Welcome back to a new semester! We are getting the history department blog going again, and we look forward to sharing stories of our students, faculty, and alumni over the course of the academic year. In the meantime, I want to fill you in on how we faculty in the history department spend our summer.
You could find Hope history faculty all of the world this summer. In May, Dr. Janes and students explored art and history on the Paris May Term,
and Dr. Johnson taught the history of the Vietnam War as part of the new Hope College Vietnam May Term.
In June, Dr. Gibbs spent her 19th summer teaching students at the Vienna Summer School, Hope College Vienna Summer School, while Dr. Tseng attended conferences on missionary history in Liverpool, England, and New Haven, Connecticut.
Back in Holland, Dr. Hagood led the Faith and Scholarship series while taking the reins as the new Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning. Dr. Albert Bell saw the publication of Fortune’s Fool, the sixth book in his Pliny the Younger mystery novel series.
Dr. Wayne Tan received a book contract from University of Michigan Press for his manuscript titled “Blindness in Japan: The Remarkable Histories of a Disability.” We can’t wait for the book to come out!
I had the privilege to work with a team of Hope history majors examining the history of World War I in Holland Michigan. Three students–Natalie Fulk, Avery Lowe, and Aine O’Connor–spent eight weeks digging into local archives and reading old newspapers, and put together a web exhibit that explores how this major global event transformed this small community on the shores of Lake Michigan. You can see it here: https://sites.google.com/hope.edu/holland-wwi/
There will be many great activities and speakers this year, so check out our colloquium website for upcoming events. Be sure to attend our first colloquium on Tuesday, September 5 in Room 100A in the Bultman Student Center (i.e. the Programming Area). Dr. Johnson and I will team up with colleagues in Art History and Sociology to participate in the Vox Populi panel: “The Confederacy in 2017: The Flag, the Memorials, the Controversy.”
Feel free to contact me if you would like to write a blog post for us!
One of the most important goals for all students who enroll in a college or university is to graduate—and the pomp and circumstance that make up the commencement ceremony. This is an august, solemn, and weighty occasion. It can also, for those of us who attend every year, be quite boring. I’ve seen colleagues grade papers, read journals and books, catch some screen time, nap… we also share stories about students (treasured and not) and cheer on those we knew well as their names are called and they walk across the stage. Still, the gap in time between students that I know can be long. What to do both to pass the time and to stay focused…?
I started playing Commencement Bingo four years ago, and it’s now an expected and cherished tradition at my school. Here are the basics:
An 8-1/2” x 11” sheet of cardstock has a grid of sixty squares: the five letters in BINGO multiplied by the twelve letters in COMMENCEMENT.
Each square has a randomly selected first name, drawn from the most frequently occurring names in the graduating class.
Six of the squares are marked as a FREE SPACE.
I do all of this in Excel, and I randomize the squares, making 25 distinct versions of the card (it’s more fun if your neighbor’s card has a different arrangement of names).
When a first name is read aloud, you mark the appropriate square with a star.
It’s relatively simple—and fun! My colleagues and I find that playing Commencement Bingo not only passes the time, but we also pay more attention to the names of students as they are called. In addition, I find myself reflecting on and remembering particular students whose first names I have on my sheet. For example, in the Class of 2017 one of the most frequent names is Elizabeth, and I thought about the many Elizabeths, Lizzes, Beths, etc. that I have taught both recently and over the years. Waiting for a relatively rare name can also lead to cheering from the faculty. For some reason this year it took a while for a Justin to walk across the stage, but when he did several faculty members who had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to star a Justin-square on their cards cheered. Someone next to me said, “I bet Justin’s wondering why the faculty are so happy for him.”
Over the years I’ve learned some necessary tweaks. The card originally started as a 5×5 grid, but that was not enough to last through our 700+ students. Even expanded to 5×12, many faculty finished “too soon.” So, I added the feature of having two squares with the full names of students I knew would be at the end of the ceremony. At our school, those are students graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). That way, every player has to wait until the end of Commencement to finish. This year, I realized that there is still a gap between filling out the first-name squares and waiting for the nurses. So, next year I plan to add squares for full names of students that I know will be in the last third of the ceremony (for us, students receiving Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Science degrees). I think I might also add some open-ended, but personal squares, like “One of Your Advisees” or “Student You Knew Well.”
