Heather Cox Richardson talks about her “Letters from an American”

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Many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with historian Heather Cox Richardson‘s “Letters from an American.” Check out Bill Moyers’s interview with Richardson.

Here is a taste:

BILL MOYERS: When you write, do you imagine who might be reading? Can you see particular people or individuals that enables you to connect almost personally with them, as if your letter was to me or to someone else who is among those 400- 500,000 people who read you every day?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I have always been a letter writer, and I found when my numbers got over half a million, I couldn’t think about how many people there were out there. I had to think as if I were writing a letter to my brothers and sisters, to my good friends with whom I have had a correspondence since I could hold a pen. I think if it were truly a private letter, I would, you know, make jokes more, or probably use less formal language in some cases. But I always have to think that I’m writing to my friends, and I think maybe that comes through.

BILL MOYERS: Many of the letters are postmarked after midnight, 1:30, 2:20, 3:10. When we wake up, there you are. What toll does it take to keep writing at that hour night after night?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I’m very tired. And it definitely takes a toll. Producing 1,200 words every day, when you’re already working a full-time job is a lot. That being said, it feels like this is a crisis moment in America. And I certainly would not have been doing this ten years ago. But you think of all the sacrifices that people have made to keep this country a democracy and to keep it healthy and to try and keep it equal. It seems to me to be a small price for me to pay to take the extraordinary training I’ve had and all the privilege I’ve had in my life and, you know, stay up a little bit later than I would like to. So the people who really deserve credits are the people in my family who are really understanding about the fact that every night the minute we finish eating, I usually actually put my head down on the dining room table or on my desk and sleep for an hour or two. And then they’ve all gone to bed when I pick my head back up and start typing. And they’ve been really good about it. And I have promised them that it won’t go on forever.

Read the entire interview here.

Citizenship is More Than Just the Facts We Learned in Civics Class

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History News Network is running my piece on history and citizenship.  Here is a taste:

Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within  civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs. 

Read the entire piece here.

The Study of History Prepares Us for Moments Like This

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My daughter is home from college. Tonight at the dinner table we were talking about citizenship in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of our conversation inspired today’s earlier post on that subject.

Both of my daughters are studying liberal arts at a liberal arts college. Caroline, who is now taking classes from her childhood bedroom, is majoring in political science and considering adding a major in environmental studies. Allyson, as a senior, is a double-major in history and psychology. Their coursework is challenging them in good ways. They are learning and growing intellectually. I pray that both of them will draw upon their work in these fields to help them navigate our current moment.

The humanities, a particular branch of the liberal arts devoted to the study of history, literature, rhetoric, theology and religious studies, philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and languages, to name a few of the subjects that fall under its intellectual umbrella, offer an approach to the world that bodes well for the creation of good citizens in a democratic society.

This is why founders such as Thomas Jefferson valued an educated citizenry. In an September 28, 1820 to William Charles Jarvis, Jefferson wrote:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform them their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of the abuses of constitutional power.

The humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, teach students how to think critically about their world. How do we evaluate the information we receive about the coronavirus? What kinds of sources can we trust? In a time when news and information about this virus is changing and developing at a rapid rate, context becomes very important. News that came across our feeds two days ago may no longer be relevant today.  Historians are trained to “source” documents.  When was the document written? Who is the author? What is the purpose of this document? Does this context give us better insight into the meaning of the text?

Historians are also able to put this pandemic in a larger context. Type the words “1918 Influenza” into your web browser and notice dozens of historians trying to help us make sense of the present by understanding the past. Historians understand the human condition. They can, at times, alert us to potential present-day behavior by reminding us of what happened in an earlier era.

The study of history also cultivates the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historian Sam Wineburg argues convincingly that it is the strangeness of the past that has the best potential to change our lives in positive ways. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country–a place where they do things differently than we do in the present–set off on a journey that has the potential to transform society. An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of a “foreign country.” Sometimes the people who inhabit that country may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities.  Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.

History demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, ideal or event from the past in order to understand it. It thus, ironically, becomes the necessary building block of informed cultural criticism and political commentary. It sharpens our moral focus and places our ethical engagement with society in a larger context. One cannot underestimate how the virtues learned through historical inquiry also apply to our civic life. The same skills of empathy and understanding that a student or reader of history learns from studying the seemingly bizarre practices of the Aztec Empire might also prove to be useful at work when we don’t know what to make of the beliefs or behavior of the person in the cubicle next to us.

