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

Last temptation

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

Here is Gerson on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism:

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

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

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

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

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

Gerson does some interesting historical thinking here.

More to come.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History


I have never met Matthew Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University.  I admire his book American Apocalypse: A History of American Modern EvangelicalismYesterday he wrote an op-ed at The Guardian: Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history.”

Here is a taste:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

Did Graham, as Sutton suggests, “fail” his country or his God?  Sutton believes that he did, but this is not a historical question.

Sutton falls into the trap of claiming that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side” of history.  Such claims have nothing to do with history.  They have everything to do with politics.  They tell us more about Sutton’s politics than Billy Graham’s legacy.

I found this tweet from November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election:

Read the rest of Sutton’s piece here.

Historical Thinking and the Nunes Memo

Image: House memo

How might a historian interpret the now-famous Nunes memo?

Mark Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, breaks it down for us.  Here is a taste of his History News Network piece: “The Nunes Memo: ‘Bias,’ and the Skills of the Historian“:

The entire “argument” (such as it is) depends on the idea that a FISA warrant based—to any extent—on the so-called Steele dossier is inherently tainted, because the research done by the author, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was paid for at some point by Democrats. Since the warrant targeted Carter Page, who had been part of the Trump campaign, the motive of the funders (not the researcher, it bears noting) to get “dirt” on Trump somehow discredits everything Steele found.

The memo contains not a single argument that the evidence used to obtain the warrant against Carter Page was actually false—only that it is somehow untrustworthy due to the alleged motive behind the research that produced the evidence.

In history, we deal with this problem all the time. We uncover evidence in primary sources, and must judge its credibility. Do we have reason to believe that the person who produced the evidence might have an agenda that should cause us to doubt the veracity of the evidence? What do we do if the answer to that question is “yes,” or even “maybe”?

I do a primary source exercise in my methods class that does just this: presents the students with conflicting primary source accounts of an event. I then explain why the people who produced the evidence might have self-serving reasons for portraying the event in a particular light.

Most students, when first faced with this dilemma, immediately say “bias!” and dismiss the evidence as worthless. That is the reaction the Nunes memo seems intended to produce among the general public.

But that is not how the historian reacts. Yes, the source of the evidence may have some bias. That does not, however, by itself mean that the information is false. It does mean that when weighing its validity, the historian must look for other, independent, corroborating evidence before trusting it.

It seems likely that is what the officials who used the Steele dossier to obtain the FISA warrant did: they compared what Steele wrote to other information they had about Carter Page to see if it lined up.

Read the rest here.  Thanks to TWOILH reader John Shaw for bringing this piece to my attention.

Episode 31: Searching for Christian America in a Boston High School

The practice of historical thinking requires training. In this episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss this crucial habit of the mind, especially within a political climate where historical claims run rampant regardless of whether there is evidence to back them up or not. They are joined by high school teacher Mike Milway, who teaches at the prestigious and socio-economically diverse Boston Trinity Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as three of Dr. Milway’s students, to discuss how they cultivate historical thinking in their classrooms.

“Point Paragraphs”

paragraphHistory teachers at every level should take a look at Lendol Calder‘s short piece at Perspectives on History.  Calder, a master teacher and the creator of the “uncoverage” method of teaching the history survey course, explains how he uses “point paragraphs” in class.

Here is a taste:

A Point Paragraph (PP) is 250–400 words students write after completing a reading assignment. In their PP, students name a worthwhile discussion point inspired by the reading(s) and develop that point with evidence and argumentation. On class days when they will discuss the readings using Think/Pair/Share, the syllabus instructs them to bring a PP as their “ticket” to class. I check tickets at the door; those without a PP are kindly turned away. (I generally have to do this only once per semester.) This policy counteracts the free rider problem, ensuring that every person in the room comes with at least a modicum of readiness to contribute to a meeting whose success or failure depends on students’ willingness to risk their ideas out loud, something they are more likely to do if they have already thought through some ideas on paper. If my “ticket to class” policy seems harsh or a lot to ask, bear in mind that a PP need not be particularly brilliant. A merely acceptable Point Paragraph will admit a student to class.

