Thank You Tom Hanks!

 

TomHanksApr09

Several readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home sent me this piece yesterday.

On Saturday night, Tom Hanks was honored by the National Archives with a “Record of Achievement Award” for his work in promoting American history through the use of original documents found in the Archives.

Here is a taste of CNN’s Jennifer Hansler’s article on the event:

Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks on Saturday night urged the importance of understanding and learning from history, especially for those troubled by the current state of affairs.

“People are upset about what’s going on today. They’re furious, they’re frustrated, they’re worked up,” Hanks said. “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.”

Read the rest here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

founding-fathers-strip

For have views equivalent to the Alt Right

For defending a free and vigorous press

For not including the right to own semi-automatic weapons in the Declaration of Independence

For not allowing religious tests for office-holding

For making sure that religious freedom would not be trumped by tyranny

For founding the United States on Judeo-Christian values

For establishing a representative republic

Because their works being rewritten by leftists

For creating a political system that makes it difficult to pass laws

For being in debt up to their eyeballs

For understanding the right to bear arms as something different from the right to bear “modern-scary” assault weapons

For leaving behind a legacy of the institutional protection of people’s civil liberties

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?

The Real History of the Second Amendment

CornellIn an earlier post I recommended Fordham University historian Saul Cornell‘s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  It is the best historical account of the Second Amendment that I have read.  I was again reminded of why I admire Cornell’s book when I read his recent piece at The Baffler titled “Gun Anarchy and the Unfree State.”

Here is a taste:

To begin reckoning with this challenge, it’s worth pausing to consider the entire wording of the Second Amendment. Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the amendment does not even mention guns, but instead proclaims, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus, the Second Amendment, in contrast to the First Amendment, contains a preamble; an introductory clause affirming the necessity of a well-regulated militia. This arcane Latinate construction so dear to the Founding generation was an ablative absolute. Translated into modern parlance, the amendment would read something like this: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Also, note what the aim of a citizen’s militia is: achieving the security of a free state. In other words, the Second Amendment not only ties the right to keep and bear arms to a particular means, but it states a clear purpose. What, then, is entailed in promoting the security of said “free state”? To begin with, we should clearly stipulate that the individual right of self defense—the one closest to the heart of modern Americans—denoted something very different from a free state’s maintenance. Americans esteemed this right, but did not have much to worry about when it came to safeguarding it. Indeed, the right was such a fixture of Anglo-American law that John Adams used it as the basis for his defense of the British troops charged with murdering civilians in the Boston Massacre. An American jury empaneled to hear that case found Adams’s argument entirely persuasive and exonerated six of the eight soldiers.

So a free state’s security was something other than procuring the self-defense of a society’s individual members. It was, rather, a collective enterprise: In the eighteenth century, the security of a free state was accomplished by a well-regulated militia—a local institution, composed of citizen soldiers. And as the wording of the amendment makes plain, that militia was subject to extensive regulation by government. Indeed, militia statutes were typically the longest laws on the books in early America. So the logical question that one ought to ask—one that seldom gets raised in the contentious modern debate over the role of guns in contemporary American society—is this: How do we maintain and promote the security of a free state when we no longer live in small rural communities and depend on well-regulated militias? How can one enjoy liberty in a society awash in guns?

This is, at bottom, a historical question—one that’s largely anathema to the NRA and other advocates of expansive gun rights. Many gun-rights advocates fail to understand the actual historical background of the Second Amendment because our debates over gun ownership typically revolve instead around a potent set of myths that cloud our historical understanding. Chief among these myths is the iconic image of the “good guy with a gun,” eagerly manufactured and marketed by American popular culture. From the dime novels of the nineteenth century to Hollywood westerns and more recent figures such as Jason Bourne, a powerful entertainment folklore has infused the gun-rights narrative.  

Read the entire piece here.

“I Feel Sorry For Him”

trumka

Last night I was watching Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, talking on CNN about why he resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council.  Trumpka was not angry. He just seemed sad.  At one point in the interview he said “I feel sorry for Donald Trump.”  He then talked about how we have a man in the oval office who did not understand common decency, presidential character, and especially American history. Though he didn’t say it outright, he implied that Trump’s failure to understand Charlottesville in the larger context of race in America, the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, the history of World War II and Nazis, and the Holocaust made him unqualified and unprepared to be POTUS.

