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.


(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


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


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


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


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.

Meet the Parents: History Edition


I am sure many of you have seen the 2000 Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents.  The plot is pretty straightforward.  Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) is a nurse who tries to win the approval of his fiance’s father Jack Byrnes (De Niro), an overprotective retired CIA intelligence officer.

In one of the story lines, Greg is mocked by Jack and his friends for pursuing a career in nursing instead of a career in medicine.  Greg, however, likes nursing.  It is a career that allows him to be more involved in patient care than the average doctor.  Greg followed his passion and his love of service into nursing instead of pursuing a medical career that would probably have made him more money.

The analogy is by no means perfect, but I thought about Jack’s response to Greg’s decision to pursue nursing when I read Steven Perlstein‘s article in yesterday Washington Post.  The article is titled “Meet the Parents Who Won’t Let Their Children Study Literature.”  The subtitle is also revealing: “Forcing college kids to ignore the liberal arts won’t help them in a competitive economy.”  It is one of the best popular pieces I have read on the value of the liberal arts and the parents who will not let their kids study them.  I do not meet these parents very often, but I do hear their thoughts about liberal arts education through what their kids tell me.  Just yesterday, for example, I talked to a first-year student who was torn between his love of history and his parents’ desire that he pursue a professional major.

This article adds to what I have been trying to do for years here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Pearlstein, a Post business writer and public affairs professor at George Mason University, shatters the myth that liberal arts and humanities majors cannot succeed on the job market.

Here is a taste:

When I assigned an 800-page biography of Andrew Carnegie for a new undergraduate course on wealth and poverty at George Mason University a few years ago, I wasn’t sure the students would actually read it. Not only did most of them make it to the end, however, but many thanked me for giving them the chance to read a popular work of history. Curious, I inquired how many were history majors. Of the 24 honors students in the seminar, there were none. English? Philosophy? Fine arts? Only one. How was this possible? I asked. Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: “Our parents wouldn’t let us.”

The results were similar when I surveyed freshmen in another honors seminar this spring. This 352e0-whystudyhistorytime, I asked how many would have been humanities majors if the only criteria were what they were interested in and what they were good at. Ten of the 24 raised their hands.

I was aware, of course, of the drift toward pre-professionalism on college campuses, of widespreadconcern over student debt, of stories about college-educated baristas living in basements, of governors threatening to cut off state funding for French literature and anthropology. Even so, I found it shocking that some of the brightest students in Virginia had been misled — by parents, the media, politicians and, alas, each other — into thinking that choosing English or history as a major would doom them to lives as impecunious schoolteachers.

And it’s not just at state schools like Mason. Harvard University professor Jill Lepore recalled hosting an information session at her home for undergraduates interested in a program she directs on history and literature. One student who attended, Lepore told the New York Times, kept getting text messages from her parents ordering her to leave the meeting immediately.

“I have heard from many different colleges that there is now a considerable — and disturbing — amount of parental pressure against the liberal arts,” reports Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One reason for the “explosion” of double majors — as high as 40 percent of students at some elite schools — is that students want one major to satisfy Mom and Dad and another to satisfy their own interests, she says.

Parents are becoming more deeply engaged in nearly every aspect of their children’s lives, and it’s carrying over even to their choice of major. “A lot of our students feel parental pressure to go into business, economics, medicine,” says Christy Buchanan, who heads the office of academic advising at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, a traditional liberal arts college that recently announced new programs in biomedical sciences and engineering. Buchanan, a psychology professor who studies the role of families in adolescent development, says this is what “helicopter parenting” has come to.

Read the entire article here.  I particularly liked this part of the piece:

For me, there’s nothing more depressing than meeting incoming freshmen at Mason who have declared themselves as accounting majors. They’re 18 years old, they haven’t had a chance to take a course in Shakespeare or evolutionary biology or the history of economic thought, and already they’ve decided to devote the rest of their lives to accountancy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on Empathy

Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse.  As I have said several times here already, I am glad to see this.  One of our readers, John Mulholland, the founder of the “Redemption of Reason” initiative at the University of Chicago, brought to my attention a powerful lecture on this subject by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

You can watch it here:

Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others. It demands a level of “proximity” to people who are different or who are suffering injustice or pain or some other emotion.  But if one cannot cultivate empathy through human proximity to the “other,” then literature (he uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example here), drama, or film can cultivate this essential virtue.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the study of the past through primary sources can also produce this kind of empathy.