An acceptable PP has three components. The paragraph begins with a statement called the “They Say,” which briefly summarizes “what everyone knows” or what an authority has said or what the student used to think before encountering a new idea in the reading. (The book to read is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.) Next comes an “I Say,” a point responding to the “They Say,” either to agree, to disagree, or to agree but with a difference. Requiring students to position their “I Say” in conversation with others increases their awareness of the social dimension of thinking, where the significance of a point depends upon how much it surprises others in some way, providing new insight into the material at hand. The rest of the paragraph explains and supports the point, using quotations, data, and reasoning to demonstrate the plausibility of one’s claim.

Thus an acceptable Point Paragraph does three things: it makes a single, significant point focused on the reading for the day, marshals strong evidence in support of the point, and exhibits good writing style. PPs can be graded quickly using a three-point scale: an acceptable PP earns two points, one that is almost there gets one point, and when no grading categories are met, zero points are earned. I let students write as many PPs as they want, up to 30 total points or 30 percent of the final grade; others will have their own grading schemes. I do not accept late Point Paragraphs.

Read the entire piece here.


Teaching Teachers at Emma Willard School


Last Friday I helped lead a workshop on historical thinking for twenty-five history teachers at Emma Willard School, an independent girls school in Troy, New York.  The New York State Association of Independent Schools sponsored the workshop.

The school was founded in 1814 as Troy Female Seminary by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Fonda and current NY Senator Kirsten Gillbrand are all Emma Willard graduates.  I also learned (after I left) that a 2003 Messiah College graduate currently works in student life at the school.  I also learned that my first cousin lives two blocks down the road!).

Emma 2.jpg

It was a great experience.  I reconnected with my old friend Dr. Bob Naeher, the chair of the Emma Willard History Department.  I first met Bob sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s when both of us (along with 100s of other teachers and history professors) were grading United States History Advanced Placement exams on the campus of Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas.  Bob is a fine American historian.  He wrote a great dissertation on Puritans and prayer at the University of Connecticut under the direction of Karen Kupperman. (Check out his 1989 New England Quarterly essay, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival“).

I was privileged to work with Magdalena Gross of the University of Maryland’s Education Department.  Gross is an engaging scholar and teacher who works at the intersection of historical thinking, pedagogy, and memory.  She is an expert on pedagogy issues surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.  And did I mention that she did her doctoral work at Stanford under the direction of Sam Wineburg?  After teaching two Wineburg books in Fall 2017, I was thrilled to chat with Magda about teaching future teachers how to teach historical thinking skills.  I hope we get to work together again one day.

Magda took the morning session and modeled two lessons.  One challenged students to read critically and the other helped students to tackle difficult issues (like the Holocaust) that they encountered in their study of the past.  (Both lessons were inspired by her work with the Stanford History Education Group).

I was assigned the afternoon session.  I offered some thoughts on the relationship between history and the cultivation of a democratic society.  We discussed the
5 Cs of historical thinking: change over time, contingency, context, complexity, and causation.  Then, drawing from my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I suggested that the study of history cultivates virtues necessary for a thriving democracy–empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, and discipline.

The conversation with the teachers was excellent.  As always, I learned a lot!  One teacher even tweeted:

Quote of the Day

…we see the link between historical knowledge and neighborly love in this, that even the concrete person in my immediate presence is not abstracted from history.  A human being, fully understood, is not only a product of timeless nature but is also a unique embodiment of history–of the past that has given the human race its present beliefs and form of life.  Suppose that the person I face here and now is a late twentieth-century American.  To know and love that person in all of his concrete reality I must know something about American history–about America’s revolutionary break with Europe, about the Civil War, and about the development of industrialism and its impact on American society and attitudes.  If my neighbor is an African-American, I achieve a neighborly relationship only so far as I am conscious of the blight of slavery and the long agony of racial discrimination that followed the end of slavery.  In a word, my neighbor is microhistorical–a concrete embodiment of human destiny.  If I am inattentive to the historical past I am severely handicapped when it comes to being attentive to the neighbor whom I confront here and now.  This is not to say that love for one’s neighbor depends on a scholar’s knowledge of history.  But it does depend on a certain breadth of mind–on an interest in, and an intuitive sense of, what human beings have done and suffered throughout the ages.