I have also added an element of winning prizes. Players who write their names on their cards and turn them in to me are entered into a drawing for a tote bag with swag inside. The bag is labeled “Commencement Bingo,” and my hope is that over the years it becomes a hot commodity.
Because I am a history professor, on the back of the card I provide some interesting data. I list the top 50 names for the graduating class (Class of 2017), the top 15 baby names for the years in which they were born (1994-96), the top 15 baby names for 100 years before (1884-86)—I don’t see a lot of Franks or Ethels in my classrooms these days, and the top 15 baby names for last year (the Class of 2038?). I also included an article from our student newspaper re: the graduating class of 1917: “Seniors on Wild Rampage of Festivities: Celebrate With Two Parties In Last Week of School” (http://digitalcommons.hope.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=anchor_1917). I’m not sure as many of my colleagues enjoy this side of the card as much I do, and so next year I think I might add a Commencement Crossword Puzzle. Lots of opportunities there.
Does playing bingo take away from the augustness, solemnity, and weight of the commencement ceremony? I don’t think so. I hope not. There are certainly folks who decline to play, but I’ve yet to hear anything negative from administrators above my pay grade—in fact, more than one of them have given me positive feedback. One of my colleagues told me that she shared knowledge of this faculty “tradition” with her students and reported that they all thought it was great fun. That said, I am sensitive to folks who might think otherwise. I know of at least one colleague who has told me that she doesn’t think it is appropriate and therefore does not participate. Returning to where I started, I’d like to think that it helps me to focus and think about the students. I would also argue that playing bingo honors the students and the occasion more than does grading papers, reading, checking social media, or napping. If anything, Commencement Bingo contributes to the merriment and celebration that should rightly accompany the gravity of the situation. Yes, our students have accomplished much, and this is a serious moment. It is also a time to smile, laugh, clap, and cheer.
When I tell most people what I plan on doing for my gap year before law school, they get confused. Then, I tell them I’m a history major, and they get even more confused. Following graduation, I plan on playing professional handball in Europe. Most history majors share my desire for adventure, and thanks to Hope College, we are equipped to pursue whatever adventure we can dream of. I hope by sharing my story, more history majors will feel emboldened to take the road less traveled and seek adventure wherever they can find it.
I first saw team handball in the 2012 Olympics and knew that it was something I wanted to try. For those who aren’t familiar with the sport, it’s not the handball you’ll find at the YMCA. The goal of the game is to put the volleyball-sized ball into a small soccer net located at each end of a basketball-sized court. Each team has six players plus a goalkeeper (my position.. I hate running), and players move the ball by dribbling and passing. The sport is almost non-existent in the United States, but it is the second most popular European sport, which is where the best professional handball opportunities are. Since first seeing the game in 2012, I have been selected to the Junior Men’s National team three times, and have competed and trained in places like Croatia, Sweden, and Paraguay. Thanks to Hope College, I have been able to chase this dream, and many others, from playing NCAA lacrosse to being challenged as a student-athlete to joining the best fraternity in America (Rush OKE).
There are many reasons why being a history major has helped me during my handball career. History majors have an uncanny ability to take many primary source materials and interpret them. This allows me to observe games at an analytical level that is beyond the understanding of my opponents, which is a big asset as a goalie. As both a history major and an aspiring professional athlete, I have to work diligently towards a deadline, whether it be game day preparations or typing a 20-page research paper. Most importantly, both handball and history allow me to experience people and places that I otherwise wouldn’t. While studying history, I have been able to experience places from colonial Africa to pre-Brexit Britain, and have met some fantastic mentors like Professor Baer and Professor Tseng. Playing handball has given me the chance to be the face of the United States to people who would otherwise never encounter an American. Thanks to handball, I have been able to make friends and meet coaches from countries like Malta, Finland, Bosnia, and Chile. I have also been able to experience some interesting things, like being woken up by gunfire outside the hotel 3/4 nights in Paraguay. At the heart of every history major is a desire to experience this beautiful world from various perspectives, and handball lets me do that.
