Ironically, Gordon College’s Vice President of Development Was a History Major

Gordon College

If you are not up to speed on Gordon College‘s decision to end its history major (and a bunch of other majors) get up to speed here and here.

It turns out that Gordon’s VP for Finance and Business Development was an undergraduate history major.

While I hope that Mr. Truschel fought valiantly to keep the history major at Gordon, perhaps serving as the only dissenting voice in the meeting when the cut was made, I have my doubts.

I think it’s fair to say that I won’t be interviewing Mr. Truschel for my “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series anytime soon.  🙂

More Thoughts on Gordon College’s Decision to Drop the History Major

Gordon College

I remain saddened at Gordon College’s decision to bring an end to its history major. We had some good discussion last night on my Facebook page.  Here are some of my random reflections:

What strikes me is that Gordon College is not simply consolidating three departments for the purpose of saving administration costs. This is the consolidation of THREE MAJORS–three different disciplines that offer different ways of understanding the world.

I spent over an hour yesterday with a very bright “undecided” student. I was trying to sell her on the importance of humanities, the liberal arts, and, yes, the study of history. The skills and ways of thinking that one learns from the study of history are not something that can happen in a few courses as part of an “integrated major” like Politics-Philosophy-History.  In over two decades of teaching at Christian liberal arts institutions I can attest to the fact that a historical way of seeing the world–one informed by contextual thinking, the understanding of contingency, the complexity of the human experience, a grasp of causality and change over time–is something that is cultivated through a deep dive into the discipline. You can’t come to an interdisciplinary or “integrated” conversation without grounding in a discipline.

I can’t stress the formation piece here enough–especially at a Christian college in the liberal arts tradition. (I don’t care if it is evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, etc.) Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.

How are we forming our Christian students intellectually if we don’t give them the opportunity to dive into a particular discipline–a particular way of seeing the world with its own set of thinking skills? When a Christian college stops supporting the humanities (and now I am talking more broadly) it sends a message that it no longer believes that opportunities for this kind of formation are worth defending.

This, of course, raises the question: What kind of formative experiences DO Christian college believe are worth defending? At this point, a Christian college administrator might enter the fray and say that his or her school has a robust general education curriculum. Fair enough. I will be the first to defend strong Gen Ed Cores and I did so early in my career as a member of my colleges’s Gen Ed committee. But a cafeteria-style Gen Ed, while essential, does not allow for a deep formative dive into a particular way of thinking.

I also realize that some Christian college administrators might be skeptical about at my idealism. “We need to keep the doors open and no 18-22 year-olds want to study history any more.” I understand the dilemma, but if this is indeed the case, let’s just redefine our Christian colleges as professional schools where you will also get a Gen Ed Core and let humanities faculty decide whether or not they can work in such an environment with integrity.  It pains me that students no longer want to come to college to study the humanities. It pains me even more that some of our finest Christian liberal arts colleges will no longer give those who DO want to study these topics an opportunity to do so in a sustained way. So yes, I am really shaken-up by the news from Gordon.

In the meantime, as I prepare to weather the coming storms, I will and continue to cling to the arguments I made here:

Why Study History

Gordon College Will No Longer Have a History Major

14f84-gordoncollege

All Christian colleges are dealing with financial difficulties to one degree or another right now.  (And a significant number of non-Christian colleges are dealing with it as well).  Gordon College, a once flagship evangelical college in the Boston area, has just released a new academic model to “ensure” the college’s “longevity.”  Read all about it here.

As part of the restructuring, Gordon has created new “integrated majors.”  One of those new majors is “Philosophy-Politics-History.”  Here is the description:

While political science will remain as a free-standing major for those students interested in quantitative social science, it will be combined with philosophy and history, which will now be part of this integrated area of study and qualitative analysis. All three of these areas remain integral to a comprehensive liberal arts education. The simple but unpleasant reality is particular fields attract fewer students each year as singular majors (with philosophy in particular reflecting a nationwide declining trend). Many smaller colleges like Gordon are no longer able to sustain the level of investment needed for each of these to function as singular majors.

