circumstances, Trump, or someone a lot like Trump, had decided he had a better chance playing the role of a populist Democrat.

Then, by promising everything to almost everyone, he had unexpectedly been elected.

Even if the Democratic Trump would have had to hide his racism, he would have been the same in his essential dishonesty, his constant attacks on the line between fact and fiction, his narcissism, his background of corruption, his record of exploitation of women (despite the Democratic Trump claiming to champion of equality and male accountability), his lack of discernible principle, his disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law, his intimations that his critics in the press should be suppressed, his vilification of his enemies, and his ignorance combined with reckless and ungenerous “America first” ventures in foreign policy.

At first, we can imagine, many principled Democrats would have deeply opposed his nomination and some would have declared themselves to be in the “NeverTrump” camp. But the rank and file would have been energized and many of the working classes would have been brought back to the party.

And then let’s say that the Democratic Trump administration would have succeeded in establishing a single-payer health-care system, tightened environmental regulations, instituted sensible gun-control laws, and appointed several Supreme Court justices who would ensure protections of progressive views for the next generation.

Read the rest here.

More on Empathy and Disgust (and Lament)

Why Study HistorySome of you will remember my response to Elesha Coffman’s blog post about Robert Orsi’s recent plenary address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Here is a taste of that post:

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Yesterday, Wheaton College historian Karen Johnson entered the fray.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Anxious Bench:

Empathy, in short, helps us to see. I find, for instance, that students who might be resistant to talking about race in other contexts are willing to embrace the conversations in my history classroom because we are puzzling over sources together, trying to craft true stories about what happened. I’m not telling them they have to be disgusted, or that they are participating in a racialized society, or leading with theory. We discover how race has functioned in the past and how it functions today together because we’ve set aside judgment.

But there is room for disgust, if we, the historians, position ourselves rightly. And disgust, in many cases, is a right response because of the humanity involved. After all, we’re not just disembodied observers or minds on a stick. We’re human, with emotions, thoughts, and visceral responses. Further, Shanley is also a person, one who is made in the image of God and therefore meant to embody the goodness of God’s kingdom, and also one who is depraved. To not respond to the evil he committed may be a form of condescension, because he could have known better, could have done better.

Coffman pondered historians’ hesitation to judge: “Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I think she’s right. I’ll speak for myself here (but does anyone see this in themselves?): I hesitate in part to judge not just because of my professional training but because I don’t want to be judged. I don’t think I’m that bad of a person, or embedded in that bad of a context.

But that perspective has a pretty weak understanding of sin. Because of the Fall, it’s not a question of if we are missing the mark, but how we’re missing the mark. Of course we’re falling short today. Of course we’re part of systemic sin. Why should historians in the future not name that sin? Why should we not name sin in the past — after we’ve done the hard work of contextualizing that sin, seeking to understand as best we can what happened, why, and the consequences? I take Orsi’s argument that disgust rightly breaks down a good/bad distinction in religion, making us realize that one cannot separate the evil caused by religion from the good, as a reminder of the evil and the good within all people, institutions, and systems.

I have found that a helpful way to respond to the sin is with the spiritual discipline of lament, to talk with God about the suffering. (I’ve written about this here and in a forthcoming article in Fides et Historia.) Lament is political and not neutral; it names actions as evil, as hurtful, as suffering. But, as Soong-Chan Rah discusses in Prophetic Lament, it requires humility. It’s also not just intellectual, but should involve all of who we are. When the prophet Jeremiah laments his people’s sin and God’s destruction of them, he situates himself (perhaps the only righteous man in Israel) as part of the people who have sinned.

I like Johnson’s piece because it seems to give priority to understanding and empathy in the history classroom.  Lament, disgust, or any other emotion is fine, but I don’t believe it is the primary goal of a history classroom.  This is the crux of my argument in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

If my students who study American history under my direction come to the end of a semester without a solid grasp of how white supremacy and slavery defined everyday life in the 19th-century South, I have failed them as a history professor.

Do I want my students to be disgusted with white slaveholders?  Of course.  Do I want my students to lament the sin of the South (and perhaps see their own sin in the process)?  Absolutely.  Do I want them to learn to love the dead?  Yes.  But if they do not end the semester feeling lament, disgust, joy, or love, but still have a solid grasp on how to think historically about the world (in terms of complexity, context, contingency, causation, and change over time), I have done my job as a history professor.