I arrived at Hope College with no idea what I wanted to do. I enjoyed history but had not considered pursing it as a career. As soon as classes began I was surrounded by the history department in some form or another; Professor Baer was my advisor/freshman seminar professor and I had ancient civilizations with Professor Cohen. One day Professor Cohen pulled me aside and asked if I had ever considered pursuing a history major. I was surprised and said that no I hadn’t. He said I should. The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. But then the obvious question came up, what on earth would I do with a history major? I figured I had two choices: teach or live in a cardboard box. I was a little nervous about teaching- most people I knew who wanted to teach had been dreaming about it since they were little and that was definitely not me!
To make this work I knew I needed to teach high school or college. One of my favorite things about history is it is not black and white, but nuanced and downright messy. It teaches us how to think critically and challenge commonly held beliefs. I wanted to teach students old enough to really grapple with some of its complex questions. There is also the issue that I am very sarcastic and was afraid I would make kids under the age of 14 cry.
After student teaching, I knew I was in the right place. High schoolers are so fun; they are trying to figure out how to be adults but are still kind of goofy. It’s not always easy but there is nothing more rewarding than when a student finally understands a concept or simply figures out that hard work translates to success. I always thought I’d only want to teach AP kids, but was surprised to discover I liked teaching students with disabilities just as much.
I’ve also had some really unique opportunities as a teacher. While spending a semester at the University of Aberdeen my junior year, I was bit hard by the travel bug and a few years after graduation I was hit with a desperate need to get out of the country. Unfortunately, the downside to teaching is that it’s not the most lucrative field and travel is expensive. Luckily I discovered a company that did tours for students and decided to give it a try. It’s fantastic! Traveling with students is amazing- getting to watch them experience firsthand what they learned in school is the ultimate teacher/history nerd high. I’ve done four tours with students- one to Greece and China and two to Italy (and I’m taking another group back to Italy this summer).
One of the things I’m most proud of is the creation of a new elective. After I finished my master’s degree in global history I decided it was time to put my new skills to use by creating my dream class. I proposed a women’s history/studies elective to our school board and it was unanimously approved. It has run for three straight years and keeps getting bigger every year. I run it as a seminar/project based course where we go through the basics of women in world and U.S. history and tie it into modern women’s issues. I’m very passionate about women’s issues worldwide and this course gives me the opportunity to make my students more aware. They are continually shocked by the human rights abuses women still face in the modern world and want to help change things. To encourage my students to think about how they could create real change in the world they create a hypothetical organization to combat a particular issue for their final project. They do a fantastic job and I have no doubt that some of my students will actually turn their project into something real in the future.
I never pictured myself as a teacher but it has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. So if you are thinking about pursuing teaching with your history degree but don’t feel like you fit the profile of a typical teacher, never fear. There is no one right way to be a teacher and you may just find your own uniqueness is just what future students need to succeed.
Ai Weiwei is not a neutral figure. His work is intentionally provocative. He has bucked the authority of the Chinese government and the power at the disposal of an authoritarian regime, having suffered physical abuse during a stint in prison and personally witnessed the government-ordered destruction of one of his studios. In short, Ai’s international renown is inseparable from his reputation as a political dissident.
Having read about the artist, his political activism, and the wide range of media in which he works, I had an ambivalent opinion of Ai and his work. I admired his courage but did not appreciate his angry, intentional, and at times crude provocations. His is a needed voice—I reluctantly acknowledged—but I wondered if I would find beauty in his work. Thus, when I first learned that Ai’s work would be exhibited at Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, I was thrilled. What a treat it would be to see the exhibit with students who are taking my Modern China class this semester! Off we went on a rainy Tuesday evening in February, joined by Professor Steve Smith from the Department of Economics and Business and Mrs. Smith.
