Ed Ayers on what COVID-19 has revealed about the state of digital history

According to the University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers, “the sudden transition to online schooling has shone a light on the state of digital history.” He adds: “What we’ve seen hasn’t been very encouraging. Can we do better?”

Here is a taste of his piece at Medium:

We are awash in sources, networks, processing power, devices, and tools that enable projects that were beyond imagining in the days of modems, AOL, and CD-ROMs. The commercialization of digital resources for genealogy has produced millions of census records and newspapers, many behind paywalls, that we have barely begun to explore. But that very convenience, ironically, has removed some of the tension between tradition and innovation that generates creativity. Students today can simply cut and paste ubiquitous images and texts into free presentation software; they can copy video and audio into their own slick productions. These methods use digital means to replicate traditional forms of history, bound by the same periods and people, framed by the same labels and questions.

The digital has been thoroughly domesticated and commercialized, its disruptive potential removed. It’s enough to drive some young people to older analog forms they find more intriguing and satisfying. As they seek out vinyl, write in journals, and explore chemical photography, they seem to understand, as scholar Stuart Dunn has explained, that “the digital is a prism through which we see and experience the human record past and present, not a window.”

Read the entire piece here.

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

GOP Convention: Night 2

NBC News

NBC News graphic

I didn’t get to listen very carefully to many of the speeches on night 2 of the GOP convention. I was preparing for my return to the classroom today.  At least my nightmares were different last night. Instead of dreaming about what Trump is doing to the nation and the church, I dreamed of microphones, ZOOM, Canvas, student rotation, the Cloud, and sweating through my mask as I tried to lecture to 170 students in a 500-person recital hall with people staring down at me from the third floor balconies. (Yes, this will happen today).

So this post will just focus on the things that caught my attention enough to pull me away from creating Canvas modules.

Last night Cissie Graham, the daughter of court evangelical Franklin Graham and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, spoke at the Republican National Convention. Watch:

A few quick thoughts:

  1. I will take Cissie Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals more seriously when they start talking about religious liberty for all Americans.
  2.  As a fellow evangelical, I would hardly call prohibitions against indoor worship during a pandemic “religious persecution.”

Not all of Billy Graham’s grandchildren are in the Trump camp. Yesterday Jerushah Duford, who describes herself as “the proud granddaughter” of Billy Graham, published an op-ed in USA Today claiming that evangelical support for Donald Trump “spits” on the “legacy” of her grandfather. Read it here.

During the convention Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, an African-American man convicted of robbing a Nevada bank. Ponder now runs Hope for Prisoners, a Christian ministry the helps prisoners re-enter society after their period of incarceration. Ponder’s story brings positive attention to criminal justice reform. It is a story of God changing a man’s heart. I am glad Trump pardoned him.

What bothered me about the segment featuring Ponder was the way the Christian faith was manipulated for political purposes. At times during this segment I wondered if Ponder was there to talk about criminal justice reform or help Trump make his appeal to the evangelicals. Ponder’s faith plays an essential part in his story. This should be celebrated. But faith should never be politicized.

Watch the segment and let me know if any of this belongs at a political convention:

Later in the evening, Abby Johnson spoke about Planned Parenthood and abortion:

I was nodding my head as Johnson spoke until she used the words “Trump” and “two Supreme Court justices” in the same sentence. We can reduce abortions in America without getting into bed with this president, but it will require breaking from the 40-year-old Christian Right playbook.

Then came Georgetown Law School graduate Tiffany Trump. I wasn’t really listening to Tiffany until she said “God has blessed us with an unstoppable spirit, His spirit, the American spirit.” The worst part about this is that most evangelicals didn’t blink an eye when Trump’s daughter conflated the Holy Spirit and the American Dream.

I perked-up again when Tiffany started lamenting–yes lamenting–the fact that the promotion of “division and controversy breeds profit.”

There was a small kernel of truth in some of Tiffany Trump’s words last night. She called for open discourse and the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. I am on board with this, but I think the real issue at stake here is where one draws the boundary line between open discourse and anti-intellectualism. I am thinking here about both the Left and the Right. The far Right is prone to making public arguments that are not based on truth, science, or evidence. The far Left does better with truth, science, and evidence, but its defenders draw the boundaries of acceptable discourse so narrowly that they often sound like intolerant fundamentalists. And both sides need to stop the ad hominem attacks.