In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

Should Conservative Professors Be Leading the Way in Identity Politics?

identity

Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, thinks that conservative professors should embrace identity politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

When I was in college, I took a class in logic. There I learned that one should never reject an argument because of the characteristics of the person making it. Instead, one should assess the argument itself on its rational merits. And while I agree that the power of an argument should not depend on the person making it, nonetheless, it does.

I learned that lesson during my first year as a visiting professor at Cornell University. I taught a course on American evangelicals, which attracted a mix of secular and religious students. When we discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a 1994 book by Mark A. Noll about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical tradition, my evangelical students were critical of it. But they were willing to take the book’s thesis seriously because the author was an evangelical.

Perhaps Noll’s identity shouldn’t have mattered. His historical evidence and the power of his arguments would be worth considering even if he were Catholic, Jewish or secular. But his identity did matter. It mattered because my evangelical students could not simply assume bad faith on the author’s part. They knew Noll cared about evangelicals as a group of people. Instead of dismissing Noll as a bigot, my students thoughtfully engaged with his work.

Since then, I have taken identity into account every time I have assigned new books for one of my courses. I currently teach a course called Black Intellectuals, which is focused on debates about racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. It tends to attract progressive students who, in analyzing racial inequality, are drawn to arguments that stress structural obstacles to equality and the enduring power of white racism, especially in our criminal justice system.

Read the rest here.

Shields may have a point.  As readers of this blog know, I am a big advocate of historical empathy–walking in the shoes of others.  It would seem that middle-class white kids need to learn how to empathize with people who do not share in their identities.  But I wonder if we can expect students who are not white and middle class to do the same thing?  Education in the Latin means “to lead outward.”  Yet today much of education today is about self-discovery and “finding oneself” in the curriculum.  If we really want to educate our students they must read things written by people who are not like them.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

Do Universities “Police the Imagination?”

RisingMadison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College, a writer, and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Policing the Imagination” with this story:

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. Newscoverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of “cultural appropriation,” which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

He then describes, as a white male, how he has spent his entire career writing fiction from the point of view of African Americans and Haitians.

He concludes with his thoughts on liberal arts education:

…an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom … but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

So I wonder how this works in the history classroom?  I think it is fair to say that even though I am not a scholar of American slavery, I know more about slavery than nearly all of my students.  Does this mean I am not in a position to teach about the subject?  I don’t think any historian would say this, but it does seem to be the logical end of the kind of identity politics Bell is talking about here.

I want my students–all of them–to be able to see the world from the perspective of someone who is different.  As Bell puts it, I want to “broaden their capacity for empathy.” Sometimes this requires an act of the imagination.  I want my white students to engage deeply with the story of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, the life of Frederick Douglass, the plight of 19th-century African American Philadelphia businessman James Forten, and the sorrow of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

I want my male students to encounter the boldness of Anne Hutchinson.  I want to expose them to the late 18th-century female community on the Maine frontier that was cultivated by the midwife Martha Ballard.  I want them to understand colonial America from the perspective of “Good Wives” and see the American Revolution through the eyes of Judith Sargent Murray or Phillis Wheatley.

I want my African American students to understand Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on their own terms, not through some kind of twenty-first century grid that makes them one-dimensional characters that lack complexity.  The same could be said about Western Civilization more broadly.

I do all of this not primarily because I think the ideas of these men and women are right or wrong, but because the encounter with their voices and their stories forces students to think in a more nuanced way about these historical figures–a way that recognizes their humanity and their brokenness.  This kind of reflection might even help my students to reflect more deeply on the social and cultural issues that they believe to be important in their everyday lives as they seek to live justly in this world.

What Happens When You Teach a Graduate Seminar on “Women, Gender, and Sex in U.S. Religious History” to a Class That is Over 85% Men?

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Andrea Turpin, a history professor at Baylor University, reflects on such an experience in a recent post at The Anxious Bench.  She uses her observations from this graduate seminar, as well as her experience teaching an undergraduate class on women and gender that was almost 90% female, to say some important things about history and diversity.

Here is a taste:

Too often the term “diversity,” and even the concept, comes loaded with all the baggage of the culture wars, and we reflexively either embrace it or reject it accordingly. (Indeed, as I was thinking about these things this week, a controversy along these lines broke out at Duke Divinity School.) So what difference does it really make, intellectually and spiritually, who our conversation partners are — in terms of our classmates and pewmates, the authors we read, and the voices from the past that we seek out?