Seeing his work in person gave me a newfound appreciation of Ai as an artist. His versatility—mastery of both traditional art forms and digital media, as well as many genres in between—is even greater than what I previously read about him. Seeing the actual artworks, and not merely pictures of them, brought the man’s creative gifts to the fore. The visual arts “speak” eloquently where words fail.
One of my favorite installations at the exhibit was a pile of ceramic river crabs—each one skillfully crafted, inviting the viewer to a feast of sorts. River crabs are a treat in Chinese cuisine. Ai invited his fans in November 2010 to a party featuring river crabs upon learning that the authorities of Shanghai were going to demolish his newly built studio in a village near Shanghai. The destruction of the studio occurred in January 2011. The crabs, long digested by now, were an “eat-and-tell” commentary on the Chinese government’s motto of promoting social “harmony”—héxié—which sounds almost the same as river crabs—héxiè. The ceramic ones, of course, continue to “speak” in protest against the arbitrary powers of the Chinese state wherever they are exhibited.
As for Ai, he continues to speak through his art, offering provocative and thought-provoking reflections not only on conditions in his native China but also on issues faced by our global world. One of his upcoming exhibits, entitled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” will open in New York City in October. Ai will build more than 100 fences and installations across several boroughs of the quintessential American metropolis. Is anyone interested in going to New York this fall?
“Do you think your college prepared you to succeed in law school?” It seemed pretty clear the interviewer from my top choice law school did not believe Hope College prepared me for a competitive environment.
You may not know it yet, but Hope is not well-known outside Michigan. Wearing “HOPE” sweatshirts, since graduation, led to multiple “what a nice sentiment” comments. With the exception of my boss in the federal government (a Calvin grad), our school was an unknown commodity in the DC-metro area where I worked prior to law school. For me, Hope was not a brand instantly opening doors. You have to be able to open your own door.
The History Department can help you do that. I agree with my fellow alums’ contributions to this blog – reading, analyzing, and writing are critical. They will
get you far. The History Department challenged me in all the same ways. I’ll never forget my first essay being returned with more red ink than the black ink jet provided when turned in. I still read Hemingway from time to time before writing. Write short, concise sentences, Tim, not run-ons. Many moments challenged my thinking in class.
But, for me, faculty mentorships gave me the most. Some have since moved on from Hope, and some are still on the faculty and checking in with me. All have been critical. I was invited to their offices and even homes. I was challenged intellectually. I felt respected; an adult; a professional; an equal (even if I still use honorifics, e.g., Dr.). Assignments were not just assignments; professors were going to challenge arguments I considered minor. I’d have to consider texts I would not have otherwise read. It raised my game. It gave me confidence that I could succeed.
Hope allowed me to serve in the student government. I traveled and studied in Washington, DC, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. I met my wife. All were important (especially my spouse, who is going to proof this blog post), but to my career, this mentoring and belief was critical.
Today, I work at a major international law firm with over a thousand attorneys. I serve healthcare clients involved in major mergers and acquisitions addressing the complex and changing healthcare regulatory landscape. I hope to become as trusted an advisor as the History Department faculty were for me. Indeed, I ask and am asked very similar questions – Have you thought about it in this other way? Have you looked at this other source? How do these two circumstances interact? How can we improve this together?
Seven years after my law school interview, I don’t remember my answer. Time, however, has answered. My law school classmates bestowed an honor on me as the member of our class who had done the most to preserve the traditions of our law school. A national legal organization and my school awarded my student legal note (a legal academic paper written by students) with awards. Last year, my law firm acknowledged me among a handful of associates for excellence. Yes, interviewer, I can make it. Thanks to growth spurred by mentorship and support from the History Department Faculty, I can make it anywhere. You can too. Get involved. Get to know the faculty and build relationships. The best way to know that you are equipped to go toe-to-toe with other professionals is to have already succeeded by facing similar critics and collaborators in the History Department.