I am not going to say much about the speeches by Eric Trump, Mike Pompeo, or Melania Trump. Pompeo, of course, spoke from Jerusalem to keep the evangelical base happy. Melania’s speech is getting good reviews. I guess it was OK, but I tuned-out when she described her husband as an honest man.

As noted above, there was a lot of faith talk last night. The Democrats were portrayed as godless threats to true religion. This suggests that the millions of American Christians, and especially African-American Christians, who vote Democrat are not real Christians.

This tweet sums-up how I felt last night:

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton opposes “cancel culture.” Unless, of course, it is the 1619 Project

1619

I just learned today that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is trying to pass legislation to prohibit schools from using federal funds to teach the New York Times‘s 1619 Project. (If you are unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, read our coverage here. We’ve collected most of the pertinent articles).

This week I am doing Q&A sessions with about 100 hundred high school teachers enrolled in my Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History course on British North America. They are watching a series of lectures I recorded with Gilder-Lehrman back in 2015 and I am meeting with them live via ZOOM to answer their questions.

Yesterday, we talked about the colonial Chesapeake and, as might be expected, most of the conversation revolved around race, slavery, and the 1619 Project. My comments about the Project focused on several points:

  1. The 1619 Project has some serious historical problems, especially in its claim that the American Revolution was primarily about preserving slavery.
  2. We cannot ignore the relationship between slavery, race, and the American founding. (Several teachers, for example, had read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom).
  3. We should not hesitate to use the 1619 Project in our classrooms if we think it might help students understand issues of systemic racism.
  4. Very few essays in the 1619 Project are written by historians.
  5. The claim that the 1619 Project should be the final word in the classroom concerning the subject of slavery, race, and the historical roots of American identity is a claim that is insulting to history teachers. Which leads me to my final, and most important point:
  6. Much of the debate over the 1619 Project in the classroom fails to grasp the nature of good history teaching. While citizenship and equitable coverage is certainly important, the primary goal of the history classroom is to get students to think and read historically. This requires a sensitivity to bias, context, authorial intent (sourcing), close reading, and complexity. As Sam Wineburg says in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, students should not only learn what a document is saying, but also what a document is doing. If this is our goal, then why should we be afraid of the 1619 Project? Use it in class, interrogate it, and teach your kids to read it like any good historian would read a document.

Read Cotton’s “Saving American History Act.  Here is an opinion piece at Forbes.

How the Pietist Schoolman is preparing for his history classes this fall

Parmer

I will be teaching my U.S. survey in this room 

Like Chris Gehrz, I am starting to stress about the Fall semester.

I am teaching the U.S. Survey course to 180 students in a 790 seat recital hall. (We will have ten smaller weekly seminars in other socially distanced classrooms). I am also teaching my Pennsylvania History course to 25 students. I have not started thinking about anything yet, although I do have a meeting to “attend” next week to learn more about the university guidelines.

So how is the Pietist Schoolman doing it? He offers five basic principles that are guiding his preparation:

  1. “Start with Face-to-Face, then think about how to make it available online.
  2. “Lean into my skill as a lecturer”
  3. “Move most ‘active’ learning online”
  4. “Emphasize research”
  5. “Overcommunicate”

See how Chris unpacks these points here.

Coronavirus Diary: May 16, 2020

Fea with MaskWhen I published my last diary entry on April 23, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 229 cases and 7 deaths. Twenty-two days later, we have 515 cases and 48 deaths.

I went to my Messiah College office yesterday for the first time since March 13, 2020. I didn’t really need anything, but when the administration gave faculty the opportunity to get on campus for a two-hour slot this week, I signed-up. I needed to get out of the house and reconnect with the my workplace. I brought a box and filled-it with some books I want to read, a few pieces of mail, and some notes for a Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History seminar I will be teaching in July.  I am not sure when I will be back.

At home, our little quarantine community is breaking up. My oldest daughter Ally is heading back to Grand Rapids in a few days. She is finishing-up her final papers and will start work at a new job later this month. We will miss her. I think I speak for Joy when I say that having her home was an unexpected gift. After she left for college and stopped coming home for the summer, we were unsure we would ever spend so much extended time with her again. Caroline, who just finished her first-year of college, will be with us all summer. She half-jokes that her life just reverted back to her last three years of high school–stuck at home with Mom and Dad. We are glad she will be around.

