I recently received another set of pics. Julie teaches middle school in California. Here are her boards and shelves:
I love it! High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.
Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):
Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:
Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.” That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?
If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!
Time to pull this one out again:
For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.
Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.
“I want to do something about climate change, but I don’t like science and I am not good at it.”
“I love history, literature, or philosophy, but I don’t see these disciplines advancing real change in the world.”
If you can relate to these statements, I would encourage you to read Steven Allison and Tyrus Miller’s piece at The Conversation: “Why science needs the humanities to solve climate change.” Both men teach at the University of California-Irvine. Allison teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and earth systems science. Mller is the dean of the School of Humanities.
Here is a taste of their piece:
Scholars in the humanities interpret human history, literature and imagery to figure out how people make sense of their world. Humanists challenge others to consider what makes a good life, and pose uncomfortable questions – for example, “Good for whom?” and “At whose expense?”
Going beyond science, humanists can define cultural forces driving climate change, such as the fossil fuel dependence of industrialized societies.
In her book, “Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century,” literature scholar Stephanie LeMenager asserts that 20th-century culture – novels, poetry, films, photography and television – generated a mythology of “petro-utopia.” Images of gushing oil derricks implied that the American good life meant unfettered consumption of fossil fuels.
Popular culture, land use and economics reflected this ideal, particularly in California. Even as the Golden State strives to lead the nation in combating climate change, the legacy of petro-culture endures in suburban sprawl and jammed freeways.
Humanist scholars like LeMenager help to uncover the root causes of complex problems. Yes, rising carbon dioxide levels trap more heat in the atmosphere – but values matter too. Defining features of American identity, such as independence, freedom, mobility and self-reliance, have become entangled with petroleum consumption.
Read the entire piece here.
This is exciting news. Three major history organizations have together received $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a project titled “Framing History with the American Public.” The project will study American attitudes towards history. Here is a taste of the announcement at the AASLH website:
AASLH learned this week that we have received a major grant of $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for an exciting new project to research American attitudes towards history. The project, called “Framing History with the American Public,” will be completed in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based FrameWorks Institute, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Over the next three years, we will carry out a comprehensive, nationwide study of how the public views, interprets, and uses a wide variety of history activities and will develop new tools to strengthen the field’s communications efforts.
“This project could fundamentally transform the way the history field communicates with the public,” said AASLH President & CEO John Dichtl. “As we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary, ‘Framing History’ will empower history organizations to convey their impact in ways that have been proven to shift public understanding.” Inspired by the work of the History Relevance initiative, this project will equip the history community with a new, more effective communications framework.
The history community in the United States contains more than twenty thousand public history organizations, more than one thousand academic departments, and countless history advocates around the country. “Framing History” will not only provide unprecedented detail about how Americans view these organizations and their work, it will build, test, and share tools that all organizations and practitioners can use to positively affect public understanding of the value of history. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.
Read the rest here.
Here is another example of how the study of history influences present debates.
Which side of today’s debate over abortion gets to claim the women’s rights movement? Writing at The Atlantic, Emma Green tries to figure it out. Here is a taste of her piece, “The Epic Political Battle Over the Legacy of the Suffragettes”:
A century after suffrage, the women’s movement is still fighting a battle over inheritance. Progressive feminists widely claim the mantle of suffrage activists, drawing on their imagery and channeling their energy in fights against Trump-era policies. But a range of conservative activists, especially in the anti-abortion movement, also identify with the early women’s movement. They see their values and ideas reflected in a version of feminism that predates, and remains separate from, the sexual revolution. In this tug-of-war over the suffragist legacy, both sides airbrush the parts of history that don’t fit their narrative, cramming suffragists into ideological boxes that simply didn’t exist in their time.
The movement for suffrage spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, and was advanced by women with a range of political priorities and viewpoints. They were progressives, in the broadest sense of the word: They believed in pushing for social change and using politics for the betterment of humanity. Yet many of their views might seem shocking today, especially to Americans who identify with the same “progressive” movement of which suffrage activists were a part.
By and large, white American suffragists were racist, arguing that giving the vote to white women would cancel out the influence of newly enfranchised black men. This was as much a matter of political strategy as personal prejudice, says Liette Gidlow, an associate professor at Wayne State University who is working on an upcoming book on this subject. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and so-called grandfather clauses kept many black men away from the polls in the years following the Civil War, even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment gave them the vote. “Many leading … white suffragists were deeply afraid that … [if] the Susan B. Anthony amendment”—which proposed women’s suffrage—“would lead to the return of African Americans … to the polls, that would damage support for the amendment,” Gidlow told me. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, many states passed laws limiting the voting rights of black Americans, including black women.
