Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

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The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.

Out of the Zoo: Young Life

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Six of Boiling Springs’ eight Young Life leaders at Lake Champion in Glen Spey, New York.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her work with a ministry to high school kids. –JF

At the end of March last year I got placed as a Young Life leader at Boiling Springs High School. As a Young Life leader, I spend several hours a week hanging out with high school students. Along with a team of six other leaders, we create opportunities for kids to have fun, build relationships and learn more about Jesus. Whether we’re running our weekly gathering called “club,” leading students through a bible study before school called “campaigners,” or supporting our high school friends at their activities or athletic events, we devote our time to meeting new kids and giving them a chance to hear the Gospel.

The goal of Young Life is to make the Gospel accessible to kids. Some kids–most kids, really–who come to Young Life are just beginning their relationship with Christ. Some students who come to club, campaigners, or fall weekend with us hear about Jesus for the first time through Young Life. And that’s precisely the point of what we do as leaders; we seek out kids who don’t know Jesus in the hopes that they will want to come and see what he’s all about.

So, when we give club talks or campaigner lessons, we don’t try to impress our kids with fancy words or theological debates. Instead, we just try to show them, in their own terms, how much God loves them and wants to be in a relationship with them. We seek to demonstrate, through our own lives and through scripture, just how awesome it is to live life with Jesus. We strive to show them not only what God has done for them, but why he did it, why it matters, and why the story of a man who walked the earth 2000 years ago is still relevant to their lives today.

I think some, if not all, history teachers can learn something from Young Life, namely that there’s something valuable in presenting stories to kids in ways they can understand. There are plenty of historians who know the importance of understanding the past on its own terms–but there are few history teachers who are truly skilled at presenting the past, in all its complexity, to students in their own terms. Of course teachers need to tell their students what happened in the past–just like Young Life leaders need to show high schoolers what Jesus did for them two millennia ago. But if they cannot show students why they are learning what they’re learning, or why what happened in the past is still relevant to their life in the present, they have failed. If students cannot see how the past actively shapes what they experience in the here and now, they haven’t truly grasped a full understanding of history.

I realize this is no easy task. The past is foreign and strange, and the prospect of relating it to what students experience in the world today remains daunting. It takes extra effort for teachers to explain the past in a way that is relevant to students; it requires educators to invest in their pupils, to build relationships with them and uncover their seemingly ever-changing interests. Yes, teaching students why they’re learning what they’re learning is no easy task. Yet it is one worth striving for.

Out of the Zoo: Hamilton’s Deathbed Conversion

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Church Cemetery.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her paper on Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith. –JF

My “Age of Hamilton” class is well into its second act. After taking a couple weeks to discuss the musical Hamilton, we took a deep dive into the life of America’s 10-dollar founding father. We started off the semester discussing Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies and his education in New Jersey and New York. Next we paraded through the Revolutionary war alongside Alexander.  Then we discussed his contributions to the Constitution—at the Constitutional Convention and through the 51 Federalist papers that he wrote. At long last we’ve reached what seems to be the pinnacle of the course—Hamilton’s stint as the first secretary of the treasury—and soon enough we will come to Weehawken New Jersey, the stage of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

As “Age of Hamilton” reaches its close in the next month or so, my classmates and I will be striving to finish our lengthy research papers for the course. As we scramble to gather sources and organize our thoughts for the assignment, we surely have gained a new understanding of the question Hamilton repeatedly poses: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Nonetheless, our minds are “at work” as we seek to flesh out various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s life.

As you can imagine, the topics my classmates and I are pursuing for this assignment are quite diverse. My friend Chloe is researching Hamilton’s relationship with fellow revolutionary John Laurens. Another fellow history major is writing on Hamilton’s role in the Battle of Monmouth. My roommate Rachel is learning about 18th-century courtship for her paper, and several more classmates are researching the Reynolds Affair. While all of these potential topics intrigued me, I decided to take the semester to inquire into Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith.

