Writing while walking

Linwood House

Linwood House, Valparaiso University

If you are writer you may be able to relate to this passage from Stephen Backhouse’s Kiergkegaard: A Single Life:

Lengthy walks around Copenhagen were part of the authorial process, because it was on the city streets that Soren “put everything into its final form.” Soren “wrote” while walking. The hiking stage was only the first part of the process. The second stage occurred when he got home, where he would be observed by his servant, Anders Westergaard, standing at his desk, hat still on head and umbrella tucked under arm, furiously scribbling down with his hands the words he had already written on foot.

Does anyone do this? I do it all the time. Some of my best ideas come while walking around the neighborhood. If I get stuck on a writing project I put on my sneakers and start to roam outside. If it is raining, I walk around the house talking to myself.


268 McIntyre Court, Valparaiso, Indiana

In fact, I came-up with the phrase “the way of improvement leads home” on such a walk. It was Fall 2000 and I needed to get home from my Valparaiso University office in the Linwood House. My mind was still racing from a productive day of work as I started my walk to the house we were renting on McIntire Court. I was trying to come up with a phrase to describe the tension between Philip Vickers Fithian’s homesickness and his desire to lead a life of Enlightenment ambition. The phrase “the way of improvement leads home” hit me as I was crossing Chapel Drive and stepping onto the McIntire Court sidewalk. I will never forget the spot.


Coronavirus Diary: June 2, 2020

Sayville BIC

Sayville Brethren in Christ Church

When I published my last diary entry on May 23, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 584 coronavirus cases and 46 deaths. Eleven days later, we have 644 cases and 52 deaths.

The first day of summer (June 20) is still a few weeks away, but for those of us who follow the academic calendar, the 2020 summer of quarantine has begun.

The social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death has diverted my attention away from the coronavirus. But the pessimist in me worries that all of these protests and demonstrations, coupled with the “opening” of the states, will come back to haunt us.

It will be a different summer. I plan to spend it writing, reading and teaching. On the latter front, a version of the Gilder-Lehrman “Princeton Seminar” will be making its way online in July. I am happy to be teaching colonial America again with Nate McAlister.

We are also hoping to do weekly podcasts this summer, but we are not yet there financially. (Here is how you can help).

Messiah College announced that it will open for face-to-face instruction a week early (August 25) and end the Fall semester a week before Thanksgiving. I will be teaching two courses: U.S. History to 1865 and Pennsylvania History. I am waiting to learn more about what the method of delivery will look like.

I tend to process things through writing, but not everything I write on this blog makes it to Facebook. If you are interested in getting all of the posts that appear here, either subscribe to the e-mail feed (the black “Follow” button on the right) or check back regularly. I don’t re-post everything on Facebook because I don’t want to clog-up people’s feeds, although every post does go automatically to Twitter. And for those who think I post too much, feel free to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Seriously, I will not be offended! 🙂  Thanks to everyone who reads regularly, especially those of you who are new to the blog.

My nerves were raw this weekend. I had a hard time balancing righteous anger (if you could call it that) with just plain-old unhealthy anger. I was mad at the police. I was mad at the rioters attacking the police. I was mad at the looters and the violence. I was mad at Trump and his administration. I was mad at white evangelical pastors who were not using their Sunday services to address what was happening in the world. I was mad at evangelical friends on social media who were defending their churches for not addressing racism because they thought the church should not be “getting political.” I was mad at myself for being so angry. I was mad at myself for not being angry enough. If I lashed out at you in a social media space, and I have not already contacted you directly, I apologize.

I am an introvert and do not always gravitate to people or revel in a sense of “community.” But the longer I stay at home, the more I find myself wanting to get in touch with people. I haven’t talked this much to my brother in years. The other day I sent some long-overdue texts to old college friends  This longing to connect also helped me get through some of the anger. Let me explain.

I have several friends in the Christian ministry. Three of them were preaching on Sunday. I found myself lifted spiritually by their words.

