Trump announces members of his “President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.” There are no American historians.

As COVID-19 cases reach record heights and our country faces unprecedented cyber-attacks, Donald Trump is making appointment to his 1776 Commission. Trump established the commission by executive order on November 2, 2020 and Joe Biden is likely to eliminate it after he is inaugurated on January 20, 2020.

The White House announced: “Today, President Donald J. Trump announced his intent to appoint the following individuals to be Members of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission for terms of two years”:

Here are Trump’s appointments. It is worth noting that there are no professional American historians on the committee.

Larry Arnn: He is the current president of conservative Hillsdale College. Arnn spoke at the September 2020 National Archive event in which Trump announced the 1776 Commission. This was an event that included noted conservative historians Wilfred McClay and Allen Guelzo. It was at this event that Arnn announced McClay was moving from the University of Oklahoma to Hillsdale.

Dr. Carol M. Swain: She is a retired Princeton and Vanderbilt political scientist. She is an open critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and once compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.

Brooke L. Rollins: She currently services as the acting director of United States Domestic Policy Council in the Trump administration and is a strong advocate of criminal justice reform.

Vincent M. Haley: A Trump policy adviser who worked as “Vice President” for “Special Projects” at Newt Gingrich Productions.

Victor Davis Hanson: Former Classics professor at California State University, Fresno. He is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative writer, and Trump advocate.

Phil Bryant: Former Republican governor of Mississippi.

Mike Gonzalez: Senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and critic of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.

John Gibbs: Trump nominee for U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He is a conservative pundit who has spread the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was part of a satanic cult.

Scott McNealy: A Nevada businessman and Trump supporter who describes himself as a “raging capitalist” and libertarian.

Gay Hart Gaines: Republican activist, former president of the Palm Beach Republican Club, and a member of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Ned Ryun: The son of runner Jim Ryun, conservative activist, and self-proclaimed historian

Charles Kirk: Court evangelical, co-founder of the Liberty University Falkirk Center, and a pro-Trump social media hound. Does not have a college degree.

Peter N. Kirsanow: Ohio lawyer, conservative writer, and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Charles R. Kesler: Government professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of Claremont Review of Books.

Dr. Thomas K. Lindsay: Fellow at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Jerry C. Davis: President of evangelical College of the Ozarks in Missouri, a college that requires all students to take courses in “patriotic education and fitness.”

Michael Farris: Virginia lawyer who founded the Home School Legal Defense Fund and Patrick Henry College in Purceville, VA.

Bob McEwen: Former member of the House of Representatives from Ohio and friend of Liberty University.

Historian Wilfred McClay will join the faculty of Hillsdale College

One of nation’s leading conservative thinkers will join one of America’s most conservative schools. (See our previous McClay posts here).

Here is the Hillsdale Collegian:

Hillsdale College’s history department will gain a prestigious new faculty member next fall: Wilfred M. McClay.

Currently the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, McClay will make the move to Hillsdale following the end of the spring 2021 semester.

“My experience with Hillsdale is of an extraordinary community, built upon a shared love of the highest and noblest things,” McClay said in an email. “That too is vanishingly rare, and I count myself blessed to have the opportunity to share the life of that community, and I hope to contribute something good and lasting to it.”

According to McClay, the discussion of joining Hillsdale’s faculty began over the summer of 2019 when he came to campus for a week to film lectures for his online course on American History. After some persuasion and paperwork, McClay is now set to begin teaching the American Heritage courses this fall, but may expand beyond that in following semesters.

Read the rest here.

“Fig leaves” for a “Trumpist-state dictated popular history”

Over at the anti-Trump conservative website, The Bulwark, historian Ronald Radosh reflects on the recent “White House Conference on American History.”

He calls the entire event “bizarre.”

Here is a taste:

I have nothing but disdain for the professors who use their courses to try and convert their students to Marxism or any other radical ideology. The late historian Eugene D. Genovese was a major historian. The books and articles he wrote while he was a Marxist hold up, as do those he wrote when he became a conservative Catholic. I knew him well enough to know that in both phases he did not indoctrinate students; he only taught history so that students could understand the past of the American South and its legacy of slavery.