Since I had a ready-made experiment at hand to help me answer this question, I periodically asked both classes to respond emotionally to what we had been reading or discussing. After all, in my view one of the great spiritual and intellectual benefits of studying history is that it can help students develop empathy for those who are different alongside critical thinking about themselves, others, and their world. I first tried this question on the graduate class after we discussed Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of Light (Knopf, 1999), about traveling Quaker female preachers in colonial America. The book is a bit hagiographic, but it paints a compelling picture of women who lived very full lives and whose spiritual and intellectual contributions were valued by the men of their community. I am not a Quaker and do not share all their theological convictions, but I always find the book moving and have had women students report a similar experience. No man in the course had that emotional response — though they did have thoughtful insights on the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, my great joy of class that day was watching one man have the sudden realization that he had not particularly felt for any of the book’s women in their triumphs or struggles — but that he had been moved by the account of a husband who had been left behind while his wife, with full support from the Quaker community, went on an extended preaching mission.

Meanwhile, the undergraduate class watched the movie Suffragette, about British women fighting for the right to vote in the early twentieth century. The movie is crafted to induce emotional responses — I wept openly at my kitchen table the first time I screened it — so every student certainly had one. But different things stuck with male and female students. It was one of the course’s two men who made the observation, part way through class discussion, that the movie featured three types of male characters: the suffragettes’ allies, their opponents, and men somewhere in between who were wrestling through competing impulses. He could give incredibly nuanced summaries of the attitudes of the different male characters and what might have accounted for them.

Turpin concludes:

What should we make of these stories? Perhaps the most obvious point is that students, and indeed all of us, tend to respond most easily to those people in history with whom we identify in some manner. Knowing our own history is a basic human need that helps us develop our sense of place and purpose in the world. Identifying with historical actors also helps pull us into their story. Once we’re there, we realize that these people are not only familiar, but also different, as denizens of the “foreign country” that is the past. They are paradoxically therefore also a gateway to widening our sympathies. Including diverse voices in the curriculum thus serves the spiritual and intellectual needs of multiple types of students.

The flip side is also true: having a diverse classroom population expands the minds and sympathies of all students. The presence of the two men in my undergraduate class meant that the class’s women were constantly confronted with the question of how what we were studying affected men as well. And my presence and that of the female graduate student meant that the men in my graduate class could not content themselves with merely dispassionately analyzing a book. The presence of students of color in both classes had a similar effect.

Read the entire post here.

Allen: “Elites Are Starting to Look Around”

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The election of Donald Trump is forcing some educated elites to take a look around in an attempt to understand their fellow Americans who voted for the new POTUS.

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen, one of those elites, thinks this is healthy for our democracy.

Here is a taste of her Washington Post op-ed, “Trump’s Presidency is Teaching Elites Like Me a Lesson.”

This brings me to the issue of we, the elites. One of the key questions for any effort to rebuild our capacity to collaborate is whether members of the professional elite can recover a commitment to the people as a whole, and not merely to those who live near them — near us, I should say — in urban enclaves.

The good news is that those of us who win coveted seats at the top colleges and universities, and jobs that earn the wage premiums of our knowledge-dependent economy, have started to try to see how we look from the perspective of those we often fail to see. There’s Nicholas Kristof journeying to Oklahoma and the huge popularity of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” The research work of Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case about increases in mortality rates in the white working class has by now fueled many investigative reports about rural America.

Of course, the working class impacted by our economic travails also includes many black and brown people. We shouldn’t forget this in our hurry to see people we’ve been overlooking. Similarly, we shouldn’t downgrade the issue of mass incarceration. For that matter, too much of rural America is dependent on jobs in prisons in out-of-the-way places. That, too, is something we should notice.

But at least we elites are starting to look around.

Read the entire piece here.

From the Archives: “A Time Empathy, a Time for History”

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I published this at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016–JF

Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

College-classroom

My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.

 

Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

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Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

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.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.

No Empathy for Trump?

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Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on Empathy

Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse.  As I have said several times here already, I am glad to see this.  One of our readers, John Mulholland, the founder of the “Redemption of Reason” initiative at the University of Chicago, brought to my attention a powerful lecture on this subject by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

You can watch it here:

Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others. It demands a level of “proximity” to people who are different or who are suffering injustice or pain or some other emotion.  But if one cannot cultivate empathy through human proximity to the “other,” then literature (he uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example here), drama, or film can cultivate this essential virtue.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the study of the past through primary sources can also produce this kind of empathy.

