Historians Are Teachers

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, believes that teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a historian.  He is right.  Ph.D programs must recognize this.


Here is a taste of his recent column in Perspectives on History:

Most of our largest PhD programs train students for positions that only a small minority will attain: tenurable appointments in “high research activity” institutions. Among history PhDs graduated between 1998 and 2009 who currently teach in higher education, approximately 75 percent are either outside “high research activity” institutions or off the tenure track. This means that the process and products embodied in much of graduate education—writing books and scholarly articles, teaching lecture courses and highly specialized seminars, and perhaps even preparing grant proposals for major fellowships—leave aside the principal issues and tasks that faculty at teaching-oriented institutions must engage. And those that faculty even at high-level research universities ought to engage.

We do not train our PhD students to see their profession as “teacher.” This might be inevitable, even appropriate. The PhD is, after all, a research degree. The craft of publication through books and articles stands at the center of graduate education in history, as it does in many other disciplines. At the same time, a historian is a scholar who not only creates new knowledge, but also disseminates insights across a variety of platforms, many of them in the classroom. The ways that digital tools now dissolve the boundaries between scholarship and teaching make this an opportune time to address these long-standing issues. The AHA has already resolved to put its imprimatur on and resources into elevating digital dissemination of knowledge onto the same plane as print. If we believe in putting teaching on that plane as well, too few of us have communicated that belief to graduate students. We have failed to integrate the teaching of history into the profession of being a historian—other than by example, or perhaps by sending our students across campus to teaching and learning centers generally considered marginal to the main pathway.

These centers have made great strides in improving the quality of teaching on their campuses, offering graduate students and junior faculty the resources that their home departments have not. Academic job candidates now brandish teaching portfolios and have benefited from videotaping and coaching unavailable a generation ago. Still, department chairs tell us that few job candidates are able to establish a dialogue between these portfolios and the curriculum at the institution to which they are applying. Worse, conversations about teaching that occur outside the context of disciplinary learning and practice remain marginal to the pursuit of a PhD in most disciplines. History faculty generally consider such training a valuable supplement, rather than seeing it as part of “becoming a historian.”

But it should be. Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.

If teaching history—including content not directly related to a scholar’s ongoing research agenda—is integral to being a professional historian, then it is essential to becoming one. It’s one thing to have the ability to plan a course and choose readings carefully and knowledgeably, something that many of our graduate students have already begun integrating into their portfolios. It’s another to shift our vocabulary of teaching to a discourse on learning, an approach to undergraduate education now largely relegated to the centers for teaching and learning, with inadequate integration into discipline-centered training.

Read the rest here.

$1.6 Million to Expand the Horizons of History Ph.Ds

Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA

Jim Grossman and his staff at the American Historical Association want to widen “the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and non profits.”  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation apparently agrees with this vision.  They have just awarded the AHA $1.6 million to fund a series of pilot projects that will attempt to change the academic culture in history departments as it relates to the opportunities for history PhDs in society and the marketplace.

Here is a taste of Grossman’s post at AHA Today:

In particular, this project will:

  • –Compile data and narratives that will continue to improve our knowledge of the ways history PhDs have built rewarding careers in the world outside the academy, and then publicize what we have learned, in part to highlight the range of possibilities and in part to normalize these pathways and facilitate them through a “virtual mentorship” program.

  • –Prepare history PhD students for work and other activity beyond the professoriate through curricular enhancements that provide essential skills and experience.

  • –Transform a cultural environment within the academy, among faculty as well as students, that continues to define “success” exclusively as tenure-track employment at four-year institutions, even as such opportunities become less 

  • –Cultivate a broader understanding among potential employers of the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics implied by advanced education in history and the completion of a PhD dissertation.
As I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, historical thinking has the potential to make us better people, better citizens, and better employees in a host of professions. Needless to say, I find this is a very exciting venture.

Do Academic Historians Dislike the American Revolution?

Over the past few weeks there has been a very interesting conversation going on at New York History, a blog that should be getting more attention due to the thoughtful posts from blogger and public historian Peter Feinman.

Recently Feinman attended The American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia (May 30-June 1, 2013) and wrote a series of excellent posts on his experience.  In one post, Feinman noted that none of the participants in the conference were willing to recognize “the profound power of the revolutionary ideas of the American Revolution.”