For the next couple days I will be immersed in final grading, but next week I hope to transition to summer research. I need to make some substantial headway on my American Revolution in New Jersey book. On the podcast front, we just recorded our first episode since March and have several more episodes lined-up for the summer. Stay tuned. If you want to support our work–either the podcast or the blog–feel free to make a contribution at our Patreon page. Every little bit helps.

Everything is still up-in-the-air for the Fall. Will I be back on campus? Will I be teaching on-line? I will not be delivering the presidential address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, but I do have speaking engagements that are still scheduled. I am trying to take things one day at a time. I think that’s the best all of us can do right now.

The pandemic has partially lifted the veil on some of our deepest convictions about faith, politics, the meaning of liberty and community, self-sacrifice, citizenship, and how much time in quarantine we are willing to tolerate. It has been fascinating to watch via social media. I have been surprised, disappointed, and inspired.

Writing as “Serving the Work”

Writing

I am a first-generation writer. My mother and grandmothers kept diaries, but none of them wrote anything with the express purpose of having it read by someone outside the family. I had a few good teachers who encouraged my writing, and I had a few teachers and professors over the years who told me that I needed to become a better writer. In the end, I learned how to write, and continue to learn how to write, by writing.

I have been grading the papers of college students for more than two decades, but this was the first semester in which I actually taught a first-year college writing course. (See my posts on this semester’s Created and Called for Community course). I have done a lot of writing over the years, but going into this semester I was nervous about teaching students how to write. Thankfully, Messiah College offered some training and resources to help me in this endeavor.

This semester I spent time working with my students on their thesis statements, footnotes, bibliographies, and rough drafts. We devoted entire class periods to writing.  I encouraged peer review. I wrote endless marginal comments. I think I did everything I was supposed to do.

But in the end, some students still struggle with writing clear and concise prose. They still get basic punctuation wrong. They write in passive voice. Run-on sentences abound. Some of these students have improved over the semester. Others have not.

I just finished reading the rough drafts of their final paper. Many of them are in great shape. These are a joy to read. But other papers have left me frustrated. Somewhere along the way, my students have come to think that in order to get a good grade on a paper they need to merely respond to every marginal comment I write or awkward sentence I identify. But I can’t line-edit every paper. I can’t offer sentence-by-sentence revisions. So when they do not get the grade they wanted, they send me an e-mail complaining: “I don’t understand why I got such a low grade (usually a “B” or “B+”). I did everything you told me to do in the rough draft.” In other words, “I jumped through the hoops you set out for me. Now why didn’t I get an A?”

But writing is not that simple. Granted, it comes easy for some people. But for others, like me, it takes work. It requires rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting and editing again and again until a sentence or a paragraph shines. It is like polishing a stone or sanding a piece of wood–elbow grease is necessary. We can give students all kinds of writing wheels, manuals, lectures, videos, exercises, and extra help, but how do we teach students to embrace the grind?

Earlier this semester, we read a wonderful essay by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work? Here is Sayers:

…the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it.  It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God and your neighbor; on those who commandments hand all the Law and the Prophets…

There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three good reasons for this:

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it–any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good–and work that is not good, serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon. 

The second reasons is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and give nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that is should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings…and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

What might it mean for young writers to “serve the work?” I tell my students that their work at becoming better writers will one day benefit the communities they hope to serve. Do they believe me?  Some do. But others grow impatient. They just want to be told how to get a good grade and move on to the more “important” classes in their majors.

But there has been a lesson here for me as well. Over the course of the semester I have tried to have more patience with my students. I have taken more time than usual with their papers. I am learning to serve the work.

Ed Ayers on Teaching History

Ed+Ayers+color+compressed

This entire piece is worth reading. Here is American historian Ed Ayers:

History is hard to teach. It is not a bounded field of knowledge that can be conveyed in stages and steps. It does not operate by rules or predictable patterns. It cannot be segmented into separate elements without making it die. The keys to understanding the past are context, contingency, cause, change, and consequence — living in motion — but standardized textbooks and testing kill history to dissect it. That there are so many history teachers who find ways to inspire their students despite such obstacles testifies to the idealism, intelligence, and commitment of the people drawn to this work.