Wolterstorff speaks about empathy in deeply moral terms and connects it with the larger purpose of justice.  He seems to suggest that our empathy should be primarily focused on the oppressed or the suffering.  But as a historian I think empathy (as in “walking in one’s shoes”) must be applied to any person–oppressed,oppressor, or just an ordinary life–that we encounter in the past.  If history is going to educate (lead us “outward”) then empathy cannot be separated from our efforts to understand all of the human actors we study. We need to make sense of them as products of their own worlds, not ours.

Wolterstorff seems to agree with David Brooks when he says “the person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath.”  He thinks that most people are capable of empathy, but their capacity for empathy is somehow “blocked” by what he describes as “hardened hearts.”

According to Wolterstroff, empathy is “blocked” in several ways:

  1. People with “hardened hearts” have learned to dehumanize others and are thus incapable of empathizing with them.
  2. People with “hardened hearts” often suggest that the plight of victims is of their own making (i.e. the poor are lazy, etc…) and they thus don’t deserve empathy.
  3. People with “hardened hearts” have embraced a “visionary ideal” that they are working for some “great good” that can only be achieved by looking past the suffering or humanity of others. (“Make America Great Again?”)
  4. People with “hardened hearts” feel loyal to one’s own people and do not need to empathize with others because others are threats to their community.
  5. People with “hardened hearts” are often afraid that showing empathy to others will lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own complicity in the plight of others, which, in turn, would require a drastic change of life that most people can’t handle.

Watch the entire video to see how Wolterstorff connects empathy to justice.

Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Need for Empathy

GoodwinPulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin appeared yesterday as part of the “roundtable” segment on NBC’s Meet the Press.  When the topic turned to Brexit, host Chuck Todd turned to Kearns-Goodwin for some insight.  Here is how she responded:

Well, I think Cameron made a Faustian bargain when he decided that he thought he needed the far-right vote to win that election. He won it big anyway, and he promised to bring up this referendum. And now what’s going to happen to him? He’s lost his prime ministership, he’s lost his legacy, Britain may fall apart and not become the Great Britain.

Churchill must be dying in his grave right now. And he did it to himself. I mean, the leaders of both parties were not able to reach the people, which shows that something’s wrong with the leadership, maybe in the countries in general. They didn’t argue passionately enough, they didn’t emotionally connect to the people who felt that something was wrong in their mired unemployment. And when you have that inability to see other people’s point of view, when you have lack of empathy, when you have lack of sides seeing each other, something goes wrong in a country. And I think it’s a pretty scary phenomena. (Italics mine)

Empathy.  Seeing other people’s point of view.  Kearns-Goodwin’s diagnosis of Brexit is correct. It also has implications for American politics and culture.  I find it particularly interesting that Kearns-Goodwin is a historian.  Most historians know that empathy, or the idea of “seeing other people’s point of view,” is essential to interpreting the past.  The study of history makes us more empathetic people.  It is good for civil society.

As many of you know, I have elaborated more fully  on the relationship between empathy, the study of history, and civil society in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.



759b4-book_cover-why_study_historyA few years ago I started using the Twitter hashtag #whystudyhistory to promote my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In that book I tried to argue (among other things) that the study of history not only makes us more informed citizens, but teaches us virtues necessary to live in a democratic republic.

Anyone who has read this blog over the past several months know that I believe that the rise of Donald Trump is best explained by the so-called crisis in the humanities. I made this argument in the context of evangelical Christianity in a recent syndicated piece at Religion News Service.  I have actually been making this point more broadly since 2012.  I have also written about it in Why Study History?

I have been tweeting at #whystudyhistory for several years now, but lately I have been retweeting some stuff on this topic in light of our current political and cultural climate in the United States.  I hope folks will find these tweets useful.

How Do Christian Colleges Serve the Church?