As Trumka spoke, I thought about the men and women I have been writing about for the last year–the court evangelicals.  What role does the evangelical failure to undertake a deep study of history, and the anti-intellectualism of American evangelicalism generally, have to do with the court evangelicals’ loyal support of the POTUS?  I think it has a lot do with it.  Many of these evangelicals cannot see themselves as part of a larger history–both a history of the United States and the history of the church.  On race, they fail to see the long history of structural racism in this country.

Just a quick thought.

Trump’s Words About Charlottesville May Have A Silver Lining

College-classroom

Trump’s failure to unequivocally denounce racism in Charlottesville and his decision to make this all about monuments has hopefully made Americans more appreciative of what historians do.

Think about it. Over the course of the last week Americans have been offered history lessons on race, African-American history, the Confederacy, the Civil War, the difference between history and heritage, the Jim Crow Era, the meaning of monuments and commemoration, the Civil Rights Movement, the American presidency, and the KKK.

Let’s keep teaching.  I hope all the K-12 teachers who read this blog will enter the classroom this year with a renewed sense of purpose and vision.  And that goes for my college professor colleagues as well!  We have work to do!

Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

founders

For their agreement with John Locke about property rights

For believing in a Creator-God

For their opposition to political parties

For apportioning political power based on population

For the hypocrisy of their slave ownership

For their commitment to a “constitutional democracy” and not a “centralized bureaucracy”

For pledging their “lives, their land and their sacred honor”

For building checks and balances into the Constitution

For “cobbling together” our “federal union”

For their intelligence and education

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?

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked:

founding-fathers-strip

For their belief in a creator

For “setting up” the idea of sending bills to conference

For their “warnings” to future generations

For their love of craft beer

For their fear of demagogues

For their ability to rise to prominence from humble means

For their passion for service to the American people.  (This was Trump last night in West Virginia).

For setting up a system of checks and balances

For their “button-up” style

For their inability to see the “explosion of money in politics.”

For instituting the president’s power of pardon

For their connection to Philadelphia

For their decision to keep religion “away” from politics.

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?

More Founding Fathers

founding-fathers-strip

We tried this experiment last week.  Let’s try it again.

In the last 24 hours, the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the United States were invoked

For their use of Madeira wine

For not being circumcised

For opposing filibusters

For separating church and state

For limiting the freedom of police

For their apparent opposition to the 16th amendment

For their apparent opposition to the 17th amendment

For their commitment to checks and balances

For their belief in the exercise of personal will and reliance upon God

For their belief in a two-party system

For their support of diversity in the military

For their support of “Constitutional Carry

For their support of healthcare

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?

In the Last 7 Days the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

founders

For their commitment to the separation of church and state

For their concerns about the abuse of power

For their belief in a free press

For their support of term limits

For their support of a minimum wage

For their defense of the right to bear arms

For their opposition to corporations

For their belief in self-government

For their dreams

For instituting a system of checks and balances

For their opposition to tyranny

Their hatred of the poor

For their support of health care

For their fear of big government

For their knowledge of the Bible

For their belief that members of Congress should represent the wants of their constituencies

For their defense of free speech

For their criticism of vast quantities of wealth

For the belief in free trade

For supporting whistleblowers

For their love of beer

For their working-class backgrounds

For their belief in an amendment process

For their appeal to a Judeo-Christian God

For laying the foundation for a diverse country

Yes, we need good history!

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

On Russia-Gate and “Context”

Trump Jr.

Ever since Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians came to light, everyone on cable news is talking about context.  Pundits and commentators believe that Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer must be understood in the context of:

Donald Trump’s connection to the people who set up the meeting.

General Michael Flynn’s meetings with Russians.

Donald Trump’s Putin-love.

Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russians.

Donald Trump’s decision to remove an anti-Russia stance on the Ukraine from the GOP platform.

Trump adviser Roger Stone’s connections to Russia.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s links to Russia.

Trump adviser Carter Page’s links to Russia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s failure to disclose meetings he had with Russians.

Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey over his role in the Russian investigation.

Trump telling Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office that Comey was a “nutjob” and that his firing has taken the “pressure” off of him.

And we could go on…

Does all of this information mean that Donald Trump is guilty of colluding with the Russians?  Not necessarily.  But any investigation into this case must begin with this context.  It cannot be ignored.

Historians talk about context all the time.  Contextual thinking is historical thinking. Any investigator–whether it be the FBI, the CIA, or an insurance investigator–must take context into consideration when conducting an investigation.