If I read this correctly, it now appears that Gordon College, a longtime bastion of the Christian liberal arts, no longer has a history major.  Notice that the above statement refers to philosophy, politics, and history as “areas.”  The stand-alone major is over.  Gordon will no longer have a four-year major that will teach students how to think historically about the world.

It is a sad. sad day for the Christian humanities.  My heart goes out to the Gordon history faculty.

Expect more of this.  I wonder if Gordon has set a precedent here that other Christian colleges will follow.  Times are changing.  Stay tuned.

Out of the Zoo: “My Year with the Messiah College History Department”

Bernardo Cricket

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Just to be clear, I did not give her a pay raise to write this particular column.  🙂  –JF

I vividly remember the first time I sat in Professor Fea’s office. I was a junior in high school, visiting Messiah College for the first time with my mom and sister. Messiah was first of the several college tours my mom had scheduled for our Spring Break trip through Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. My mom nudged me as soon as we walked through his office door in Boyer Hall and pointed out the large bookcase bracing one of the walls. I remember her asking me playfully if I thought he’d read all of them. What wall space wasn’t guarded by the massive bookcase was plastered with pictures and portraits of various kinds. I noticed the historical bobble-heads sitting in his windowsill as the four of us sat at a circular table a few feet away from his desk.

In previous meetings with professors at other schools I had been nervous, my mom’s reminders to make good eye contact and make sure you ask questions bouncing around in my head–but talking to Professor Fea was easy. We talked about my interests, hopes, and concerns about college, as well as what other schools I was considering. After explaining the basics of Messiah’s history program, Professor Fea gave me a convincing but honest spiel about what Messiah has to offer, in comparison with schools like Calvin College back in Michigan, and Gordon College in Massachusetts, where I was set to tour later that trip.

I spoke to Professor Fea several months later when he interviewed me over the phone for Messiah’s humanities scholars program for the 2018/2019 school year. I was astonished when he not only remembered who I was, but asked how my mom and sister were doing before we started the formal interview. While it took me a month or two after that to make my college decision official, from that day forward I knew that Messiah’s history department was something that I wanted to be a part of.

If I’m perfectly honest, moving nine hours from home to Messiah for school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was not easy for me to move so far away from the little village in Southwest Michigan that raised me for the first eighteen years of my life. But I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Messiah’s history department has given me a second family while I’m away from home. In just one year here I’ve been able to witness all the time and energy Messiah history professors spend generously on their students. They talk with us before and after class; their offices are frequently open for anyone who needs advice, a listening ear, or a piece of candy. They learn our names and remember them. They encourage us, challenge us, and come alongside us as we seek to understand the past a little better. They attend picnics, dinners, and movie nights the history club organizes for a little fun and community bonding–at last fall’s picnic Professor Michael tried to teach us cricket. Last December they even let us sing Christmas carols at their houses.

Now, just a little more than two years since our first interaction, I sit in Professor Fea’s office once a week for this job. Our meetings usually aren’t too long, every Monday at three o’clock he asks how I’m doing, we talk about the blog and he gives me a new research task if I’ve finished my old one. As I pause and reflect on this past year, it’s a little hard to put into words just how grateful I am for this department and this job. I can say, though, that I cannot wait to see what these next three years will bring.

Out of the Zoo: “Cathedrals”

Notre Dame 2

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about Notre Dame and the meaning of churches. –JF

I can tell you a lot more about old church buildings now than I could have at the beginning of the semester, when I started taking Professor Huffman’s “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits” class here at Messiah College.