Everything the panelists said at last week’s conference must be looked at in the context of the event itself. Historian L.D. Burnett, writing in Slate, is incorrect when she writes that the conference was “100 percent anti-intellectual.” Allen Guelzo, for example, did not offer a right-wing rant. But even his appearance—as with those of all the participants—served as a fig leaf, providing legitimization for the development of a Trumpist state-dictated popular history that would be used to teach a “patriotic” version of our nation’s past.

This is not the attitude of many of the radical professors who are historians I still know. They do not insist that their students agree with them. The activist and professor Cornel West team-teaches a course with Robert P. George at Princeton University. Robby has written about how West’s list of books and articles to read includes scores of conservative books with which he does not agree. Both men are completely supportive of free speech on campus.

The serious historians who participated last week, as well as the other panelists, were there to provide a cover for the politicized history that Trump favors. Nothing, however, compared to some of the remarks Ben Carson made. Since everyone knows he was a medical doctor of great accomplishment, but not a historian, nor even someone known to have given any thought to the subject of the conference, why was he even there? A clear reason is that he is an African American, and stood out in a panel composed of all white men and two women.

Read the entire piece here.

Radosh also references criticisms of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, and David Greenberg.

He also references Kazin’s criticism of Bill McClay’s book Land of Hope, a text featured at the White House event.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments


Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Michael Kazin Reviews Wilfred McClay’s *Land of Hope*

McClayOne of my favorite historians recently reviewed a book by one of my other favorite historians.  Here is Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin‘s review of University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay‘s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.  (At this point, I can only call your attention to this review. Since I have not read McClay’s book,  I cannot comment on the fairness of Kazin’s review).

Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful. In a new survey of the nation’s past, McClay, who sports a hefty title as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, seeks to impart an uplifting message while still telling the story straight. His book bears the title Land of Hope, with a subtitle that appears pitched to acolytes of Trump: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Serious scholars on the right rarely write such sweeping national narratives, and McClay’s conservative publisher has made quite a production out of this one. It’s printed on expensive glossy stock, the images are numerous and mostly in color, and a handsome brochure with a lengthy author Q&A is included in every review copy.

McClay has clearly written the book with its enormously popular competitor on the left in mind. In the promotional interview, he asserts that Howard Zinn’s famous book is “simplistic melodrama” that appeals to “many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our natural flaws.” He’s not wrong about that. A People’s History does reduce the past to a conflict between a tiny elite animated by nothing but power and greed and a vast majority who always seem to get shafted; he never asks why so many Americans were taken in by what he called “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” Still, Zinn at least made a powerful argument in arresting prose: he condemned the enduring exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent and provided readers with a surfeit of quotes from such eloquent voices as Eugene Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Adrienne Rich who resisted the powerful, albeit with more courage than success.

But McClay has entirely failed to create an appealing alternative to his radical rival. He sheds praise on the nation and its people without explaining why and how they accomplished the deeds he finds so worthy of tribute. Unwilling to parrot the conspiracy-mongering of hacks like D’Souza but still determined to present a past brimming with “hope,” he ends up with a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.

Read the entire review here.  Later in the review Kazin compares McClay’s one-volume U.S. history with Jill Lepore’s similar effort, These Truths.

24 Hours in Cleveland, Tennessee

lee U

This past weekend (Friday and Saturday) I was spent some time at the beautiful campus of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. I was there for the Lee Symposium: A Conversation on Faith and the Liberal Arts.  Retired Calvin College history professor Ron Wells founded the symposium at Maryville College and Lee took it over four years ago.  This year’s theme was “Christians and Politics: Power, the Liberal Arts, and People of Faith.  You can read the program here.

The organizer of the Lee Symposium,  history professor Jason Ward, caps registration at fifty or sixty people in order to allow for maximum conversation and fellowship. Most of the attendees come from faith-based colleges in the Chattanooga area, but there are a few who travel from longer distances to participate.

The symposium centers around four plenary speakers and respondents.  These keynote addresses set the stage for about an hour of questions and conversations.  I got the ball rolling on Friday afternoon with a talk titled “Christian Liberal Arts in the Age of Trump.”  I suggested a few ways that thinking Christians might counter the divisiveness of the Trump era, the undermining of facts, evidence, and proof in the Trump era, and the general anti-intellectualism of evangelical congregational life.  Historian Lisa Clark Diller of Southern Adventist University offered some excellent commentary and feedback.  The discussion was rich and several students participated in the conversation.