“Context” is one of the five “Cs” of historical thinking that I write about at length in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Context does not always lead us to definitive answers about “what happened.”  In this sense, history is a limited discipline.  But it is an essential discipline in the sense that it can help us get close–sometimes very close–to the answers we seek.

Is Trump guilty of collusion with the Russians?  We will only find out if investigators continue to apply other historical skills: research, investigation, and the dogged search for evidence.  But context is a start.

Why study history?  A better question might be “why not study history?”

Is Historical Ignorance a Source of Our Political Polarization?

Ignorance

I largely agree with Jonah Goldberg’s National Review piece on “The Dangers of Arrogant Ignorance.”

Here is a taste:

It is a common human foible to think you know more than you do and to assume that when someone, particularly someone you don’t like, says something you don’t understand that the fault must be in the speaker, not the listener. “It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education,” observed Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

Ideological and political polarization is a big concern these days, and commentators on the Right and Left have chewed the topic to masticated pulp. But it occurs to me that one unappreciated factor is widespread historical ignorance, and the arrogant impatience of reaching conclusions before thinking. The instantaneity of TV and Twitter only amplifies the problem.

Read the entire piece here.

“If I’d known what waited for me in life, I would have put a lot more attention into history”

mattis

Back in June, United States Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke about the importance of history in an interview with Teddy Fischer, a student journalist at The Islander, the student newspaper of Mercer Island High School in Washington.

Here is a taste of their conversation:

TEDDY: What subject areas do you think students should be studying in high school and beyond to better prepare themselves to be politically active and aware adults?

MATTIS: Actually, I’ve thought a lot about that question. I would tell you that no matter what you’re going to go into, whether it be business or politics or international relations or domestic politics, I don’t think you can go wrong if you maintain an avid interest in history. The reason I say that is you’ll find that really, there’s nothing new under the sun, other than some of the technology we use.

The human condition, the aspirations, the dreams, the problems that are associated with being social animals, not being a hermit and living alone, but having to interact with others, whether it be your local school district, your community, your state, your county, your national, your international relations, history will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues. I wish now looking back on it, if I’d known what waited for me in life, I would have put a lot more attention into history.

Read the entire interview here.  (The story about how these student journalists landed the interview is also interesting).

Pennsylvania Bill 723 and the Teaching of American History

capitol-building-regulatory-affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Discipline of History as a Spiritual Discipline

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

St. Augustine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historians “get in the way of death”

Resurrection

And in the process we “practice resurrection.”

Yesterday was a long day of meetings about unhappy things.  I needed a reminder of why I do what I do and why I do what I do where I do it.

Chris Gehrz’s powerful reflection on the work of historians was just what I needed. Thank you.

Here is a taste:

…history can serve as both an academic and spiritual discipline, a way of getting in the way of death and practicing resurrection.

First, history gets in the way of death.

Not that history stops people from dying — neither its subjects nor its practitioners — but it resists the power of death. For if Paul is right that death is the “last enemy to be destroyed,” then death is more than an event: it is an active force, one among the rulers, authorities, and powers that oppose God. Death doesn’t merely snuff out the spark of life; it seeks to strip humanity of the dignity inherent to being made of the image of God. Resurrection may bring change “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” but in the meantime, death lingers: slowly, methodically seeking to erase the meaning of mortal existence from our memory.

So if we practice the discipline of history, we act as a counter-force to death. We are not standing passively by the grave, but actively protecting against the decay of forgetting. For not only do we help preserve the evidence the dead leave behind, but we make meaning of lives that death seeks to render meaningless…

I don’t mean to claim too much with that phrase: we are not emptying tombs. Nor do we do the practical good that Claiborne and other neo-monastics have done when they “practice resurrection” by working to revive urban neighborhoods left for dead.

But I also don’t want to claim too little. It is no small thing to breathe life into what remains of the past by teaching, speaking, and writing about it. History is harder than most will ever know; it must be fueled by passion and compassion. Indeed, such “resurrection” is one of the most common ways that Christian historians fulfill Christ’s command to love our (temporal) neighbors: dedicating our time, energy, and gifts to bringing them — however briefly and figuratively — back to life, in all their messy complexity. We read historical texts, argues Fea, “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” (Why Study History?, p. 131).