Specifically, I’ve been learning about Medieval parish churches, and the important events that often took place inside them. For one, I found out that in Medieval villages, godparents rushed babies to the local parish church immediately after they were born, so that they could be quickly baptized in the baptismal font inside. Years later, if those babies were fortunate enough to reach adulthood, they often got married in the shadow of the same church building, on the front steps. Churches held mass, and remained at the center of holidays and celebrations of all kinds; church buildings were, and still are, places where Christians and non-Christians alike gather, socialize, and carry out their lives.

Despite the significance parish churches had in Medieval village life, I doubt that anyone would pledge millions for their restoration, as in the case of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There’s no doubt that the destruction of the latter will be remembered for many years to come–I can’t say the same of the slow disintegration of village parish churches. As a historian, I myself am saddened by the loss of such a complex artifact as the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which despite generous donations will never be fully restored to its original condition. My heart aches for French men and women who saw the Cathedral as part of their heritage and cultural identity. When I think about Notre Dame, I’m reminded of all the life that must have unfolded within its walls–not unlike the life that thrived inside the much less grandiose parish churches I’ve been learning about from Professor Huffman. I feel remorse when I consider all the laborious work that was done to construct Notre Dame, the fruit of which was so quickly reduced to ashes.

There’s no denying that church buildings have been at the center of human religious and community life for centuries. They’re often where we laugh, cry, get married, and are sent off to our next life. Churches are important to historians, too, when we seek to understand the ways people have gathered and worshiped over time. I can’t help but think, though, especially in light of Notre Dame’s recent destruction, we’ve lost track of the purpose of churches–because even lavish near-1000 year old church buildings will never be more than just that–buildings. A church shouldn’t be important just because it has a tall steeple or an impressive vaulted ceiling. Its value shouldn’t even be judged by the number of weddings or funerals or Easter Sunday services that took place inside. A church’s worth, instead, should be discerned by its ability to send the Church–meaning, the group of Christ-followers inside the building–into the world outside.

If a church keeps you inside and doesn’t send you out, no matter how stunning its stained glass windows or elaborately carved its interior, it’s not doing its job.

Out of the Zoo: “Special Olympics”

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about her work with the Special Olympics.  Enjoy! (Note:  The video posted below is from the Messiah College Special Olympics event in 2018.) –JF

My favorite track meet of the year in high school was always the Parchment Relays. For one, the meet consisted solely of relays–both the traditional races that we ran at every normal meet, and several atypical events, like a hurdle relay and a long distance medley. The best part of the Parchment Relays, though, was the Special Olympics meet that was always held half way through the event. High School athletes would pause their warm-up or cool-down routines to line up along the track and cheer eagerly for Special Olympics athletes as they ran, walked, or wheeled their way to the finish line. My team would always cheer extra loud for our coach’s little brother Todd, who competed faithfully in the Special Olympics meet every year with an excited smile on his face.

I was thrilled when I found out several weeks ago that the Parchment Relays wouldn’t be my last interaction with Special Olympics. To my excitement, I learned that it is a tradition at Messiah College for all first-year students to serve as Special Olympics buddies when the school hosts the Area M Games–a massive Special Olympics event with well over a thousand athletes–on Service Day every year. We lined up with our Created and Called for Community classes early Thursday morning as we waited to be paired with an athlete for the day.

My Special Olympics buddy (we’ll call him Robert) was a second grader from a local elementary school. After being paired with Robert, his teacher greeted me with a warm smile, handed me his event card, and was quick to tell me that he was nonverbal. To be completely honest, this threw me for a loop at first. When I met Robert that day I didn’t know one bit of sign language; by the grace of God I ran into someone who taught me the signs for yes, no, and bathroom. Eventually, though, we settled into a rhythm–Robert stuck faithfully by my side as we wove through crowds to his different events, and put up with my repeated high-fives and fist bumps after his races. Even though I never heard his voice, I still learned about Robert that day.  I learned that his favorite color is red, he loves to dance, and he can eat two whole sandwiches before I finish one. Not only did I learn a lot about Robert that day, but I learned a lot from him too.