The study of the past has the potential to cure us of our narcissism. The narcissist views the world with himself at the center. While this a fairly normal way to see the world for an infant or a toddler, it is actually a very immature way of viewing the world as an adult. History, to quote Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”

As we begin to see our lives as part of a human community made up of both the living and the dead, we may start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. We may want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to understand why they see the world the way they do. We may  want to have a conversation (or two) with them. We may learn that even amid our religious or political differences we still have a lot in common.  We also may gain a better understanding into why their ideas must be refuted.

History majors and historical thinkers: we have prepared you for such a time as this!

A Time for Citizenship

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It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Voters in a Democracy Must Understand Something About History

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Japanese-Americans arriving at WW II internment camp

Over at The Washington Examiner, Patrick Richards, the chief communications and strategy officer at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, links historical training with civics.  Here is a taste:

A generation of students has learned of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers because of a Broadway musical with a Lin-Manuel Miranda score. Millions of middle schoolers have learned about U.S. civics because of video games developed through the vision and commitment of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Tens of millions of cable TV viewers learn pieces of history not taught in the classroom because of Pawn Stars and the personal passions of its star, Rick Harrison. Each of these and many more like them show that history doesn’t have to be relegated to dusty history books telling the boring stories of generations of white, male landowners. History can, and should, be exciting, engaging, and relevant to the learner and to the times in which they live.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of immigration and border detention facilities will also know about how Native Americans were treated in the 19th century and how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of impeachment proceedings will not only know about the Clinton impeachment but also of President Andrew Johnson’s.

Ultimately, an informed voter will move beyond asking, “What?” and will begin asking the more important questions about our history: “Why? How? To what end?”

For years now, we have been selling the 2020 presidential race as one of the most momentous, most important elections in the history of our representative democracy. If we believe that, then it is imperative that all voters, particularly the Gen Zers and millennials deemed so important to our future, begin to think and act like historians — asking questions, seeking out facts not originally taught, and understanding how we’ve confronted such issues in the past and how we can learn from those experiences, good and bad, in the future.

Read the entire piece 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?

What To Do If You Are Concerned About People “Erasing History”

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583One of the arguments against removing Confederate monuments (or any monument, for that matter) is that such an act is the equivalent of “erasing history.”  I don’t think this concern should be dismissed so easily just because a bunch of white supremacists came to Charlottesville to defend a monument of Robert E. Lee.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was appalled at Donald Trump’s failure to make a moral differentiation between the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend and the group that opposed them.  But I do think Trump asked a series of fair questions when he said “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.”

So where does it stop?  If you are asking this question, it doesn’t make you a racist, a white supremacist, a member of the alt-Right, or a neo-Nazi.  It is a legitimate historical question about how the past informs the present and how we should remember and commemorate what has happened in bygone eras.

I have done several posts on this issue that might help you to think this through.

  • Here is a post on Annette Gordon-Reed’s response to the very question Trump asked yesterday.
  • Here is a post on the 1776 removal of New York statue to George III.
  • Here is a post on W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate monuments.
  • Here is a post on Yale historian David Blight on this issue.
  • Here is a post on New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb on this issue.

We can continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments, but over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gerhz has a message for all of those folks who are suddenly concerned about “erasing history.”

Here is a taste:

But if you’re one of those people who’s up in arms about the dangers of #ErasingHistory, then let me suggest a few ways you might better expend your time and passion in service of the past than by taking up a Lost Cause:

• Encourage your ancient Rome- or WWII-loving teenager to consider majoring in history. “But everyone knows that’s a useless major,” they’ll reply. “No, it’s not,” you’ll calmly respond. And hand them empirical data. (Because that’s how teenagers make decisions.)

• Complain to your alma mater the next time they fail to replace a retiring history professor, or when you find out that most of their history teaching load is born by overworked, underpaid adjuncts.

• Ask your local principal or school district superintendent to explain the budgetary and curricular implications for social studies of that shiny new STEM program they (like all their competitors) keep promoting.

• Call your representative or senator to protest the next federal budget proposal that threatens to defund the public endowment that makes possible dozens of valuable projects in historical research and interpretation.

• Or if you prefer free market solutions… Buy a membership in your local attendance-challenged historical museum or site, and purchase history books by actual historians: like this Davidthis Davidthis David, or this David instead of this David.

Great post!  Read all of it here.

Today’s Op-Ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News: : “Why study history?: A bill before the Pa. Senate is only part of the answer”

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Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home read an early draft of this piece.

Here is a taste:

First, every member of the Senate, before voting on this bill, should read the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 6-12 “Academic Standards for Reading in History and Social Studies” and the PDE’s “Academic Standards for Writing in History and Social Studies.”