–Glenn Tinder, The Fabric of Hope, 155.

Is Anything “Unprecedented” About Donald Trump?

Trump Jackson Tomb

Trump places a wreath at site of Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Nashville

I teach my students that historians often think in terms of change and continuity.  In the age of Trump I have been hammering this lesson home more than usual.  Is Trump just another manifestation of nativism, populism, xenophobia, narcissism, etc.?  Or is Trump something completely new?

Historian and public intellectual Julian Zelizer reflects on this issue in a piece at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historical Analogies


From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for POTUS historians began making analogies.  Then, after nearly all of the analogies were exhausted, they began interrogating the very idea of historical analogies.  Zachary Jonathan Jacobson‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education fits into the latter category.

Here is a taste of his piece, “Trump is the New ______”:

But analogies persist — and they can prove potent. Drawn from a shared past, they can serve as rhetorical weapons: Don’t favor a war? It’s the next Vietnam! Abhor your compatriots’ military forbearance? Brand their hesitation a Munich moment! Don’t like the president? He’s a Tricky Dick. This matchy-matchy juvenilia may score quick points and spawn memes, but flimsy historical analogy can blind the historian from the grail he truly seeks. As the Viscount James Bryce, the one-time British ambassador to the United States, tut-tutted in his classic 1888 tract The American Commonwealth,”the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.”

What Temkin and other critics really target is not so much historical analogy as an epidemic of bad ones. Temkin winces at the “rapid-fire, superficial” takes in the mass media. Once in front of the camera, leaning back pensively in their studio chairs, historian-heavyweights trade in their sweeping, exhaustive, and often beautiful scholarship for trivia-minded TV punditry. They hawk banality. Quizzed by anchors, boxed into panels, these academics have become cable contestants in a game of History-wood Squares.

“Sure, there are similarities,” Temkin wrote of Trump and Long. Like Trump, the Kingfish “ran in the name of the ‘people,’ attacked the establishment.” Both their opponents branded them “demagogues” and “fascists.” But Temkin ably rehashes their fundamental dissimilarities: “Long was self-made, a genuine populist who took on powerful interests, and as governor was responsible for building roads, bridges, and hospitals and helping the poor.” Trump may dream out loud of massive infrastructure projects, but he has yet to exhibit any of the skill and ingenuity to follow through with them.

And yet just because a historical analogy is flawed or even misleading does not make the exercise in historical comparison, in Temkin’s word, “meaningless.” For we compare to discover similarities, and we compare to dredge up differences. By studying the political minutiae, social and economic structures, and cultural milieu that made Long’s projects work, we may be able to tease out the differences for what today makes Trump falter. From another angle, one possibly fruitful question from the Trump-Long analogy: However different, why did these two anti-elitist populists both become ensnared in allegations of profligate corruption?

Read the entire piece here.

The “Teachers Lounge” at History News Network


I just came across this great collection of resources for history teachers.  Thanks to the good folks at History News Service for creating what they are calling “The Teacher’s Lounge.”

Here are just a few of the article you can find there:

Why You Should Be Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast


This morning I finally got a chance to listen to one of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast summer bonus mini-episodes.  The episode features 2015 Messiah College history alum Cory Hulsizer who currently works as a middle school history teacher.  Cory spends the first sixteen days of his academic year teaching 7th graders how to think historically.  This is a great interview and Cory has wisdom beyond his years.  Frankly. I think this is one of the best episodes we have ever done.

Some of you who regularly listen to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast may be trying to find this episode.  The reason you cannot find it is because this episode was produced exclusively for our patrons.  But the good news is that you can still get access to this episode by joining our team of patrons!  Learn more here.  (And you may qualify for a book or mug!)

Camille Paglia on “Presentism”


Check out Mark Bauerlein’s piece on cultural critic and public intellectual Camille Paglia.

Here is a taste:

…there is one profound traditionalist point that [Paglia] maintains repeatedly, and it is one of the first truths of the conservative disposition.