Wolterstorff speaks about empathy in deeply moral terms and connects it with the larger purpose of justice.  He seems to suggest that our empathy should be primarily focused on the oppressed or the suffering.  But as a historian I think empathy (as in “walking in one’s shoes”) must be applied to any person–oppressed,oppressor, or just an ordinary life–that we encounter in the past.  If history is going to educate (lead us “outward”) then empathy cannot be separated from our efforts to understand all of the human actors we study. We need to make sense of them as products of their own worlds, not ours.

Wolterstorff seems to agree with David Brooks when he says “the person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath.”  He thinks that most people are capable of empathy, but their capacity for empathy is somehow “blocked” by what he describes as “hardened hearts.”

According to Wolterstroff, empathy is “blocked” in several ways:

  1. People with “hardened hearts” have learned to dehumanize others and are thus incapable of empathizing with them.
  2. People with “hardened hearts” often suggest that the plight of victims is of their own making (i.e. the poor are lazy, etc…) and they thus don’t deserve empathy.
  3. People with “hardened hearts” have embraced a “visionary ideal” that they are working for some “great good” that can only be achieved by looking past the suffering or humanity of others. (“Make America Great Again?”)
  4. People with “hardened hearts” feel loyal to one’s own people and do not need to empathize with others because others are threats to their community.
  5. People with “hardened hearts” are often afraid that showing empathy to others will lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own complicity in the plight of others, which, in turn, would require a drastic change of life that most people can’t handle.

Watch the entire video to see how Wolterstorff connects empathy to justice.

David Brooks on Trump and Empathy

donald-trump-has-black-soul-needs-counselling-on-empathy-khizr-khan (1)

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been pulling no punches when it comes to criticizing Donald Trump.  In his latest column he plays the Khizr Khan card by chiding the GOP POTUS nominee for his lack of empathy.  This, of course, is a case we have been making here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and elsewhere for a long time–most recently this week.  By the way, have I mentioned that people can learn empathy by studying history? 🙂

Brooks’s words are stinging. This one is right up there with his column on Ted Cruz’s “brutalism.”

He also cannot be contained because he lacks the inner equipment that makes decent behavior possible. So many of our daily social interactions depend on a basic capacity for empathy. But Trump displays an absence of this quality.

He looks at the grieving mother of a war hero and is unable to recognize her pain. He hears a crying baby and is unable to recognize the infant’s emotion or the mother’s discomfort. He is told of women being sexually harassed at Fox News and is unable to recognize their trauma.

The same blindness that makes him impervious to global outrage makes it impossible for him to make empathetic connection. Fear is his only bond.

Some people compare Trump to the great authoritarians of history, but that’s wrong. They were generally disciplined men with grandiose plans. Trump is underdeveloped and unregulated. 

He is a slave to his own pride, compelled by a childlike impulse to lash out at anything that threatens his fragile identity. He appears to have no ability to experience reverence, which is the foundation for any capacity to admire or serve anything bigger than self, to want to learn about anything beyond self, to want to know and deeply honor the people around you.

Republicans are not going to be able to help the 70-year-old man-child grow up over the next few months. Nor are they going to be able to get him to withdraw from the race. A guy who can raise $82 million mostly in small donations has a passionate niche following.

But they can at least get out of the enabling business. First, they can acknowledge that they are being sucked down a nihilistic whirlpool. Second, they can acknowledge the long-term damage being done to the country and to themselves.

Thanks to Justin Taylor of Between Two Worlds for calling Brooks’s piece to my attention.

Khizr Khan Has Introduced the Idea of Empathy Into Our Democratic Culture

Khizr Khan, the father of American military hero and Purple Heart winner Captain Humayun Khan, has been all over cable news this week after his moving speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Here is the speech:

A lot has been said about the speech and Khan has taken his fifteen minutes of fame to send out a powerful message about American identity.

As a historian, I am always struck whenever Khan uses the word “empathy” in his criticism of Trump.  I like this term.  Not only is the concept of empathy essential to the survival of American democracy, but it is also vital to the discipline of history.  The study of history requires empathy.  Thus, if my logic is correct, the study of history might also be useful to a robust and thriving democratic life in the United States.