History is hard to teach, too, not because it is irrelevant but because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identities, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society. History is dangerous to teach and so we have tried to tame it through narratives of progress and blandly balanced portrayals of our unbalanced past. Doing so, we drain history of the human drama that makes it worth studying in the first place.

History has its revenge. Dulled and anesthetized in school, history proliferates everywhere else. History asserts itself in popular film and streaming series, in video games and television parodies in which celebrities become drunk to reenact slurred versions of textbook history, in the most acclaimed Broadway show of recent decades and in the most heavily visited museum in Washington. Young people love history, just not history as it is forced upon them.

Read the entire piece at Medium.

How One Middle-School History Teacher is Staying Connected With His Students

Matt Lakemacher is a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and a “graduate” of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute Princeton Seminar. He teaches history at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL. Some of you may recall his dispatches from the 2019 meeting of the American Historical Association.  Read them here.

I have enjoyed watching Matt’s efforts to stay connected with his 7th-grade students during the quarantine.  Here is his latest video:

Check out Matt’s YouTube page.

Coronavirus Diary: April 23, 2020

Fam Pic

When I published my last diary entry on April 8, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 88 coronavirus cases and two deaths. Fifteen days later, we have 229 cases and 7 deaths.

The quarantine continues. Both daughters are still home. They are working on papers as I type this. Ally has had a few job interviews and is starting to think about when she will return to Grand Rapids. Caroline is applying for work delivering groceries.

Part of the Messiah College Career and Professional Development Center is now operating out of my kitchen. After overhearing multiple webinars about job searching, and listening to bits and pieces of Joy’s career advice to students, I think I might be able to land a job if this history teaching thing doesn’t work out.  🙂

It’s been chilly here in central Pennsylvania, but I still have had a few opportunities to sit on the garage couch. I got up early the other morning, made a cup of coffee in our new Kuerig, bundled-up, and went outside. After five minutes of staring off into the sky, a high school girl in the neighborhood, who was out walking her dog, saw me sitting in the garage and struck-up a conversation. We talked about what her family was watching on Netflix and she shared some stuff about her classes at the local high school. This girl has lived three doors away from us her entire life, but this was the longest conversation I ever had with her. When I told Joy about the conversation she informed me that the girl is headed to Messiah College in the Fall.  I wish I would have known this during our morning chat!

In local political news, pro-Trumpers converged on Harrisburg the other day and demanded that Governor Tom Wolf “open” the economy.  I wrote about it here.  And yes, I did see people I know at the rally.  This pandemic is revealing things about people that were previously hidden behind the veil of neighborliness and civility.

We in the Fea household are all getting on each other nerves. But I think I speak for the whole family when I say we are enjoying our time together. I am not sure when we will all be under the same roof for such an extended period of time again. I have noticed that everyone lingers a bit longer at the dinner table these days. My oldest daughter, Allyson, is helping me write a young reader’s edition of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (We are still looking for an editor, publisher or literary agent–e-mail me!). Last night we sat around the table and thought about which actors might play Philip and Betsy in the movie version of the book. (We decided on Timothee Chalamet for Philip and Emma Watson for Betsy).

I continue teaching Created and Called for Community online. We are in the “vocation” unit right now.  Texts like the parable of the good Samaritan, 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 (on reconciliation), Jerry Sittser’s The Will of God as a Way of Life, and Dorothy Sayers’s “Why Work?” have taken on new meaning in this pandemic.

The future still seems uncertain. Will I be teaching face-to-face in the Fall? What will Messiah College look like after this pandemic is over? I am thankful to the college leadership who seem to be making wise decisions, but some of the changes have been painful for many colleagues. I have already heard about faculty at smaller, tuition-driven colleges who are wondering if their institutions will survive if residential campus life does not return in late August.

Today I was talking to Joy about residential college students–our own daughters and the students we work with at Messiah. What will happen to them if they can’t return to campus in 2020-2021? How do we deal with the depression, anxiety, uncertainty, loss of face-to-face friendships, and confusion about the future that will come if school is cancelled in the Fall?  If a gap year is necessary, what type of programs or opportunities do we need to create in order to keep them engaged in public life during a time of social distancing? How do we encourage them to use this time to grow–intellectually, morally, spiritually? These are huge challenges. I am sure that college students who do not live on campus have some of their own concerns on this front.

