David Blight on Reinhold Niebuhr, Theology, and a Bunch of Other Things

Blight 2

Over at Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight about history, memory, Reinhold Niebuhr and history as theology.  Here is a taste:

You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?

Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.

Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?

Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.

Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.

Do you consideRace and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?

Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.

I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.

However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.

Read the rest the entire interview here.

 

T.J. Stiles: “America is losing its memory”

Archives

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian T.J. Stiles has a great piece at The Washington Post on reduced funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  This is a must read.

A taste:

Every American can go to the National Archives and get direct access to our past and present. And everyone suffers from the failure to pay what it costs to maintain it. In fiscal 2010, Congress granted NARA $475 million , for example. The next year, it cut the appropriation to $420 million. The appropriation for 2018 was $403.2 million. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for $358 million. Such repeated, harsh reductions are even worse when adjusted for inflation.

Even as appropriations decline, the workload increases. Already NARA facilities are near full capacity for record storage, holding some 4.5 million cubic feet. Yet more files arrive annually, with as much as 2.5 million cubic feet of “permanently valuable, historical records” expected over the next 14 years.

Selecting and preserving these records demand countless hours of expert labor. Some records need special care; all must be identified and catalogued; security and privacy concerns require diligent attention. On top of that, NARA has been asked to digitize those existing paper records. In 2018, it lagged nearly 12 million pages behind its goal of making 65 million available online — in itself a small fraction of its total holdings.

The fiscal constriction shows at the scores of facilities where the public accesses federal records. NARA maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries, 13 federal records centers, 11 regional facilities and two personnel records centers, not to mention two central locations in College Park and Washington. Recent years have seen visitor hours restricted, new fees levied and a shrinking workforce.

That staff consists of dedicated professionals. I’ve worked with many of them personally, from rank-and-file archivists to the agency’s nonpartisan leadership, and I have great confidence in them. (I spoke to no one at NARA about this essay.) But only so much can be accomplished with a shrinking budget. In 2017, an employee survey found 73 percent agreed that “my agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” In 2018, that figure declined to 66 percent, an alarming level for such a critical body.

We owe it to ourselves to substantially increase funding for the keepers of our national memory. No financial interest or large popular pressure group lobbies on NARA’s behalf. Its constituency is all of us — and every American to come. If we lose touch with who we have been, what we have endured and how we have argued, the United States will stand for nothing at all.

Read the entire piece here.

More on the Billy Graham Papers

Billy Graham LibraryAdelle Banks has a piece on this at Religion News Service.   I was happy to weigh-in.  I also covered this here.  This is yet another example of evangelicals trying to control their historical narratives.  This is similar to what I experienced in writing the history of the American Bible Society.

So I wonder, is Franklin Graham worried that scholars and historians will find more unflattering things about his father?  Let’s face it, evangelicals need good history more than ever.  We need to look into the mirror of the past and see what we have done well and where we have failed.  I am afraid that this will not happen if more and more evangelical institutions try to control access to records in this way.  History will become hagiography.

Where Does History Go From Here?

End

Over at the Boston Review, historian and essayist Maximillian Alvarez argues that both pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers are still operating within Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument.  Here is a taste:

Fukuyama’s take on the “end of history,” to be fair, has been questioned for decades. And for a number of reasons: from its Eurocentrism to its unshakeable faith in the world-historical stability of a neoliberal apparatus securing and enforcing the global marriage of “free trade” and Western liberal democracy. The past decade alone would seem to pose as great a challenge as we have seen to the Fukuyaman conceit. From the 2008 global financial crash to the rise of authoritarian-minded, far- right, Trump-style “populism,” the neoliberal order has shown quite a lack of, well, stability. 

The very same empire that is supposed to lord over this end of history, forever and ever amen, can no longer seem to keep its story straight. Even as Donald Trump lauds himself as the very best president ever—an end-of-history sentiment if ever there was one—his presidency is nonetheless anchored to the message that the United States must be made great again. Something has slipped; the end of history has gone too far, and we must try to go back, it seems—to Reaganism, to the cradle of the Greatest Generation, to the Confederacy, to Jacksonianism, and on and on. 

It is no coincidence that, in response to the historical recidivism of the Trump-led right, all that the amassed forces of the Resistance™ have been able to muster is a Fukuyaman defense that, in many ways, mirrors that of their opponents. From Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that “America never stopped being great” to the milquetoast Democratic obsession with being on the “right side of history,” the essence of the great political slap-fight of our day seems to amount to a debate between Democrats and Republicans over when, exactly—not if—history ended, which parts of our society are still stuck “in history,” and what they need to do to catch up. Either way, the presumption is that, regardless of what happens over the next two to six years, the great historical edifice of neoliberal rule will hold.