As the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have been making this argument for several years.  I most recently wrote about empathy in a Christian Century piece on the recent police shootings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge.   But since I am the proprietor of this blog, and we are always getting new readers, I reserve the right to make it again.

Here is what I had to say about empathy in my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

As historian John Cairns notes, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.”  Empathy requires the historians to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”  The practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.  This is largely because our natural inclination, or, as Sam Wineburg calls it, our “psychological condition at rest,” is to find something useful in the past.  We want to make the past work for us rather than enter into it with an attitude of wonder about what we might find and the kinds of people and ideas we might encounter.  Historical empathy thus requires an act of the imagination.  The practice of bracketing our own ways of seeing the world in order to see a strange world more clearly requires discipline on the part of the historian.  It demands a certain level of intellectual maturity.  It requires a willingness to listen to the past…

Empathy differs from sympathy.  Empathy is all about understanding.  It is an attempt to discover why a particular individual in the past acted in the way that he or she did.  It might even mean exploring such actions in an attempt to grasp how he or she reflects the mentality of all of those living in that time and how such a mentality differs from our own.  Sympathy, however, carries a deeper moral component than empathy.  The sympathetic person develops an emotional attachment–such as a desire for the other person to be happy–that can sometimes make empathy difficult and might even get in the way of an accurate historical interpretation.

To illustrate the differences between empathy and sympathy, let me relay a conversation I recently had with my fourteen-year-old daughter.  Allyson had just finished reading Harriett A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, in her eighth-grade American Studies class.  Published in 1861, the book tells the story of how Jacobs was physically and sexually abused by her master and, in an attempt to escape the torture, hid for roughly seven years in a storeroom crawl space.  Allyson returned home from school emotionally shaken by Jacob’s story.  This was her first exposure to such a graphic slave narrative.  Her response was outrage, anger, and sadness.  She sympathized with the plight of Jacobs, but she was unable to empathize–to rid herself of what she perceived as the moral injustice done to this slave woman.  She failed to fully understand the world of the nineteenth-century South in which Jacobs lived.  My daughter developed an emotional connection with Jacobs, and I was glad that she did.  She grew as a moral being through the reading of the narrative.  But she was unable to understand Jacobs historically because sympathy kept getting in the way.  This, of course, should be expected from a fourteen-year-old.  Historical thinking of this nature, as I noted above, requires intellectual maturity.

And this:

The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said, “Every man calls evil what he does not understand.”  Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will survive only if we are able to live civilly with them.  We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the greater good of the larger community.  Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and “sharers on part with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”  To put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-baker

Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation.  We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one another.  As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change.  Partisanship is not a problem.  Demonizing the other side is.”  The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead.  We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade.  Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational.  Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives an ground.  But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents.  They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments.  In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

Empathy.

A Time for Empathy; A Time for History

African American History

Today I had the honor to contribute to “Now and Then,” a weekly online column published at the website of The Christian Century magazine.  I hope it makes some small contribution to our ongoing conversation about race in America.

Here is a taste:

On Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

Read the rest here.

Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Need for Empathy

GoodwinPulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin appeared yesterday as part of the “roundtable” segment on NBC’s Meet the Press.  When the topic turned to Brexit, host Chuck Todd turned to Kearns-Goodwin for some insight.  Here is how she responded:

Well, I think Cameron made a Faustian bargain when he decided that he thought he needed the far-right vote to win that election. He won it big anyway, and he promised to bring up this referendum. And now what’s going to happen to him? He’s lost his prime ministership, he’s lost his legacy, Britain may fall apart and not become the Great Britain.

Churchill must be dying in his grave right now. And he did it to himself. I mean, the leaders of both parties were not able to reach the people, which shows that something’s wrong with the leadership, maybe in the countries in general. They didn’t argue passionately enough, they didn’t emotionally connect to the people who felt that something was wrong in their mired unemployment. And when you have that inability to see other people’s point of view, when you have lack of empathy, when you have lack of sides seeing each other, something goes wrong in a country. And I think it’s a pretty scary phenomena. (Italics mine)

Empathy.  Seeing other people’s point of view.  Kearns-Goodwin’s diagnosis of Brexit is correct. It also has implications for American politics and culture.  I find it particularly interesting that Kearns-Goodwin is a historian.  Most historians know that empathy, or the idea of “seeing other people’s point of view,” is essential to interpreting the past.  The study of history makes us more empathetic people.  It is good for civil society.