Many of the suffragists promoted temperance, or the banning of alcohol in pursuit of virtuous self-restraint—a principle that was enshrined in the Constitution around the same time as suffrage, although it was later reversed.
And many of these activists viewed the world through a gendered lens, believing that their distinctive, womanly insights would be an asset to the political realm. This is where suffragists diverge most sharply from today’s elite progressive feminists, who contest the idea that womanhood is distinctive and essential.
Some of the core causes of the contemporary women’s movement, such as abortion access, may have been puzzling or even unthinkable to women activists a century ago. Views on gender are one of the most electric dividing lines in American culture today, especially among women. Despite their familiarity with debates over women’s roles, if suffragists time-traveled to 2019, they wouldn’t have the language or intellectual framework to understand today’s controversies about the nature of gender.
Read the entire piece here.
Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood, has been making this claim.
Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post decided to investigate. Here is a taste of his piece:
Wen is a doctor, and the ACOG is made up of doctors. They should know better than to peddle statistics based on data that predates the advent of antibiotics. Even given the fuzzy nature of the data and estimates, there is no evidence that in the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s decision, thousands of women died every year in the United States from illegal abortions.
Wen’s repeated use of this number reminds us of the shoddy data used by human trafficking opponents. Unsafe abortion is certainly a serious issue, especially in countries with inadequate medical facilities. But advocates hurt their cause when they use figures that do not withstand scrutiny. These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today.
Read the rest here.
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:
It was still early on March 30 when historian Amy Kohout began scrolling through her Instagram feed. An image caught her eye: an ad by Nike promoting its new line of Trail Running gear, which launched this month. It had a throwback feel: a vivid image of a lone runner on a dirt path, bolting along a green bluff above an ocean with inspirational text beneath, urging potential buyers to abandon all of their wayfinding technologies and become reacquainted with “the feeling of being lost.”
These were nice sentiments. But what gave Kohout pause was the slogan in large font underneath the photograph: “The Lost Cause.” And then there was the final sentence: “Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting.”
For historians of the American South and the Civil War, these words are alarming. The Lost Cause was a story that white southerners told themselves after the Civil War to justify their embrace of slavery (it was a benign institution!), secession (a legitimate course of action!) and their defeat in the Civil War (a noble cause in defense of a “way of life”!).
And Nelson concludes:
The blunder that resulted provides more evidence that business majors need to take humanities classes and that corporations need to hire humanities majors. Included in their skill sets are the ability to do comprehensive research and to provide historical context and analysis on the language companies might want to use to sell their products. While an advertising degree might equip someone to know if marketing language might lure in potential consumers, it does not offer the historical training to catch this sort of mistake before it is made.
Read the entire piece here. I wonder how much money Nike lost when they pulled this campaign? The answer to this question might serve as one gauge for estimating how much a historian is worth.
The Gap could have used a historian as well when they tried to sell this black t-shirt several years ago:
Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our 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. In this column she writes about her friendship with one of the “Kalamazoo Gals.” Enjoy! –JF
If you’re from Michigan like me, or perhaps you’re a guitar aficionado, you may have wandered down Parson’s Street in downtown Kalamazoo to a run-down factory that used to house Gibson Inc. Even though Gibson no longer resides in my hometown, the instrument making will remain part of its history for many years to come.
Perhaps one of the most special eras of Gibson’s history lives on through Irene Stearns. Irene coiled guitar strings for Gibson in the 1940s; she worked alongside numerous other women who the company hired during World War II. Aptly nicknamed “Kalamazoo Gals” by author John Thomas for Glenn Miller’s song “I’ve got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” these women received high praise for their quality work. “Banner Gibsons,” which were crafted by these female luthiers during the war years, are some of the most valuable (and arguably some of the best sounding) Gibson instruments to date. The Kalamazoo Gals are often commended for their courage and hard work, alongside thousands of other women who helped fill the “arsenal of democracy” during WWII. We thank them for opening doors for women in the workforce and praise them for opposing the traditional roles women were expected to play back then. We learn about these women who worked during WWII and even paint them as revolutionaries.
I got the privilege to befriend Irene two years ago when I was compiling research for an exhibit about the Kalamazoo Gals. We spoke extensively about her work at Gibson and it didn’t take me long to realize that she saw herself as anything but revolutionary. Irene worked at Gibson not because she wanted to open doors for women of future generations, or even because she wanted to be remembered as a courageous Rosie-the-Riveter. She worked simply because she didn’t like her old job and wanted a new one. She never thought her story would make the history books–she was just going to work, doing what she had to do to earn little money. She never once thought she would receive any kind of recognition or praise.
