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

a0aa6-bartonbin

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”

interview-1018333_960_720

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.

Congratulations Messiah College History Class of 2017!

messiah

Some of the Messiah College History Department Class of 2017

Fall 2013 was the second time I taught my Introduction to History course at Messiah College. We designed this one-credit course to orient our first-year students to some of the basics of historical thinking, the history curriculum at Messiah, and the many things they could do with a history major.

When I taught the course the year before I had the students read manuscript chapters of a book that would eventually become Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  At that time the working title was “The Power to Transform.”

In Fall 2013 I was excited to use the newly released book.  Baker Academic said that the book would be out in August, but for reasons I can’t remember it was delayed.  I got my free author copies of the book in the second week of September, but the book was still not available for sale to the general public.  I really wanted to get a copy in the hands of the students so I decided to sell off my author copies.  I remember showing up to class with my box and giving a copy to every student.  I think I charged them $5.00.  One of my students reminded me of this the other day at our senior dinner.

I will always remember the students in that course.  Today many of them graduate from Messiah College. They will be putting their history majors to good use in all kinds of fields.  One student is heading to Germany for a two-year mission working with the victims of prostitution.  Another student is joining the Air Force where he will be working as a linguist.  Another will be pursuing a career in public humanities.  Several will be classroom teachers.

It has been a pleasure to watch them grow into mature young adults and mature historical thinkers.  Introduction to History is only a small part of their college experience and a small part of my interaction with them over the course of their four years at Messiah. But small memories like this bring great joy to those of us who pour ourselves into the lives of students.

Congratulations Messiah College History class of 2017!

Historical Thinking and Moral Reflection

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerShould historians ask whether something in the past was good?  Bad?  Here are five suggestions:

1. The historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism.  Historians can engage in moral criticism, but they should do so only after they have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened in the way it did.

2. When historians do speak or write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation.  As historian James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least of historians on their days off.”

3.  When a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized not only by mature historical understanding but also by mature moral thinking.

4.  Historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner.

5.  Historians should remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgement on them.

Much of this post is drawn from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  They are all developed in the book.

History as Love

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerI thought this excerpt from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past would make for an appropriate Valentine’s Day post on history blog.

Love is at the center of the Christian life.  It is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” recorded in Galatians 5:22-23.  Jesus reminded us that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).  His sacrificial death on the cross exemplified the ultimate act of love (Phil. 2:6-8).  In the Christian tradition, we flourish as human beings when we learn to live the “Jesus Creed”–loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Such sacrificial love for God and neighbor is the source of true joy and happiness.  In the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, ” At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that…’others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers… The story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons, and daughters of hell.'”  Our lives should be one of “embrace” rather than “exclusion.”

The study of the past offers endless opportunities to exercise loving embrace to our fellow humans, even if they have lived in a different era and are no longer alive.  It is easy to manipulate the voices from the past to serve our own purposes in the present, and out of love we must not do this….This kind of presentism makes for bad history, and when looked at theologically, this kind of manipulation is also a failure to love–a failure to enter into the worlds of those who have gone before us with a spirit of compassion, selfishness, and empathy.  People in the past cannot defend themselves.  They are at the mercy of the historian.  This, of course, gives the practitioner of history a great deal of power.  But Christian historians will do their best to meet the people in the past as Jesus encountered the people he met during his earthly ministry.  They must relinquish power and avoid the temptation to use the powerless–those in the past who are at the mercy of us, the interpreters–to serve selfish ends, whether they be religious, political, or cultural.  The exercise of this hermeneutic of love means that we will read historical texts for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies.  It forces us to love others–even a nineteenth-century slaveholder or Hitler–when they seem to be unlovable.  Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love.  It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity.

A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas Before Study

O ineffable Creator, Who, out of the treasure of Thy wisdom, hast ordained three hierarchies of Angels, and placed them in wonderful order above the heavens, and hast most wisely distributed the parts of the world; Thou, Who are called the true fountain of light and wisdom, and the highest beginning, vouchsafe to pour upon the darkness of my understanding, in which I was born, the double beam of Thy brightness, removing from me all darkness of sin and ignorance. Thou, Who makest eloquent the tongue of the dumb, instruct my tongue, and pour on my lips the grace of Thy blessing. Give me quickness of understanding, capacity of retaining, subtlety of interpreting, facility in learning, and copious grace of speaking. Guide my going in, direct my going forward, accomplish my going forth; through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

(I write about this prayer in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past)

Yes! Yes! A Thousand Times Yes!: More on the Value of History

Why Study History CoverMarie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist and essayist who teaches writing at Columbia University.  She also understands the value of history.  Check out her recent piece at Quartz: “History Classes are Our Best Hope For Teaching Americans to Question Fake News and Donald Trump.”  She writes about the profound influence that a college history class had on her life and wonders why so few students are studying the subject any more.