Robert taught me that there are myriad of ways someone can communicate, even if they don’t use their voice. As historians, the people we interact with the most in our research usually can’t talk to us–a lot of times because the ones we work with and study are people who lived and died a long, long time ago. As much as we wish we could, we can’t sit next to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Amelia Earhart and converse with them for hours on end; we can’t physically hear their voices, or listen to them tell us their favorite color or kind of tea or way to pass the time. But even so, we can still learn from them. We look at their writings, their records, the things they leave behind and learn to communicate in a different way. Sometimes it takes a little more work than we anticipated–sometimes we don’t understand them right away, or aren’t equipped with the right tools to maintain a conversation at first. Sometimes we get frustrated because the people we try to understand are much different from us. When we’re patient, though, and persistent, we can come from our historical conversations having learned more than we ever thought we would.

Out of the Zoo: “March Madness”

March Madness

I challenged my boyfriend Nolan to a March Madness bracket competition last month, with little success.

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about her the “March Madness” and her history of sports class.  Enjoy! –JF

To be completely honest, I don’t know a whole lot about sports. While I consider myself an athlete–I ran track and cross country in high school–I’m usually pretty clueless when it comes to following organized athletics. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy sports, and I’m usually more than willing to sit down and watch a game, but ask me which college team is ranked highest in the country, or which player is a shoe-in for rookie-of-the-year, there’s no way I would be able to provide you with an accurate answer.

My boyfriend Nolan, on the other hand, knows a lot more about sports than I do. For one, he’s played more than I have–track, football and power lifting now, but basketball, baseball and soccer in the past as well. He follows sports too, and on the couple occasions I’ve watched games with him I’m reminded of how little I truly know about athletics. Nolan knows all about which teams are good and which ones aren’t; he knows which players to keep an eye on and which ones to disregard.

All this being said, I should have known that challenging Nolan to a March Madness bracket competition was a fool’s errand from the start. Nonetheless, I downloaded the ESPN app, joined the group he made for the two of us, and with little informed strategy made my picks. For the fun of it we added a friendly wager into the equation–whoever’s bracket lost, we decided, would plan (and pay for) a fancy date for the other as soon as I came home for the summer. As the NCAA tournament comes to a close and my bracket continues to suffer more hits, my chances of winning the bet are looking slim to none, little to my surprise. Even so, the contest has provided an extra way for Nolan and I to have a little fun, and to keep connected while I’m away at school.

Our March Madness bet reminds me of an overarching theme I’ve been learning in my Sports, Race, and Politics class this semester; namely, that sports bring people together–and they have for a long time. Before people hosted extravagant Superbowl parties, sports brought people together. Before loyal fans could stream their favorite college team’s games on their phones, sports still brought people together. Even before ESPN invented a March Madness app that allowed ambitious girlfriends to challenge their long-distance boyfriends to ill-fated bracket wagers, sports brought people together.

Sports, throughout history, have bridged cultural, racial, and geographic barriers. Back in the 19th century, sports allowed immigrants to participate in American society right after stepping onto United States soil. After all, you don’t have to speak the same language as someone else to play a pickup game with them in the street. Sports brought unity among races in other ways as well–as African American athletes like Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali emerged in the public eye, blacks and whites alike ventured out to the track, baseball diamond, or boxing ring to witness sporting prowess at its finest. While segregation continued to apply within sports arenas even after teams themselves were integrated, games allowed members of both races to come together in the same space to watch the same game and cheer for the same team.

Ever since their arrival in American life, sports have provided a way for athletes and fans alike from all races, income levels, and geographic regions to share a common interest and pursue a common goal.

Out of the Zoo: “Irene”

Annie and Irene

I interviewed Irene Stearns my junior year as part of a National History Day project on the Kalamazoo Gals. Irene worked at the Gibson guitar factory during WWWII coiling strings.