My paper thus far is centered around Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion,” an event which, even after hours of research, still fascinates me. I’ve recently discovered that a large portion of Hamilton’s career was characterized by the apparent absence of religious devotion. Yet, at the end of his life, after a fatal shot through the abdomen from the pistol of Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked multiple times to receive communion from his deathbed. Hamilton first requested the sacraments from Episcopal bishop Reverend Benjamin Moore, who denied Hamilton’s wishes because he did not condone the practice of dueling.  Hamilton then turned to Presbyterian minister John Mason, who, like Moore, also refused. After some time though, Reverend Moore returned to Hamilton’s bedside and obliged to administer communion.

As I worked on this project over the weekend, I’ve realized there is still much work to do. I’ve researched and written some about Hamilton’s exposure to religion throughout his life, and have continued my inquiry into his “deathbed conversion.” Yet, at this point I am left with more questions than answers. What did Hamilton really believe about God? Why were the sacraments so important to him that he still desired them even after being turned down twice? Where will Hamilton spend eternity? Surely not all of these questions belong in my paper, but my research has led me to ask them nonetheless. As I seek solutions to some of these questions, I’m starting to realize that most will not be so easily answered. Some people living today cannot even articulate what they believe about God; therefore it’s no easy task to do the same for someone who died over 200 years ago. Thus, I will try my best to tread carefully, to keep my eyes open, and to do justice to the complexity that defined every aspect of Hamilton’s life, religious and otherwise.

Out of the Zoo: Time Travel

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about a recent George Will lecture on campus. –JF

Especially among my history major friends, time travel is a popular subject of conversation. Many of us raised on books like The Magic Treehouse, movies like Back to the Future or shows like Doctor Who, we can easily entertain ourselves by talking about what it might’ve been like to live in another time. While I have yet to meet a real-life Marty McFly who can actually travel back in time, my friends and I still have fun imagining what our lives might have have looked like if we lived 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.

This past Thursday Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will visited Messiah’s campus. After attending a dinner President Kim Phipps held in his honor that afternoon, I made my way down to the High Center where Mr. Will gave his lecture. After “depressing” us with dismal statistics about the nation’s growing debt, the faltering social security system, and the staggering price of modern medicine, George Will sought to end his lecture on a high note. In an attempt to lift our spirits, Will brought his own inquiry about time travel to the table. 

Will asked his South-Central Pennsylvania audience this question: If you could be as rich as John D. Rockefeller (the world’s first billionaire) was in 1916, but had to live in 1916, would you take the money or would you stay put on 21st century soil? He took a quick poll of his audience before launching into his argument.

Sure, Will said, if you had a billion dollars in 1916, you would be the richest man (or woman) in the world. Yet, even if you were the richest woman in the world in 1916, you still wouldn’t be able to vote in most states. Sure, you could live in a mansion and buy the most expensive watch on the market, but as Will emphasized, 1916’s most expensive watch wouldn’t keep time nearly as well as the cheap timepiece you can purchase from Walmart nowadays. If you filled the shoes of the world’s first billionaire you would surely be able to afford the best doctors 1916 had to offer, but there was still a one in 10 chance you would suffer from a perpetual toothache.

Progress. That’s what rested at the center of Will’s point. While the United States may have its flaws–flaws which Mr. Will was not ashamed to point out–advances in science, technology, and industry over the past century have greatly improved the American way of life. Essentially, Will argued Thursday that despite the problems our nation faces in the present, our lives are much better now than they would have been a hundred years ago. 

I agreed with Will’s argument in some respects. I can not deny that our nation has made steady, if not exponential progress in the areas of medicine and technology since 1916. And, as a white female, I know full well that the life I live now is much more comfortable than the one I would have lived a century ago. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. It is our natural tendency to view the chronology of time as a journey from destitution to prosperity. When we look back on the past we like to see progress, and sometimes even go out of our way to find it and to blow it out of proportion. Full of prideful optimism, we like to point out the inefficiencies of the past rather than focusing on our flaws in the present. As historians, though, we need to keep our eyes on the past, the present, and the future. That’s when real progress is made.

The History Major is Back at Gordon College

Gordon College

I received this today from Gordon’s office of Marketing and External Relations:

The Political Science, Philosophy and History departments will be merged into one administrative department, and all department faculty worked over the summer to revise their curriculum to better meet the needs of incoming students across these three disciplines. Gordon will continue to offer majors in these disciplines as part of a comprehensive liberal arts education. The philosophy major will now include four concentrations (of which students must choose one): political theory; justice, peace and conflict; law; and language and linguistics.