On Friday night, Lee University political scientist Ana Shippey reminded us that most of what the Trump administration tells us about immigration is wrong and feeds into what she described as “Christian nativism.” On Saturday morning, University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay suggested that Christian liberal arts should be about liberation (using Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), the pursuit of the good, true and beautiful (using Philippians 4:8), and the celebration of the teacher in the classroomChrista Bennett of Community Well in Charlottesville, Virginia shared her journey from the conservative daughter of a Pentecostal minister to a Christian who is liberal, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ.  Much of her talk challenged us to think about how “power” plays-out in everyday political and social life.

Finally, Jason Ward summarized the weekend and challenged us to continue the conversation.

I enjoyed the weekend at Lee and learned a great deal from the robust conversation.  It was so good to see old friends (Lisa Diller, Bill McClay, Ron Wells) and make some new ones (Rondall and Pamela Reynoso, some of Lisa Diller’s amazing students, some of Jason Ward’s amazing students, Ana Shippey, Krista Bennett, Don Bennett, Drew Bledsoe, Randy Wood, Richard Follett, and the ever-hospitable Jason Ward!)

I also saw some familiar names on campus:


The DeVos family (as in Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos) does not just give money to Calvinist schools in Western Michigan.  Sometimes they also fund recreation centers at Pentecostal universities

Graham at Lee

In 1936, Billy Graham spent a semester as a student at Bob Jones College (now University) when the Greenville, South Carolina school was located in Cleveland, Tennessee.  The old Bob Jones College campus is now the site of Lee University.  Apparently there is at least one building left from those days.


Does the 1619 Project Distort American History?


My friend Wilfred McClay has weighed in on the New York Times 1619 Project in a Commentary magazine article.  Several people have asked me to respond to it.  Here we go:

When the 1619 Project hit the pages of the Times, I defended it.  I wrote several blog posts and published an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.  That op-ed appeared in other papers around the country.

I criticized several conservative pundits who were not happy with the project.  Granted, I went after the low-hanging fruit.  Newt Gingrich, for example, called the whole project “a lie.”  I don’t believe this is true.  Erick Erickson said it was “activism” and not “journalism.”  This is probably true.  Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a “threat to American greatness.”  I think Rush is wrong on both counts.

Here is what I concluded:

Most conservative critics do not appear to have spent much time with the articles included in the 1619 Project. Some of them probably stopped reading after they saw the words “reframe” and “true founding.”

But in the end, there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for all kinds of people—Native Americans, women, working people, educated white people and others.

We shouldn’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex. We should make every effort to remember our past. And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

I defended the 1619 Project so strongly because I thought it was in bad form to try to trash this project on the anniversary of the arrival of these “20 And odd negroes” in 1619. Yes, I think it is historically inaccurate to claim that the United States was “founded” in 1619, but I let that slide in my remarks because I didn’t want to take away from a commemoration that was important and necessary.  I wrote my post and my op-ed to remind the followers of these conservative pundits that slavery was woven into the historical narrative at a much deeper level than they were willing to admit.  I stand by everything I wrote and I will make a few of those same arguments below.

But Bill McClay is also right about some things.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The first effort in what is promised as an ongoing 1619 endeavor throughout the paper was a 100-page issue of the Sunday Magazine, devoted entirely (except for the oddly jarring inclusion of the Times crossword and other puzzles) to a series of short articles of varying length and genre. They ranged from highly compressed historical arguments to poems and other literary or memoiristic pieces, all of which are in some way devoted to the idea that slavery “and the anti-black racism it required” constitute the true foundation of American history. “Out of slavery,” declare the introductory remarks, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” and so on, down to the nation’s propensity for violence and its “endemic racial fears and hatreds.” The Project is therefore dedicated to “considering” the proposition that 1619, rather than 1776, should be regarded as “our nation’s birth year.”

Read the entire piece here.

Some general thoughts:

First, the headline of this article does not sound like Bill McClay.  I am guessing he didn’t write it.  It reads: “How the New York Times is Distorting American History.”  The subtitle reads: “The 1619 Project and its false and destructive narrative about this country.”  The spirit of the piece does not match the title, but this is not unusual.