Here is a taste:

Today, in a time of economic uncertainty, many students are being encouraged to skip history and other liberal arts classes in favor of a practical STEM focus. But this election has shown that nothing could be more practical for Americans than a deep immersion in our country’s history.

As The New York Times reported, our president-elect demonstrates a “willful lack of interest in history.” For example, he credulously and bombastically stated on the campaign trail that “our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever.” (Those familiar with Jim Crow, the Birmingham bombings—oh, and slavery—would beg to differ.)

Despite Trump’s ignorance of history—or perhaps because of his willingness to manipulate it to suit his own purposes—he won. Pundits were quick to heap the responsibility for his win on the “less educated,” resorting to the well-worn trope of the gullible working-class rube easily swayed by the false populist; a narrative that “seems” right. But a closer look at the voter breakdown, as our History 52 professor would have had us do, uncovers contradictory evidence.

It’s true that Trump was favored by voters without college degrees. But he also won among voters with some college or an associate’s degree. Even more strikingly, college graduates voted for him almost as often as they did Clinton: 45% to her 49%, according to the New York Times exit polls, while white college graduates actually preferred Trump. These demographic breakdowns suggest the issue may be less about a lack of higher education and more about the direction in which higher education has been heading over recent decades.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Trump made his ahistorical pronouncements about African Americans while in North Carolina, a state whose governor, Pat McCrory, is famously leading a charge to incentivize enrollments in “job-friendly” classes and majors, with a focus in STEM. In a 2013 radio interview, McCrory averred humanities classes were fine in principle, “but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Do we want higher education merely to produce workers, or do we want students equipped with the skills to understand, question, create? History does much more than prepare people to become professional historians. It teaches us how to think—that is, how to do the high-level analysis that is essential for an informed society. It requires analysis of data and deep research, as well as the use of archival and primary sources. Such skills are absolutely critical in an era that is increasingly characterized by the relentless bombardment of information.

Read the entire piece here.

The History Majors We Celebrate

9e36b-boyer

I am convinced that the culture of college history departments need to change.  History majors have a lot to offer society and the marketplace in a variety of fields, yet the faculty in history departments honor and celebrate those students who go to graduate school in history, largely because these students aspire to be just like us.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  So faculty think of these students as feathers in their caps–evidence that we are educating them in the right way.

I am not so sure that this approach is healthy.  It is time that history faculty develop a different kind of culture in their departments–a culture in which the model students are the ones who go into nonhistory or nonacademic fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.

What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

Learning to Pronounce “Quincy”: My Visit to Eastern Nazarene College

enc

It’s  pronounced “Quinzy.”

This was one of the many things I learned earlier this week when I visited Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts to deliver the History Department‘s annual Donald Yerxa Lecture.  I have delivered a lot of lectures named after people, but I think this was the first time I ever gave a lecture named after 1). A person who was still alive and 2). a person who I know and who as recently as last month was asking me when he might receive an overdue referee report for a journal he edits.  🙂

Some of you know Don Yerxa from the many interviews he has conducted with prominent historians in the pages of Books and Culture and other publications.  Others might recognize his name from his leadership of the Historical Society.  Christian historians know him as the current editor of Fides et Historia, the academic journal of the

yerxa

Don Yerxa

Conference on Faith and History.  This week I learned that Don was also deeply committed to Eastern Nazarene College, his alma mater and the school where he spent his entire career as a history professor (among other roles).

It was a great day in Quincy.  I got up early on Monday morning to meet with some very wide-awake students in Nick Pruitt‘s 7:45am politics class.  Nick is completing his dissertation in American history at Baylor University under the direction of Barry Hankins and is at Eastern Nazarene this year on a term appointment.  I had no idea that Nick had landed this position.  I had just seen him a few months earlier during I talk I gave at Baylor.

Nick’s students were eager to talk politics.  We talked about the (limited) role that historians can play in political elections, Historians Against Trump (and why I supported it), and the political sensibilities of the students at Eastern Nazarene College (which are all over the map!).

Later in the day I visited Bill McCoy‘s Critical Readings in History course.  Bill is the chair of the Eastern Nazarene History Department and one of the last Yerxa hires.  His gracious hospitality even included a bowl of New England clam chowder at a seafood stand on the beach!  Eastern Nazarene has some very bright and engaged history majors.  They are reading my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and came with a lot of questions for me.  The two-hour class went by very quickly and the conversation was spirited.

fea-at-encMy evening Yerxa Lecture was titled “The Power to Transform:” History, Christian Thinking, and American Democracy.”  I tried to take some of the themes of Why Study History? and connect them to our depressing political culture, the weakness of Christian thinking in evangelical churches, and the decline of the humanities.  This all sounds pretty depressing, but I did try to offer some hope and a way forward.

Thanks to Bill for bringing me to Eastern Nazarene, Nick for hosting me in his class, Don for having a career that is worthy of a lecture series, and the Eastern Nazarene students for making me feel at home.

A Theological Narrative of America

serenejonespress

Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans 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, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.