This is why the Democratic and Never-Trump Republican resistance has been largely incapable of challenging Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part. Instead, the horror and hysteria unleashed by the ascendancy of Trump has been couched in pearl-clutching fear over what “norms” and “traditions” the MAGA movement has destroyed and expunged from our social world. If the neoliberal world order remains the embodied truth of the “end of history,” then, for all its concerned showmanship, the neoliberal establishment has yet to demonstrate any widespread belief that history, as such, is at stake.

Read the entire piece here.

Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians

Boot

Max Boot is the Jeanne Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.  He is probably best known these days as an anti-Trump crusader.

Boot is also the latest public intellectual to chide academic historians for failing to speak to public audiences.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” It used to go without saying that this was one of Bernie Sanders’s most famous lines. (Wait. I may be confused.)

Boot defines the value of history education in America by how much kids know about the past.  He is completely unaware of the fact that Americans have been failing these tests since the early 20th century.  Sam Wineburg starts his seminal book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts with a reference to a 1917 exam in which Texas students answered 33 of 100 questions about “the most obvious facts of American history.”  The educators who conducted the test concluded that such a score “is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”  In other words, there is nothing knew here.  Boot’s understanding of history education seems to be little more than test-taking and memorization.  It has nothing to do with educating students to think historically.  I wrote about all this in the context of my home state of Pennsylvania. Click here.

Boot continues:

You simply can’t understand the present if you don’t understand the past. There is no more alarming case study of the consequences of historical ignorance than President Trump. He has adopted a foreign policy mantra of “America First” seemingly without realizing (or so I hope!) that the original America First Committee of 1940-1941 was sympathetic to the Nazis. And he has embraced tariffs seemingly without being aware of the disastrous consequences of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

More broadly, his appeals are steeped in misbegotten nostalgia. His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that we must recover some lost golden age, a conceit that has been a constant of Western history since ancient Athens. Asked when America was great, Trump pointed to the early years of the 20th century and the 1940s-1950s. One wonders if he has heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”? The Balangiga MassacreLynchingsThe Palmer RaidsMcCarthyismTask Force SmithOrval Faubus? Of course, the United States did a lot of extraordinary things in the first half of the 20th century — but it was far from the paradise that Trump evokes. If Trump did understand that era, he wouldn’t be trying to undo its proudest achievements — from the Progressives’ regulation of business and protection of the environment to the Greatest Generation’s embrace of NATO and free trade.

Boot is right here.  It is not a new argument.  I have been deconstructing “Make America Great Again” since 2015 and I have written about it extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Others have done the same.  And many are doing it before public audiences.  In the last two weeks I lectured on this very topic to audiences at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the University of Southern California, and a group of Christian college provosts at a conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Boot then goes after social history:

As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.

Political, military, and diplomatic history is important, especially as we try to make sense of the Trump administration.  But the study of oppressed groups are more important than ever in the age of Trump.  How can we understand what Trump said about Charlottesville or what he is trying to do on the Mexican border without an understanding of social and cultural history?  How do we deal with the racial tensions in our country or the #MeToo movement without a grasp of this history?  I should also add that political, diplomatic and military history has not disappeared.  It has just become integrated with the new social history in a way that seems to make Boot uncomfortable. For example, historians are now thinking about the politics of race, the imperialism embedded in the history of U.S. diplomacy, and the role of women in the military.

And then Boot brings it home:

Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad investment: History majors’ median earnings are higher than other college graduates’.

This reminds me of Thomas Sugrue’s recent critique of Jill Lepore. Historians are getting much better at engaging the public, but the university system does not often reward them for doing this kind of work.  So I have mixed feelings about this whole debate.  In other words, I do not think Boot is entirely wrong about this.  I wrote about it here in the context of the Sugrue-Lepore dust-up.

Boot has responded to critiques of his piece:

Enrollment in History Courses is Holding Steady

College-classroom

Here is the latest from the American Historical Association:

After years of declines, undergraduate enrollments in history courses held steady in the last academic year. Last summer, the AHA conducted its third annual survey of history departments and joint academic units, and received 120 complete responses for the past four academic years, the most recent of which was 2017–18. The responses suggest that the overall number of undergraduate students enrolled in history courses changed little from 2016–17. Enrollments slipped down less than 0.5 percent at US institutions. When Canadian institutions are included in the total, enrollments were almost identical (up less than 0.01 percent).

Read the rest of Julia Brookins‘s piece at Perspectives on History here.

David Blight on Memory, History, and Hope

blight

I just came across this great Martha Hodes’s interview of David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (among many other books).

In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:

MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?

DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.

On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.

Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.

And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.

And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:

MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?

DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.

MH: Clearly.

DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”

And hope:

DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.

The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.

MH: Beautiful.

DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.

To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.

Read the entire interview here.

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.

Grieving as a Historian

grief

Stepháne Gerson, a historian of France at New York University, lost his eight-year old son on rafting trip on the Utah and Colorado border in 2006.  His Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “History in the Face of Catastrophe,” describes how history served as a way of getting through the pain.