In the end, I hope that my role as a teacher and writer is doing something small to serve the common good during this pandemic. But I still feel like I am dealing with something akin to survivors guilt because I still have a job, my family is healthy, and I don’t work in a “front line” profession. Writing these journal entries certainly help. Thanks for reading.

 

The Hamilton Education Program (EduHam) is Now Free Online

Hamilton logo

Teachers:

EduHam at Home was created in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that forced school closures throughout the country. It is an extension of the Hamilton Education Program (EduHam), which has served more than 200,000 students across the country since 2016. Through EduHam, students study primary source documents from the Founding Era, learn how Lin-Manuel Miranda used such documents to create the musical Hamilton, and finally create their own original performance pieces based on the same material.

EduHam at Home provides a family version of EduHam that can be accomplished outside of a school setting. It will continue to be available through August 2020.

What should you expect from this free program?

  • A personal welcome video from Lin-Manuel Miranda greeting participants, as well as tips and guidance from EduHam teachers to help students create their own work
  • Video highlights from past student performances for examples of what to try at home
  • A wealth of free materials for participants and their families to explore and enjoy, including
    • Videos clips from Hamilton and interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, selected cast members, and Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired the musical
    • A wide selection of primary sources centered on a diverse group of 45 People, 14 Events, and 24 Key Documents

EduHam at Home participants will be invited to submit their own Hamilton-inspired pieces (songs, raps, spoken-word poems, or scenes), and selected student performances will be shared on social media and this website.

If you have any questions, please email eduhamhome@gildlerlehrman.org.

 

Coronavirus Diary: March 29, 2020

Ally at CFH

This kid just got home

The other day Joy (my wife) and Caroline (my youngest daughter) joked that my life has not changed a whole lot since all this social distancing and quarantining started. They are partly right. While I no longer go to campus to teach any more, I still spend a lot of time in my basement reading, writing, and studying.

I just finished my first week of teaching online. As some of you know, I am teaching a reading and discussion course for first-year Messiah College students called Created and Called for Community. I am trying to make the best of it, but it is not ideal. My students are doing their best to adjust. They are much more adaptable than I am. Since I am using a discussion board to facilitate class dialogue, I am actually “hearing” the voices of students who were relatively quiet during our face-to-face classes.  This is good.

As some of you may have noticed, I have been reading and sharing a lot more theology lately. I think the questions raised in Created and Called for Community have led me to think more deeply about transcendent things. I am sure the pandemic has also pushed me in this direction as well. Last Friday, I taught Exodus 19-20 and the Sermon on the Mount. Tomorrow I am teaching Acts 1-4 and the Nicene Creed. I have been wrestling, alongside my students, about what it means to be created in the image of God and how  such a belief translates into what we are called to do and how we are to live in this world.

Our empty nest has become full again. It is good to have the girls home. Caroline has been home for two weeks. Ally got home last night. They both loved being at college, so we are trying to walk alongside them in their disappointment and anxiety. This is especially the case with Ally, a senior. Last night everyone tolerated my reading of part of Pope Francis’s coronavirus blessing. I’d encourage you to read it as well.

And yes, we often get on each other’s nerves. Our house is small. We bump into each other a lot. Sometimes we just need to retreat to our spaces and shut the door or go for a walk. I think we’ll all survive. 🙂

Thanks for reading.

Some Online Teaching Advice from the Pietist Schoolman

I am working on my online courses today.  I am rewriting my course schedule after consolidating some readings and dropping others.  I am creating videos and trying to get up to speed with the discussion board feature on Messiah College’s course delivery system (Canvas). I am trying to figure out how to teach writing online.

My personality and face-to-face engagement has always driven my pedagogical style. This will be different.

Last night, in a moment exasperation, I posted this pic to Instagram and Facebook under the caption, “What are these things called online courses?”:

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My friend Amy Bass, a professor of Sport Studies at Manhattanville College, provided some inspiration:

Another friend, Chris Gerhz, aka The Pietist Schoolman, offers some good advice. Here is a taste of his recent post:

1. Don’t try to do too much.
I think this goes without saying. We’re all improvising here, and not just as teachers.

2. Recalibrate expectations for students
They’re improvising, too, as they adjust to their different professors figuring out different solutions to these problems. They’ve lost most of the routine and structure that makes academic work doable day to day, week to week. Many of them have lost the jobs that help them pay for college, and some are working parents facing the same challenges I do. I still expect my students to do the best they can, but I’m not sure that “rigor” is anything we ought to expect under these circumstances.