Andy, who pastors two small, rural Brethren in Christ churches in central Pennsylvania and proudly calls himself “a middle-class white kid from the sticks,” eulogized Joe, a partner in ministry, a spiritual mentor, a product of the Jim Crow African-American South, and one of his best friends. Andy noted that the celebration of Joe’s life–and the work of racial reconciliation that defined their long friendship–somehow felt diminished by the pain of what happened to George Floyd. But in the end, Andy would not let that happen. His sermon, and the previous day’s memorial service–offered hope. In his own humble way, Andy pointed to the possible.

Bob, who pastors a small Presbyterian Church (USA) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, connected the Holy Spirit’s coming on the Day of Pentecost to the social unrest and racial divisions in our country. On the day the Holy Spirit arrived, he reminded us, the disciples were “sheltering in place,” fearful of persecution. Yet the Holy Spirit met them where they were. The Spirit fell on people of all races who shared a common faith.

Paul, who preached at an Armenian Presbyterian Church in Fresno, California, offered a sermon of lament and mission. He challenged the members of the congregation to consider their role in these troubled times and remain open to opportunities to be a witness for the Gospel. At the start of the sermon, he read a passage from Christian writer Peter Heck:

Take the tragedy that unfolded on the streets of Minneapolis this week, but do it from the view that none of us likely considered. View it not through the eyes of your biases (original or adopted), but view it through the eyes of heaven:

An image-bearer of the Creator was suffocated to death by a fellow image-bearer of the Creator in front of a group of image-bearers of the Creator. The act sparked image-bearers of the Creator to lash out at other image-bearers of the Creator, accusing them of all manners of evil. As these groups of image-bearers of the Creator exchanged accusations from places of pride, defiance, bitterness, and anger, still other image-bearers of the Creator moved to pillage and loot a city full of image-bearers of the Creator, destroying their property and livelihoods in the name of justice.

This is what I meant by seeing a hopelessly marred creation begging for redemption.


Until next time…

The Way of Improvement: From Cohansey to Dakota

Fithian BookMy friend Eric Miller, a history and humanities professor at Geneva College, just completed an independent study on “History in Place” with his student Mary Burgreen, a junior humanities major from Mississippi (currently riding out COVID-19 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania). One of the books they read together was The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America

Eric recently shared one of Mary’s essays and it is posted here with Mary’s permission. The essay brings The Way of Improvement Leads Home into conversation with the works of agrarian writer Kathleen Norris. Enjoy! –JF

The Way of Improvement

In a conversation I recently had with a friend through FaceTime, I asked, “How many times can I live the same day over again?” As I offered my complaint against the new, restrictive way of life we are confined to in the form of a cynical question, the rigorous schedule Philip Vickers Fithian adhered to during his studies at Princeton came to mind. I felt nearly guilty for allowing my routines go unappreciated. After all, the Benedictine monks, like Philip, followed consistent schedules, including times for prayers and study as laid out in their Rule. Surely, there must be merit in the simplicity and discipline of living according to habitual routines, as great intellectuals and saints have done for centuries. Yet, unlike the enlightened Princeton scholars and the contemplative monks, our routinely structured days are missing crucial pieces, one of utmost importance being a sense of community.

Though Philip heartily sought after education as a means for his personal progress, his intellectual betterment could not be separated from his sense of community, which included, as John Fea writes, “conversation, friendship, and family life.” It was not enough to submit one’s self toward “a universal love for the human race,” an ideal not possible without “face-to-face encounters with actual people inhabiting real places.” Just as the Republic of Letters—”the personal correspondence between men of ideas”—proved to be powerless without the presence of “the local” to act as “the anchor [for] the modern and revolutionary self,” Philip’s life revealed the inability to isolate the particulars found within community, such as personal relationships, human contact, or the interconnectedness of diverse social groups, from the progress strived after through the abstract and elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. In similar fashion, the Rule informed monastics of seemingly minute matters pertaining to food, dress, or daily work, prompting them, as Kathleen Norris notes in The Cloister Walk, “to be more mindful of the little things, even as it reminded [them] of the big picture.” As both Philip’s internal struggles and the slow-paced monastic life indicate, there are ordinary and necessary facets of daily life that fortify the ideals by which we live.Dakota

And just as Philip’s academic routine was not detached from his tangible, local associations, the rhythms of the life he lived on his family farm, which preceded his conscious journey on his way of improvement, were dictated by the particulars of his place, specifically the weather. Philip attentively recorded the weather because it “provided an adequate preamble to the day’s most important events.” The day’s forecast determined the people’s schedule. By affecting the agricultural community, the seasons acted as a foundation for the larger Cohansey social structure.