The posts led to an exchange between Feinman and Penn historian Michael Zuckerman, the co-organizer of the conference. The exchange focused on academic historians, the American Revolution, and American exceptionalism.  Here is a taste of Zuckerman’s response to Feinman’s series:

In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution.  People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not.  But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did.  He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth.  BUT WE DON’T.  That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference.   A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do.  The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?

Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was.  That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together.  That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing.  That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution?  On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever.  Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.

Read Zuckerman’s entire post here.

And now a taste of Feinman’s response, “Scholars in the Public Mind“:

How do scholars “market” themselves in the public arena so their image is positive, and not apologetic anti-American? If scholars seek a call to (political) arms as Mike Zuckerman seems to suggest, then those issuing the call need to do so as prophets who want America to live up to its ideals and oppose the wealthy, powerful, and the loudly ignorant. 

If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

At one point in the exchange Feinman accuses historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of ducking a question about “whether the Revolution was a good thing.”  Feinman sees this as a failure by academic historians to openly acknowledge what is exceptional about America.  In fact, he called Ulrich’s failure to answer the question “embarrassing.”

Now I don’t know what Laurel Ulrich thinks about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the American Revolution.  I do not turn to Ulrich or any of the scholars at the conference for their opinion on such a matter.  But I do want historians like Ulrich to help me understand the meaning of the Revolution. In other words, to wonder whether the American Revolution was “good” is certainly a topic that can be debated and discussed, but it is not an issue that falls within the scope of the historian’s vocation. And the American Revolution Reborn was a historical conference.

As Zuckerman notes, “The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in (America’s) birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth.”

Zuckerman also has some very good things to say about the place of history in our society, particularly the limits of our discipline. He writes:

I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do.  The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric.  But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all.  The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues.  The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds.  But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities.  If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.  

Zuckerman’s response here reminds me of Catherine O’Donnell’s recent op-ed in an Arizona newspaper,  “History is a Useful Tool, Not Answer to Every Problem.”  I encourage you to check it out.

On the other hand, Feinman certainly has a point when he writes, “If the new master narrative gives the appearance of being anti-American, then it will be rejected.  If it is presented by people who have pride in being American and who are not always apologizing for it, then it has a better chance of resonating with the American people.”

I think Feinman has put his finger on one of the primary reasons academic historians have struggled to speak to the public. American exceptionalism and so-called “founders chic” is so popular today because academic historians have abandoned the public sphere.  While there is definitely change on the horizon in this regard, historians should not be surprised that Americans get their American history from the likes of David McCullough, Bill O’Reilly, and David Barton.

US Intellectual Historians Tackle *Confessing History*

University of Texas-Dallas graduate student Mark Thompson has offered the most thorough review of our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation to date.  I think he captures the essence and schizophrenic nature of the volume.  It is a great review and I am thrilled that the good folks at US Intellectual History have chosen to post it.  I now have no doubt that sales of this volume will be brisk. In fact, I am sure that after I split my next royalty check with Jay and Eric I will be able to buy a few stocking stuffers for my kids this Christmas.  Heck, the cover “art” alone should boost sales. 🙂

At one point, Thompson writes:

While one can appreciate the desire by these Christian scholars to grapple with their life’s vocation, one underlying theme seems to echo Wilson’s dilemma while teaching in higher education: if one is a theist, when does one invoke God (or spirits) to explain events?  If  Confessing History is a tocsin for Christian-founded and –affiliated colleges, then it should have a positive impact on introducing faith-based institutions of higher education to a more rigorous analysis of history and causation.  However, when the goal is to attempt to bridge the gap between confessing and secular institutions, one wonders how the City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism can ultimately merge into one city, although, that does not seem to be the objective for some of the authors.  To this reviewer, the complications involved by allowing supernatural evidence to guide (or even supplement) the professional community of inquirers are centered around how to identify which parts of past events were caused by supernatural intervention vs. human intervention. 

It seems that everyone who reads Confessing History seems to think that the book is somehow promoting a return to providential history.  While a few authors in the volume play with this idea, most of the authors would reject the kind of providential history that Thompson describes in the quote above.