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

If you’re from Michigan like me, or perhaps you’re a guitar aficionado, you may have wandered down Parson’s Street in downtown Kalamazoo to a run-down factory that used to house Gibson Inc. Even though Gibson no longer resides in my hometown, the instrument making will remain part of its history for many years to come.

Perhaps one of the most special eras of Gibson’s history lives on through Irene Stearns. Irene coiled guitar strings for Gibson in the 1940s;  she worked alongside numerous other women who the company hired during World War II. Aptly nicknamed “Kalamazoo Gals” by author John Thomas for Glenn Miller’s song “I’ve got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” these women received high praise for their quality work.  “Banner Gibsons,” which were crafted by these female luthiers during the war years, are some of the most valuable (and arguably some of the best sounding) Gibson instruments to date. The Kalamazoo Gals are often commended for their courage and hard work, alongside thousands of other women who helped fill the “arsenal of democracy” during WWII. We thank them for opening doors for women in the workforce and praise them for opposing the traditional roles women were expected to play back then. We learn about these women who worked during WWII and even paint them as revolutionaries.

I got the privilege to befriend Irene two years ago when I was compiling research for an exhibit about the Kalamazoo Gals. We spoke extensively about her work at Gibson and it didn’t take me long to realize that she saw herself as anything but revolutionary. Irene worked at Gibson not because she wanted to open doors for women of future generations, or even because she wanted to be remembered as a courageous Rosie-the-Riveter. She worked simply because she didn’t like her old job and wanted a new one. She never thought her story would make the history books–she was just going to work, doing what she had to do to earn little money. She never once thought she would receive any kind of recognition or praise.

We can learn a lot from people like Irene. The extensive human narrative we call history is filled with ordinary characters who never expected to be remembered. The parts of their lives that we find fascinating, or inspirational even, they saw as normal. It often makes me wonder: Which ordinary actions I take today could be seen as extraordinary tomorrow? How will my steps here and now affect the ones future generations will be able to take in the future?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I probably never will. However I do know from Irene’s story that the little things matter. The way I work, the way I meet challenges and take opportunities will contribute to the way I am remembered. It’s impossible for me to know what future historians will think when they look back on my story–but I want them to see that I did what I could to make it the best one I could write.

Out of the Zoo: “Listening Ears”

Saturday Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Zoo: “National History Day”

Kalamazoo Gals NHD

One of my three National History Day exhibits. This one is from my junior year in high school

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

Hundreds of students, teachers, and parents ventured onto Messiah College’s campus on Saturday for one of Pennsylvania’s regional National History Day (NHD) contests. NHD is a country-wide organization that allows grade school students to research a historical topic and connect it to an annual theme.  Once they complete their research they assemble a project from their findings and bring it to a competition. Students learn how to find and analyze sources, and are given the chance to share what they learned in the format of a paper, exhibit, website,  documentary, or performance.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe a National History Day competition to someone who hasn’t attended one. Picture a science fair, but instead of looking at model volcanoes or potato alarm clocks, you see kids bringing in boards about the assassination of John F. Kennedy or showing home-made documentaries about the Little Rock Nine. I like to think of NHD as a giant pep rally for history nerds of all ages.

On Saturday Boyer Hall and the High Center buzzed with kids anxious to show off their work in competition. This year’s theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” brought in projects of all shapes and sizes, covering many different subjects from a wide variety of time periods. Students swept out the most distant corners of the past; some introduced us to new stories and others developed narratives that were already familiar.

To aid in the ambitious undertaking of hosting a NHD competition, several Messiah students, professors, alumni, and community members were recruited to serve as judges. Assigned to a specific category and age level, the task of the NHD judge is to evaluate students’ projects, chat with them about their topic, ask questions about their research process, and ultimately decide who gets to move on to compete at the state level. I was placed on a team with Derek Fissel, a local middle school teacher, and together we judged a portion of the junior group exhibit category. We got to talk with five different pairs of middle schoolers about the projects they’ve toiled over for the past several months.