Similarly, though in a more intentional manner, the Benedictine monastics believed in the necessity of grounding their way of life by displaying what Norris in Dakota calls a “commitment to a particular community and place.” This Benedictine “vow of stability” is imbued with the personal surrender to the reality of a place, whatever its conditions may be. Here may be a key difference between Philip and the monastics — the Benedictines consciously chose to make a vow to their place, while Philip wrestled with his level of commitment to his place, a struggle which continued until his untimely death.

Like Philip, we may not have made this vow of purposeful commitment to our place, especially not to the places we find ourselves confined to. Rather than commit ourselves to the reality of our circumstances, we, like Philip while residing back in Cohansey as a recent university graduate, romanticize our conditions, making ourselves believe we have submitted to the slow-paced life where we might finally conquer time. It’s hard not to romanticize when books can be read from an antique desk set under a raindrop splattered window, while birds make conversations in trees that sway in the chilled breeze. Yet, the prospect of troublesome leaking pipes, of distant coughs that muffle the irritated muttering about masks, crushes the romance of it all. Heeding the advice Kathleen Norris was given, we all must use the “awareness of death as a tool”. That is the consequence of having an intimacy with the particulars of place—our being reminded of the reality of limitations. Through the connection to his place, Philip was first taught by the unpredictable weather patterns to accept the expectation of life’s limits. Later, he was confronted with these limits by the death of his parents. As Fea writes, “Death and ambition have little in common. . . mourning always awakens one to the fact that life has its limits.”

As the usual means of modern self-improvement have come to a blinding halt, we feel ourselves beginning to scramble to continue our own way of improvement even in the face of uncharted limitations. The way of improvement leads home, as Fea concludes, but where exactly does this leave us? Though at home, we find that it is no Cohansey, structured with an intricate, interconnected social web comprised of people committed to their particular place. In fact, our places do not resemble Cohansey at all. It might be argued that we are largely a placeless people, made up of generations of uprooted individuals discreetly searching for a home to feel affection for. The Benedictine wisdom recorded by Norris says, “If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history, our souls.” Place, for both Fithian and Norris, is defined by its history, which is formed by the continuity of the stories composed by its particulars—the monotonous weather records, the long-sustained friendships. This history is not time merely passed but stories kept and turned into traditions, into a form of habit. In the face of global uncertainty, it is providential that we are forced to pay attention to the most minuscule of particulars so that perhaps we may better understand that we truly “know not what a Day may bring forth.”

A Message to the Readers and Listeners of The Way of Improvement Leads Home


As many of you know, we have a lot going on here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We spend a lot of time each week trying to deliver curated and original content here at the blog.  The number of podcast downloads continue to grow.  At the moment, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (blog and podcast) employs an intern and a studio producer. We are also hoping to add another intern to help with booking guests.  I do not receive a cent for my work on the blog or the podcast.

We have been blogging for more than a decade and have never placed an advertisement on the blog.  People tell me that our refusal to run ads mean that we have missed, and are missing,  opportunities to make money on our content.  I have thought about posting ads to the blog, but then I remember how annoying it is to read websites and blogs with pop-up windows distracting readers from content.  We do air ads on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast as part of our arrangement with Recorded History Podcast Network.  Sometimes we make as high as fifteen dollars a month on those ads!  🙂

We keep things going here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home through the generous support of our readers and listeners.  If you feel moved to support out work, please consider visiting our Patreon page and consider a pledge or a one-time gift.  And yes, signed books and mugs are still available!




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When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

Liberal Arts on the Farm


The teachers who attend the Gilder-Lehrman Princeton seminar on colonial America read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  One teacher took the assignment very seriously.