Here is a taste:

Though history had lost its scholarly luster, it came alive in other ways. The past provided solace and companionship, immediacy and distance, inklings of understanding and a finer appreciation for what I could never understand. It allowed me to commemorate my son, expiate his death, grieve in the company of others, and soften the edges of our family tragedy.

The history I learned in graduate school and then practiced and taught rested upon reason and distance from my object of study. After Owen’s death, I learned about my emotional life as a scholar. History, it turned out, lived inside me through sadness and longing, ache and melancholy, guilt and regret, surprise and doubt, solitude and anger.

In her classic Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), Arlette Farge outlines an embodied historical practice that rests on the historian’s openness to archives and capacity to imbibe the past. Farge invites historians to turn their senses and emotions into founding blocks of a hermeneutical relationship with actors whose archival traces they can inhabit, whose lives they can touch and imagine. A historical practice that remains attuned to the scholar’s emotional and intellectual life can generate new and fuller forms of knowledge.

Scholarly practice, Farge tells us, is neither static nor divorced from the life-world that surrounds it. Historians feel things in the archive, as they interact with past lives and real human beings. This is not something most of us acknowledge. As a consequence, we do not readily explore all of the places from which we write. Our discipline, the historian Ivan Jablonka recently wrote, has led us to overlook the ways in which our emotional and bodily lives — our tastes and longings, our health and traumas — shape our historical sensibility and hence our craft.

Could we imagine a scholarly practice — one among many — which acknowledges that what speaks to us may also be what moves us? That what draws our attention or repels us may owe much to our emotional state at a given moment? That the historical actors and events we deem important may be the ones who touch something inside us? This practice would not privilege emotion alone; it would not deny reason. But it would not pretend either that emotion plays no significant role within our craft, that what we feel and what we think are not somehow connected, and that our work would not be enriched and made more honest by deeper recognition of this connection.

Read the entire piece here.

“I Feel Sorry For Him”

trumka

Last night I was watching Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, talking on CNN about why he resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council.  Trumpka was not angry. He just seemed sad.  At one point in the interview he said “I feel sorry for Donald Trump.”  He then talked about how we have a man in the oval office who did not understand common decency, presidential character, and especially American history. Though he didn’t say it outright, he implied that Trump’s failure to understand Charlottesville in the larger context of race in America, the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, the history of World War II and Nazis, and the Holocaust made him unqualified and unprepared to be POTUS.

As Trumka spoke, I thought about the men and women I have been writing about for the last year–the court evangelicals.  What role does the evangelical failure to undertake a deep study of history, and the anti-intellectualism of American evangelicalism generally, have to do with the court evangelicals’ loyal support of the POTUS?  I think it has a lot do with it.  Many of these evangelicals cannot see themselves as part of a larger history–both a history of the United States and the history of the church.  On race, they fail to see the long history of structural racism in this country.

Just a quick thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great post!  Read all of it here.

Jon Meacham: “Every Day is Christmas” for Historians in the Age of Trump

American_lion_by_jon_meacham_coverIf you were listening to National Public Radio yesterday, you may have heard Steve Inskeep’s interview with writer and historian Jon Meacham on Morning Edition.  As many of you already know, Meacham is the former editor of Newsweek and a prolific biographer.  His book American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham will help us on this Independence Day. He’s a wide-ranging thinker and historian, former editor of Newsweek. His books range from an exploration of religion to the life of Thomas Jefferson to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson.

What’s it been like to be a historian living through this moment in history?

JON MEACHAM: It’s as though every day is Christmas. It really is. And I’m not being overly facile about it. If you care about the underlying elements of our national story, the national order, then a moment in which all of those fundamental assumptions are being questioned is a time of intrinsic interest.

Read the rest here. (HT: History News Network)

 

 

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

usa-trump

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read the entire piece here.

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

civil-war-1279460_960_720

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

For all these reasons, History is power.

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

Another Reason Why Eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities Might Be a Bad Idea

In case you have not heard, Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal, released today, eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  This morning I wrote an extended piece on this development. We are currently shopping it around.

I have also been tweeting (follow along @johnfea1) older pieces from The Way of Improvement Leads Home in which I or others have defended the humanities.

In the meantime, here is another reason why the NEH might be useful.  Read this recent tweet from our Vice President:

I can’t imagine that mid-19th century Irish immigrants felt this deep sense of kinship.

Irish 1

Irish 2

Irish 3Irish 4

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency.   Here is a taste:

True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.

And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.

“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches.  His usable past is a complicated one.  Grossman is correct.  Obama thinks like a social historian.  He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.  But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian.  He is a historian of ideas and ideals.  When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition.  He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.

In the end, Obama used the past a lot.  But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.

Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education.  For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history.  Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.