In my recent piece on Donald Trump, Christian colleges, and the humanities and liberal arts I wrote:

Evangelical churches and their pastors are also to blame. How many evangelical churches have created spaces where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, or our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present?

I am not saying these topics need to be addressed during Sunday morning services. This time and space needs to be reserved for Word and sacrament. But certainly some of our megachurches could make room for this kind of training.

Much of my analysis in this excerpt and elsewhere in the piece comes from my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013). I like to think that there is a lot in this book that applies not only to the discipline of history, but to the humanities broadly.

All this week, Chris Gehrz of the Pietist Schoolman has also been wrestling with these issues.  In his latest post, he writes about the relationship between Christian colleges and churches.  Here is a taste:

Now, should we be preparing students for meaningful work that meets the needs of others? Of course. (I’d argue that history, like the other humanities, does this quite well.) Is it okay for Christian colleges to have business programs? Sure, though they should be embedded in a well-rounded arts and sciences curriculum and emphasize character formation as much as professional training. (That’s why I respect our business department.) Should our programs be responsive to economic change? Yes, so long as institutional leaders make the hard choices necessary to sustain that missional core of disciplines without which a liberal arts college ceases to be a liberal arts college.

But no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy. Nor to baptize capitalism (or any other ideology).

Not just the humanities or the general education curriculum, but every professional program — including those in marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, organizational leadership, etc. — ought to prepare students to identify, question, and, if necessary, challenge the values, assumptions, practices, and structures of the systems in which they will participate — even as they continue to serve their neighbors through such participation.

And he concludes:

I would like our students to come out of a Christian college ready to model what the humanities mean in the mission, ministry, and community of the church. I’m not sure that’s happening right now. Perhaps — by discussion and assignment design or by encouraging internships in churches or faith-based organizations, for example — I need to prepare them more explicitly to translate their knowledge and skills in the context of a small group, congregation, denomination, parachurch ministry, etc.

Read Chris’s entire post here.

“A Stop at Willoughby”and Escaping to the Past

My family has a New Year’s Day tradition of watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. (This year the marathon extends over several days).  Rod Sterling’s show appeared on network television in the early 1960s.  Many of the episodes revolve around Cold War themes–either directly or indirectly.   When episodes focus on the tension between individualism and social conformity, individualism always comes out on top.  Louis Hartz must have loved this show.

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is “A Stop at Willoughby.”  I actually wrote about it in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…For others, the past is useful because it provides an escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life.  One of my favorite episodes of the 196os television show The Twilight Zone is titled “A Stop at Willoughby.”  The episode features a stressed-out New York advertising executive, named Gart Williams, who is growing tired of the corporate rat race and an overbearing wife who only married him for his ability to provide her with a comfortable upper-middle-class life in the suburbs.  One day on his train commute from New York City to his home in Connecticut, Gart falls asleep and dreams that the train, which has turned into a late-nineteenth-century rail coach, has stopped at a placed called “Willoughby,” and the year is 1888.  The conductor tells him that Willoughby is a “peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.”  Gart glances out the train window and sees a small town with an old-fashioned bandstand, high-wheeler bikes, horse-drawn carriages, and couples strolling through the park.  He eventually wakes from his dream, but he becomes fascinated by this town that his imagination created.  The following week Gart Why Study History Coverdreams again about Willoughby and tells himself that the next time the train stops at this fictional town, he is going to get off and leave his old life behind.  After another stressful day at work, which leads to a mental breakdown, Gart quits his job and boards his train back to Connecticut.  He dozes off again and starts to dream about his late nineteenth-century paradise.  This time he gets off the train at Willoughby, where he is greeted by the town’s friendly residents who invite him to join them in their idyllic life.  At this point, fitting the eerie nature of The Twilight Zone, the scene shifts back to a modern-day train conductor standing in the snow over Gart’s lifeless body.  He tells the police that Gart shouted “something about Willoughby” as he leaped from the moving train to his death.