3. Avoid synchronous activities
This is not the time to prove to anyone that you can do lecture, discussion, etc. live online. Internet access is too unreliable, ed tech companies are being stretched to their limits, and students’ schedules are thrown out of whack. I generally plan to allot at least a day or more, for students to complete even small activities. I’m trying to think more in terms of weekly than daily objectives, a sequence more than a schedule. And I’m glad that, in two courses, I’d already had students doing a lot of project-based learning, since we’ll lean into that approach even more while online.

4. Let necessity be the mother of invention
I don’t expect too much of this half-semester. But by the same token, I do want to leave myself open to the possibility that I’ll figure out new ways of teaching. That was one of our lessons from teaching online in the summer: we treated it as a kind of pedagogical laboratory or playground, one that has indeed generated a few ideas that we’ve since integrated into other modes of teaching.

5. Talk about COVID
It’s what we’re all thinking about anyway; let’s teach to it. I’m not a specialist in epidemiology, public health, public policy, or economics, but as a historian, there are things I can do to help students think about topics connected to the crisis, if not the disease itself.

Read the entire post here.

A “Teaching Pandemics” Syllabus

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Catherine Halley of JSTOR Daily has put together a very impressive collection of articles. Here is a taste of her “Teaching Pandemics Syllabus“:

Last week, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, schools and universities across the world have transitioned to online instruction. Educators find themselves wondering how to engage their students amidst the developing crisis. We all find ourselves scrambling for information and, let’s face it, ways to make sense of our fear and anxiety.

While JSTOR Daily can’t provide new research on the novel coronavirus that’s causing COVID-19, we can offer important historical, scientific, and cultural context for this unprecedented situation. The essays and articles below—published over the last five years—look at the history of quarantine, contagious disease, viruses, infections, and epidemics. We’ll be updating this as we publish new content. As always, free access to the underlying scholarship cited in the stories is available to everyone.

Read the rest here.

2010 National History Teacher of the Year on the Closing of Schools: “But most of all I like working with and learning with students”

Nate

Here is Nate McAlister, a history teacher and my former partner-in-crime in the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar,” upon learning that Kansas public schools are closed:

Confession: I am a huge history nerd. I know, I know this is not a shock to many who know me. Another confession: I like school and I like learning. I like the thrill of finding new nuggets of history and I am fascinated by the human story of history and what makes us, us.

But most of all I like working with and learning with students. I like the hellos from some and even the grumbles by others, you know who you are. I like working with students and love it when they “get it” and get frustrated when they try to give up. I like the fist bumps in the hall, the smiles on faces, and hearing their concerns and cheering their accomplishments. And I will miss it all as we experience this new normal.

Stay safe!

Did I mention Nate was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year?

True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

A Public Intellectual in the Heartland (With a Heavy Academic Work Load)

THE 13th, Kevin Gannon, 2016. ©Netflix

Over at Public Books, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse interviews Grand View University (Des Moines, Iowa) historian Kevin Gannon, author of the recent Radical Hope: A Teaching ManifestoSome of you may remember that Gannon, aka “The Tattooed Prof,” talked about his teaching manifesto in Episode 26 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of their fascinating conversation:

Kevin Kruse (KK): We live in a world in which the label “public intellectual” gets attached, almost automatically, to anyone at an Ivy League university who’s even remotely engaged in the public sphere. The national media seems fixated on even the most minor events at a place like Harvard, where the firing of a residential college dean can generate endless articles.

Meanwhile, more substantial issues at other schools don’t seem to matter. Recent controversies, like the evisceration of funding for the University of Alaska system or major cuts to the University of Wisconsin system—both major academic institutions, ones that do the heavy lifting in terms of educating the public—were barely a blip on the media’s radar.

So, one of the things I find really fascinating about you and your work is that you have managed to make your contributions clear despite the deck being stacked against you. What is it like being a public intellectual from a place like Grand View, which unfairly gets overlooked with all the endless stories about Harvard? What is it like being at Grand View, doing this work?