Others–such as Dan Allosso in the comments section of review–thinks that Confessing History somehow “privileges” Christianity “in a way that culturally sensitive religious historians would never do.”  Allosso has not read the book so I will give him a pass on this one.  (I am glad that Allosso still “likes” me despite my apparent cultural insensitivity). But I don’t think any of the authors in Confessing History blatantly privilege Christianity as a system of interpretation that offers some special insight into the past.  (Perhaps the essays by Shannon and Miller could be read this way).

As one of the editors, I will also admit that Confessing History lacks any kind of central argument about the relationship of Christian faith and history.  Even the editors have serious disagreements. (I put all my cards on the table in my forthcoming [September] Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). The only thing that holds the volume together is the fact that all of the authors are people of serious Christian faith who have thought deeply about how that faith bears (or in some cases does not bear) on their work as historians.  We also tried to offer an approach to this topic that deals more with “vocation” than with the epistemological questions often associated with the “world view” thinking of the Reformed tradition.

I also think that it is important to situate this book in the larger context of historians–Charles Bancroft, Herbert Butterfield, R.G. Collingwood, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Ron Wells, Arthur Link, Scott Latourette, C.T. McIntire, Nick Salvatore, the Calvin School, etc…–who have explored the relationship between Christian faith and historical practice. 

I am looking forward to following what has already proven to be fruitful conversation at U.S. Intellectual History.

How Do You Become a Historian?

Chris Gehrz recently had to answer this question for a group of 8th grade history students.  The experience, he writes, “got me rethinking the very definition of ‘historian.'”

You should read the entire post, but here is a taste to whet your appetite:

…And this has implications for what I do in higher education. While we’ll produce some number of professional historians (mostly junior high and high school social studies teachers, plus some who work in museums and archives and a very few who teach in universities), I think our department is better off focusing on preparing future businesspeople, lawyers, nurses, pastors, parents, church members, consumers, and voters to do two things: 

To think historically, of course — to ask good questions about the present and how it emerged from the past, and, as appropriate, to seek answers by locating, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing historical evidence. But still more, to love history. 

I’ve yet to meet a college History major who didn’t choose that path because she had some inexplicable passion for studying the past and hungered to do it more. It’s easy to feed that desire in college, when you are paying for the opportunity to spend hours and hours each week making sense of the past under the guidance of professionals with a similar passion. But how do our alumni sustain their love for history when it’s no longer a discipline practiced in the relative freedom and leisure of college, and has to compete with many other pressing demands on their time? Here I hope that even as they think historically to answer contemporary questions, they remember that the past is a foreign country — fundamentally different from our own, and worth visiting for its own sake. I hope that they read books, watch films, and visit museums and other sites for the sheer joy of encountering the past. That is to say, I hope that they practice history “at whim,” to use Alan Jacobs’ more general advice about reading.

Why You Should Read the Opening Paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s "The Guns of August"

Because Robert Caro, the famed biographer of Robert Moses and LBJ, read it in the 1960s and came away convinced that he wanted to be a historian.

Read all about Caro’s story in The New York Times.  (HT: AHA Today).  Here is a taste:

Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses, delivered a talk about a fellow historian, Barbara Tuchman, to a standing-room-only crowd at the Links Club on a recent evening. The event was sponsored by the Library of America, which was marking its reissue of her masterwork about the events leading up to World War I, “The Guns of August.” 

The Library of America may not be familiar to all—it’s actually not a library but a nonprofit publishing house—but most bibliophiles would probably recognize its handsome series (241 volumes and counting) in matching black covers decorated with a red, white and blue stripe. The series is devoted to great American writers; most, but certainly not all, are deceased. 

So expertly and elegantly are the books published, and so affordably priced, that I have a hunch: Were an author offered the option of a Library of America edition and an unmarked grave, or no book and a splendid sarcophagus, he or she would choose the former.


Mr. Caro talked about how Tuchman, who died in 1989, influenced him and his work when he’d left his job as a journalist at Newsday in the 1960s and, uncertain of himself, was embarking on his next career as a historian and his monumental Moses biography, “The Power Broker.”

“I remember quite vividly reading that opening paragraph,” he told the audience, referring to the sweep and poetry of “The Guns of August.” And he said he thought: “That’s what history should be. That’s what I want to do.”