Second, let’s set the record straight on the status of these “20 And odd negroes” who came to Virginia shores in 1619.  McClay suggests that they were indentured servants.  They were not.  They were slaves.  They were captured in Angola and transported across the Atlantic on a Portuguese slave ship named the Sao Joao Bautista.  It was headed for Mexico.  We know that this ship was packed with 350 slaves.  Somewhere along the way, two English ships attacked the Sao Joao Bautista.  One of those ships, the White Lion, took twenty slaves and brought them to Virginia. The captain traded his human cargo for food and then left.

After the arrival of these slaves in 1619, their status is unclear.  Edmund Morgan, in his magisterial American Slavery-American Freedom, has suggested that they may have been indentured servants.

Third, McClay is correct when he says that The New York Times has a political agenda. Of course it does.  No argument here.  In some ways, the 1619 Project is something akin to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History or a history-related Hollywood movie.  Zinn and Hollywood are not interested in complexity or nuance.  They often get things wrong or cherry-pick the parts of the past that are useful and ignore the rest.  Popular histories and movies use the past to hammer home agendas. So while many of the 1619 Project articles are well done, any claim that the project as a whole is a solid contribution American history must be called into question.  We need to read it critically, as McClay and others have done.  As an American historian, however, I am glad that the project prompted a national conversation, at least for a week or so, about slavery and its legacy.

Here is another way of thinking about this: If The New York Times did not call attention to the 1619 anniversary then who would have? Sure they took things too far, at least from a historical perspective, but I doubt that Commentary, The National Review, The American Conservative, The Washington Times or The Wall Street Journal were going to devote extensive coverage to slavery’s legacy on this important anniversary.

Fourth, McClay is critical of Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.   He mentions a few very negative reviews written by respectable scholars.  I am not a scholar of slavery or capitalism, so I can’t judge whether or not Baptist’s book holds water. Indeed, as McClay notes, the reviews are damning–leading me to believe that the book’s argument is probably problematic.  But, as I said in some of my previous writing on 1619, we cannot ignore that slavery and its legacy has been at the center of the American experience.  Even if Baptist’s stats are wrong, I think it is still fair to say that the Northern textile industry benefited from slave labor.  Even Abraham Lincoln seemed to be aware of this.  In his Second Inaugural Address he suggested that both North and South were to blame for the “offense” of slavery and “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”  This is worth discussing.

As I wrote in a blog post, there is a lot of really good scholarship that links American freedom with American slavery.  As I wrote in that post: “there is plenty of room at the ‘center’ of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people” AND SLAVES.   Moreover, “the very Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith , provided the impetus for the ABOLITION of slavery.”

Politics and activism is not history.  History is messy.

The Historians Who Are Supporting Donald Trump

Trump Gingrich

By now you have heard of Historians Against Trump.  But what about historians who are for Trump.  Rick Shenkman and Sharon Arana have managed to find six historians who support Trump.  They are:

Victor David Hanson

Timothy Furnish

Derek Boyd Hankerson

David Barton

Eric Metaxas

Newt Gingrich (He has a Ph.D in history)

I don’t know much about Hankerson apart from the fact that he thinks blacks fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are probably aware of the fact that I do not classify Barton or Metaxas as historians.  (Click on the links above).

I also found it interesting that Wilfred McClay was initially part of the pro-Trump list. Read the article to see McClay’s e-mail exchange with Shenkman and Arana.

ADDENDUM:  I just learned that Larry Schwiekart of the University of Dayton is also supporting Trump.

Wilfred McClay on Medicine, Limits, and Death

You should be reading the stuff that Wilfred McClay writes.  He is one of the best cultural critics writing today.  If your new to McClay, start with his Merle Curti Award-winning book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.  You will not be disappointed.

Or check out McClay’s short piece at The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Here is a taste of “Against Mastery“: 

How, for one, will we make sense of death if it comes to be viewed as something with no intrinsic meaning, but chiefly as a piece of bad luck, a matter of bad timing—the misfortune, for example, of contracting the disease before the march of inevitable medical progress had caught up with it? Or worse, how can we ever be reconciled to death when it becomes understood as something almost entirely accidental, and largely preventable?