My AP US History teacher introduced me to NHD during my sophomore year of high school.  That year I learned basic research skills that remain a foundation for my scholarship today.  NHD revealed my passion for uncovering stories and sharing them with my community. I participated in NHD for two more years in the exhibit category, so judging displays proved very familiar, and almost nostalgic.

I could not speak more highly of National History Day. As a history major and future educator I know I’m biased, but I think something really special happens when kids participate in NHD. They’re given the chance to learn about something they’re interested in, make new discoveries, and show off their findings. No matter how far they proceed in the competition, they’re given the chance to develop practical research skills, pursue curiosity, and channel their creativity to produce a final result. I fully plan on encouraging my future students to participate in NHD and I look forward to coming alongside them as they make their first historical discoveries.

Out of the Zoo: “In Search of Knights, Peasants, and Bandits”

kalamazoo-valley-museum

The mummy exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

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

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.

One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.

The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.

It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.

A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.

Out of the Zoo: “Finding a Calling in the History Classroom”

annie

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

Like many other college freshmen, when I started attending Messiah College last fall I had lots of doubts–concerning my major, my future career path, and my calling in general. For my first semester I was enrolled as a history major with a concentration in public history. I knew history was something I enjoyed, and something I was relatively good at. I pictured myself working at the Smithsonian or a national historic site someday, doing research or designing displays or preserving artifacts.  However, fresh from a year serving as an intern for my youth group and a summer working as a counselor at a Christian day camp, I wondered if perhaps I would be better suited for ministry.

So what did I choose? Well, by the description of this column you can probably infer that I haven’t switched my major to ministry, but it turns out I didn’t stick with the public history track either. I actually turned down a different path entirely and decided to add a teaching certificate into the mix.

Despite the numerous times adults have asked me if I’m planning to teach with my history major, until this year I never once pictured myself going into education. As a high school student, I was ready to get out of grade school and run away as fast as my legs could carry me. I didn’t think I had enough patience to teach. I convinced myself I would never be captivating enough to hold the attention of 20-30 kids for an extended period of time.

Sometime after high school, though, the walls I had built against any aspirations to become an educator began to fall. Working with kids all summer and learning to keep their attention tore down a few bricks. Being told by several peers that I would make a great teacher destroyed a few more. What made them all come tumbling down, though, was my realization that becoming a teacher had the potential to combine both my passions–history and ministry.

If you’ve read the first installment of this column, you know that one of my favorite things about history is its ability to make the past come to life; by choosing history education over public history, I would still be doing that–except I would be bringing the past to life for kids in a classroom, rather than the general public in a museum. Pursuing a career in education will also allow me to practice ministry. No, I won’t be able to read scripture in class or evangelize from behind my desk (especially because I want to work in public schools) but I will be given the opportunity to represent Christ to my students, their parents, and my coworkers as well and as often as I can. I am a firm believer in the idea that ministry isn’t about the title–it’s about God’s love. If your goal is to show God’s accepting, forgiving, never-ending love to the people you work with, anyone can be a minister, no matter what their profession.

The History Major is in Decline, but not at Yale

57453-yale2bdept-2bof2bhistory

Last week we reported on an American Historical Association study that revealed a 33% decline in the number of history majors in United States colleges and universities.  But this is not the case at Yale.  Here is a taste of Carly Wanna’s piece at Yale News:

Despite national trends, Yale’s undergraduate program remains one of the five most popular majors at Yale, with 129 students declared in the class of 2019 alone.

According to department chair Joanne Meyerowitz, Yale’s Department of History plans to add as many as 11 new professors of history, six of which would focus on non-American and non-European history.

“Yale has a long tradition of a robust history major, and the college places emphasis on the importance of the liberal arts,” Meyerowitz said. “Over the past few years, we’ve made a concerted effort to hire more faculty in African-, Asian- and Latin American history and, more generally, in international and transnational history.”

Read the entire piece here.