Kevin Gannon (KG): Different. The media focuses on the easiest places to see. For example, if you are reporting in the genre of the free speech crisis, it’s only, “What are those crazy kids doing at Oberlin?”

And yet, when something really is a problem—the kind of problem that actually fits into that very narrow-focused area for higher ed when it comes to op-eds—chances are we’ve been seeing the same sort of discussions out here in the hinterlands for the past decade or so.

KK: Right, yes.

KG: If we want to really talk about higher ed in this setting, we have to talk about the land grants, we have to talk about the state systems, we have to talk about schools like mine. Even though Grand View is private, we still serve groups of students who have not traditionally been well-served by higher education. So, when you use the phrase “heavy lifting,” that’s what I think we’re doing here.

We’re schools with significant teaching requirements, with multiple classes in multiple semesters (what we call a 3-3 to a 4-4 to a 5-5 teaching load). Where faculty have extensive service expectations, because our faculty sizes are so small.

So, when people ask, “What does a professor do?” the answer is very different at places like ours. It’s interesting to be on platforms or involved in panels where the moderator might say, “So-and-so is at Princeton and so-and-so is at Harvard and so-and-so is at Grand View University.” You can feel it in the room, it’s as if the record is scratched, and everyone asks, “Wait, what?”

We do a lot here at Grand View. We do a lot of the hard work. And this is certainly not to cast aspersions on anybody at Princeton, for example, but we engage with higher education in different ways.

That whole story needs to be told and talked about. If you are trying to engage with these real questions—what should admissions look like, what should financial aid look like, or even what should public scholarship look like—and you are answering for Swarthmore and Harvard as opposed to Grand View and Pacific Lutheran, that’s a problem. We need to have that conversation in a more complex way.

KK: I understand that people in my position have an incredible advantage that most folks don’t have, especially in terms of the demands on our time. The teaching load at a place like Princeton is much lighter than it is at any top-level state university or a private place like Grand View, where I’m sure you’re doing a lot more day-to-day work.

So, I think it’s easier for someone in my position to add a public-facing role to their existing duties. Yes, we teach and advise students and all the rest. But I’m pretty sanguine about how my responsibilities compare to what someone with a 4-4 load is doing in a department of a half dozen people, where all those tasks that we divide up among 50 people fall on the shoulders of just a handful of them.

That’s what really impresses me: just knowing how much you do out there in the world and how much you still have to do at home.

KG: Right. So, having said all that, I should point out that my teaching load is less, because of my administrative position. I basically have a full-time administrative gig (in terms of the responsibilities). But I still teach a course a semester, still do all the other stuff that I’m trying to do in terms of scholarship and public-facing work. Also, part of my job is to support other colleagues who are trying to do the same thing, whether it is in our community or on a larger platform. What I love to see is people like you, Glenda Gilmore, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Heather Cox Richardson: people in these comparatively advantageous positions, who use the room that that creates to do the type of work you are doing. Those of us out here, at the Grand Views of the world, are cheering that on.

Read the entire interview here.

Teaching MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

King in Jail

After a couple weeks focusing on “creation” in my Created Called for Community (CCC) course at Messiah College, we have shifted gears slightly to focus on the meaning of “community.” Our first reading on this front was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). We read it alongside “A Call for Unity,” the white Birmingham clergy’s statement criticizing King’s visit to the city. King’s wrote his “Letter” as a response to “A Call for Unity.”

There are lot of ways to teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In a history course, I would use this text to teach something about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the past always teaches us something about the present, my primary goal in any history course is to provide students with a thorough knowledge of the past so that their engagement with the present might be richer and more informed.

CCC is not a history course. Since we read and discussed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as part of a unit about “community” in America and the larger world, my pedagogical assignment was to help students see what King might teach us about the meaning of this elusive idea.

But I remain a historian at heart. How could we approach such an important text without some historical context?  As part of the work of sourcing this document, I showed the class a short video from Voice of America:

We began our conversation with “A Call for Unity.” I asked students to read the affixed signatures to the document and tell me something about the men who affirmed it. Eight Birmingham clergy signed it–two Episcopalians, one Baptist, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish rabbi, two Methodists, and one Presbyterian. They were all white.