Do we imagine that complete control over our biological fates will necessarily make us happier? Perhaps it will. But one can as easily imagine that there might be little room for uninhibited joy or exuberance in such a world. More likely it will be a tightly wound world, saturated with bitterness and anxiety and mutual suspicion, in which life and health will be guarded with all the ferocity of Ebenezer Scrooge guarding his money. Growing mastery means growing responsibility, and the need to assign blame, since nothing happens by chance. Some of the blame will be directed at the parents, politicians, doctors, and celebrities who make plausible villains, or conspiracy theories that explain why someone else is always at fault. But much of the blame will devolve upon ourselves, since in being set free to choose so much about our lives, we will have no one else to blame when we make a complete mess of things. 

Reflecting on Religion and Citizenship in Chattanooga, Part One: Should Historians Make Moral Judgments On the Past?

I just returned from an excellent institute for Tennessee and Georgia history and social studies teachers at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC). The event was entitled “Religion and the Making of American Citizens” and it was sponsored by UTC’s Center for Reflective Citizenship.  Wilfred McClay, Jonathan Yeager, and Lucian Ellington made up the brain trust behind the event.  Twenty-four teachers, representing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis, Hixson (TN), Lindale (GA), Ringgold (GA), Ooltewah (GA), Signal Mountain (TN), Spring City (TN), and Lafayette (GA), participated in the institute.  It was a vibrant and engaged group.  In this post, I want to address Tracy McKenzie’s opening address to the teachers.

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He started off the conference with a powerful address about the role that religion could play in the school classroom. After discussing the provocative work of the late Warren Nord, a secularist who has made the controversial argument that it is unconstitutional to remove religion from the classroom, McKenzie turned to the subject of love.  He argued that if history teachers truly love their students they would not only teach them “what happened in the past” and “why what happened in the past happened in the way that it did,” but they would go even further, asking them to ponder whether what happened in the past was “good.” (McKenzie is borrowing here from Notre Dame historian Philip Gleason). When teachers ask students to think about whether a particular event in the past is “good,” they are challenging students to engage in work that is essentially religious.  This kind of engagement, McKenzie argues, belongs in the history classroom.

The teachers seemed to embrace McKenzie’s approach even as he claimed that such an approach goes beyond what most professional historians find acceptable.  Perhaps I am one of those professional historians who McKenzie chided in his talk. While the third part of Gleason’s formula (was what happened “good?”)  can have a place in the history classroom, I have argued that it must be done with a great deal of caution so that the discipline of history is not sacrificed to moral philosophy.

In the end, this is a friendly difference between two Christian historians. After spending twelve years teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I find that making ethical, moral, and religious claims about people and movements in the past is rather easy for my students.  Most of them were raised in evangelical Christian homes where these kinds of judgments happen all the time.  As a result, I am often faced with the task of challenging them to understand, empathize, and explore the actions of those from the past on their own terms before jumping right away into whether or not such actions are “good” or “bad.”  While I certainly want the moral imagination of my students triggered by their

encounter with the past, they need to engage in the more elementary work of historical thinking before they dabble in moral philosophy.

Perhaps it might be a worthwhile exercise to read Tracy’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History alongside my own Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past?  

Whatever the case, I really appreciated McKenzie’s efforts on this front. I hope the teachers did as well.  What a treat!

Stay tuned.  A future post will explore the rest of the conference.

McClay: "Still the Redeemer Nation"

Wilfred McClay, writing at The Wilson Quarterly, discusses the quest for redemption in American politics and culture in the wake of Mark Sanford’s recent win in the GOP runoff for the nomination to a U.S. House seat from South Carolina.  Here is a taste:

What would American political culture look like without its pervasive moral dramas of sin and redemption, sometimes expressed in forms lofty and noble, but at other times resembling nothing so much as the smarminess and vulgarity of soap opera? One thing can be said for certain: We are not only intensely fascinated by these episodes of political theater, but fully in the grip of them, as far more than mere onlookers. For an allegedly secular society, the United States seems to be curiously in thrall to ideas, gestures, emotional patterns, nervous tics, and deep premises that belong to the supposedly banished world of religion. These habits of heart and mind are evident everywhere we look, and they possess a compulsive and unquestioned power in contemporary American life. It is as if the disappearance of religion’s metaphysical dimension has occasioned a tightening hold of certain of its moral dimensions, particularly so far as these relate to guilt and absolution.