Here is my quick take:  Yale graduates get jobs regardless of major simply because of the Yale name and alumni base.  Yale students are thus able to take more risks in choosing a major.  Thoughts?

What Happened to the History Major?

9288b-historymajorAccording to a recent report from the American Historical Association, the undergraduate history major is in steep decline.  In the last six years, the number of history majors in American colleges and universities has dropped by about 33%, more than any other discipline.   And this is in a period when university enrollments have grown.  Here is a taste of the report:

Optimists may look at the last year’s line in these charts and note that the rate of decline appears to have slowed. It is reasonable to hope that the trends of the last decade will eventually bottom out, perhaps even in the next year or two. At this point, though, it would take several unprecedented years of growth in history majors to return to mid-2000s numbers; departments should not expect a rapid rebound. While there are anecdotal accounts of students seeking out history in the current political climate, leading indicators of student interest are at best mixed; most notably, the AHA’s survey of course enrollments in a number of departments for the 2016–17 academic year found continued declines in credit hours. (Editor’s note: results of the AHA enrollments survey for 2017–18 will be published in the January issue of Perspectives.)

Those enrollment numbers suggest one possible long-term trend: that history departments will become more oriented toward introductory-level courses. Although I am not aware of good data on credit hours for the critical period 2010–12, it seems that the declines in enrollments since then may have been gentler than the drops in majors. Students still take history courses—but more often, apparently, as electives, as requirements for other majors, or as general education requirements. If major numbers do not recover, each of these areas will become more important. One common plan, for joint or hybrid majors, is peripherally tracked in the IPEDS data through reporting of second majors. These numbers capture students who major in fields like “Political science and history” where any other field might occupy the first position. They do not seem to offer great consolation; history’s share of second majors mirrors its overall trend in the last decade.

Ultimately, whether through majors or course enrollments, the long-term state of the discipline will rest on how it adapts to a cohort of students—and their parents—who are much less receptive to arguments for the liberal arts than previous generations have been. Many departments and organizations have worked out useful ways to articulate the purpose of the major. These are undoubtedly helping attract and retain students today. (The institutions that made up AHA’s Tuning project, an initiative to this end, are among those on the front lines; the first set of Tuning departments reported marginally better enrollments from 2014 to 2017, though not so strongly that I am confident in their statistical significance.) As the 2008 crisis moves farther into the past, we should attempt to identify departments that have had the most notable successes.

Read the entire report here.

No commentary yet.  I need to think through this report a bit more.

Historian Nathan Hatch is the Highest Paid College President in the U.S.

f53b9-hatchWhat can you do with a history major?  Earn $4 million a year as a college president.

Many readers of this blog know Nathan Hatch for his award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity.  But did you know that he was pulling in $4,004,617 as president of Wake Forest University? Wow!

Learn more here.

It’s also worth noting that Jerry Falwell Jr. makes $958,021 as president of Liberty University.

A Day with the History Department at Kean University

Liberty Hall Kean

Liberty Hall at Kean University.  Liberty Hall was the home of William Livingston, the first governor of the state of New Jersey. 

As I posted earlier this week, I spent the day on Tuesday with the History Department at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.  I am working with Kean as a “public humanities consultant” for their National Endowment for the Humanities program “William Livingston’s World.

First, was very impressed with the Kean History Department and the hospitality I received during my visit.  Special thanks to Jonathan Mercantini (Acting Dean of the College of Liberty Arts) and Elizabeth Hyde (Department Chair).

In the morning, I talked about public engagement with the faculty and campus archives staff.  We had a spirited discussion about whether or not our public engagement as historians should be more political and activist-oriented than our classroom teaching.  I think it is fair to say that we were divided on this question.

In the afternoon, I met with four honors students who wrote papers and created websites on William Livingston.  During this session we watched the “director’s cut” of the Liberty Hall 360 re-enactment of the Susannah Livingston-John Jay wedding.  Several of the students worked on the script.  It was fun chatting with undergraduates who have traveled to archives with Livingston collections, read Livingston’s letters, and tried to make sense of the political, intellectual, and religious life of this New Jersey founding father.