It appears that the stand-alone History Department at Gordon is gone, but the major will remain.  Some of you may remember that Gordon announced last Spring that it would be dropping the major.  We wrote about that here and here and here and here and here.

Kate Shellnut mentioned this in a piece at Christianity Today earlier this month, but I missed it.

Economists Make the Case for More History Majors:

ShillerOver at The Washington Post, Heather Long calls our attention to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller’s new book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events.  Here is a taste of her piece:

As humanities majors slump to the lowest level in decades, calls are coming from surprising places for a revival. Some prominent economists are making the case for why it still makes a lot of sense to major (or at least take classes) in humanities alongside more technical fields.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s new book “Narrative Economics” opens with him reminiscing about an enlightening history class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He wrote that what he learned about the Great Depression was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economic courses.

The whole premise of Shiller’s book is that stories matter. What people tell each other can have profound implications on markets — and the overall economy. Examples include the “get rich quick” stories about bitcoin or the “anyone can be a homeowner” stories that helped drive the housing bubble.

“Traditional economic approaches fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events — that is, narrative,’ Shiller wrote. “Economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics.”

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

Read the entire piece here.  Of course I have been making this case here and elsewhere for a long time.  We need more story-tellers!

Out of the Zoo: Wins and Losses

IMG_20191020_185428_01Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to “win” as a historian. –JF

Messiah College had its homecoming last week. Various decorations made their yearly appearance on campus, sprucing up Messiah’s grounds for visitors. Banners reading “Messiah College Homecoming,” numerous flyers, and bouquets of blue and white balloons were strategically placed around the college to announce homecoming festivities. My school, normally relatively quiet on weekends, buzzed with alumni and their families who bounced between class reunions, open houses, and athletic events. 

Homecoming weekend also brought Messiah’s annual powderpuff tournament. This year, my team of sophomores (affectionately named “Green Machine” for our green shirts) had bi-weekly practices leading up to our yearly match. Our coaches wrote out numerous plays for us to learn, patiently explained them, and even let us come up with a creative name for each after they introduced it to us. They assigned positions, ran drills, and even sent us photos of our plays to study over fall break.

When game day came around, we were confident. Our coaches had done everything they could to prepare us for our row with the class of 2021. However, after a hard-fought bout with the juniors we pulled up short, losing 12-20. The whole team was pretty disappointed, and to be completely honest I was too. I’m not usually a competitive person, but I’ll admit that losing a game we had worked so hard for struck a painful chord. We were humbled, to say the least. However, the fun we had, the new things we learned, and the friendships we forged throughout the process afforded us a different sense of victory.

So what qualifies as a “win” for history students? Some might think that to be a successful historian you need to make some groundbreaking discovery or tie up all your research into a perfect conclusion. As a history student myself, however, I’m learning that this kind of victory is virtually impossible, even for the best scholars. Just like football, the study of history is defined by struggle. It’s characterized by setbacks and unexpected challenges that have to be met in stride. Sometimes we’re faced with complex or conflicting sources that we don’t understand. Or other times archives crumble (like the one in Cologne in 2009), burying thousands of documents in rubble. Still more frequently our own convictions and biases block us from our end goal of portraying the past honestly and objectively. No matter how much time we devote to a project, there will always be loose ends, lost sources, and unexplored paths that we never get to travel.

Challenges, struggles, and losses never fail to humble us, whether we’re playing football or doing historical research. No matter how hard we work at practice, there will always be something we could have done differently in the game. No matter how much effort we put into our research, there will always be something we don’t quite understand fully. If history students aren’t reminded of this truth—that although the study of history is rewarding, it comes with its own unique set of challenges—they will spend their days agonizing over a goal that is impossible to attain. 

So, as cliche as it may sound, perhaps we need to re-define what victory means in the realm of history. It shouldn’t mean scoring the most points in a trivia game, being able to find the most sources, or even conducting the most comprehensive study of the past. Instead, real victory is attained when we show up, put in the effort, and wrestle with the struggles that come our way. We win when we can pursue our passions in spite of challenges, and all the while humbly accept the fact that there are some things we will never know.