Consider the range of manifestations: The feeding frenzies over malfeasances by public officials, real or imagined, eventuating in obligatory rituals of public confession and abasement before the altar of Oprah Winfrey or some other secular priest or priestess invested with the power to give or withhold absolution. The obsession with our environmental sins, both as an overconsuming society and as individuals leaving carbon footprints, giving rise to such phenomena as “carbon offsets,” schemes that have been decried by skeptics as little more than “green indulgences,” transparent sops to voracious (and credulous) consciences. The almost bottomless reservoirs of racial guilt and recrimination, most recently illustrated by the embarrassingly abject apology proffered by James Wagner, the president of Emory University, for the sin of mentioning in an essay the formulation of the three-fifths rule in the U.S. Constitution as an example of political compromise, instead of condemning the rule with thundering, absolute, and final moral certainty, as so many on his faculty demanded he do, no doubt in the spirit of academic freedom. The similar and related tendency to shout down all unwelcome speech as being a form of bigotry and therefore morally unacceptable: anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, un-American, and so on. On many college campuses, the inhibiting fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way to the wrong person has all but rendered vigorous debate impossible. Whatever else one might say of these manifestations, they do not reflect a culture in which easygoing relativism, tolerance, skepticism, and laissez-faire permissiveness reign. It is instead a culture clenched taut with every imaginable form of moral anxiety, seemingly convinced despite its own secular professions that we inhabit a universe that has an inherent and unforgiving moral structure.

Hence, the yearning for redemption is not likely to go away, since the need for a certification of one’s blamelessness is so strong. And it must be said that, despite all the pathologies I have named, there are many reasons why we should not want it to go away, even if we could somehow miraculously banish it. For we all have serious faults, often grievous ones, and the yearning for redemption is the rightful call of our consciences and the proper object of our hopes, the very thing for which hope is forever hoping, especially in dark or troubled times. Howells’s conjecture that Americans want “a tragedy with a happy ending” is another way of saying not only that we want things to turn out happily, but that we want them to turn out in a way that redeems all our suffering in the end—we want our world to prove to be purposeful and orderly, the kind of world in which nothing is wasted and the animating virtue of hope is not futile. The pathologies stem, in part, from the fact that we want redemption more than ever, applied to a wider range of things.

Wilfred McClay: The Toquevillean Moment for Higher Education

In a recent essay in The Wilson Quarterly, social critic Wilfred McClay uses Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America to make sense of the current changes in American higher education.

First, McClay lays out the challenges faced by higher education today:

To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.

Then he introduces us to Tocqueville’s understanding of liberal education:

But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue’s sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how “private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate,” and how one’s devotion to the general good could also promote one’s personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction—that one could do well by doing good—was exactly what was meant by the “right understanding” of self-interest.

Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of “aristocratic” sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.

“Enlighten them, therefore, at any price.” Or, as another translation expresses it, “Educate them, then.” Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville’s ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education.  He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.

And finally, he uses Tocqueville to defend the traditional liberal arts:

Wilfred McClay

So we must be Tocquevillean. That means we should not be too quick to discard an older model of what higher education is about, a model that the conventional four-year residential liberal-arts college, whatever its failures and its exorbitant costs, has been preeminent in championing. And that is the model of a physical community built around a great shared enterprise: the serious and careful reading and discussion of classic literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts. 

What we may need, however, is to be more rigorous in thinking through what we want from such a model of education, and what we can readily dispense with. Perhaps we do not need college to be what it all too often has become: an extended Wanderjahre of post-adolescent entertainment and experimentation, played out in the soft, protected environment of idyllic, leafy campuses, less a rite du passage than a retreat to a very expensive place where one can defer the responsibilities of adult life. 

At the very least, such an education ought to help us resist the uncritical embrace of technological innovation, and equip us to challenge it constructively and thoughtfully—and selectively. There is, for example, no product of formal education more important than the cultivation of reflection, of solitary concentration, and of sustained, patient, and disciplined attention—habits that an overwired and hyperconnected way of life is making more and more difficult to put into practice. If we find it increasingly difficult to compose our fragmented and disjointed browsings into coherent accounts, let alone larger and deeper structures of meaning, that fact represents a colossal failure of our educations to give us the tools we need to make sense of our lives. Colleges and universities should be the last institutions to succumb to this tendency. They should resist it with all their might, because that is precisely what they are there for.

Read the entire piece.