One of these students approached me after the session with a signed copy of Why Study History?  My inscription read: “Caleb, keep studying history and I hope you do so at Messiah College.”  It was dated 2014.  Needless to say, we did not land Caleb at Messiah, but he certainly had a wonderful undergraduate career at Kean.  Caleb asked me to sign the book again with an inscription that began “four years later….”  It was a great encounter with a big undergraduate fish I was unable to land!  🙂

Finally, I met with five adjunct faculty members who teach the department’s general education course: “HIST 1062: Modern World Civilizations: Crises of the Contemporary World.”  We had a great discussion about how to teach historical thinking skills to non-history majors.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope to return soon to continue consulting on the William Livingston project.  As I noted in my previous post, I think this is a model grant for any history department interested in merging public history, public humanities, career preparation, and the undergraduate history curriculum.

What Does a Humanities Professor Do When a College Cuts the Humanities?

Holy Names

Check out Nina Handler‘s moving piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Handler teaches English at Holy Names University, in Oakland, California.  The college recently cut several humanities majors, including English and History.  It’s website currently features a student playing golf.

Holy Names claims to be a a university “rooted in Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions.”  The Catholic college has also cut majors in Intercultural Peace and Justice, Latin American Studies, Music, Philosophy, and Religious Studies.

Here is a taste of Handler’s “Facing My Own Extinction“:

Disturbingly, after our English major was eliminated, I discovered in conversations that several of my colleagues didn’t realize that there was a distinction between the freshman-writing program and the English major.

Times change, and institutions of higher education must change along with them. If no one wants to study a particular field, if it’s not filling a niche, it will die a natural death. This is evolution in action. I have no choice but to accept that the vast majority of students at my university don’t want to major in English. They don’t want what I have to offer. Instead, they want degrees in the health sciences.

Of course, my students and their worldviews don’t exist in a vacuum. They live in a culture that tells them in every way that STEM fields are where the money’s at and consequently are the only fields worth studying. They want to know — for the return on the gargantuan investment they and their families have made in a college education — that they will be able to get a well-paid job tied directly to their major.

Once education is viewed as a hoop to be jumped through to get somewhere else, people start assigning value to it in a way that privileges direct connections to prosperity and jobs they can easily see. With no sense that being an English major leads to any job but being an English teacher, students are “voting with their feet,” as my provost said when she canceled the major. Social Darwinism speaks of “survival of the fittest,” a victim-blaming phrase that has been distorted to justify socially constructed imbalances of wealth and power. If you can’t make it, it’s your own fault — or it’s just nature taking its bloody course.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Trump Saving the History Major?

Trump Jackson Tomb

Trump at Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Tennessee

Check out Amy X. Wang‘s piece at Quartz: “Donald Trump’s presidency is saving the history degree.”  She brings together a lot of stuff we have been writing about here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Here is a taste:

Stagnant and predictable, the history major had been slowly dying. American college students were turning to fast-paced and dynamic fields like engineering or economics—and ones with a guaranteed salary payoff at the end. In March 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history was in dramatic decline, falling as much as 9.1% from a year earlier in 2014. The explosive growth of lucrative, forward-leaping Silicon Valley in the last decade seems to have rendered the history major, a curriculum focused on immutable events of decades ago, all the less relevant.

Then came Trump—whose November election brought upon frantic Google searches such as “How did this happen?

Trump’s win has broken through an apathy barrier of sorts. People who’d become disengaged with politics suddenly started paying attention again. It has spilled over into education: search data reveals a surge of interest in studying history in the latter half of 2016 (with a peak and crash-dip in late December, likely due to that being the deadline for US college applications).

Read the rest here.  Thanks to reader James King (@eloryjetson) for bringing this piece to my attention.