She announced it a few months back in an interview with the New York Observer. The very first question asked her about comparisons between President Trump and Adolf Hitler, to which she replied: “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

This is a point that deserves repeated amplification. It explains, for instance, much of the indignation we see and hear on college campuses, wherein twenty-year-olds decry twenty-first-century American racism and sexism. The first response to their charges should not be to debate present conditions. It should be to ask them about actual conditions of the past—Jim Crow, the franchise for women and blacks, poverty rates and public health in former times . . . The answers will demonstrate that the only way to believe that America 2017 is a particularly vicious time for certain identities is to know nothing about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And we know, of course, how little history young Americans actually possess.

Read the entire post here.

I think Bauerlein, writing at the conservative journal First Things, over-politicizes Paglia approach to history.  I would argue that this is not a conservative disposition.  Instead, it is a disposition that is required of all historians, regardless of ideological or political commitments.

When it Comes to Measuring Historical Thinking, the “Nation’s Report Card” is “Fool’s Gold”


First, here is some background on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report.  It is often described as “the nation’s report card.”

And here is a taste of critique of the NAEP by Sam Wineburg, Mark Smith, and Joel Breakstone:

Students have never fared well on NAEP’s tests in these subjects. The first history test in 1987 found that half of the students couldn’t place the Civil War in the right half-century. Some 15 years later, following a decade of new standards, The Washington Post wrote that students on the 2001 exam “lack even a basic knowledge of American history.” In 2014, the last time history was tested, the New York Times fished into the recycling bin for this headline: “Most Eighth-Graders Score Low on History, Civics.”

But what would happen if instead of grading the kids, we graded the test makers? How? By evaluating the claims they make about what their tests actually measure.

For example, in history, NAEP claims to test not only names and dates, but critical thinking — what it calls “Historical Analysis and Interpretation.” Such questions require students to “explain points of view,” “weigh and judge different views of the past,” and “develop sound generalizations and defend these generalizations with persuasive arguments.” In college, students demonstrate these skills by writing analytical essays in which they have to put facts into context. NAEP, however, claims it can measure such skills using traditional multiple-choice questions.

We wanted to test this claim. We administered a set of Historical Analysis and Interpretation questions from NAEP’s 2010 12th-grade exam to high school students who had passed the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History (with a score of 3 or above). We tracked students’ thinking by having them verbalize their thoughts as they solved the questions.

What we learned shocked us.

In a study that appears in the forthcoming American Educational Research Journal, we show that in 108 cases (27 students answering four different items), there was not a single instance in which students’ thinking resembled anything close to “Historical Analysis and Interpretation.” Instead, drawing on canny test-taking strategies, students typically did an end run around historical content to arrive at their answers.

Read the entire piece here.  I need to share this piece with my “Teaching History” class. We are in the midst of reading Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Are we living in “a pivotal moment in American history?”


In his recent call for a bill to introduce universal healthcare legislation, Bernie Sanders said “This is a pivotal moment in American history.  Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right?….”

Let’s be clear about one thing.  We have no idea if we are living in a pivotal moment of American history.  Every generation believes that they are living in the most important moment in human history.  This is why we need historians.  They will help us sort it out. But they will not be able to do so until enough time passes to get some perspective.

When a present-day politician says that “this is a pivotal moment in American history” it is just as bad as the politicians who talk about the right and wrong side of history or say that we have “the most dangerous president in American history.”  These kinds of statements are political, not historical.

Teaching American History in the Age of Trump

Trump Jackson Tomb

President Donald Trump lays a wreath, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, during a ceremony at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Hermitage, Tennessee. 

I took a crack at writing a short piece on this subject for The Panorama.  Here is a taste:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here.