Out of the Zoo: Hindsight is 20/20

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that history “finds character in its unpredictability.” –JF

Though three years have passed since I sat inside my 11th grade world history classroom, I can still picture it vividly. Our tables were arranged in a horseshoe shape which opened up to face our teacher’s desk, a large whiteboard, and a projector screen that extended from the ceiling. Another table in the front of the room displayed a few miscellaneous figurines including one mangled statue of Santa Claus donning Michigan State gear. 

Our A.P. World History instructor, Mr. Minehart, used a variety of tactics to foster our understanding of course content–many of which involved food. After learning about Hinduism and Buddhism at the beginning of the year we took a trip to a local Hindu temple, stopping at a buffet for Indian cuisine before heading back to the high school. Months later we held a Cold War cocktail party, mingling with other students posing as world leaders while sipping on glasses of punch and eating snacks.

There’s another day of class in particular that I can picture clearly–November 8, 2016. It was the day of the long-awaited Presidential election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the whole country seemed to be holding its breath. When election day finally came around, Mr. Minehart, out of his own curiosity, asked if any of us thought Donald Trump would win the presidency. In a class of nearly 30 students, only two raised their hands. Needless to say, most of us were in for a surprise.

History, though so often defined by a search for patterns, finds character in its unpredictability. The ugliness of the 2016 election was nothing new–American politicians have spewed insults at each other in the press since the founding era. Yet President Trump being elected was something very few of us (at least very few of us high school students) could predict. 

If I’ve learned anything from studying history, it’s been that things never happen the same way twice. It proves true that we humans have been known to make the same mistakes time and time again, but every year, every day, every hour even something else happens that no one saw coming. I doubt Jackie Robinson knew when he was nine years old that he would be chosen to break baseball’s rigid color barrier; likewise I’m confident Barack Obama had no idea as a child he would be the United States’ first African American president. Surely British colonists in the early 18th century would not have been able to predict that in 100 years they would be calling themselves Americans.

When we study historical figures, we must always keep in mind the fact that our past is their present. Sure, we can look back and see the way events unfolded, make claims about causes and point out warning signs, but we must remember that we see their lives from an entirely different perspective.  Just because we, as historians, can look back and learn about how people’s lives turn out doesn’t mean they were afforded any such privilege. For in truth none of us can be sure about what the next year, the next month, or even the next day will bring. We can take some educated guesses, but in reality we don’t know with any kind of certainty what the future has in store. Yet in 100 years historians will look back on our lives and see many things we couldn’t see at the time. We must remember that when we study the past, though we may have a widened scope, we must never forget about the uncertainty that defines the present.

Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

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Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

Out of the Zoo: “The Age of Hamilton”

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English major Rachel Hungerford, theater major Brooklyn Duttweiler, and history major Chloe Kauffman strike a signature Schuyler sisters pose before “Age of Hamilton” on Monday.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her “Age of Hamilton” class at Messiah College. 🙂  –JF

I remember the first time I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack in the fall of 2015. It was my sophomore year, and I was deep in the throes of my musical theater phase. During this unique period of my life I exclusively listened to show tunes, spent all my money on seeing musicals, and obsessed over all things Broadway. Into this era of my life entered Hamilton.

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Hamilton on Instagram when a promotional video for the show popped up on my explore page. After watching Lin Manuel Miranda and his cast of diverse founding fathers hip-hop dance across my phone screen I turned to my mom and told her excitedly, “I think there’s a new musical about Alexander Hamilton!”

I spent the entirety of the next day listening to the soundtrack non-stop. Soon enough I knew all the words by heart, and couldn’t resist bursting into song whenever someone mentioned the show or said anything that remotely reminded me of it. A year later, I even got the chance to see the musical in Chicago, the day after Donald Trump claimed the presidency (my sister wrote a reflection on our experience here). With the passage of time, though, the Hamilton lyrics I memorized gradually faded back into the recesses of my mind–that is, until I registered for Professor Fea’s “Age of Hamilton” course.