One hundred years ago, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, and on April 4, Congress declared war against Germany. As we reflect on the impact of this war on our nation, we first turn to the loss of over 100,000 American soldiers in combat or from disease. In the larger picture, however, the United States losses pale in comparison to the millions of Europeans who perished. The American Expeditionary Force only participated in a major way during the last seven months, although their contribution was decisive in many battles. Yet when we look beyond the U.S. military role, we can see the many ways that World War I impacted American society.
For one, the war forced Americans to face how diverse their society had become. Since the Civil War, over 20 million immigrants had come to the United States, making up 15% of the population. Native-born troops found themselves fighting alongside immigrants from 46 nations. Officials also had to confront the greater religious diversity as they built the army. At first, the War Department asked the Protestant Young Men’s Christian Association to provide recreation services to the troops, but they received complaints from Catholics and Jews, who argued that large percentages of the soldiers, particularly the nearly 20% who were immigrants, were not Protestant. To accommodate this religious diversity, the military allowed the Knights of Columbus, and the Jewish Welfare Board to also have recreational facilities.
The War Department did a less impressive job of dealing with African-American soldiers. The Army was still segregated, and African Americans faced continual abuse and violence and were relegated to the worst jobs, like digging latrines and removing the dead. Those who had the opportunity to engage in battle proved their worth as soldiers, such as the infantry regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. They fought for 190 days and ceded no ground to the Germans. They received the French Croix de Guerre and returned as heroes.
The nation’s growing diversity also became an issue at home. Some leaders, like Theodore Roosevelt, argued that immigrants had to reject “the hyphen” and prove themselves to be “100% American.” German Americans felt the brunt of suspicion as native-born Americans went to far as to purge German words from their vocabularies. For instance, sauerkraut became known as “freedom cabbage.” Yet the Wilson administration knew that they could not alienate immigrants, and they used propaganda to promote their inclusion into American civic life. One poster, titled “Americans All.” had an image of Lady Liberty and an “honor roll” of Irish, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian and other ethnic names (although not German). Many immigrants embraced the opportunity to prove their love of the nation by enlisting in the Army, participating in Liberty Loan campaigns, and volunteering for the Red Cross.
World War I also made apparent to Americans how central women had become to their society. Over 20,000 women served as nurses during the war, and for the first time, active duty women served in other capacities, mostly clerical duties that freed men to fight. Thousands of women also went to France and worked for the YMCA and Red Cross. The women known as “Hello Girls” served as bilingual telephone operators and the Salvation Army’s “doughnut girls,” named after the treat they made for soldiers, became the most popular sight on the front. Beyond service to the military, American women on the home front took up industrial jobs in munitions factories and other areas as men volunteered or were drafted.
During this time, the decades-long fight for women’s suffrage reached a crescendo. Some women took militant action, such as when Alice Paul chained herself to the White House gates and compared Wilson’s anti-suffrage stance to the oppression of the German Kaiser. Other activists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued that wartime service proved that women deserved full civil rights. Woodrow Wilson became convinced, and on September 30, 1918, he backed women’s suffrage, declaring, “we have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Congress passed the 19th Amendment a year later, and on August 18, 1920, it was finally ratified.
This summer, I will be working with a team of history majors to examine the impact of World War I on a very specific part of the U.S. home front: Holland, Michigan. We will do research in local and regional archives to find the perspectives of the soldiers who went to France to fight the Germans and Siberia to fight the Red Army. We will also read about the perspectives of the men and women who stayed in Holland and see how the war shaped their lives. One central question we will explore is: how did the war affect the ways the people in this community, largely made up of Dutch immigrants and their descendants, saw themselves as Americans? We will be creating a web exhibit that will present our findings–look for it in the fall of 2017!
In the spring of 2016, I signed up for two History classes to fill some requirements for my degree at Hope College and learn some new things about the US and European history. What I got out of the classes was much more than I anticipated. I believe everything in life happens for a reason and I thank God that I took both of Professor Johnson’s classes.