By the way, here is the first paragraph from The Guns of August:

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.  In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.  After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens–four dowager and three regnant–and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.  Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Me and My Shadow

As I noted a few weeks ago, a local high school student who is considering a career as a history professor recently asked if she could “job shadow” me.  I am pleased to report that I spent the day today with Abby and I think it went very well.   She was very professional and eager to learn about the daily life of a history professor.  We talked about everything from the job market to graduate school and teaching loads to what someone like me did during the summer.

Here was our schedule:

8:30:  Orientation.  We grabbed some coffee and we talked about her shadowing assignment and what I had in store for the day.

9:00-10:30: More chatting, some course prep, and some department chair paperwork.

10:30-11:30:  Messiah College Center for Public Humanities board meeting.  At one point Abby even participated in the discussion, although I later heard her say that the meeting was a little boring.

11:30-12:15:  We had lunch with some history students in the college cafeteria.

12:25-1:55:  Abby sat in on my British Colonial America course.

2:00-2:30:  Abby sat in on the filming of a forthcoming “Virtual Office Hours.”

2:30-3:00:  We gathered materials for tomorrow’s “Accepted Students Preview Day” at Messiah College.

Overall, I found the experience to be very worthwhile.  If asked, I would definitely do it again.  I am not sure if I convinced Abby that a life as a history professor is worth pursuing, but she seemed enthused by the visit.

Historians as College Presidents

Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest

What do Drew Gilpin Faust, Nathan Hatch, Jeffery von Arx, Charles Middleton, Dale Knobel, Edward Ayers, and Brian Casey all have in common?

They are all historians by training who now serve as college presidents.  Jennifer Reut calls our attention to the growing number of historian-presidents in her post, “Is this the Golden Age of Historian Administrators?”

Here is a taste:

Recently, we read an essay in the Nation on the role of university presidents as civic leaders that lamented the way in which the office had become, according to the author, more timid than in the past. “Was there truly a ‘golden age’ of engaged college and university presidents who ‘sculpted’ society?” asked the author, citing James B. Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, and Clark Kerr as examples. But we wondered, how would these “golden age” presidents fare in today’s higher education environment?

With all the controversy in the news lately around what a university president should and shouldn’t be doing, there seems to be little consensus on what that position actually entails. Are university presidents academic leaders or risk managers or fundraisers? Should they be involved in shaping an institution’s character, or advocating for higher education in the public sphere? Should they be embracing new ideas and technologies, or defending the historic strengths and traditions or an institution? And if they must do all of these things, how might a president balance these often-competing needs? Given this dizzying job description, what kind of professional background might be best suited for executing this increasingly complex role? 

All of this got us thinking about how historians have fared as leaders in higher education, and this led us to do a little (highly unscientific, and largely anecdotal) research into the current administrative landscape, with some fairly interesting results. There are currently a very respectable number of historians occupying the position of president at universities, including Drew Gilpin Faust (Harvard Univ.), Nathan Hatch (Wake Forest Univ.), Jeffery von Arx (Fairfield Univ.), Charles Middleton (Roosevelt Univ.), Dale Knobel (Denison Univ.), Edward Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), and Brian W. Casey (DePauw Univ.).

So what kinds of skills do historians possess that make them good college presidents?

The Historical Vocation. The Historical Profession

Great post here from Chris Gehrz at Pietist Schoolman.  He writes about his faculty promotion paper on the vocation of the Christian historian and draws on some pretty good stuff, including my colleague Richard Hughes’s The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Tertullian’s “Athens and Jerusalem” tension, Frederick Buechner’s writings on vocation, William Cronon‘s Perspectives essays published during his tenure as president of the AHA, and Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.

Here is a taste:

…it’s good to be a member of a profession that sets expectations for one’s training and work. The American Historical Association isn’t exactly a magisterium, but the collective (if sometimes cacophonous) voice of my fellow AHA members is one I ought not ignore.