Back in 2003 I coined the phrase “rural Enlightenment” in an article in The Journal of American History.  Five years later, I defined this phrase more fully in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (now available at Amazon at 68% off with free shipping). In this article and book I tried to show that “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron in eighteenth-century America.  I traced Fithian’s attempt to pursue an intellectual life amid the rural confines of his southern New Jersey home.  Fithian managed to combine the pursuit of an educated life in the midst of harvesting grain, making apple cider, and building sluices along the Cohansey River.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Samford University history professor Anthony Minnema reflects on the relationship between Christian colleges, the liberal arts, and farm work.  He asks: “If perhaps we’ve too long looked at the liberal arts as coffee shops and quads, what about the farm?”  Here is a taste of his post:

Work colleges and programs come in many shapes and sizes, but all offer discounted or even no tuition in exchange for a commitment of 10-15 hours of work per week. The exchange of work for tuition would go a long way to address the perception of elitism. The need to create work opportunities for these students also led these colleges to create majors in agricultural science and sustainability before these programs became popular, which undermines the accusation that LACs are impractical and divorced from the working world. The more successful work colleges, such as Berea College and College of the Ozarks, emphasize their working environment as a recruitment tool and describe themselves as a place to learn and work. A quick perusal of statistics indicates that work colleges enjoy near-parity of men and women (45-55), likely because the rhetoric of a work program and the majors that sustain it have historically been more appealing to men. More speculatively, I suspect that the work-program creates a sense of ownership for students and alumni that most LACs’ advancement offices would envy, since it changes the narrative of the ask from “Please continue giving to the college on top of your debt” to “How much was this education worth to you?” The donor base of the Christian liberal arts college (to say nothing of the corporate world), which tends more toward conservative values, might donate gladly to an institution that requires some or all of its students to work.

How might a work program interact with the liberal arts and Christian mission of a college? The relationship to both is surprisingly close. All colleges within the Work College Consortium describe themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and many retain a Great Books program. (Indeed, students might be more apt to discuss virtue ethics if they’ve just come in from a morning of work.) All but one of the work colleges I found possess a Christian history or tradition and still use the language of Christian service in their mission statements. Several couch their sustainability efforts in terms of stewardship. Thus, the work program might help Christian LACs make good on their claims to be places that foster faith, learning, and service.

So how to create the Christian liberal arts work college from scratch? What I would like to see exists as a two-year program in California at Deep Springs College. It’s a very small program (20-30 students) that boasts an impressive track record for its graduates according to a 2017 Economist article. It emphasizes rigorous liberal arts with a work college component, and until recently was open only to men, but lacks the faith component.

Read the entire piece here.  Interesting.

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Welcome Messiah College Community of Educators!


Parmer Hall, Messiah College

When this post appears on the blog (9:50am on Monday, May 20, 2018) I will be sitting with Drew Dyrli Hermeling on the magnificent stage of Parmer Hall at Messiah College hosting a special episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The episode is being recorded right now in front of a live studio audience at Messiah’s “Educator’s Day.”  Every year, Messiah College’s community of educators gather on the Monday following graduation for a day of professional development.  This year’s theme is “Flourishing in a Digital Age” and the administration has asked me to dedicate a podcast episode to digital scholarship and teaching at Messiah College.

We have done 38 full episodes of the podcast thus far.  I have interviewed Pulitzer Prize–winning authors and all kinds of other important people in the history field, but I have never been more nervous than I am this morning.  There is something different about having to host this podcast in front of a few hundred of my colleagues!

I think it is fair to say that most Messiah College educators are not familiar with the blog or the podcast.  Many will be finding their way to http://www.thewayofimprovement.com from their phones and laptops as they listen to us recording the podcast on stage. If you are one of those educators, welcome to our online home!  Feel free to explore a bit and get acquainted with what we have been doing here for the last ten years!  🙂

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What Does “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” Mean?

eacac-fithian2bbookI get this question a lot.

I can’t answer it without talking about Philip Vickers Fithian.

Learn more about him (and learn some early American history in the process) at 60% off with free shipping.