I am from a large city right outside of Washington, DC– the historic town of Alexandria, VA. Anyone from that area knows that Washington, D.C. and the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia are heavily liberal. Growing up, especially in high school, I was often teased and bullied because of my conservative political beliefs. Those experiences strengthened my political convictions but at the same time made me less accepting of other’s views. Hope College is a slightly more conservative environment than where I had come from and gave me a sense of community and gratitude for something I had never experienced before. However, it initially made me gravitate more toward conservative professors because of my high school experiences.
Professor Johnson changed my entire perspective on political relations in this country. As a conservative, when I first had Professor Johnson, I was very quick to jump to conclusions that he was going to be just another “liberal” professor trying to bash Republicans and push the Democratic agenda on millennials. I could not have been more wrong. Throughout both courses with him, I saw that he encourages his students on both sides of the aisle to advocate for their individual views, urging them to base their arguments on facts rather than just opinion. He doesn’t care what your specific political perspective is, but he very much cares that you are informed when you form your own opinions.
He has made me a better writer, scholar, and I have earned a good friend. When I talked to him about the exclusion I endured in high school because of my own political views, he related those to the racial discrimination he received growing up as a kid. Professor Johnson described how our culture and our ideologies make us uniquely different. From the conversations we had, he helped me understand that you need to not only listen to the perspectives of other people, but also understand and appreciate different views that make us Americans. It is about time we had a culture change where we appreciate people’s differences instead of just associating with those who are just like us. I’m glad that, by doing that, I was able to make a lifelong friend.
At my job, I regularly come into contact with maps from the 16th century, letters, and papers from the Civil Rights Movement, and many rare books (Hamilton fans? I just held an original printing of “the Reynold’s Pamphlet”). It really is a pretty amazing spot to find oneself. My path from Hope College history student to North American History Librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society never felt linear though.
I came to Hope for the dance program, but figured I should take on a second, more practical major – history. Thankfully, no one ever told me that history wasn’t practical or tried to steer me toward a more conventional “backup” degree. I fell in love with the study of history – the reading, the discussions, the research; all of it fed me. In a class my junior year with Jeanne Petit, both of my interests collided. I dove into researching a conflict that occurred in Kalamazoo dance halls during the 1920’s. Through newspapers and archival research, I unraveled a tale about feisty teenagers, frightened adults, and controlling laws – it was essentially Footloose set to a jazz soundtrack. Coming in contact with the physical stuff of history and being able to piece together a story from those objects was a landmark in my understanding of how history is done.
This project also nudged me into the library profession. I worked closely with a Hope College librarian during the research process and watched in awe as she took a scrap of information from a newspaper index and spun out multiple ways to track and flesh out the story. She always seemed to find a next step when I felt I had hit a dead end in my research.
After graduating, I lived in New York for several years and spent time volunteering at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. That experience solidified my desire to work in the library field, so I pursued a Master’s in Library and Information Studies. I couldn’t quite reconcile my love of history and archives with my desire to serve students in a similar manner to how I had been helped at Hope. Unfortunately, these are two different tracks in the field. So, as had became my M.O., I did both. I completed a specialization in Archives and Records Management as well as coursework and internships in academic reference and instruction.
After graduating, I landed a job at a small, academic library. I wasn’t working with the historical materials I really loved, but I was doing other fulfilling work like helping people navigate their research. I knew I didn’t want to remain at that job for the duration of my career, so I worked to develop marketable skills and stay active in my network.
Seven years (and a few life changes) into the job, I felt like I had hit a ceiling and starting sniffing around for other opportunities. Lo and behold, I saw a posting that advertised an opening at the Wisconsin Historical Society focusing on instruction and outreach. It sounded too good to be true – doing instruction and outreach centered on history topics! The historical society is a state agency and as such the application process is long, rigorous, and pretty demoralizing. After a lengthy and nerve-wrecking interview process, I was thrilled to accept their offer.
