Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part two). Or is *Believe Me* a work of history?

Why Study HistoryRead part one here.

This post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Here are five suggestions for those who want to pursue Robert Gleason’s idea that the historian should always ask whether or not what happened in the past was “good.”

First, the historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism. They are not called to give their opinions about the past. Such activity is better left to the ethicists, theologians, and politicians. Those who do want to offer some level of moral reflection on the past should do so only after they, their students, or their readers have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened the way it did. Sometimes this kind of moral reflection works better in the classroom than it does in a book, article, or museum exhibit.

Second, when historian do speak and write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation. In other words, historians should speak as historians to the moral concerns of the public. Historians, like everyone else, have opinions, and in the United States they are free to express those opinions, but when speaking to the public as historians they must do so with the goal of bringing historical thinking skills to bear on the issue at hand. As James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least historians on their days off.”

Third, when a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized by mature moral thinking. Let’s think about this from the perspective of the Christian historian.  The Bible and church tradition provide Christians with a source of truth that enables them to shed moral light on all of human life, regardless of the era. But for Christian historians to engage in moral criticism well, they must have an adequate theological and biblical understanding of the Christian tradition. Sunday school Bible proof-texting will not cut it. Nor will moral platitudes (Hitler was “evil” or “The Declaration of Independence should be praised because it mentions “the Creator”) that are not grounded in deep theological or ethical thinking. At least one historian has even suggested that historians interested in doing “moral history” should first be trained in the discipline of moral philosophy.”

Fourth, historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner. Christians who write history should take to heart the words of Adrian Oldfield:

If the historian litters his account of the past with explicit, stentorian, moral judgments, then the result is likely to be a very ugly piece of historical writing indeed, however much attention he scrupulously pays to evidence. But more judgments do not have to be delivered in such a thunderous manner. Historians can make clear their moral positions implicitly, in terms of the language they use, and in the tone and style of composition.

Historians should also avoid explicit moralizing because we, like the historical actors we write and teach about, are flawed humans. This belief should always be on the mind of historians as the thunder their moral prophetic condemnations on people in the past. George Marsden summarizes it well: “We can point out that we ourselves probably have similar blind spots and that, even though our mistreatment or neglect of our neighbors may not be as notorious or spectacular, we share a common humanity with those whose action we deplore.” This can be the most difficult part of writing moral history and it must always be balanced with the Christian’s or citizen’s responsibility to speak truth to power. Individual historians will strike this balance in different ways.

Fifth, and finally, historians should also remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgment on them. Thomas Jefferson might have been the champion of the ordinary farmer, religious freedom, public education, and small government, but he was also a slaveholder. Or to put this differently, Jefferson owned slaves, but he was also influential in promoting the democratic ideas that eventually led to emancipation. The complexity of the past will often trigger our moral imaginations. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history’s moral turn may help “create productive confusion and a willingness to recognize that behind all our moral choices, whether past or present, lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony.”

Several people who read Why Study History? have asked me how my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my regular criticism of Trump and the evangelicals who support him intersects with what I have written above. It’s a great question. Let me try to explain.

What I have written above is how I approach teaching and writing history–my primary vocation. But I also engage the public–especially here at the blog–as a father and husband, son of the working class, white educated male, seminary graduate, professor at a small college on the margins of academia and, most importantly, as a Christian. All of these identities inform my opinions, commentaries, and moral critiques. Often times they merge in such a way that makes it impossible to break them apart. As one of my favorite writers Richard Rodriguez once told the graduating class at Kenyon College, “life is a whole.”

I do not teach the way I write at this blog. Nor do I teach with the same political and moral tone that readers encounter in Believe Me. In fact, I don’t really understand Believe Me as a work of traditional history. It is too overtly political to call it that. Of course all of my books have some political dimension to them. I do not pretend that politics does not play a significant role in every historian’s work.  (Although I do lament that only one form of political thinking dominates the academy). But whatever kind of politics inform my other books, I made every effort in those books to read the record as honestly as possible and keep my own moral voice limited. In Believe Me, however, I let it rip. I stepped outside the historian’s traditional role and tried to speak as a Christian to my own tribe of Christians.

One more thing. Though Believe Me was unlike any of my other books, I think I still approached the subject as a historical thinker. As I tell my students, when a person learns to think historically it is hard to think about the world any other way, even when you are offering opinion and commentary.  In Believe Me I did my best to understand Trump and his evangelical supporters. I tried to interrogate claims like “Make America Great Again” from my training and expertise as a historian. I tried to marshal historical evidence to help readers see why evangelicals flocked to Trump. I also tried to take a long view and situate Trump’s evangelicals in a larger context that spans several centuries. This makes Believe Me different from other books about Trump and evangelicals. I tried to understand my subject historically and then, and only then, offer moral criticism in accordance with my training in Christian theology. In the end, I think I was somewhat consistent with what I wrote above and in Why Study History?