As many of you know, I have elaborated more fully  on the relationship between empathy, the study of history, and civil society in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

 

#Whystudyhistory Invades the World of Marketing

market-analystsDo you want to be an effective marketing analyst?

Then study history.

If you are a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know about Cali Pitchel.  She has written a lot for the blog and has been featured in at least three different So What CAN You Do With a History Major? posts.

Cali is the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, WA. She studied history as an undergraduate at Messiah College, received her M.A. in American Studies at Penn State, and spent two years working on a Ph.D in American history at Arizona State before dropping out to “channel her inner Peggy Olson.”

Cali does a lot of writing about how her study of history has made her a better marketing analyst.  In her most recent piece, which appears at LiftOff blog, she urges her fellow marketers to “approach your data like a historian.”  Her study of history has taught her important lessons about humility, empathy, and  interpretation that she uses every day in her current work.

Here is a taste:

I’m a trained historian. I spent the better part of the past 10 years studying the past, collecting some graduate degrees, and thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. Almost four years after what was supposed to be a brief respite, I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

This might not seem like a natural career move. What does the humanities have to do with web and mobile app analytics? At first the transition felt a bit awkward. I had never taken a business class, let alone looked at a Google Analytics dashboard. But what I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that historians and growth marketers have a lot to learn from one another.

Here are three things I think historians can teach marketers who make data-driven decisions:

1. Be humble.

A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can—and almost always will—challenge your assumptions.

Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of an historian. If you think you know all the answers when you approach the data, it’s likely you’ll confirm your bias. (This is a very human thing to do, by the way.)

When asked about truth, data, and analysis, Historian John Fea suggested that, “Data means Why Study History Covernothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.”

A growth marketer must first acknowledge his or her position and then meet the data appropriately—fully aware of the bias that is just part of being human. It’s trite, but true: knowledge is power. And just knowing your subjectivity can (and should) come to bear on the interpretation of data.

It’s easy to choose pride over humility, especially as a marketer prized for your acumen and industry expertise. But pride and relying on your instinct can have negative implications for your users’ experience. One way to combat this and ensure you’re creating a good (and high-converting) online experience, is to create a culture of testing. Testing not only allows you to optimize a user’s experience, it can substantiate and challenge your assumptions. When you trust the data—and not just your gut—you can pivot and respond to the needs of your audience, creating a cost savings or generating more revenue. In other words, humility is good business.

2. Empathy is everything.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a historian was the importance of empathy. The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors.

One of the difficult tasks of the historian, according to Fea, is to get rid of his or her “contemporary understanding of the world and [try] to see the world from another perspective—the perspective of someone living in what many historians refer to as the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Historians empathize with dead people and in the process we learn how to empathize in our contemporary lives as well.”

Empathy must also inform the way in which we interpret data. In its simplest form, the goal of empathy is understanding. And understanding a client—their challenges, their objectives, their business—is essential to any engagement.

Read her entire post here.

It is very rewarding to see the themes of Why Study History? find their way into the business world.  My goal is to make Why Study History? required reading in all college and university marketing classes!  🙂

Thanks, Cali.

What is the Most Important Word in Historical Scholarship Today?

EmpathyWhen Oxford University Press asked me this question I decided to consider “scholarship” in a very broad fashion to include the scholarship of teaching and historical thinking.

I chose the word “empathy.”

Here is a taste of the blog post on this subject at the OUP blog:

In addition to catching up with authors and discovering new research, the annual Organization of American Historians conference is a productive and inspiring time to check-in on the state of the field. At this OAH in Providence, we had one burning question on our mind: What is one important word that all historians should have on their minds?…

 Read the entire post here.

 Why empathy?

 As historian John Cairns notes, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.”  Empathy requires the historians to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”  The practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.  This is largely because our natural inclination, or, as Sam Wineburg calls it, our “psychological condition at rest,” is to find something useful in the past.  We want to make the past work for us rather than enter into it with an attitude of wonder about what we might find and the kinds of people and ideas we might encounter.  Historical empathy thus requires an act of the imagination.  The practice of bracketing our own ways of seeing the world in order to see a strange world more clearly requires discipline on the part of the historian.  It demands a certain level of intellectual maturity.  It requires a willingness to listen to the past…