We can learn a lot from people like Irene. The extensive human narrative we call history is filled with ordinary characters who never expected to be remembered. The parts of their lives that we find fascinating, or inspirational even, they saw as normal. It often makes me wonder: Which ordinary actions I take today could be seen as extraordinary tomorrow? How will my steps here and now affect the ones future generations will be able to take in the future?
I don’t know the answer to these questions; I probably never will. However I do know from Irene’s story that the little things matter. The way I work, the way I meet challenges and take opportunities will contribute to the way I am remembered. It’s impossible for me to know what future historians will think when they look back on my story–but I want them to see that I did what I could to make it the best one I could write.
Donald Trump is the king not only of lies but also of ahistorical assertions. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the thousands of falsehoods that Trump has told as President, but one recent shocker was when he insisted, ignoring everything we know about the Soviet Union’s lawless behavior, that “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” (The usually Trump-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”) Republicans, for the past few decades, have depended on Americans’ inability to make sense of history in judging their policies. How else to explain the fact that, under Trump, they have succeeded in turning legal immigration into the excuse for all the country’s ills, when any clear historical analysis would demonstrate that it has been the fount of the lion’s share of America’s innovation, creativity, and economic production?
“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo . . . can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.
Read the entire piece here.
In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:
MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?
DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.
On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.
Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.
And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.
And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:
MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?
DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.
DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”
DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.
The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.
DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.
To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.
Read the entire interview here.
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:
Evangelical historians want Phillis Wheatley to be an evangelical for the same basic reasons that David Barton wants Thomas Jefferson to be an orthodox Christian.
— Michael J. Altman (@MichaelJAltman) December 21, 2018
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):
Christians & ex-Christians (evangelical, mainline, progressive, conservative) go crazy over this debate & claim the other side is being presentist/anachronistic. Early Am. historians can’t figure out what all the hand-wringing is all about. Of course Wheatley was evangelical. https://t.co/ENTsAcC9Wc
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 21, 2018
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?
And I call Wheatley an evangelical for the same reason I don’t call Jefferson (or Adams or Franklin) a Christian.
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 21, 2018
What’s an education for?
An education is about learning things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten before, we need to approach unfamiliar subjects. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.
Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing the notion of familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s T.V. Dinner.
Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: it is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.
This is one reason that students should be required to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. While they may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down through their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.
Read the entire piece here.
I appreciate Barreca’s point about students taking courses outside of their area of specialization. At Messiah College, students are required to take a 100-level history course (a United States history survey course or a Western Civilization survey course) to fulfill their general education requirement in History. But there are also other opportunities in the curriculum to take a history course. A student can take World History to fulfill their Non-Western Cultures requirement. Or they can take Native American History, African American History, the Historical Study of Peace, Immigrant America, Urban History, Women’s History, or Pennsylvania History to fulfill their Pluralism requirement. They can also take a history course to fulfill their Social Science requirement. So, if I got this right, it is possible for a Messiah College business or nursing major to take four history courses to fulfill general education coursework.
But every now and then we have students who take history courses purely out of intellectual curiosity. This semester in my colonial America course I have two students–an accounting major and a sustainability studies major–who are not required to take the course, but just find the subject interesting. I applaud them and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them, but students like these are becoming increasingly rare in this age of specialization.
A friend recently sent me this quote from University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon:
One of the things I actually love about the discipline of history is that historians are narrators. I honestly think we are the last explicitly narrative discipline left in the American academy (with the journalists, as well). Storytelling is no longer, in most disciplines, regarded as a serious undertaking. I believe that storytelling is inherently a moral activity. It’s about organizing events and characters and landscapes and settings so that a series of events becomes explicable in the sequence of relationships that are unfolding over the course of the narrative. And almost always the narrative has some lesson in mind. One of the beauties of history is that, although there have been moments in which historians have argued with each other about whether they are objective or not, objectivity is actually not the phrase most historians use the describe what they do. Our goal, it seems to me, is to be fair to the people whose lives we narrate. That means trying to see the world through their eyes.
One of my beliefs as a writer and a teacher is that if I’m going to argue against something, it’s morally incumbent upon me to be able to articulate the thing I’m arguing against so that a person who holds that view recognizes that I’ve done justice to their point of view and could respond, “I couldn’t have said that better myself.” Then we can begin to enter into a dialogue about other ways of thinking.
My deepest moral project is to understand the world, which is a really complicated task, and my moral conviction is that rich understanding of the world leads to better, more responsible and just action in the world. We so often act on the basis of our own mythic conceptions; we believe our own lies, and we’re forever lying to ourselves because we want the world to conform to our convictions. Not letting ourselves do that is part of acting morally in the world.
For more context click here.
For never imagining “a crook like Trump”
For overthrowing kings and aristocrats, such as the “wealthy and educated gentlemen” who “still dominate the government.”