So what made me stand out? I think it was a combination of my educational background, professional experience, and the soft skills you learn as a performer. My history degree gave me the necessary knowledge base for the job and indicated my enthusiasm for the subject matter. My experience in a small academic library mean that I could jump quickly into providing instruction and would bring new ideas to the team. And my background as a dancer has taught me how to give public presentations and think quickly on my feet. In the end, none of my academic studies were impractical. The broad liberal arts base and hands-on experience I gained as a Hope student made me a compelling candidate for what just may be my dream job.
After years of sniping and hurling poisonous charges, the people who’ve been questioning the value of a liberal arts education and, specifically, whether disciplines in the Arts & Humanities are pathways to “real” jobs, are getting their wish. Because while articles and testimonials have repeatedly underscored the importance of the liberal arts in all fields, in all careers, in all phases of life, few opportunities have been lost to classify liberal arts disciplines as interests pursued by those who either don’t want or need a job.
So congratulations naysayers on believing that it’s actually possible to educate and develop superior workers, citizens, leaders, and human beings by starving their humanity. Yes, congratulations for being either unaware or unfazed [or, aware but unfazed] by the intractable dysfunctions in government, the workplace, and in society at large which, along with causing frustration, anger, and alarm, are becoming the new permanently normal. For you see, no nation that so profusely claims a desire to continue leading the world can expect to be taken seriously when it’s committed to finding ever more creative ways of denying future leaders the practical and conceptual skills necessary to lead.
All credit is enthusiastically given to the doubters and detractors of the liberal arts who have insisted on prioritizing matter over mind, thoughts over thoughtfulness, function over fit, qualifications over capabilities, knowledge over wisdom, and results over consequences. Their diligent dedication has been essential in helping produce the hyper-distracted, non-visionary, willfully gullible, increasingly balkanized, rampantly distrustful, antagonistic, self-centered, social miasma called—today.
Still, it’s not too late. Although the worst vitriol of the liberal arts harassers is spewed onto those disciplines in the Arts & Humanities, they can neither obscure, nor magically disappear the force of irrefutable evidence exemplified by the people whose lives and careers verify and underscore the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and, yes, financial benefits, advantaging those with an Arts & Humanities background. So in addition to sparing no effort to provide students with an education that’ll get them that [admittedly] all-important first job, the battered toilers in the liberal arts also provide the next generation with the lifelong skills necessary for keeping, advancing, and succeeding in any job. This is especially true with regard to the professional and personal preparation supplied by historians.
For historians have a uniquely critical role to play in bringing clarity and calm to the contemporary confusion that’s stifling the possibilities for progress. Historians and their resolute commitment to critical thinking, their bold determination to strive for objectivity [despite their acknowledged impossibility of escaping bias], and their stubborn refusal to dilute the precision and power of oral and written communication, stand collectively as a lighthouse of hope for a ship of state that, more than ever, needs to find a safe harbor ASAP!
Doubters need to look no further than the continued evaporation of civility in public discourse, gadget-bedazzled techno-prophets who minimize, or dismiss indomitable humanity, and, given the depth and breadth of national angst, the contemporaneous resurgence of fear-mongering, xenophobia, discrimination, and appeals to humanity’s dark side.
The scorched earth rhetoric of 2016’s presidential campaign ripped the scab away from festering concerns regarding the processes, precedents, conflicts, and conundrums that have generated confusion about the functional effectiveness of America’s republican democracy. Missing too often from the swamp croaking of bamboozlers, purveyors of fake news, merchants of blame, talk radio blowhards, and outright liars, was the rigorous, fact-rooted, fact-originated, and fact-tested perspectives of the historians.
Historians bring a myriad of reconciling benefits to the weary body politic. Rather than allowing disagreements to fracture their community, historians strive to embrace disagreement for its power to keep them from becoming too enamored with their own positions. They generally respect and hold dear the methodology and imperatives of historical inquiry which imposes an occasionally brutal but always thorough process of filtration. This helps keeps them honest and warns benders of truth that, for historians, when it comes to the truth, court is always in session.