As I entered Frey 241 last Wednesday, I soon realized that “Age of Hamilton” might be the most diverse upper level history course I’ll ever take at Messiah. Usually, non-history majors and minors steer clear of challenging history classes, but this course proves an exception. While a little over half half of those I observed in class on the first day were history majors, seats were filled by students from across the academic spectrum–some were theater majors, others study English or Biblical and Religious Studies, still another is pursuing a future in athletic training. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, now everyone loves Alexander Hamilton–not just the history majors. I anticipate that our class discussions will be deeply enriched by the variety of perspectives students bring to the table.

The second day of class we discussed Hamilton as a form of “people’s history.” As a preview to his lecture Professor Fea showed us a YouTube clip from the 2009 White House poetry jam, during which Lin Manuel-Miranda performed an early version of Hamilton‘s opening number. My friend Rachel and I smiled sheepishly at each other when we heard Miranda’s unique voice ring through the speakers. Immediately several students began to mouth the lyrics to each other, and soon enough the entire classroom burst into song.

It still baffles me that students from across disciplines will gather every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to learn about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury. Who knew that, because of a musical of all things, so many people would be able to rap about Hamilton’s immigration from the West Indies to New York. Soon enough though, our class will be able to do so much more than spout off song lyrics about Alexander Hamilton. Instead, we will gain a deep and thorough understanding of who he really was. While we will certainly continue to discuss the Hamil-mania that has swept the nation, we won’t be satisfied by a staged portrayal of his existence. Rather, we will read Hamilton’s words, discuss them, and wrestle with the complexities that defined his life. This class will surely broaden all of our horizons.

“Out of the Zoo” is Back!

Springhill trailer

Each Springhill day camp team has a trailer they haul from site to site. Inside you’ll find anything from bins of tie-dye shirts, to high adventure equipment, to inflatable water slides.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Here is Annie’s first dispatch from the 2019-2020 academic year.🙂  –JF

 

After a long nine hour drive east from my hometown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’m finally settled in at Messiah College for the upcoming academic year. While I’ll miss the Mitten, I’m excited to be back in the Keystone State for another couple semesters of learning and growth. Before I share what’s on the horizon for me this fall, I thought I’d take this blog post to write a little bit about my adventure this past summer, and how it reminded me of what I’m learning here.

I spent the summer working for Springhill Camps, a half-century old Christian ministry that serves several thousand kids each year. Springhill has two sizeable overnight camp locations in Michigan and Indiana, but the organization also has over ten day camp teams. These teams, based out of West Michigan, Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio, partner with churches primarily around the Midwest to bring the Springhill experience directly to their communities. This past year was my second summer working with one of these day camp teams. I was West Michigan One’s high adventure area director, so I spent ten weeks setting up, inspecting, and tearing down the mobile rock wall we hauled between locations.

Throughout the week at day camp kids participate in a wide variety of adventure activities. Then, after each activity, whether it’s the rock wall or tie-dye or paintball, summer leaders guide their campers through debriefs. During debriefs, campers have three tasks. Their first is to share what they liked about the activity. Secondly, they cite what they didn’t like. Lastly, and most importantly, they find ways to relate the activity back to what they know about God and their relationship with Christ.

Debriefs are my favorite part about Springhill. We tell our counselors that without debriefs, Springhill just wouldn’t be Springhill. It’s true–because while the kids do come to camp to have fun and to try new things, they’re really there to learn what God has done for them, how much he loves them, and how desperately he desires to be in a relationship with them. They’re there to discover that whatever they do, whatever they learn, can be brought back to Jesus.

The best thing, in my opinion, about studying history here at Messiah College is that our instructors also find ways to relate everything we learn back to our relationship with Christ. Our professors here don’t just teach us history for its own sake, but rather they show us how reconstructing the past can relate to our faith. Studying history provides opportunities to practice empathy and compassion, and encourages us to turn our attention to all human beings–not just the ones we agree with or understand. It reveals the presence of sin in the world and the reality of its consequences. It also forces us to humble ourselves and accept the fact that no matter how much we know, there still might be something about the past only God can fully comprehend.

I could go on further, but you probably get the picture. Messiah’s history department does an excellent job of training young historians. If my school failed to show me how to do research or teach a history class, I would have transferred a long time ago. What’s more important to me, though, is that our professors ensure our education remains centered on Christ. Because while we may receive knowledge, a degree, or a fun college experience here at Messiah, we’re really here to bring everything we do, everything we learn, back to Jesus.

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.