Here is Lauren Winner’s review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home in Books & Culture:

Like everyone else who has written about colonial Virginia, I am guilty of what John Fea describes as using Philip Vickers Fithian’s journal as “window dressing for … studies of the plantation Chesapeake.” In 1773 and 1774, Fithian served as a tutor on one of the great Tidewater plantations, and the journal he kept that year has provided historians with insightful and charming anecdotes about the religious and social lives of Virginia’s élite.

But if his account of Virginia is the most widely read (and plundered) of Fithian’s journals, it was certainly not the only diary he kept. In 1766, he began two records: a journal devoted principally to assessing the state of his soul, and a journal in which he recorded the daily round of labor on his father’s farm. From then on, Fithian was never far from pen and paper. He was an astute diarist, and a faithful letter-writer, and the paper trail he left is the basis for Fea’s wonderful study of Fithian’s conversion, education, and coming of age.

Fithian was born in 1747 in a rural and intensely Presbyterian pocket of southwest New Jersey called Cohansey. He grew up in the church, and he experienced a powerful conversion in 1766. Always a lover of ideas and reading, after his conversion Fithian sensed a call to ministry, and knew that he needed more formal education. Convincing his father that this was a good idea took some work: Fithian argued that an education would be a means of self-improvement, through which he would become more virtuous and refined. In turn, an educated Fithian could contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Fithian’s father finally relented, and Fithian enrolled first in a local academy run by Presbyterian cleric Enoch Green and then in the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea explores the conflict between Fithian’s deep connections to Cohansey and the Enlightenment principles of cosmopolitanism he learned in school. How did Fithian reconcile his obligations to and love of home, a specific place and specific people, with the universalizing claims of the Enlightenment, whose prophets taught that enlightened people privileged a loyalty to international community above parochial ties? “The need to reconcile the pursuit of Enlightenment ambition with a passion for home or a desire for God,” Fea suggests, “was perhaps the greatest moral problem facing the newly educated sons of British American farmers.”

This tension is shot through Fithian’s journals. He was always deeply attached to Cohansey. A third-generation Jerseyite, Fithian felt connected to the place through genealogy. He loved the landscape, how the apple and cherry trees bloomed in spring. He had close and abiding friendships with many of his neighbors, and he understood those friendships as seedbeds in which the virtuous life was nurtured.

Yet his education conspired to remove him from the place he loved. At the most general level, his book-learning elevated him to a social rank above most of his Cohansey compatriots. More specifically, in school he imbibed a principled cosmopolitanism that instructed him in obligations to the larger world. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, taught his students that they possessed two kinds of affections: “particular” affections for local places and specific people, and the clearly superior “calm and deliberate good will to all.” Local affections had their place, but they were to be subordinated to universal attachments. An expansive love of “mankind” trumped even patriotism, the love of one’s particular country. “Philip would learn rather quickly at Princeton that it was far better to be a citizen of the world than a citizen of Cohansey,” Fea writes.

The tension between local attachments and cosmopolitan convictions presented itself over and over in Fithian’s life. After he graduated from Princeton, Fithian’s mentors encouraged him to take up the post of plantation tutor in Virginia. He seized the opportunity—and then was wracked by doubts about leaving his apple trees and his friends behind. During his stay in Virginia, Fithian experienced intense homesickness, which in the 18th century was considered a serious pathology; in one medical encyclopedia, a discussion of the causes and symptoms of homesickness was placed between the entries on “nymphomania” and “anorexia.”

Fithian’s ties to New Jersey were sufficiently strong that although his employers wanted him to stay on in Virginia, he returned north after a year. But the demands of enlightened service and parochial commitments came into conflict again in 1775. Fithian was now an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but there were no vacant pulpits in his presbytery. So the presbytery sent Fithian back south, to make a preaching tour in the Shenandoah. Once again, Fithian’s education and course of self-improvement were taking him far from home. And once again, he was homesick: “Much of my Heart teizes me about Home,” he wrote. “It hangs steadily there which Way soever I turn, so that my whole Train of thinking leans that Way also.” Fithian knew these were not the sentiments of an enlightened, educated pastor, but he couldn’t shake them.

