The Study of History Prepares Us for Moments Like This

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My daughter is home from college. Tonight at the dinner table we were talking about citizenship in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of our conversation inspired today’s earlier post on that subject.

Both of my daughters are studying liberal arts at a liberal arts college. Caroline, who is now taking classes from her childhood bedroom, is majoring in political science and considering adding a major in environmental studies. Allyson, as a senior, is a double-major in history and psychology. Their coursework is challenging them in good ways. They are learning and growing intellectually. I pray that both of them will draw upon their work in these fields to help them navigate our current moment.

The humanities, a particular branch of the liberal arts devoted to the study of history, literature, rhetoric, theology and religious studies, philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and languages, to name a few of the subjects that fall under its intellectual umbrella, offer an approach to the world that bodes well for the creation of good citizens in a democratic society.

This is why founders such as Thomas Jefferson valued an educated citizenry. In an September 28, 1820 to William Charles Jarvis, Jefferson wrote:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform them their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of the abuses of constitutional power.

The humanities, and especially my own discipline of history, teach students how to think critically about their world. How do we evaluate the information we receive about the coronavirus? What kinds of sources can we trust? In a time when news and information about this virus is changing and developing at a rapid rate, context becomes very important. News that came across our feeds two days ago may no longer be relevant today.  Historians are trained to “source” documents.  When was the document written? Who is the author? What is the purpose of this document? Does this context give us better insight into the meaning of the text?

Historians are also able to put this pandemic in a larger context. Type the words “1918 Influenza” into your web browser and notice dozens of historians trying to help us make sense of the present by understanding the past. Historians understand the human condition. They can, at times, alert us to potential present-day behavior by reminding us of what happened in an earlier era.

The study of history also cultivates the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historian Sam Wineburg argues convincingly that it is the strangeness of the past that has the best potential to change our lives in positive ways. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country–a place where they do things differently than we do in the present–set off on a journey that has the potential to transform society. An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of a “foreign country.” Sometimes the people who inhabit that country may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities.  Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.

History demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, ideal or event from the past in order to understand it. It thus, ironically, becomes the necessary building block of informed cultural criticism and political commentary. It sharpens our moral focus and places our ethical engagement with society in a larger context. One cannot underestimate how the virtues learned through historical inquiry also apply to our civic life. The same skills of empathy and understanding that a student or reader of history learns from studying the seemingly bizarre practices of the Aztec Empire might also prove to be useful at work when we don’t know what to make of the beliefs or behavior of the person in the cubicle next to us.

The study of the past has the potential to cure us of our narcissism. The narcissist views the world with himself at the center. While this a fairly normal way to see the world for an infant or a toddler, it is actually a very immature way of viewing the world as an adult. History, to quote Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” It requires us to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story. When we view the world this way, we come face-to-face with our own smallness, our own insignificance.”

As we begin to see our lives as part of a human community made up of both the living and the dead, we may start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. We may want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to understand why they see the world the way they do. We may  want to have a conversation (or two) with them. We may learn that even amid our religious or political differences we still have a lot in common.  We also may gain a better understanding into why their ideas must be refuted.

History majors and historical thinkers: we have prepared you for such a time as this!

Should Historians Judge People by the Standards of Their Time?

Why Study HistoryI get this all the time: “Let’s not judge slaveholders based on present-day morality because they were products of their time.”

Indeed, slaveholders were products of their time.  The historian’s primary goal is to try to understand them in context so that we can better grasp why some people believed slavery was a good thing.  Some historians believe that their work stops at this point.  They let the activists, pundits, and critics decide how to use their historical research to advance present-day arguments or agendas.  This perfectly fine. When it comes to world-changing work, the historian plays a limited role.

Other times, however, historians are not satisfied with mere understanding.  They feel called to move beyond “what happened” or “why what happened happened” to moral judgments about whether what happened was good or bad.

I have argued that historians are primarily responsible for uncovering and explaining the past.  I am not opposed to moral criticism–and I have done plenty of it here and elsewhere–but such criticism must always come after we have grasped a particular subject in its historical context.  I actually prefer to introduce audiences–students, readers, hearers–to the moral critiques of people who lived in that time period.  For example, rather than expounding on how slavery is immoral, I prefer to call attention to slavery-era abolitionists or other opponents of slavery and let them do the work.