“A Stop at Willoughby” is a popular episode because we can all relate to the plight of Gart Williams.  We all long for a world that has been lost–a haven where we can escape the pressures of daily life.  The past, or at least the re-creation or re-enactment of the past, can provide such a haven.  One website describing Colonial Williamsburg encourages potential visitors to “escape to the 18th century in the world’s largest living-history museum.”  Renaissance Faires attract thousands of visitors each summer, where attendees wear period clothing and come back each weekend to immerse themselves in a different time.  Other people prefer to visit a historical site or read historical fiction or nonfiction books as a kind of time travel to a world that was simpler.  These kinds of nostalgic longings fuel a billion-dollar tourism industry.

As David Lowenthal writes, 

“The past offers alternatives to an unacceptable present.  In yesterday we find what we miss today.  And yesterday is a time for which we have no responsibility and when no one can answer back.  Some prefer to live permanently in the past; others elect to visit it only occasionally.  Even if today is rewarding and the past no golden age, historical immersion can alleviate contemporary stress.”

For some, the practice of getting lost in the past is a great form of therapy.

The Perfect Stocking Stuffers for the History Buff

Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania suggests some stocking stuffers for the history buff in your family:

Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past John Fea (Baker Academic) $19.99  We have raved about Professor Fea’s award winning, detailed and impeccably balanced Was American Founded as a Christian County; this little volume backs up and makes the case for why Christians (and anyone, for that matter) should care about the enterprise of reflecting on our past. This is a lovely little book, highly recommended.

Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green (Baylor University Press) $34.95 For those who are interested in the Christian pursuit of serious academic scholarship, this will be an edifying and important example of the integration of faith and learning. It will be thrilling for those interested in the philosophy of history, and how people of faith should think about the foundational questions in this field.  Fair, wide-ranging, theologically rigorous, this is a magisterial contribution to thinking about how we write, research, interpret and read history.

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 – 1783 Mark A. Noll (Oxford University Press) $29.95  What a handsome big book this is, studying in impeccable detail the rise of the use of the Bible in the earliest days preceding and during the founding of these United States. Noll is an esteemed historian and this simply a must-read for anyone interested in the colonial era.

Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents Gary Scott Smith (Oxford University Press) $34.95 A few weeks ago I put this 665 page magnum opus on a list I did for the Center for Public Justice, for those interested in  the history of US political life. Smith had won remarkable awards for a previous book a decade ago on the faith of some of our Presidents and in this brand new one, he bests himself, wonderfully exploring the unique religious convictions of eleven others. This has garnered fabulous reviews from those who study the history of Presidents, those curious about the inner working of the White House, and how faith has or hasn’t impacted US policy, in the distant past and in recent decades. A fascinating, great read!

Thanks for Byron!

Fun at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids

I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend with my daughter and we could not resist a brief stop at the famed Baker Book House!  As some of you know, Baker published my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Here are some pics (with captions)

Happy that my book is shelved just above A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus
At the front door
I heard the foreword to this book is pretty good.  

An interesting juxtaposition  (read pp 73-78 in Why Study History to learn why)

Writing for General Readers is a Difficult Task for Academics

My thoughts below were prompted by this tweet:


I like to think that I am writing for a public audience.  I tried to do this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Why Study History?, and The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, but I am still not convinced that I pulled it off.  Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and the Bible Cause were/will be published as trade books by Westminster/John Knox and Oxford University Press respectively, but they are/will be marketed to academics as well.

I wrote these books more with my fellow academics in mind than I did with the general reading public in mind.  As I constructed sentences I thought more about how scholars would interpret them, rather than whether or not they would be compelling to non-academic readers.

Writing for general audiences requires a complete reorientation of how I was trained to write in graduate school.  While I certainly want my writing to be based on good history, I am coming to grips with the fact that I can’t always worry about what my academic peers will think about my narratives. If I am writing for non-scholars it will mean that my arguments are going to be less nuanced than the stuff I write for scholars.  It also means that I will choose to write about subjects that may not make “original contributions” to the academic discipline of history, but still might be new or informative to readers who will have no clue whether or not the last book on subject X was written only ten years ago.

I will keep trying.

The 5 C’s of Historical Thinking Tattoo

I did not attend the Messiah College History Department homecoming event today (I am on sabbatical), but one of my former students showed me his new tattoo via Twitter. 🙂


Messiah College students take the 5 C’s of historical thinking very seriously.