Homesickness was not the only pesky passion that afflicted Fithian. He was also lovesick. His friendship with Elizabeth Beatty, whom he eventually married, was tempestuous, and in the grip of romantic longing, Fithian found himself gossiping, saying outlandish things to Betsy, and generally allowing his enlightened detachment to crumble in the face of decidedly particular longings for a sometimes coy and chimerical woman. Fea’s re-creation of Fithian and Beatty’s on-again, off-again connection will take its place among the finest accounts of early American courtship practices.

 Shortly after his tour in the Shenandoah, Fithian died while serving as a Revolutionary War chaplain. Fea cleverly reads in his death—a death in which particular attachments were deployed in the service of universal ideals—a kind of solution to the tension between local and cosmopolitan commitments. Fithian did not die in his beloved Cohansey, but he did die in the wartime service of a Cohansey regiment, with his oldest friends gathered around his deathbed. The ideological commitments that prompted him to serve as a chaplain included both a particular patriotism and a commitment to universal ideals that Fithian believed would help improve the lot of all people.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which shows how seismic philosophical upheaval profoundly shaped the life of an ordinary man far from the epicenter, is easily the most important study of early American Presbyterianism since Mark Noll’s Princeton and the Republic and Leigh Schmidt’s Holy Fairs. Perhaps Fea’s signal contribution is his nuanced reading of the relationship between the Enlightenment and Christianity. Fithian’s Enlightenment convictions and practices were inseparable from his Presbyterian convictions and practices: a shared commitment to Enlightenment values helped mend the rifts that had formed between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians during the Great Awakening, and by the mid-1760s, “evangelical Presbyterianism and the Enlightenment were hand-in-glove.” This embrace of the Enlightenment could be seen in Presbyterians’ concern with the moral ordering of the larger world, and their hope that people in the church and in broader society would regulate and temper their passions.

But if Fithian’s Christianity was less otherworldly than his grandfather’s, more concerned with how it could contribute to the betterment of society, he could not accept the logical conclusions of radical Enlightenment ideas. Fithian, writes Fea, “sought the Enlightenment with every ounce of his being and yet wholeheartedly rejected its most fundamental teachings about where human history was heading.” Occasionally Fea seems to be pushing his thesis a bit too hard, reifying “the Enlightenment,” as when he writes in his conclusion that, “as might be expected,” the “mutual accommodation” he so helpfully traces “diluted both the Enlightenment and Christianity” (emphasis added). From the very beginning, Christianity has maintained a dialectical tension between the “otherworldly” and the concerns of “this world,” and Fea’s account does not fully justify his claim that the deposit of the faith was necessarily “diluted” by Enlightenment influences.

Though firmly embedded in the particulars of the 18th century, the story Fea tells has resonance today. That is one of the many reasons I so love this book—Fithian’s problem is no less acute today for men and women whose education takes them geographically and imaginatively beyond their local communities. It is a problem I felt keenly in college, when I agonized about whether I could or would in some sense “go home again,” or whether what I was learning in college—both the book-learning and a kind of cosmopolitan aspiration—would somehow finally remove me from the place in which I grew up. (The admittedly sophomoric melodrama of my angst was only heightened by the fact that “home” was Asheville, North Carolina, home too of Thomas Wolfe, author of You Can’t Go Home Again.) I see the same problem today in some of my divinity school students, who wonder if what they are learning will somehow take them, geographically and intellectually, irreparably far from the congregations that named their call to ordained ministry. Here in the early 21st-century we may flatter our postmodern selves by imagining that we have moved beyond the Enlightenment, now ironically criticized for its parochialism. But the tensions between cosmopolitan aspirations and local commitments are with us still.


Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. What Was Being Worshiped Yesterday at First Baptist Church in Dallas?
  2. This May Be the Best Think I Have Read on Trump
  3. Did Jay Sekulow Urge Poor People to Give Money to His Christian Non-Profit So He Could Pay Millions of Dollars to Family Members?
  4. David Brooks’s 2004 Op-Ed on John Stott is More Relevant Than Ever
  5. Why Did the First Baptist Church of Dallas Have “Freedom Sunday” on June 25?
  6. Where are the Court Evangelicals Today?
  7. Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: Bernie Sanders Should Apologize or Resign
  8. On the Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas
  9. Welcome New Readers (Again)
  10. Irony Alert: Pro-Life Republicans Support a Health Care Bill That Punishes the “Sick & the Poor”

Preparing Americans for Life in a Democracy


Recently someone asked me, “If you were given a couple of million dollars to start a center, what kind of center would you create?” Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am advocate for the study of American history.  I am convinced that the study of our national past is essential to the cultivation of American democracy.  I even envisioned such a center in the appendix of my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I imagine that such a center would look something like what we do at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, only in brick and mortar form.

My second choice for a well-funded center would be something devoted more broadly to the humanities and American democracy.  This is probably why I was so intrigued by a piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed titled “Democratizing the Great Books.”  It is written by three Columbia University history professors–Casey Blake, Roosevelt Montas, and Tamara Mann Tweel.

Here is a taste:

In December, some 250 students, professors, university administrators and other citizens attended a daylong conference organized by Columbia University’s Center for American Studies on the theme of “Democracy and Education.” The event took the centennial of the publication of John Dewey’s classic book of that title as an occasion to consider how schools, colleges and universities might reinvigorate civic education with new pedagogies and partnerships with community organizations.

The stakes could not be higher. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” The recent election added urgency to the day’s discussion, throwing in relief the question “What does democratic education mean today?”

Years ago our keynote speaker, the political philosopher Danielle Allen, grappled with that very question as she taught Great Books courses to night students at the University of Chicago. The Declaration of Independence became the sole text for one of those seminars, as she invited the students to join her in parsing each line of the country’s founding document. Allen explained in her book Our Declaration, “I wanted my students to claim the text …. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves …. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

Ownership of the democratic tradition is key to a civic education. Allen understood that if students formed a personal relationship with a text, if they acquired it as a work that awakened their own civic intelligence, they would move from passive recipients of a heritage that they didn’t believe was theirs to active participants in shaping their country’s democratic future.

Allen is not alone in this insight. Programs across the country have begun to teach Great Books to underserved populations, be it:

Read the entire piece here.  And while your reading I will be sitting here waiting for an e-mail from a big donor.  🙂

Nostalgia is a “valid, honorable, ancient, human emotion.”


I have always been a very nostalgic person.  If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait.  I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey.  My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….”  But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons.  The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice.  This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation .  Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.

Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.

Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia.  Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way.  In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home.  For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together.  In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.

I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.”  I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?)  In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

Read the entire piece here.

How You Can Support the Work of The Way of Improvement Leads Home?


Contribute at the “Pound” level and receive this TWOILH mug!

As many of the faithful readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home already know, we are trying to deliver quality content at the intersection of American history, American religion, politics, and K-20 education.

We do that it many ways.

Most importantly, of course, is the daily The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.  Many of you have benefited from our 2016 election coverage, the Author’s Corner, Sunday Night Odds and Ends, our “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series, and a host of other regular and not so-regular features.  Thanks for reading!

We also produce a bi-weekly podcast focused less on politics and cultural criticism and more on American history and historical thinking.  Many of you already enjoy the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Thanks to your support we have been able to commit to a third season. (Episode 17, the first of the Season 3, dropped last week).  Today we recorded episode 18 on the internationalization of American history.

If you appreciate a particular blog post or have been entertained and informed by a podcast episode, please consider a donation at our PATREON campaign.  (At the moment all the money pledged goes directly into podcast expenses, but in the future, once the podcast has reached financial stability, we hope to expand the blog as well).

I know that these fundraising posts can be annoying, but after eight years of blogging at a steady rate and three seasons of podcasting I have come to the realization that we aren’t going to last very long without a support base.  Thanks for considering a pledge or a one-time gift.

Again, click here to contribute.