But at the same time, participation in such professional communities can, I wrote, “tune our ears to hear voices other than those of our own gladness or the world’s deepest need.” In particular, the professionalization of the historical discipline has led us to the point where (in the words of recent AHA president Richard Cronon, quoted as much as anyone in my essay) “historians too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain ‘I just can’t find enough time for my work’—implying that teaching isn’t part of that work and in fact competes with the ‘real’ work of research” (“And Gladly Teach,” [AHA] Perspectives, December 2012). As I argued at a couple of points in my essay, this shift towards the primacy of research (and that defined very narrowly — more to come) is an observable change over time. For example, Mark Schwehn (in his own unpacking of the “‘real’ work of research” complaint in ch. 1 of Exiles from Eden) points to a debate within late 19th and early 20th century German academe, between those who defended the older ideal of Bildung (which emphasized education as the formation of character) and Max Weber’s Wissenschaft (which emphasized the scholarly activity of producing knowledge — and cared less for how it was transmitted).

I wish I knew Chris and his work when I was co-editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s VocationI would have definitely asked him to write an essay for the volume.

Conference on Faith and History Wrap-Up: Part Three

On the last day of the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, I attended a session entitled “Christology in History: Three Perspectives from the Trenches.”  One of the presenters at this session was Susan Fletcher, the historian at The Navigators, an evangelical para-church organization based out of Colorado Springs.  (I want to commend The Navigators for hiring a public historian–most evangelical organizations don’t know what a public historian is!).

Fletcher, who was trained as a public historian at IUPUI, was one of several historians and historians-in-training at CFH with an interest in bringing the past to public audiences.  I have been attending the CFH since the 1990s and I think this was the first time I had ever run across a public historian.

Fletcher started her talk with a word of thanks to Tracy McKenzie, the Wheaton College historian who, the evening before her talk, challenged the members of the CFH to consider speaking to the church.  She was obviously thrilled that the CFH leadership was interested in a way of doing history that was sensitive to the needs of a larger public.

As I listened to Fletcher and McKenzie, I could not help but think that the CFH might be going through a paradigm shift of sorts.  The CFH has historically centered around three things: fellowship among Christian historians, scholarly reflection on the integration of faith and the discipline, and discussion over how Christians could get a seat at the so-called “academic table.

But this weekend I heard a lot of talk about speaking and writing for public audiences, using the practice of history as a form of service, and the role that historians might have in the church.

This renewed emphasis on engaging a larger public merges very nicely with the way that the historical profession is moving generally.  Think about what has been happening in the American Historical Association over the course of the last several years.  Anthony Grafton, the outgoing AHA president, used his term in office to encourage historians to embrace the digital world, to think about ways to communicate to non-academic audiences, and to urge graduate programs in history to prepare students for more than just academic jobs.

The current president, Bill Cronon, writes columns in Perspectives in History urging historians to update Wikipedia entries and write in a manner that is accessible to the general public.  James Banner, in his book Being a Historian, tells historians to take risks by writing in accessible prose, avoid getting caught up in historiographical debates, and start treating readers of their work as “fellow citizens.”

All of these calls from the larger profession resonate very well with the Christian historian’s vocation to love God and neighbor. McKenzie’s plea for historians to serve the church fits nicely with a larger paradigm shift that is rapidly making inroads in history programs at colleges and universities across the country.

I hope to see more and more public historians, history writers, museum professionals, and a host of other non-academic historians finding their way to the CFH.

Conference on Faith and History Wrap-Up: Part One

I am back in the saddle after an uplifting weekend at Gordon College where I attended the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  I have a lot of thoughts about what I heard and experienced this weekend swirling around in my head, so I have decided to write about them in multiple posts.  Let’s start with Tracy McKenzie’s presidential address.

McKenzie has been on a very interesting academic journey.  For twenty-two years he was a member of the history department at the University of Washington.  During his tenure in Seattle he won teaching awards and held an endowed chair.  But as a Christian in the secular academy he was lonely.  As he described it, he was a “community of one.”  He longed for opportunities to think and talk with others about how his faith might contribute to his intellectual life.  He eventually found such intellectual fellowship in the Conference on Faith and History and, a few years ago, left the University of Washington to accept the chairmanship of the history department at evangelical Wheaton College.

McKenzie’s presidential address, “The Vocation of the Christian Historian,” drew upon several of his essays on the relationship between faith and historical practice, including his piece “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of our Dual Calling” from our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  He challenged the audience to think about the historian’s vocation in terms of community and the importance of loving God and neighbor.  Here he drew heavily on Beth Barton Schweiger’s essay from Confessing History: “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History.”