How to Improve History Education: 1997 and Today

NashIn his 1997 book History on Trial, UCLA historian Gary Nash reflected on his role in the crafting of the failed National History Standards.   After his experience fighting this battle in the culture wars, Nash encouraged teachers, educators, professors, legislatures, and anyone else with a stake in American democracy to consider four things:

1. As a nation “we should commit ourselves enthusiastically and unreservedly to a history education that is fit for a democratic society.”  For Nash, this meant “abandoning the notion that teachers or education authorities should designate certain historical facts, events, deeds, ideas, or interpretations as off limits to analysis or reassessment..”  He added: “no historical representations or explanations–even those dearest to the hearts of liberals, conservatives, Afrocentrists, Eurocentrists, or postmodernists–should be held in public sacrosanct or indisputable.

2. As a nation “we should end the futile struggle among educators and policy makers over whether we should teach more historical “content” and less “historical thinking” or vice versa.  This is a false dichotomy, as good teachers have always known.

3. As a nation “we must nurture the flourishing new alliances between schools and universities.  He adds: “legislatures and school boards should insist that new history teachers be well trained in the discipline.”

4. As a nation, we must continue to “broaden the scope of history education to ensure that the experiences of all classes, regions, and ethnoracial groups, as well as both genders, are included in it.”

The other day, while teaching this book in my “Teaching History” course, I asked my students to assess whether Nash’s points are still relevant today.  It made for an interesting discussion.  While some students pointed to progress in all of these areas, most said that these core issues are still relevant in 2017, two decades after Nash published History on Trial.

What do you think?

Barack Obama Gave Donald Trump a Lesson in Historical Thinking

Obama oval

In case you have not seen this yet, the letter that Barack Obama left for Donald Trump has been released.  Here it is:

Dear Mr. President –

Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years.

First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.

Good luck and Godspeed,


For me. as a historian, the key paragraph is the one that deals with the temporary nature of the office and the president’s responsibility to guard “democratic institutions and traditions.”

In order to take this advice seriously, Donald Trump must have a historical consciousness.  He must see himself as part of a larger national story that has unfolded over the course of the last 241 years.  As Sam Wineburg reminds us: “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.”

Historians as “Columbos of Our Cultural Life”


Paul Croce is Professor of History and American Studies at Stetson University.  In his recent piece at Huffington Post he compares historians to Peter Falk’s famous television character Columbo.

Here is a taste:

Historians can become like the Columbos of our public life. In Peter Falk’s memorable role as the private investigator Lieutenant Frank Columbo, he would solve crimes by getting to know the suspects. In the same way, historians let us get to know the producers and consumers of fake news, and the whole array of characters, from heroes to villains, in our cultural dramas. That understanding of how we think and feel can help all citizens be better judges of the worlds around them.

Read the entire piece here.  Believe it or not, this piece begins with some thoughts about U.S. intellectual historians Thomas Haskell and James Kloppenberg.

Historian: When it Comes to Monuments, “Nuance” and “Complexity” Connects Us All

San Antonio Confederate Monument

What should happen to the Confederate monument in San Antonio’s Travis Park?

Carey Latimore is a scholar of African-American history who chairs the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Over at the website of the San Antonio Express-News, Latimore explains why it may not be a good idea to pull down every Confederate monument that crosses our paths.

Here is a taste:

I can understand the reasons to remove these monuments. However, if the past decade has demonstrated anything to us, it is that we should not be too quick to view small victories as symbolic of racial progress or transcending race, especially if these victories do not force us to address race both intraracially and interracially.

Moving forward will require us to directly confront the meaning of racial progress.

For many years, I tried to separate my identities linked to both masters and slaves, but now I realize that this was an impossibility. Such a sentiment is shared by many in this great nation. Whatever the manner in which diverse communities met, erasing any of them will not move us forward. Indeed, the lives of the masters and slaves are so connected that removing either of them from our collective memories erases the other.

Nonetheless, Confederate monuments should not be allowed to remain without clarifying the connections the organizations and people represented in these monuments had to slavery and racism. Such clarification needs to be more than a footnote, and it needs to be placed where the monuments stand.

The current conversation about Confederate memorials is a sign of our collective failure not only to accurately tell the stories that we memorialize but also a failure to celebrate diverse stories. If we are truly a multicultural nation, we should aim to do a better job pulling together the nuance and complexity that connects us all.

Perhaps then we can move forward together.

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks to Paul Thompson for bringing this piece to my attention.