I am currently working on another book of history. But I also think I have some more historically-inflected opinion and commentary in me as well. Thanks for helping me think through this in public. For those familiar with Why Study History? you know that these last several paragraphs have moved the discussion beyond what I wrote in that book.

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.

How does a historian think about the past?

Why Study HistoryAdapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The past is everywhere. Take some time to think about the many ways you have encountered the past today. Perhaps you shared a memory with a family member or looked at some old photos on Facebook. Or maybe you spent some time thinking about how the past has shaped who you are today. The past serves our needs in a variety of ways. We consume the past in hopes that it will inspire us, provide an escape from modern life, and tell us who we are as individuals and communities. We enter the past in search of people like us, and we invoke the past in our political and cultural debates. We cannot escape its presence in our lives. So why not embrace it? As we will see below, attempts at making the past relevant must be done with caution, but we should not be shy about linking the past to the present.

If you are a historian, part of your responsibility is to inform the general public about the way the past connects to our contemporary lives and to help the members of your community use the past to make meaning of their lives. As those living in the “here and now,” we are in constant dialogue with the past, whether we realize it or not. As long as we remain products of an American culture that celebrates the individual and his or her quest to bring order to life, we will live in a paradoxical relationship to what has come before us. The past will always serve as a temper to the progressive vision of a better world, but we will appeal to it endlessly in order to make that world a reality.

We must also always remember that the past is akin to a foreign country. Historians have the important task of visiting this world and explaining it to others through the books we write, the lectures we give, the lessons we plan, and the exhibits we curate. It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own.

Historians are tour guides. It is important to always keep this in mind as you engage the past. Your success as a historian or a student of history will depend on how effectively you are able to use your research paper, essay, or presentation to bring lost worlds to life for your readers and hearers. But this will not be easy since our natural inclination–our “psychological condition at rest”–is to consume the past for our own purposes to try to remake the past in our own images.

As an exercise in understanding, any serious study of the past requires us to attempt to humbly walk in the shoes of people who have inhabited this earth before us. This is why Stanford University history pedagogy expert Sam Wineburg has called the practice of historical thinking an “unnatural act.” It it this role of the historian–the role of a tour guide through foreign cultures–that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF

I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.

Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.

Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.

Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.

The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.

More Teacher Bulletin Boards!

Back in August I asked K-12 history teachers to send me pictures of their Why Study History?-themed bulletin boards.  We got a few takers and I worked-up this post.

I recently received another set of pics.  Julie teaches middle school in California.  Here are her boards and shelves:

Watts 1

Love the Niebuhr quote!

Watts 2

 I need to tell the students  in my “Age of Hamilton” class about this poster

Watts 3

A lot of good stuff here.

Watts 4

I recognize a few books on the top shelf! Glad to see Yoda  is guarding them. 🙂

Thanks, Julie!

Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation.  In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time.  Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident.  Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts  of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event.  But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault.  This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened.  History has changed.  This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment.  In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?”  Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West).  Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community.  We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians.  This is called peer review.  When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.  Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake.  The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.  In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again.  In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion.  They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century.  These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.  In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study History

I love it!  High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.

Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):

Historical Thinking

Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:

Grayam

Grayam 2

Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.”  That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke.  But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?

If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

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

Gordon College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Study History

Introducing a New Column: “Out of the Zoo”

annieA few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Enjoy! –JF

This past fall semester, I joined my fellow Messiah College first-year students (mostly history majors) in a once-weekly night class that introduced us to the discipline of history. The assigned text for the class (Why Study History? by TWOILH’s own Professor Fea) argued that history is the act of reconstructing the past. We learned that as history students–and future historians–we are not responsible for procuring a long list of names and dates to commit to memory, but rather for putting flesh on the bones of the men and women who held those names and lived at those times, bringing the past to life for others to see.

I soon realized, after being introduced to this idea, that I had already been in the business of making history come alive for over a decade. No, I didn’t start reading Civil War soldiers’ diaries at the age of seven, or rifle through important documents at an archive for a fourth grade social studies project, but I did use what meager supply of knowledge I already possessed and combined it with my imagination to craft a picture of what the past might’ve been like. Spurred on by something I learned from an American Girl book, a local museum, or a PBS television show, I found joy through inserting myself into the past–it came alive to me.