Historians and Money

History podcaster extraordinaire Liz Covart‘s recent tweet caught my attention:

She links to Joseph Frankel’s interview with writer Manjula Martin published in The Atlantic under the title Why More Writers Should Talk About Money.”  Martin is the editor of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.  The book, as Frankel describes it, offers a “more personal picture of what it’s like to make a living from-or while–writing.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Frankel: Essays in the collection call attention to the creative value of day jobs and, in the case of Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), their impact on writers’ output. Others, particularly the piece by Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night, Edinburgh), think that the discussion of day jobs helps to romanticize unfair pay for writers. How do you think about the relationship between other kinds of work and writing?

Martin: I think that some of the stuff Chee says in his essay is particularly valuable for younger writers who maybe haven’t been around in an era where folks were ever really compensated well. I’ve certainly written for free. I’d bet Chee has done it too, and I think he talks about that in his essay. But if you’re hiring me to do work, you need to pay me, is sort of his stance. And I agree with that 100 percent.  You mentioned romanticizing that relationship between work and craft. I think it’s very tricky because there is a lot of dangerous romanticization, and that can set writers up, particularly in the beginnings of their careers, to blunder in a business they know nothing about.

Chee has a great quote in his essay where he talks about how any education in writing should include an education in how to make a living as a writer. There is a place for the romantic in the writer’s life, but there’s a difference between romance and being ignorant. Gay says that really nicely in her interview where she’s just like, “I don’t want to kill the dream of my students by being like, ‘it’s really hard to make a living!’” But it’s also the responsibility of older generations of writers to let folks know really what it’s like.

It drives me equally crazy to read advice to writers on the internet that’s like, “Here’s how to write a bestseller in 7 steps” or “You are guaranteed to get a book deal.” I think that’s the flipside of the same coin.

Writers, it seems to me, have an important role to play in society.  So do historians. A knowledge of American history and the learning of historical thinking skills are essential in any age, but they are particularly essential in times of political change.  I hope that what we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home makes some small contribution to the cause.

Very soon we will be recording episodes for Season 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and we could really use your help.  We have a young staff who is passionate about history and podcasting and are willing to work for peanuts.  But they also have families to raise and school bills to pay. I realize that I will never be able to pay them what they are worth, but I would at least like to show them that I am making a good faith effort to reward their hard work.  This is where you can help.

If you would like to hear more quality history podcasting at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, including shows with great guests, commentary, and conversation, I hope you will consider becoming a patron of the show.

Learn more here and here.



Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. Donald Trump’s Favorite Bible Verse is “An Eye for an Eye”
  2. On Left-Wing McCarthyism and My “Farcical” Take on Ted Cruz
  3. A Quick Comment on Springsteen and North Carolina
  4. David Barton Doubles Down on 7 Mountain Dominionism
  5. So What Can You Do With a History Major?–Part 53
  6. Another Politician Attacks History Majors
  7. The Babylon Bee on Pastors “Doing Life Together”
  8. David Barton, the Seven Mountains, and Ted Cruz
  9. An Open Letter to the Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky
  10. Reflections on Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership at #oah2016

What Coming Up in the New Year at *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*

Thanks for all of you who have encouraged us this year to keep on blogging here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I appreciate all of your comments, e-mails, notes, shares, and retweets. It makes me realize that we are indeed providing a real service for people interested in thoughtful conversation about matters related to academic life, American history, politics, and Christianity.

For those of you who are interested, here are a few things you can expect in 2016:

  • We hope to unveil The Way of Improvement Leads Home’s new blog/website design on December 30, 2015.  We have made the switch to WordPress.
  • We will be at the AHA in Atlanta from January 7-10 to offer our usual coverage of this massive history conference.  We are looking for more correspondents.
  • On March 18, 2016 I will be the keynote speaker at what looks like a wonderful undergraduate conference on the “Examined Life” at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.  Don’t forget to submit a proposal or encourage your students to submit a proposal.
  • In late March, Oxford University Press will release my next book: The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  We are working with the ABS and Oxford on publicity.  Part of the publicity will involve speaking.  If you are connected with a church, college, bookstore, library, or some other cultural institution that might be interesting in hosting an event please contact us.
  • And, of course, you can continue to expect daily blogging, our twice-weekly Author’s Corner, and all of our other usual features at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Thanks again for your support. We may take a few days off during the Christmas holiday, so let me wish all of our readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year.