These CORE Standards, released in March 2014, require teachers to cover material that would prepare Commonwealth students very well for the United States citizenship test.  In addition, these CORE standards require educators to move beyond the teaching of mere facts.

They stress the necessary skills Commonwealth students need to learn in their history classes.

Second, strongly encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to require history educators to have training in how to teach historical thinking.

Students today are bombarded with information.

The kind of facts necessary to score well on a citizenship test can be easily found by conducting a quick Google search. What our students really need is training in how to distinguish between good information and bad information. 

When they read their social media feeds they need to learn how to spot what is fake and what is real. 

They need to “consider the source” of information they encounter. They need see the complexity of the human experience as it has unfolded through time. They need to think about the forces that have shaped the world that they have inherited.

This kind of thinking should happen every day in a history classroom.  Students read documents from bygone eras and analyze them critically. They look for bias. They understand voices from the past in context. They move back and forth between the past and the present and get a good mental workout in the process.

History students learn to listen to voices from the past before judging them. In the process, they cultivate the democratic virtue of empathy.

They learn to look beyond themselves to see the world through the eyes of others–those who are dead and those who are alive–who have experienced it in different ways.

These kinds of historical thinking skills are acquired through an immersion in the past guided by a skilled history teacher.  I would thus, thirdly, encourage the Senate to initiate legislation that requires Pennsylvania history teachers to have a college major in history. 

At Messiah College, a private institution in Mechanicsburg where I chair the History Department, pre-service teachers graduate with both a Pennsylvania teaching certification in Social Studies and a full history major. 

Earlier this year the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Messiah’s history education program as one of the sixteen best in the United States. 

By taking 39-credit hours in history, our students enter the classroom prepared to deliver content and cultivate the historical habits of the mind desperately need in our society today.

The Rafferty/Dinniman bill is not a bad start. Facts and civic knowledge is the foundation of a good history education. But it is only a foundation.

Read the entire piece here.

Blight: Historians Should Petition Trump to Take an “Educational Sabbatical” So He Can Learn More U.S. History

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History News Network has published a David Blight piece which original appeared at the website of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  Of all the things Trump has done, Blight is most worried about his “essential ignorance” of American history.

Here is a taste of his piece, originally titled “Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial“:

Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

 

Read the entire piece here.

DePaul University History Profs: “Trump’s assault on our national history must end.”

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s now infamous “Andrew Jackson and the Civil War” remarks, DePaul historians Thomas Foster and Margaret Storey have turned to the pages of their hometown Chicago Sun-Times to chide the POTUS for making a mess of American history.

Here is a taste:

One could dismiss this as simple (if shocking) illiteracy. But historical illiteracy is no joke, and we dismiss it at our peril. Indeed, such illiteracy has prompted some politicians to attack the study of history as valueless in a technologically-driven world.

Understanding history is vitally important, and not just because history explains our contemporary society. A key value of studying history is that it teaches us how to draw conclusions based on evidence. Understanding how to weigh evidence — thoroughly and scrupulously — is the only way to make reasoned decisions in any field. It’s also the only way to sift through the “fake news” that President Trump deals in, and that sullies our civic discourse and shackles us all from moving forward.

For all these reasons, History is power.

Our president recognizes this and wields his ignorance like a weapon, reveling in his ability to dominate the reasoned discourse of experts with his own, tortured resistance to their authority. He purposefully co-opts historical topics to serve his, and his supporters’, political ends. At the extreme, they include those who deny that slavery was at the core of the Civil War, and also deny other historical atrocities, including the Holocaust.

For those of us who confront our nation’s history as a professional duty, the sentiment that basic historical knowledge is vital for participation in our democracy is a given. But plenty of Americans agree that understanding our history is necessary for ensuring a successful future. Indeed, it is part of our citizenship test — a test that we doubt our president could pass.

Read the entire piece here.

The New York Historical Society Offers Free Civics and U.S. History Workshops for Immigrants

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The New York Historical Society has launched the Citizenship Project.  In conjunction with the City University of New York (CUNY) it will hold free civics and American history workshops for green card holders.

Here is a taste of Claire Voon’s article at Hyperallergic:

The museum, which hosts naturalization ceremonies in its auditorium, has been considering a program to help with studying for the naturalization exam for several years now, understanding that even American-born citizens would find it difficult to pass. But the need for one became more timely after President Trump’s incendiary January 27 executive order that restricted travel for thousands, from refugees to permanent residents.

“When the first travel ban initially included legal immigrants, we realized that we could put our skills to use helping green card holders learn the civics and history they need to know to pass the test, so that they could participate fully in American civic life as citizens and also be protected under the Constitution,” Mirrer said. “The project would draw attention, as well, for Americans, to the high bar set by our nation for citizenship.”