How do historians love their neighbors?  Schweiger makes a strong case for loving our “neighbors” from the past who we encounter in our work as historians.  McKenzie did not disagree, but he took the “love of neighbor” in a different direction by challenging Christian historians to stop trying to model their academic pursuits and careers entirely on the standards of the profession and start thinking about how they might serve the church.

It was a powerful message–one that resonated greatly with some of my own thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and my own sense of the historian’s vocation.  After the lecture, a few people asked me what I thought about McKenzie’s charge.  Here is the gist of what I said:

I could not agree more with McKenzie’s call for Christian historians to serve the church.  This is why I have devoted a lot of my time to teaching churchgoers and laypersons about how to use history responsibly as Christians and citizens.  Academically trained historians must teach the church with care and sensitivity.  For example, they cannot go into an adult Sunday School class and start dropping historiographical bombs in an attempt to kill off cherished myths about the past.  Such a practice may be quite common at academic conferences and history graduate programs, but it will only alienate a church audience.  In fact, I would even argue that sometimes historians speaking to church audiences must be willing to listen and converse before debunking and correcting false understandings of the past.  They must gain trust by behaving more like a Christian than an academic.  I have found this approach absolutely essential (although I have often failed in applying it and have learned a lot of hard lessons), especially when speaking to a group of churchgoers whose knowledge of American history does not extend past David Barton or Peter Marshall.

I sensed a bit of a paradigm shift taking place at this year’s CFH meeting.  (I will try to devote another post to this topic later in the week).  For years, CFHers have talked about Christian historians producing good scholarship and “getting a seat” at the academic table.  On Friday night McKenzie, a guy who has had a “seat at the table” for over two decades, turned that old paradigm on its head by challenging all of us to bring solid historical thinking to our churches and congregations.

A Response to Darryl Hart’s Bewilderment

My friend Darryl Hart is bewildered.  He does not understand why Christian historians are so obsessed with David Barton. (He does not mention me in his post, but he does link to one of my pieces).  At his blog “Old Life” he writes:

Thomas Nelson likely made its decision to pull The Jefferson Lies for economic as much as scholarly reasons. Even so, considering all the bad books that publishers print, I am still befuddled by the large and concerted critique of Barton. I get it. He’s on Glenn Beck. But how many academics listen to or watch Beck? Thomas Nelson is a big and profitable trade press. But how many academics receive the company’s catalog?…

So I guess I really don’t get it. It seems to me the free market makes a lot of bad products available including books. What’s one more?

(Hart also wonders why Christian historians are not going after Howard Zinn’s stuff with the same zeal.  This question deserves an answer as well, but that will have to wait for another time).

It appears, based on his post, that Hart and I have a different understanding of the Christian historian’s vocation.  He is right when he says that few academics watch Glenn Beck or read Thomas Nelson books, but there are a lot of ordinary evangelicals who do.  If the historian’s job is to stay in the ivory tower and not engage the public, then Hart’s point is a good one. 

But if part of the historian’s job is to bring the skills of historical thinking and learning to the larger society, and especially the church, then we have a responsibility to critique folks like Barton.  As a professor at a Christian college I run into students on a regular basis, many of them active members of the College Republicans, who embrace Barton’s views of American history.  Some people in my church and community watch Glenn Beck and believe that Barton’s views are correct. These ideas shape how many evangelical Christians think about the relationship between church and political life.

Darryl seems to imply that if Barton is not influencing the academic community, then he is not worth critiquing.

Frankly, it seems that much of Hart’s work as an American religious historian contradicts his thoughts in this blog post.  Hart spills a lot of ink making sure the evangelical public has a clear understanding of the history of conservatism, the relationship between church and state, and the Reformed tradition.  He certainly thinks that writing to a non-academic audience is important. 

Here a scenario:  What if a really bad book about J. Gresham Machen was making serious inroads in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and many in the pews were trying to change church policy based on this flawed interpretation of the denomination’s founder?  Would Hart, a gifted historian with the expertise to do something about this false history of Machen, just sit by and let it happen?

I don’t get it.