I can’t quite explain why I so often entertained myself as a child by imagining what it would’ve been like growing up in 18th century Massachusetts or 14th century England rather than 21st century Michigan, but I think it has something to do with Adventures in Odyssey. My sister and I listened to cassette tapes of Adventures in Odyssey–a Focus on the Family radio show about a Soda Shop owner and inventor Mr. Whittaker–every night before going to sleep. In the show, Mr. Whittaker’s prized invention was a machine called “The Imagination Station” that could transport kids back in time and teach them about anything they could imagine–anything from the story of Moses to the Lewis and Clark expedition to the American Revolution. The Imagination Station made the past real to anyone who stepped inside. I didn’t have a machine, but I used what I did have to make the past as real to me as I could.

Now historians cannot simply replace facts with imagination–we can’t just make up what we don’t know when doing our research, even if it would be much easier that way. When studying history, it’s dangerous to make inferences based off of our own desires or experiences, rather than filling in gaps of the narrative we are constructing with historical context. If we fall into this habit, our imagination can get out of control and we risk resurrecting something akin to Frankenstein’s creature rather than an accurate depiction of the past. In moderation, though, I do think imagination remains an important tool for historians–when we use our imagination, informed by our knowledge, to walk around in the shoes of the men and women we study, the past truly comes alive.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History

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Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner.  It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.

Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:

I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context.  Most early American historians would agree.  Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):

So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived.  Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms.  This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past.  As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present.  But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.”  As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.

Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians?  And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?

 

More on Empathy and Disgust (and Lament)

Why Study HistorySome of you will remember my response to Elesha Coffman’s blog post about Robert Orsi’s recent plenary address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Here is a taste of that post:

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Yesterday, Wheaton College historian Karen Johnson entered the fray.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Anxious Bench:

Empathy, in short, helps us to see. I find, for instance, that students who might be resistant to talking about race in other contexts are willing to embrace the conversations in my history classroom because we are puzzling over sources together, trying to craft true stories about what happened. I’m not telling them they have to be disgusted, or that they are participating in a racialized society, or leading with theory. We discover how race has functioned in the past and how it functions today together because we’ve set aside judgment.

But there is room for disgust, if we, the historians, position ourselves rightly. And disgust, in many cases, is a right response because of the humanity involved. After all, we’re not just disembodied observers or minds on a stick. We’re human, with emotions, thoughts, and visceral responses. Further, Shanley is also a person, one who is made in the image of God and therefore meant to embody the goodness of God’s kingdom, and also one who is depraved. To not respond to the evil he committed may be a form of condescension, because he could have known better, could have done better.

Coffman pondered historians’ hesitation to judge: “Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I think she’s right. I’ll speak for myself here (but does anyone see this in themselves?): I hesitate in part to judge not just because of my professional training but because I don’t want to be judged. I don’t think I’m that bad of a person, or embedded in that bad of a context.

But that perspective has a pretty weak understanding of sin. Because of the Fall, it’s not a question of if we are missing the mark, but how we’re missing the mark. Of course we’re falling short today. Of course we’re part of systemic sin. Why should historians in the future not name that sin? Why should we not name sin in the past — after we’ve done the hard work of contextualizing that sin, seeking to understand as best we can what happened, why, and the consequences? I take Orsi’s argument that disgust rightly breaks down a good/bad distinction in religion, making us realize that one cannot separate the evil caused by religion from the good, as a reminder of the evil and the good within all people, institutions, and systems.

I have found that a helpful way to respond to the sin is with the spiritual discipline of lament, to talk with God about the suffering. (I’ve written about this here and in a forthcoming article in Fides et Historia.) Lament is political and not neutral; it names actions as evil, as hurtful, as suffering. But, as Soong-Chan Rah discusses in Prophetic Lament, it requires humility. It’s also not just intellectual, but should involve all of who we are. When the prophet Jeremiah laments his people’s sin and God’s destruction of them, he situates himself (perhaps the only righteous man in Israel) as part of the people who have sinned.

I like Johnson’s piece because it seems to give priority to understanding and empathy in the history classroom.  Lament, disgust, or any other emotion is fine, but I don’t believe it is the primary goal of a history classroom.  This is the crux of my argument in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

If my students who study American history under my direction come to the end of a semester without a solid grasp of how white supremacy and slavery defined everyday life in the 19th-century South, I have failed them as a history professor.