For citizens who want to see how they would fare on knowledge of American history and civics, questions and answers to the hunt will be on display at the museum’s entrance, on interactive tablets, and online.

Read the entire article here.

Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens?

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Parmer Hall, Messiah College

An organization of conservative academics and intellectuals known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a 525-page report titled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”  It is a critique of what the NAS describes as the “New Civics.”  The report focuses on this approach to civic education at four western universities in the United States.

Here is a taste of the abstract:

A new movement in American higher education aims to transform the teaching of civics. This report is a study of what that movement is, where it came from, and why Americans should be concerned.

What we call the “New Civics” redefines civics as progressive political activism. Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.

The New Civics seeks above all to make students into enthusiastic supporters of the New Left’s dream of “fundamentally transforming” America. The transformation includes de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international “norms” over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals. New Civics advocates argue among themselves which of these transformations should take precedence, but they agree that America must be transformed by “systemic change” from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.

The New Civics hopes to accomplish this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.

New Civics builds on “service-learning,” which is an effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists. By rebranding itself as “civic engagement,” service learning succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics. In practice this means that instead of teaching college students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government, colleges teach students how to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations. These are indeed forms of “civic engagement,” but they are far from being a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.

New Civics has still further ambitions. Its proponents want to build it into every college class regardless of subject. The effort continues without so far drawing much critical attention from the public. This report aims to change that.

Pretty standard conservative stuff.

After reading this report, literary scholar and public intellectual Stanley Fish turned to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and published a piece titled “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job.”  He has mixed feelings about what the NAS has produced.

Here is a taste of Fish’s piece:

...I have felt for some time that the integrity of academic work has been under pressure from forces that would politicize it, either from the outside in the form of external constituencies eager to have colleges and universities reflect their agendas, or from the inside in the form of student protests aimed at getting colleges and universities to toe their preferred ideological line. The NAS report stands squarely against the second form of politicization (as do I), but participates fully in the first. Consider the following key and representative sentence: “We view the liberal arts, properly understood, as fostering intellectual freedom, the search for truth, and the promotion of virtuous citizenship.” Fostering intellectual freedom? Yes! Search for truth? Yes! Promotion of virtuous citizenship? No! Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because, like the programs the report derides, it is a political goal.

A simple question makes my point. What is the content of “virtuous”? The answer will vary with the varying views of what obligations citizenship brings with it. For the authors of the NAS report, virtuous citizenship means love of country and “a commitment to our form of self-government.” For the faculty and students who practice civic engagement, virtuous citizenship means a radical questioning of our forms of government and a resolve to restructure them so that they reflect (insofar as possible) the ideal of social justice. This difference is obviously political and amounts to a quarrel between opposing views of what form of citizenship universities should foster. But because my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect — I find both parties off base because they are in their different ways deforming the educational enterprise by bending it to a partisan purpose.

A director of a service-learning institute quoted in the report declares that “The crux of the debate is whether education should provide students with the skills and knowledge base necessary to fit into the existing social structure or prepare them to engage in social transformation.” The right answer is “neither of the above.” Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience. The report declares that the proponents of civic engagement “cannot distinguish education from progressive activism.” The NAS cannot distinguish education from conservative activism…

I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy. I agree that while volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic good thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so. I agree that students “should possess a basic understanding of their government” and that colleges and universities should play a part in providing that understanding. I don’t agree that the content of that understanding should be dictated by government officials, and I find it odd that an essay claiming to defend traditional liberal education against the incursion of politics ends by inviting the politicians in. One might say that the cure is worse than the disease, but that would not be quite right: The cure is the disease.

Those familiar with Fish know that he has been making this argument for a long time.  It is best formulated in his book Save the World on Your Own Time Earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association he made a similar case.

I largely agree with Fish’s critique of the so-called “New Civics” and the NAS report. As I have written before, my understanding of liberal arts education is probably best captured in this conversation between Robert George and Cornell West.  The purpose of liberal arts education, in other words, is the pursuit of truth and the “examined life.”

My views here have been no doubt shaped by fifteen years of working as a bit of an outsider at a college that privileges a Christian view of the “New Civics” rooted in historic Anabaptism. Anabaptists are very good at service and justice, but they have never been on the front lines of cultivating intellectual life. (There are, of course, exceptions.  I know this because I work with some of those exceptions).