Erin Bartram gets it right in her recent piece at Contingent Magazine, Don’t We Have To Judge People By The Standards Of Their Time?”  Here is a taste:

…let’s consider one way the cliché is frequently used by white people in the United States: in conversations about the history of enslavement, especially ones about “Founding Fathers” who enslaved people. It is right to say they were products of their time—products of a time that affirmed in law the right of people like them to own other people. It’s why they set up innovative new systems of government that still preserved their right to own people.

To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a “standard” view is to erase the fact that no society, even a culturally- and religiously-homogeneous one, has a “standard” view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions. Moreover, there’s no situation in which everyone who holds one view doesn’t at least have a sense of opposing views.

And this is why bolstering this argument with the idea that some people just didn’t know is so wrong. It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing. There were a lot of people who believed that enslavement was wrong. Enslaved people believed it was wrong. Free black people believed it was wrong. Even some white people believed it was wrong. People in all three of those groups allowed their beliefs to guide the choices they made, including small and large public and private resistance where and when they could, sometimes at great risk to their lives.

On the other hand, many white Americans were aware of abolitionist sentiments but didn’t agree with them, and instead made choices based on their own belief that chattel slavery was a necessary evil—or even a positive good. What I suspect is more distressing to white Americans, however, what provokes the use of this cliché more often, is the idea that many white people in the past believed enslavement was wrong and chose to keep their mouths shut and participate anyway, even as secondary recipients of its “benefits.” In this sense, perhaps the “standard of the time” we’re talking about is moral cowardice, though I doubt that’s what people who use the phrase are thinking.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: Conversation Starters

flight

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that when we study history, strangers can become friends. –JF

I think airports are fascinating places. In airports, people from all walks of life come together for a brief moment–whether they’re sitting next to each other on a plane, waiting together for a TSA screening, or paying way too much for food at the same kiosk. Then after the plane lands, after they get through security,  after their breakfast is ready, travelers promptly part ways.

I spent a lot of time in the Detroit Metro airport a couple weeks ago en route back to Messiah after Christmas. My connecting flight took off several hours late, leaving me in Detroit for several hours before I boarded my next plane. During my extensive layover, I found ways to entertain myself–using up a Starbucks gift card, people watching, and walking to the other side of the terminal to get Chick Fil A. It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means, but I made the most of it.

When I finally got on the plane, I took an aisle seat next to another college-aged traveler named Matt, who was on his way back to Philadelphia for culinary school. Normally I’m a pretty quiet passenger, exchanging a few lines of small talk with my seat-neighbors and then leaving them alone, but this time proved an exception. Perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the cabin, Matt and I chatted through the entire flight. I learned that Matt has traveled to China, took two gap years to work before starting college, and even saw the movie Cats with some of his friends over break. We talked about the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the places we’ve been. After picking up our giant suitcases from the baggage claim, Matt showed me how to catch the train to 30th Street Station, and got me there just in time to board the 4:45 Amtrak into Harrisburg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Matt again. Maybe our paths will cross on a flight back to the Midwest in the future–I sure hope so–but regardless I’ll always be grateful we met. I can’t help but smile when I think about how we got on the plane as strangers and parted as friends. All we had to do was start a conversation.

I love to meet new people. I think that’s partly why I love history so much. As historians, we are in the very business of meeting new people–people we’ve never seen or contacted or even heard of before. Sometimes the strangers we meet are no longer living.  Sometimes, after reading their stories, we find out they’re a lot like us; and other times we discover that they see the world a whole lot differently than we do. Regardless, it is our job to see historical actors for who they are–to seek out their likes and dislikes, their passions and their fears. Then as we work, as we write, and as we research, people who were once strangers become familiar. We just need to start a conversation.

Undergraduate Enrollments in History Courses Remain Steady

History

Good news from the American Historical Association:

Ask any department chair, and most faculty, what the most vexing data point during the academic year is and the most likely answer would be “enrollments.” In a data-obsessed age when it seems everything is tracked and analyzed, few data points matter as much in higher education as enrollments. For many institutions, department funding is tied directly to enrollment numbers. Courses that don’t meet minimum enrollment requirements are canceled, snarling the distribution of teaching responsibilities among faculty and narrowing the intellectual range in the curriculum. Fluctuations in enrollments and majors—a close relative of enrollments data—are cited as reasons to create or cancel tenure lines. A lot is riding on what academic slang calls “butts in seats.”