For believing that a republic will only survive if we have an educated electorate
For being slave owners and leaving us with a legacy of racism
For creating a system of government that allowed “ideological disagreements to be hashed out peacefully.”
For not establishing religious tests for federal office-holding
For never envisioning a “super-majority requirement in the Senate” to advance policy changes.
For giving us the right to free speech
For defending an unalienable right to life
For creating a presidential seal that includes the color red
And we could go on. The Founders are invoked every day. Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?
Some 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.”
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.
Of course it can.
But even if it doesn’t have an immediate or direct relevance to a particular contemporary issue or event, the practice of doing history cultivates virtues that are essential to a democratic society. In other words, I continue to stand by what I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.
Given that history is so policy-relevant, the scepticism of the majority of professionals about ‘applied history’ is a shame. First, it displays a lack of awareness of the provenance of the discipline. Second, it implies a misunderstanding of causation – the very thing that historians are supposed to be specialists in. If one makes a claim to expertise in cause and effect, one should be trained to discern patterns and project trends forward. Third, it disregards what the public want from their historians (who they largely fund): a willingness to tackle big problems. Finally, the professional wariness about the ‘relevance’ of history is arguably one important reason why thousands of university students fret that their history degree will prove ‘useless’.
History is fascinating in itself, but what makes it so stimulating is that it offers deeper insights into the human condition that are of enduring value. The past is not a foolproof guide to the present or the future – it is simply the only guide we have. Here, Collingwood is again helpful. He believed that the past is ‘incapsulated’ in the present and thus ‘lives on’: when one peels back the layers, one quickly realises that the present is nothing more than the accumulated decisions and actions of the past. History is ‘alive and active’ and stands ‘in the closest possible relation to practical life’.
Read the entire piece here.
The ideas and proposals I put forth in the last section of this piece I just published with History News Network are very important to me. Thanks for considering them and sharing the piece with those who may need to read it. I had hoped to publish this with a Christian, evangelical or conservative media outlet, but could not find any takers. I am thankful to Rick Shenkman for running it.
If the Christian Right, and by extension the 81% of evangelical voters who use its political playbook, are operating on such a weak historical foundation, why doesn’t someone correct their faulty views and dubious claims?
But countering bad history with good history is not as easy as it sounds. David Barton and his fellow Christian nationalist purveyors of the past are well-funded by Christian conservatives who know that the views of the past they are peddling serve their political agenda. Barton has demonized Christian intellectuals and historians as sheep in wolves’ clothing. They may call themselves Christians on Sunday morning, but, according to Barton, their “world view” has been shaped by the secular universities where they earned their Ph.Ds. Thanks to Barton, many conservative evangelicals do not trust academic and professional historians—even academic and professional historians with whom they share a pew on Sunday mornings.
Read the entire piece here.
Historians are not prophets and history, despite what Barack Obama and other progressives say, does always lead toward justice as understood by the person making the claim. I have been saying this for a long time, but I really like how Jacob Bacharach puts in his New Republic piece “Don’t Count on History to Judge Wisely.” Bacharach writes in the context of Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting remarks in the Trump v. Hawaii travel ban case. Sotomayor said that “history will not look kindly on the court’s misguided decision today, nor should it.”
Here is a taste of his piece:
History’s superseding judgment also crept into the left’s responses in the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates case, the other decision announced on Tuesday, in which another narrow conservative majority ruled on free speech grounds that anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” can, in effect, deceive people about the services they provide, overturning a California state law that compelled certain disclosures. The court, much of lefty Twitter agreed, had once again found itself on the wrong side of history. This presumes that the left, broadly defined, will be the ones writing it, because the left will prevail.
This is magical thinking. The Democrats are completely out of power in Washington and across most of the country, and the Supreme Court is one retirement or heart attack away from a 6-3 conservative majority (and a chief justice who is just 63). It may be reassuring to quote King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that famous line was, in context, an explicitly theological consideration, not a statement about the inevitability of temporal social justice. Moreover, that refrain obscures the difficult fact that King grew increasingly pessimistic in his final years, increasingly doubtful that history was predisposed to justice at all.
Moral superiority in the absence of political power is useless, and self-reassurance in the inevitable upward motion of progress—that it may be interrupted or delayed, but rises inexorably—is self-indulgence. The GOP has spent the last half-century methodically and patiently laying an infrastructure for the acquisition and, more importantly, for the exercise of power. Its broad capture of the American judiciary is one of the great political feats of the modern era. The ostensible opposition party lacks a clear strategy for the coming legislative midterms, let alone for the incremental grooming of a cohort of jurists to place on the bench two to three decades down the road.
Read the entire piece here.