In the process, perhaps we might even bring some life back to our students and ourselves. Long before our physical demise, we suffer the creeping spiritual death of sin. Perhaps history can serve as a means of grace, reviving in us the ability to love God with our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the entire post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Ed Ayers Delivers Commencement Address at University of Mary Washington

Ayers

Photo credit: Fredericksburg Today

Edward Ayers is the President Emeritus at the University of Richmond, an innovator in the field of digital history, and one of our best historians of the 19th-century American South.

On Saturday he delivered the commencement address at the University of Mary Washington.  Here is a taste of an article on his address at Fredericksburg Today:

He talked about tumultuous times in American history, where the country’s residents could never have predicted events such as the devastation caused by the Civil War.

“Americans could not have foreseen a war that over the next four years killed the equivalent of 8 million people today,” said Ayers, who addressed more than 5,000 students, family and friends on Ball Circle during the University’s 106th undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday, May 13. Neither could they have realized that the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world would come to an end, he said.

He reflected on UMW’s Fredericksburg campus, where history played such a vital role. “Confederate cannons occupied the very ground on which we are gathered,” said Ayers, a historian of the American South. On the same site on which the University was founded, more than 12,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured trying to take the ridge overlooking the city.

“You can’t look out across at all of you and be at this place without thinking that sometimes history brings redemption,” said Ayers, “to see this very piece of land that people fought about so desperately is now the scene of such a wonderful ceremony.”

Today, we are surprised by the unpredictable events of the 21st century.

“If we measure those years by political events, economic events, international events, or cultural events, things seem chaotic,” he said. “It’s hard for everyone, including young people, to get their bearings.”

The fact is, we always live in unusual times, said Ayers. While some years are better than others financially or politically, the future always moves in unforeseen ways.

“The only law of history I’ve been able to discover is that the unexpected, good and bad, always happens,” said Ayers, who served as University of Richmond’s ninth president from 2007 to 2015. “The unexpected always happens, so get used to it – or, even better, bring it about yourself. That’s a reason for anxiety, but it’s also reason for hope.”

History lives within us as much as we live within history.

“You are woven into the time and space that you share with the people with whom you sit. That’s why you are the class of 2017,” said Ayers, who currently serves as University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities. “It matters when you were here. You always will be a part of this moment because you live in history.”

At Mary Washington, he said, graduates have learned to deal with complexity in all its forms, knowing solutions are not often simple. They’ve learned how to deal with the ambiguity that justice and wisdom aren’t always clearly defined. They’ve learned how to deal with people whose beliefs are different from their own, and they’ve learned that people are as complex and as full of surprise as they are.

Great stuff!

Historical Thinking and Moral Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DePaul University History Profs: “Trump’s assault on our national history must end.”

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s now infamous “Andrew Jackson and the Civil War” remarks, DePaul historians Thomas Foster and Margaret Storey have turned to the pages of their hometown Chicago Sun-Times to chide the POTUS for making a mess of American history.

Here is a taste:

One could dismiss this as simple (if shocking) illiteracy. But historical illiteracy is no joke, and we dismiss it at our peril. Indeed, such illiteracy has prompted some politicians to attack the study of history as valueless in a technologically-driven world.

Understanding history is vitally important, and not just because history explains our contemporary society. A key value of studying history is that it teaches us how to draw conclusions based on evidence. Understanding how to weigh evidence — thoroughly and scrupulously — is the only way to make reasoned decisions in any field. It’s also the only way to sift through the “fake news” that President Trump deals in, and that sullies our civic discourse and shackles us all from moving forward.

For all these reasons, History is power.

Our president recognizes this and wields his ignorance like a weapon, reveling in his ability to dominate the reasoned discourse of experts with his own, tortured resistance to their authority. He purposefully co-opts historical topics to serve his, and his supporters’, political ends. At the extreme, they include those who deny that slavery was at the core of the Civil War, and also deny other historical atrocities, including the Holocaust.

For those of us who confront our nation’s history as a professional duty, the sentiment that basic historical knowledge is vital for participation in our democracy is a given. But plenty of Americans agree that understanding our history is necessary for ensuring a successful future. Indeed, it is part of our citizenship test — a test that we doubt our president could pass.

Read the entire piece here.

History is Good for Business

MorristownMorristown National Historical Park in New Jersey, the place where George Washington and the Continental Army spent part of the winter of 1777 and most of the winter of 1779-1780, makes a lot of money for Morristown and the surrounding Morris County region.

In 2016, 252,500 visitors came to the park.  They spent $15 million dollars in the region.

American history does not just help us become better citizens, but it is also good for the economy.

Read more here.