For our purposes, I asked the students to imagine a different title to this document. What if we changed the name to “A Call for Community?” What kind of community were the white spiritual leaders of Birmingham defending?  Students noted several characteristics of this community:

  1. Birmingham was a community that had “racial problems.”
  2. Birmingham was a community that required members to obey the law. If people in the community wanted to change the law, they needed to do so through the court system. But in the meantime, the law must be “peaceably obeyed.” The law in question, of course, was segregation based on race.
  3. Birmingham was a local community. The people who held power in this community did not look favorably on outsiders telling them how to live. This was particularly the case regarding the aforementioned “racial problems.” These clergy wrote, “We agree with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can be best accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”
  4. Birmingham was a community that did not want Martin Luther King Jr. coming to town with his “extreme measures” designed to undermine the social order.  Of course, white supremacy and segregation defined this social order. King’s “extreme measures” were peaceful protests.

I thought it was important to pause at this point and remind students that Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was a community. When many of them hear the word “community” they think of something positive. Community is a warm and fuzzy feeling about togetherness and mutual care. Many students who enroll at Messiah College say they are attracted to the “sense of community” they feel when they visit campus.  This is all well and good. But yesterday I wanted them to see community in a neutral way. My students did not approve of the kind of community the Birmingham clergy defended in “A Call for Unity,” but it was a community nonetheless.

A few of them had a hard time attaching the word “community” to a segregated city like Birmingham. As Christians, many were bothered by the fact that the religious and spiritual leaders of this city defended such a community. Two students, in post-class conversations, made connections to the anemic state of the Christian church in 1963 and what they perceived to be the weakness of the white churches today in the midst of suffering, oppression, racism, the environment, abortion, political power, etc.

It was now time to turn to King. Why was King in Birmingham? Nearly all the students who spoke noted that the city’s African-American community invited him to come. Not everyone living in Birmingham was happy about the kind of community the white leaders were advancing in the city.  If Birmingham’s African Americans wanted to end Jim Crow, they would need some help. They turned to King.

Why else was King in Birmingham? King came to this southern city “because injustice is here.” We talked about his comparison to the Apostle Paul, a spiritual leader who left Tarsus and brought the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world. Paul was also an “outside agitator.” He challenged local gods and disrupted the peace in places like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Athens, and Thessalonica.  Since some of my students are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, I thought this might be a good place to linger for a while.

But I also wanted to get to the fourth paragraph of King’s letter.  He writes:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

My students were quick to note that the Birmingham clergy’s vision was local, but King’s vision was national.  We paused and reflected on words and phrases like “interrelatedness,” “network of mutuality,” “single garment,” “narrow,” and “provincial.” I thought this exercise was important for our understanding of “community.” When King says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” it should cause us to think about local community with a little more complexity.

This was a lot to ponder, and time was running out. I said that I wish I could do an entire first-year seminar on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because it was such an intellectual and moral feast. I only saw one student roll her/his eyes. 🙂

I continued to push the theme of community. Where do we look if we want to find the things that a given community values? One of the ways we do this is by examining a community’s understanding of right and wrong as embodied in its laws. King had a lot to say about this in the letter. How should we distinguish between “just” and “unjust” laws? Here is King:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

We spent some time talking about what King meant by “personality.” With a little prompting, they began referencing Genesis 1 and 2 and Bruce Birch’s essay on the “ethic of being.” If we believe, with the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are all created in the image of God, then the human person (“personality” in King’s language) is dignified.  A law is unjust when it strips people of human dignity.  Several students gravitated to King’s words about Hitler: “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.'” King added: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.  Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Powerful stuff.

With only a few minutes left in class, I pointed them to King’s understanding of American nationalism.  National communities make appeals to history. King invoked the ideals of the founding, including Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. If I had more time, I would have steered students toward something I wrote back in 2011:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like Glenn Beck (who despite his Mormonism has joined forces with many Christian nationalists), David Barton, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, or Newt Gingrich. All of these public figures have championed the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Their careers have been defined by the belief that this country needs to return to its Christian roots in order to receive the blessings of God.

Rarely, if ever, do we hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., included in this list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today. Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail….”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Read the entire piece here.

Today we discuss Robert Putnam’s classic essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” I want to bring my 6th-grade bowling trophy to class, but I can’t seem to find it.