Do I want my students to be disgusted with white slaveholders?  Of course.  Do I want my students to lament the sin of the South (and perhaps see their own sin in the process)?  Absolutely.  Do I want them to learn to love the dead?  Yes.  But if they do not end the semester feeling lament, disgust, joy, or love, but still have a solid grasp on how to think historically about the world (in terms of complexity, context, contingency, causation, and change over time), I have done my job as a history professor.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

The Next Step in the Humanities “Counterattack” is “Translation”

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In my book Why Study History: A Historical Introduction I wrote:

But there are also larger issues that history teachers and professors, and school and college administrators, must confront if they want to be effective career counselors.  For example, we must equip students to be confident in the skills that they have acquired as history majors….Rather than apologizing to potential employers about being history majors, our students should enter job interviews boldly, discussing their abilities to write, communicate, construct narratives out of small details, listen, empathize, analyze, and think critically.  As Stanton Green, a humanities administrator notes, “People find jobs where they look for jobs.”  We need to instill our students with confidence.  The ability to do this must somehow be embedded in a history department curriculum.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, University of North Carolina-Greensboro  Emily Levine and Nicole Hall describe this process as “translation.”  Here is a taste of their piece:

After years of being on the back foot, the humanities have launched a counterattack. A shelf of new books, including Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) and Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro’s Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities (Princeton, 2017), attest to the usefulness of the humanities for the 21st-century job market. Their fresh message makes the old creed that the humanities are a “mistake” or not “relevant” seem out of touch. Surveying these works in the July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, J. M. Olejarz dubs this countermovement “the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds….”

But where we go from here requires the hard work of identifying just what is the common denominator being learned in the humanities and how to parlay that knowledge and those skills into professional success. How do you apply Virginia Woolf to write better code or marshal your skills conjugating Latin verbs to execute an IPO?

At the University of North Carolina Greensboro, we have taken the next step of improving career outcomes for our students in the humanities by implementing the Liberal Arts Advantage, a strategy that articulates the value of the humanities to students, their parents and the community.

Directors of career development are realizing that they can’t do this work alone. They must engage faculty as their partners.

Jeremy Podany, founder, CEO, and senior consultant of the Career Leadership Collective, a global solutions group and network of innovators inside and near to university career services, says that helping faculty teach career development is part of the job. “I actually think we need to go to the faculty and say, ‘Let me teach you how to have a great career conversation,’” said Podany. The relationship between faculty members and career development offices — experts in the humanities and careers — is essential to preparing students for the job market.

Why? Because the central issue in realizing a long-term strategy for student career development is translation. That is, how students translate the skills they learn in the classroom into workplace success. This is particularly true in the case of the metacognitive skills that professors in the humanities can, and should, help contribute in their students.

Read the entire piece here.

Pennsylvania Bill 723 and the Teaching of American History

capitol-building-regulatory-affairs

Pennsylvania, the state where I live, has just taken another step toward passing Senate Bill 723.  Here is a taste of the bill:

Amending the act of March 10, 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), entitled “An act relating to the public school system, including certain provisions applicable as well to private and parochial schools; amending, revising, consolidating and changing the laws relating thereto,” in high schools, providing for civics test graduation requirement.

The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hereby enacts as follows:

Section 1.  The act of March 10, 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), known as the Public School Code of 1949, is amended by adding a section to read:

Section 1613.1.  Civics Test Graduation Requirement.–(a)  Notwithstanding 22 Pa. Code § 4.24 (relating to high school graduation requirements), beginning in the 2020-2021 school year and in each school year thereafter, each school entity shall require a student, as a condition of high school graduation, to correctly answer at least sixty percent (60%) of the questions on a test that is identical to the one hundred (100) question civics test used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The bill was just approved by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee and will now move to a full vote of the Senate.  Harrisburg’s ABC 27 News has the story here.

I will be keeping an eye on this.  I think Pennsylvania students should have a solid grasp of American history content and I am happy to help with this in any way, if called upon. A test like this will probably help some students with basic facts, but most history educators will tell you that Bill 723 is only a very small start.