 Here they are:

How Should I Tell My Parents That I Want to Major in History?

I have been trying to answer this question for a long time. I started exploring career options for history majors in an ongoing series of posts on this blog entitled “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?”  Then I wrote a chapter in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

I am glad that history professors at other colleges and universities have found my work in this area helpful.  One of those historians is Jay Case of Malone College.  Here is a taste of his post at The Circuit Reader:

If you read this blog, chances are either you have some appreciation for history, or you are really desperate for a few bad jokes and some cheap snark. If it is the latter, somebody may need to have a long conversation with you about your priorities.

Of course, there are many people who would say that if is the former, you may need to have a long conversation with someone about your priorities. History may be nice if you need a hobby, like collecting snow globes, but beyond that, what’s the point?

I’ve been dealing with this way of thinking throughout my professional career. For instance, I occasionally run into a student who doesn’t understand why they are required to take a history class. And by “occasionally,” I mean a couple dozen students every semester since 1983.

But then, sometimes I get a student who not only loves history, but actually wants to major in history in college. Last month, for instance, I talked to a student who was seriously thinking about becoming a history major. She was thoughtful, did some research on the question, and had very good reasons for thinking about history as a major.  Cool.

“But I’m not sure what I will tell my parents,” she said.

Ah. Parents.

Yes, what self-respecting parent would want their child to go off to college to major in history, particularly if they aren’t going to teach? That seems about as productive as collecting snow globes. Only you have to pay a hefty tuition fee to do it.

I understand the concern. History does not seem to be practical. It does not seem to lead to any clear jobs, other than teaching history to students who don’t know why they should be taking a history class.

You might guess that I have a lot to say about this. It is hard, however, to unpack it all in a blog post. So let me tell you what I told my student: read Why Study History? by John Fea, a historian at Messiah College.

He describes many reasons for studying history.  He explains what goes into the academic study of history. And he has a wonderful little chapter for college students and parents alike, entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

What can you do with a history major? Here is a hint: Fea discusses a former student of his who is working in a hospital in Malawi, explaining she is an agent of change who got her job “because and not in spite of the fact that she was a history major in college.” Is that strange? No. I see this in many of my former students: a good history education can actually make you better at your calling, whatever it may be.

Read the entire post here.

On the Possibility of Historical Empathy

Chris Gehrz has been churning out some great stuff lately at The Pietist Schoolman.  Anyone interested in history, historiography, Christian thinking, and church-related higher education should have the Pietist Schoolman bookmarked for daily reading.

In yesterday’s post, Chris explores the idea of “historical empathy” and wonders whether such a virtue is really possible.  Here is a taste:

But perhaps other fields of study should make us reconsider whether historical (or other kinds of) empathy is even possible. Writing recently for The Stone, the New York Times‘ philosophy blog, Paul Bloom draws on research from psychology and cognitive science to argue that the empathetic ability to imagine the world as others experience it is almost impossible. It certainly doesn’t come naturally:
People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.
Can we make ourselves better at it? With philosopher Laurie Paul, Bloom concludes that
it’s impossible to actually imagine what it would be like to have certain deeply significant experiences, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. The same lack of access applies to our understanding of others. If I can’t know what it would be like for me to fight in a war, how can I expect to understand what it was like for someone else to have fought in a war? If I can’t understand what it would be like to become poor, how can I know what it’s like for someone else to be poor?
Now, Bloom stops short of calling off the whole project:
Under the right circumstances, we might have some limited success — I’d like to believe that novels and memoirs have given me some appreciation of what it’s like to be an autistic teenager, a geisha or a black boy growing up in the South. And even if they haven’t, most of us are still intensely curious about the lives of other people, and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be an engaging and transformative endeavor. We’re not going to stop.
But he suggests that the difficulty of achieving any real degree of empathetic engagement with the lives of others should underscore the importance of two other words prominent in the historian’s vocabulary: humility and listening.
These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us.

Great stuff, Chris (and Paul Bloom).  As I suggested to the Christian readers of Why Study History?, perhaps empathy is only possible when one draws upon supernatural resources to achieve it. Now there’s something to chew on for a while! 🙂