Moreover, the college where I teach has a lot of students who have been raised in evangelicalism.  Many of these students have already learned some basic things about how to be activists.  They have participated in youth group service projects and mission trips and they want to “change the world.”  But because of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” they have not learned how to cultivate an “examined life.”  Few of them see learning for learning’s sake–the worship of God with their minds–as a legitimate part of their life of faith.  It is my job to expose them to this way of encountering God and suggest to them that it is a vital part of their responsibility as a Christian.  The Anabaptist and evangelical ethos of my college does not make this easy.  (I discussed this in a chapter I wrote for this book).

But where I differ with Fish (and I am not even sure we differ) is best captured in a few lines from his Chronicle piece.

Fish says: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect.”  I would rephrase Fish’s sentence this way: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship–at least not as part of a design, but citizenship should result as an intended side-effect.”  (I should add that I think such an approach fits squarely within my understanding of the Christian liberal arts, but that discussion will have to wait for another post).

Fish also says: “I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy.”  I would only add that civic literacy–and this includes historical thinking, not just facts–should result in some form of civic responsibility.

As I argued in my 2013  book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Pastthe study of history (and all of the humanities) teaches us empathy, humility, and even love. It relieves us of our narcissism.  It teaches us hospitality.   It challenges us to pursue truth. These kinds of virtues go beyond mere civic literacy and, when applied in an individual life or community, extend well beyond any particular political or social agenda.

“The People” and “Citizens”

we-the-people-graphic-3

Eric Miller writes so well that whenever I read him I am inspired to work harder on my own prose.

In his recent essay at Comment, Miller, a professor of history at Geneva College, discusses the meaning of “populism” in American history and how it is being used in contemporary politics..

Here is a taste:

Is the solution, then, to turn away in high-minded dismay from “the people”? Only if elitist, oligarchic rule is suddenly our best hope. Laclau, writing from within Latin America’s volatile political cauldron, confesses his “suspicion” that beneath the “disdainful rejection” of populism lies a “dismissal of politics tout court,” replaced by a dubious confidence “that the management of community is the concern of an administrative power whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a ‘good’ community is.”

It was this deluded conceit that gave rise to democratic aspiration in the first place. There can be no evasion of politics. There is only bad politics or good politics. And good politics—and this is America’s founding claim—requires equality as an incarnate ideal.

Our governing political impulse must not be to despise the people but rather to understand ourselves as the people. The institutions of formation, the networks of care, and the broader political economy itself we must, as equals, seek to reform with the enlivening virtue that life itself requires. James Baldwin’s observation in 1963 was, after all, simply the summation of ancient wisdom: “The political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.” It’s our spiritual state that most requires our constructive attention, in the hope that from civic renewal a politics will emerge befitting our heritage and fit for this age.

If the odds are against such reformation, it’s for precisely such reasons that hope exists. Hope, alongside faith and love, reminds us that we don’t need a perfect union. Just a more perfect union.

Read the entire post here.  This is long-form writing at its best.

The History Relevance Campaign

Does the study and practice of history lead to a strong citizenry?  Yes.  Or at least this is my argument in chapter six of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It is also the mission driving a group of public historians who have started the “History Relevance Campaign.”  Tim Grove of the Smithsonian writes about this new campaign at History@Work.  Here is a taste:


Certainly the topic of history’s value to society is not new. It has been discussed many times before. This particular effort was sparked in a conversation at the Seminar for Historical Administration (@SHA) last year. A small core of people then instigated an initial working group meeting of twelve people during  American Alliance of Museum (AAM) Museums Advocacy Day last February which brought together representatives from the Smithsonian, American Historical Association (AHA), NCPH, National History Day, American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), and three state history organizations. A lively conversation ensued, and it continued at last year’s NCPH conference, AAM annual meeting, at National History Day’s national competition, and most recently at AASLH’s annual meeting, both at the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Forum and in general session. The HRC working group is trying to seize opportunities to gather history folks of all shapes and sizes to hold discussions that will eventually lead to an action plan. Let me provide a brief overview of what the group has done and what it is and isn’t…

The group’s ultimate challenge is how to define where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. If there is widespread agreement among most history organizations that the discipline of history does not have the best public perception, then perhaps the time is now to plan a course of action, get broad buy-in from the spectrum of professional history organizations, and effect change so that future generations will recognize the value of history. Whenever we have raised the topic, we have been affirmed by the overwhelming response of enthusiasm and passion.

The effort has a LinkedIn group – History Relevance Campaign – open to anyone. The conversation continues there and in other locations. If you want to be part of the conversation, and we hope you do, please join the group in order to be notified of future efforts. And, we plan to continue the discussion at the 2014 NCPH meeting in Monterey next March.