I hope the legislators behind this bill realize that history education, and the contribution that the study of history can make to a thriving democracy, is so much more than just memorization and test-taking.  I would like the Pennsylvania legislature to:

  1.  Strengthen history education by requiring all history teachers to have a college major in the field.  (Messiah College students are required to have a full major. Many of other states have this requirement.
  2.  Train current educators how to teach historical thinking.  My Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past might be a good place to start. This Fall I will be doing this with about 20 Messiah College teachers in my “Teaching History” course.  (Did I mention that Messiah College is one of the best places in the country to train as a history teacher?  Our teachers are scattered throughout the Commonwealth and beyond).
  3.  Stop thinking about the assessment of students in history as the memorization of facts as if students will somehow become better citizens if they just know the dates of the Civil War.  This approach to the teaching of history was perhaps best summed-up by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh when he infamously said “History is real simple.  You know what history is? It’s what happened…The problem you get into is when guys…try to skew history by [saying], ‘Well, let’s interpret what happened because maybe we can’t find the truth in facts…Well that’s not what history is.  History is what happened, and history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened.”   Wrong.  I don’t know as much as I should about the Pennsylvania State Senate, but I did find it interesting that Bill 723 was introduced by 19 Republicans and 3 Democrats.

NOTE:  The most recent version of the bill no longer makes a passing score on the citizenship test a requirement for graduation.

The Discipline of History as a Spiritual Discipline

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

St. Augustine

From Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

History is not only a discipline in the academic sense in which philosophy or literary criticism or sociology are disciplines.  It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the “other” in a hospitable way.  Doing history is not unlike the kind of “disciplines” we employ in our spiritual lives–disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others.  As historian Beth Barton Schweiger writes, “The discipline of history can be a means of grace in the life of the historian.  The writing of history, rightly done, can challenge and change the historian.”  For generations, historians have seen the pursuit of objectivity–the need to cast aside personal bias in order to tell a story about the past that is as accurate as possible–as an effort of the will.  Historian Thomas Haskell, a noted authority on the subject of historical interpretation, writes:

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers….Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human being, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming…Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.

While Christian historians need willpower as well, we can also rely on prayer, the Holy Spirit’s power, and other spiritual practices in order to pursue the kind of self-denial, hospitality, charity, and humility needed to engage the past in a proper way and be open to the possibility of it transforming us.  How often do we pray over our scholarly historical work?  And I don’t mean a prayer for help in getting the paper done on time or a prayer that we keep our sanity amid the heavy workload.  I mean a prayer that the Lord would use our study of the past in all its fullness to change us.  Similarly, when we uncover sinful behavior in the past, it should cause us to examine our own imperfect lives.  It might even lead to prayers of confession.  When we are open to using the past as a mirror that forces us to come to grips with our own flaws, we relieve ourselves of the “humanly inescapable desire to judge, and ultimately to be the judge, to be the author of our own story, to be God.” The practice of confession draws us closer to God and others, but it also enables us to be more effective historians–scholars and students who are better able to understand and tell the stories of people who live in the “foreign country” of the past.

I have posted above my desk (in the office where I do most of my historical work) a “prayer before study” written by the Catholic scholastic Thomas Aquinas.  Though I am not always as consistent as I would like to be, I try to pray it whenever I sit down to write or conduct research into the past.  I have even brought it with me when I visit archives.  Though the prayer is not specifically geared toward historians, I often make adaptations to fit the particular historical task at hand.  Praying this prayer settled me in my work and decenters me.  It is a reminder that God is with me, helping me to get out of the way so that I can listen more attentively to the voices from the past that I will be encountering that day.

When we see our work as a historians as a spiritual exercise, we also find that we grow in wisdom.  An encounter with the strangeness and diversity of the past, or even a part of the past that we might find familiar, will force us to come to grips with new ways of thinking and looking at the world.  This kind of encounter, as theologian Charles Mathewes describes it in the context of civic engagement in contemporary life, “brings us repeatedly against the stubborn, bare there-ness of the people we meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and remain ourselves.”  We do not have to agree with every idea we encounter in the past. Sometimes we cannot “inhabit” an idea and still “remain ourselves.”  But education–to be led outward–does require a degree of risk.  As historian and educator Mark Schwehn writes, we must “be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true.”  Without taking a risk, without being open to transformation, genuine education cannot happen. A history education, like education in most of the humanities-based disciplines, can be painful because it requires self-denial and a “willingness to surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion.”  But wisdom, “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

I often tell my students that when their study of the past exposes them to a new way of thinking, they need to grapple intellectually with such an idea to the point of losing sleep. (After all, college students don’t sleep, right?).  They need to discern whether or not they can incorporate this new idea into their way of viewing the world.  Or perhaps they need to change their way of viewing the world in order to accommodate an idea that they believe to be true.  This kind of wisdom requires prayer and spiritual discipline.  It also requires community.  This might mean conversations–with roommates, friends, classmates, family, professors, and pastors–about whether the idea is worthy of embrace.  Christians who study the past must be prudent.  They must be slow to speak and quick to listen to the people they meet in the past.  And they must seek wisdom.