For the past several years, the AHA has conducted an optional annual enrollments survey of history departments. The inquiry, which asks participating departments to report enrollments for each of the previous four years, is the only available source that collects history-specific enrollments data from individual institutions. While not statistically representative of higher education as a whole, these data capture broad national trends. With the data’s limitations firmly in mind, we’re parsing this year’s survey in the context of wider efforts across the discipline and across the landscape of higher education to better articulate the value of studying history and the humanities. 

Undergraduate enrollment in history courses remained relatively stable in 2018–19, with a total decline of 1.1 percent from 2017–18 levels across the 104 US institutions that provided data to the AHA (Fig. 1). When responses from two Canadian institutions are included, the dip was just 0.8 percent overall. The four-year trends reported in our 2019 survey show a decline of 3.3 percent since the 2015–16 academic year. The modest change from 2017–18 reinforces the flattening trend we observed last year and is slightly lower than national declines in total undergraduate enrollment, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Our enrollment survey corroborates a sense reported at many departments that the years of free-falling undergraduate enrollment may be behind them. 

Read the rest here.

Voters in a Democracy Must Understand Something About History

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Japanese-Americans arriving at WW II internment camp

Over at The Washington Examiner, Patrick Richards, the chief communications and strategy officer at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, links historical training with civics.  Here is a taste:

A generation of students has learned of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers because of a Broadway musical with a Lin-Manuel Miranda score. Millions of middle schoolers have learned about U.S. civics because of video games developed through the vision and commitment of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Tens of millions of cable TV viewers learn pieces of history not taught in the classroom because of Pawn Stars and the personal passions of its star, Rick Harrison. Each of these and many more like them show that history doesn’t have to be relegated to dusty history books telling the boring stories of generations of white, male landowners. History can, and should, be exciting, engaging, and relevant to the learner and to the times in which they live.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of immigration and border detention facilities will also know about how Native Americans were treated in the 19th century and how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II.

An informed voter driven to cast a ballot because of impeachment proceedings will not only know about the Clinton impeachment but also of President Andrew Johnson’s.

Ultimately, an informed voter will move beyond asking, “What?” and will begin asking the more important questions about our history: “Why? How? To what end?”

For years now, we have been selling the 2020 presidential race as one of the most momentous, most important elections in the history of our representative democracy. If we believe that, then it is imperative that all voters, particularly the Gen Zers and millennials deemed so important to our future, begin to think and act like historians — asking questions, seeking out facts not originally taught, and understanding how we’ve confronted such issues in the past and how we can learn from those experiences, good and bad, in the future.

Read the entire piece here.

 

“There is no functioning, stable, globalized world of the future without the humanities”

GLobal commerce

Karen E. Spierling is an associate professor of history and director of global commerce at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.  She believes that the humanities must “go on the offensive.”  Here is a taste of her piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

It is time for humanists to go on the offensive. Not by shoring up our silos or rejecting collaboration with nonhumanists. Not by insisting that the nature of the humanities is somehow unchanging across time and place and, thus, of ineffable and universal value. And not by giving in to the pressure to reduce the goals of our teaching to producing students who can manage both spoken and written communication effectively. (This is certainly an inherent product of humanities teaching, but not an isolated goal.)

Instead, we must make clear what we ourselves already understand: There is no functioning, stable, globalized world of the future without the humanities.

A world based on the constant global exchange of information, goods, services, and money depends upon an increasing need to rapidly access another person’s or organization’s point of view, cultural assumptions, and social norms. In a world where exchanges of all kinds rely on technology and big data, some of the greatest potential pitfalls come not in the numbers but in the interpretation of those numbers, the communication strategies needed to carry out initiatives based on those numbers, and the relationship-building areas of all types of work.

Functioning effectively in a globalized society — in business, politics, medicine, education, daily interactions with immigrants in one’s own community, or daily interactions with locals in the community into which one has immigrated — requires the skill of rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking.

Not just run-of-the-mill empathy. Not a wishy-washy definition of empathy that reduces it to natural feelings or emotions. Not just instinctive “people skills.” Not some kind of imagined empathy that depends on a person’s inherent ability to listen well and think from another person’s point of view. Not touchy-feely but uninformed sympathy for “those less fortunate” in other parts of the world. Instead, navigating this globalized world requires sophisticated, well-honed skills of empathy.

Rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking. How else are we to understand the experiences and points of view of co-workers, trading partners, or colleagues who live long distances from us? There are limits to global travel, and those limits are becoming more glaring as our climate-change crisis picks up speed. There are limits to technology — even with all of its benefits — and to how we communicate through video chats and instantaneous texting. There are limits to how much time and energy we can invest in moving to another place and immersing ourselves physically in the cultural practices of another society.

Read the entire piece here.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

1811_German_Coast_Uprising

Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

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

Why Study History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economists Make the Case for More History Majors:

ShillerOver at The Washington Post, Heather Long calls our attention to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller’s new book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events.  Here is a taste of her piece:

As humanities majors slump to the lowest level in decades, calls are coming from surprising places for a revival. Some prominent economists are making the case for why it still makes a lot of sense to major (or at least take classes) in humanities alongside more technical fields.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s new book “Narrative Economics” opens with him reminiscing about an enlightening history class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He wrote that what he learned about the Great Depression was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economic courses.

The whole premise of Shiller’s book is that stories matter. What people tell each other can have profound implications on markets — and the overall economy. Examples include the “get rich quick” stories about bitcoin or the “anyone can be a homeowner” stories that helped drive the housing bubble.

“Traditional economic approaches fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events — that is, narrative,’ Shiller wrote. “Economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics.”

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

Read the entire piece here.  Of course I have been making this case here and elsewhere for a long time.  We need more story-tellers!

24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

Kansas 3

This weekend (Sunday and Monday) I made my first visit to Wichita, Kansas.  The Kansas Council of History Education (KCHE) invited me to deliver the keynote address at their annual meeting.  It was held this year on the campus of Newman University.

My address was titled “History for a Democracy.”  I began the talk with three introductory premises:

  1. The current state of American democracy has once again proven that the nation’s founding fathers were right when they connected the strength of the American Republic with an education citizenry
  2. All K-12 teachers are public historians
  3. Our democracy needs public historians

I then spent some time discussing the debate over whether history educators should be teaching “knowledge” or “skills.” This is a debate that culture warriors, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and elected officials lose sleep over, but teachers know that the pundits and bureaucrats often understand very little about what happens in their history classrooms.  Good history teachers integrate facts and skills seamlessly in the history classroom through what we call “historical thinking.”

I concluded the talk with Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrew’s famous 5 “Cs” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causation, contingency, complexity.  I explored the ways these “Cs” are present, and not present, in our public discourse. We talked about:

  • A CNN discussion between Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones on the history of race and Democratic Party.
  • The way the SAT examines reading comprehension
  • Providential history
  • Whether there is really a right and wrong “side” of history
  • The story of the “Umbrella Man” as a way to think about causation
  • The 1619 Project

Thanks to Emily Williams and Nate McAlister of the KCHE for the invitation.  It was also good to see Dave McIntire and Diana Moss, alums of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar” on colonial America.  And thanks to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for sponsoring the lecture.

Here are some pics:

Kansas 1

It was great to see Nathan McAlister, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year

Kansas 2

Great to catch-up with Diana Moss, a Princeton seminar alum who teaches history in Galena, Kansas

Kansas 4

Kansas 5

Emily Williams (KCHE President) and Don Gifford of the Kansas State Department of Education

More Teacher Bulletin Boards!

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

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

Watts 1

Love the Niebuhr quote!

Watts 2

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

Watts 3

A lot of good stuff here.

Watts 4

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

Thanks, Julie!

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study History

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

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

Historical Thinking

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

Grayam

Grayam 2

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

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

“The narcissist sees the world in his own image…”

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.

See our The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast interviews with Wineburg here and here.

Scientists Need the Humanities to Address Climate Change

Climate Change Manifest Destiny

What is the relationship between Manifest Destiny and climate change?

“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.

American Attitudes Toward History

Field Trip

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.

Abortion and the Legacy of the Suffragettes

fe9af-women27ssuffrage

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.

Did 1000s of Women Die Every Year from Abortions Before *Roe v. Wade*?

Planned

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.

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

Gordon College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Study History

This is Why Every Corporation Needs at Least One Historian on Staff

NikeWhat if Nike has a historian on the payroll?  Perhaps they could have avoided the embarrassment that Megan Kate Nelson describes in her recent piece at The Washington Post. Here is a taste:

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:

Gap

Out of the Zoo: “Irene”

Annie and Irene

I interviewed Irene Stearns my junior year as part of a National History Day project on the Kalamazoo Gals. Irene worked at the Gibson guitar factory during WWWII coiling strings.

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.