McClay on Humility

In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues has a nice piece on humility by essayist and award-winning historian Wilfred McClay. This essay must be read in full, but here is a brief taste to whet your appetites:

Humility is generally seen to be a virtue, then. But it is a peculiar kind of virtue. For one thing, it requires for its realization that we constantly do battle with, and insistently defeat, some of our strongest and deepest inclinations. This requirement would appear to run athwart the usual assumption that human virtues are forms of excellence which express the fullest flourishing of human nature. The great cardinal virtues – justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude – are all clearly of that variety, refinements and intensifications of qualities of character that seem to arise naturally in reasonably well-reared individuals, and are clearly complementary to their natural endowments. Not so humility, which sets itself against many of our most fundamental impulses, clips our wings, and negates our desires – working, in a sense, against nature itself. Which may be precisely why Aristotle declined to regard humility as a virtue, and instead exalted “greatness of soul” (megalopsychia) as the convergence of the moral virtues – a mean, as all the virtues were for Aristotle, between the extremes of vanity and pusillanimity. Whatever else one might say about the megalopsychos, the great-souled man, he was not humble.

Is First Things Reponsible for the Obama Doctrine?

Reinhold Niebuhr influenced Wilfred McClay who wrote an essay in First Things that influenced David Brooks who urged Barack Obama to run for president and embrace a view of foreign policy that might be called “Christian Realism” or the “Obama Doctrine

Or so goes the conspiracy theory suggested by First Things blogger Joe Carter. (An alternative theory is offered by former First Things editor James Nuechterlein).

What would Neuhaus think? (He would probably love it!).

McClay on Lincoln

Several years ago I wrote an essay for the literary and public affairs magazine, The Cresset, on my experience teaching the Civil War. (The article, as far as I can tell, is not on-line. Drop me a note with your address and I will be happy to send you off a hard copy). The piece reflected on the way my Christian students responded to Abraham Lincoln. Some of them praised Lincoln for freeing the slaves and the preserving the Union. But others offered compelling critiques of his commitment to Total War. Most of my students rejected the racist and slave culture of the American South, but they wondered whether Lincoln’s celebration and promotion of Union at all costs may have led to the loss of local community, tradition, and folkways. Some of my Anabaptist students could not reconcile Lincoln’s love of Nation with their understanding of a universal Kingdom of God that transcends national identity. (As a college with Anabaptist roots, Messiah does not fly an American flag on campus).

I thought about these things today reading Wilfred McClay’s reflections on Lincoln in the January/February 2009 issue of Humanities. McClay humanizes Lincoln for us and offers some helpful reflections on the Lincoln we have come to revere and the Lincoln who was a product of mid-19th century American history.

Wilfred McClay on Obama’s "Promise"

Over at the First Things blog, Wilfred McClay has an interesting post about Barack Obama’s “soaring” campaign rhetoric. McClay wonders if Obama’s “American Promise” (the title of his Denver acceptance speech) has any real meaning. He compares Obama’s use of the word “promise” to Herbert Croly ‘s use of the word in his 1909 book, The Promise of America and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” His piece is a worth a look.

Though it is a bit tangential to the argument, my favorite line in the article is quoted below:

…Which of course puts one in mind of the 2008 presidential election, and particularly the Democratic nominee, whose rhetoric is invariably referred to as “soaring”—a word used admiringly by people who have evidently never thought much about the word’s dictionary meaning: “a mode of flight in which height is gained by using warm air that is moving upwards.”

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

Here a few things on the web and elsewhere that have caught my attention over the past week.

The July 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly has a nine article forum on the legacy of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s 1974 classic Salem Possessed. Authors include John Demos, Mary Beth Norton and Carol Karlsen, with a retrospective piece by Boyer and Nissenbaum and an excellent introduction to Salem and witchcraft studies by Jane Kamensky.

In CT Direct, Collin Hansen reviews John Turner‘s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (North Carolina, 2008).

Wifred McClay takes on Stanley Fish on the usefulness of the humanities.

Ernie Freeberg‘s new book on Eugene Debs is out. See his recent article at History News Network and a review in today’s Chicago Tribune.

What it’s like to teach at Harvard.

Garden State Legacy looks like a promising new on-line magazine of New Jersey history.

A new short story by Wendell Berry in this month’s Atlantic.