Let me be clear. Historians make no claims of infallibility. If anything, historians are acutely aware of their shortcomings and foibles. Their fascinated preoccupation with the mischievous and lethal activities of humanity shines a revealing bright light upon the infinite imperfections of themselves and the species to which they belong. Humanity’s bloody record of reliably recurring nightmares like war, injustice, and oppression have provided historians with an embarrassment of grim riches from which to learn lessons and gather wisdom. Conversely, humanity’s heroic moments of nurturing peace, uplifting the weak and vulnerable, fighting injustice, and embracing the unique wonders of the world’s individual billions are stirring motivators, reminding historians of their awesome responsibility to do their due diligence in helping maintain the strength and prosperity of America’s democracy.
For this democracy forged in revolution; matured through the trauma of Civil War; tortured by its persisting hate-love relationship with immigrants; sincere commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while denying them through ingenious manipulations of law and custom; showing the world the excellence of its soul through a movement of Civil Rights; daring to suffer international slings and arrows for taking humanitarian actions other nations deemed too difficult or not worthwhile; this republican democracy is too valuable, fragile, precious, and full of positive possibility to entrust solely to those who, every two, four, or six years, promise second comings of a simpler, better, worry free life.
By applying their healthy skepticism to test every word, action, perspective, and nuance of a subject, historians lay bare its character, intentions, attributes, and deficiencies. Looking from the dual vantage point of their own lives and through the brutally revealing telescope of time, they identify trends that, in the past, led to national train wrecks and which, in the present, serve as cautionary narratives for consideration. Historians gift their fellow citizens with libraries of information from which they may deduce for themselves whether or not contemporary promise-makers are genuine, innovative, and sincere or if they’re updated versions of yesterday’s wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Historians especially enjoy sharing their gifts with their students. They bequeath to them a love for fact-based truth and the habit of testing those truths by repeatedly running them through a relentless gauntlet of rigorous critical thinking. Those students take with them into any workplace, anywhere, all the time, their finely honed skills of inquiry and analysis, independence and self-motivation, problem-solving, teamwork and team leading, cross-cultural competency, technical adaptability, project management, and superior oral and written communication abilities. Those students also bring a powerful inquisitiveness that constantly searches for the factors, forces, and trends that have helped [and can help] systems and institutions, and the people in them, perform better and more profitably.
It’s time for historians, colleagues in the Arts & Humanities, and throughout the liberal arts to stop wringing their hands and recognize that it’s likely to be later than sooner before society recognizes the liberal arts as a critical element in resolving contemporary problems. For like the patient who’s unaware of their life-threatening disease, just because they haven’t been diagnosed doesn’t mean they’re not in desperate need of the cure. Historians, the Arts & Humanities, and the liberal arts are anxious to help achieve that cure.
That won’t be done by meekly and quietly ceding ground to the doubters and detractors. Because they have skillfully convinced [understandably] disgruntled citizens that those who teach, for example, the foundations of America’s political origins were somehow responsible for the obscene greed and corruption that caused the recent Great Recession, the persisting chaos in America’s immigration system, and the failure to defeat ISIS.
Giving the benefit of the doubt, most people probably know that practitioners of the liberal arts did not cause those and other daunting problems but, frankly, so what? The greater concern is that so many have been hoodwinked into believing the same. Historians, the community of the Arts & Humanities, and the liberal arts must work harder, be more determined, speak up, and speak out with more force and frequency. They must do so with compelling narratives, about the profound immediate and long-term practical and conceptual benefits of their disciplines if America means to maintain its status as a global leader.
Quietly hoping for such public comprehension only invites more doubt and derision from a tuition-hawkish public that rightfully demands to know why its dollars are better spent on producing more historians. It’s time to tell them. It’s time to show them. It’s time to roll up sleeves and fully engage, fighting word for word, speaking truth to distortion, showing value for every dollar spent, to win hearts and minds and put the naysayers in check. No battle was ever won by those who didn’t show up for the fight. The doubters and detractors have commanded the field long enough. It’s time to reclaim some territory.