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.
Last summer, when I heard about the grand reopening of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the new Devos Learning Center, I knew I had to learn more. I made a visit to the museum, and while there, I had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s education specialist, Barbara McGregor. I expressed interest in volunteering at the museum throughout the summer, but Barbara had a better idea. She was in need of support to prepare for the launch of the new learning center and offered me a special internship. As a student pursuing a degree in secondary education with a focus on history and political science, it was an incredible offer, and I asked how quickly I could start.
When the museum was built in the late 1970’s, President Ford was adamant that he did not want the museum to be a shrine to him, but rather, a classroom for democracy. With this vision in mind, the museum has designed dozens of educational opportunities for learners of all ages. I spent the summer assisting with museum events, leading school tours, and developing curriculum. My biggest task involved the development of a curriculum guide for the museum’s current temporary exhibit, Space: A Journey to Our Future. The purpose of the guide was to add historical context to a science heavy exhibit. I was to provide teachers with pre and post visit activities, background materials, and primary sources on the United States Space Program and President Ford’s involvement in it.
As a young representative, Gerald R. Ford was on the committee that created NASA, and as president in 1975, he presided over the successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Skills I learned in my history classes at Hope College helped me analyze nearly one hundred primary sources, selected from thousands archived at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor on Ford’s contributions to the U.S. Space Program. I loved reading the address Nixon prepared to give the nation had we not landed on the moon. Equally intriguing were the monthly newsletters Ford wrote to his constituents while serving in the House of Representatives. Even some of the most unassuming documents contained valuable information. An entire packet of documents was devoted to how President Ford should respond to a successful Apollo-Soyuz mission. While his administration debated whether a call to Soviet Premier Brezhnev or a meeting with the Russian cosmonauts was appropriate, I, as a historian, read between the lines and found a story of U.S. and Soviet relations in the latter half of the twentieth century. A critical reader, well versed in historical literacy skills, can discover important details on the Space Race and intricate nuances of the Ford administration within the context of a single event or memorandum. Background knowledge of dates, United States foreign policy, and international relations at the time allowed me to conceptualize and contextualize the information I found. This way, I was able to withdraw the information and choose the sources that would be most valuable to teachers and students in their studies.
John F. Kennedy once said, “For a true historian – and for the true student of history – history is an end in itself. It fulfills a deep human need for understanding; the satisfaction it provides requires no further justification.” When done the right way, museums and classrooms are places where history can come alive and students can actively interact with the past. As a future educator, I want my students to understand that the discipline is more than just rote memorization of facts and dates. I hope they will recognize history’s relevance in their lives and the transferable nature of its skills. Most importantly, I want them to respect the subject because history promotes discovery and reflection, and an understanding of the subject allows us to unlock the true value in its study, the ability to bring meaning to our lives.
If you’re in the downtown Grand Rapids area, be sure to check out the newly renovated Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Devos Learning Center.
February can be a challenge for faculty, as well as for students. The holidays are over, winter is gray, and spring break seems a long way off. There is one thing about February, though, that always brings me a new sense of energy. It’s Fulbright season. In February, students who are interested in applying for a Fulbright scholarship begin their journey toward their futures.
Fulbright Scholarships are part of a program funded by the U.S. State Department. The program has many elements, but the one that matters to Hope students is the U.S. Student Program, which sends recent graduates abroad for a year, to teach English, or to conduct research or a program of study in their academic areas of interest. The program is national and competitive, but Hope students have a history of doing well in the competition. Most students start in the spring of their junior year, choosing their potential host country and figuring out whether they want to teach, research, or study. Seniors sometimes start the program in the spring, but need to wait a year after graduation before their grants are awarded. We also work with Hope alumni who want to apply after having been out of college for a few years.
There are three things I like best about Fulbright season. The first is the sense of infinite possibility. Students have all kinds of dreams about what they might do. A student of German decided to apply to teach English in Korea in order to expand her horizons. A student who had studied abroad in Cameroon devised a research project to take her back to Cameroon to study beekeeping. Another student, when faced with the lack of English teaching opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, switched her interests to Nepal, and won an English teaching assistantship there. What will this year’s students choose to do?
The second thing I like about Fulbright season is getting to know the applicants. Fulbright advising is a mixture of listening, asking questions, and editing. The applications require two short essays, and they are difficult to write. Applicants must compose essays that capture the essence of their personality, their preparation and their potential. All students have interesting stories and wonderful aspirations. It is difficult to articulate them, though, and sometimes we need to spend time talking about what is important to students, and about how they envision their futures. Sometimes, the most compelling stories emerge from the details of other stories. The first story we tell about ourselves is not always the most illuminating one, but it can be a gateway to an important and revealing narrative. Students need to tell stories that show themselves interacting with other people, and learning about themselves in the process. It is a privilege to be part of the students’ process of self-discovery.
The third big reward of Fulbright season is observing the hard work and the growth of the applicants. They work very hard during the spring semester, and then continue to work on their applications over the summer. Most students revise their essays ten or more times. By they time they return to campus in the fall, they will have written applications that are ready to submit for nationally-competitive scholarships. During this process, students learn about writing, about persuasion, and about their own values. I am always inspired by the achievements and the growth of the applicants by the end of the application process.
Of course, as happy as Fulbright season makes me in February, I still look forward to April and May, when we will find out the results of the applications that students started last February. I have my fingers crossed for them, and I will be ready to cheer, both for those who eventually receive Fulbright scholarships, and for those who do not. We have very high hopes. Since 2004, thirty-one Hope College students have won and have accepted Fulbright scholarships. We are always looking for new candidates. If you are a current Hope student or an alumnus/a, you could be one of them. It’s February—time to start for next fall’s application deadline. If you are interested, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Professor Cunningham (email@example.com) right away. It’s not too late, if you start now. Who knows where you’ll end up? It’s a big world. And send me a postcard when you go—I’ll put it on my door to remember you by.
When I moved into Hope’s campus, I was already fairly certain I would be a History major. In grade school and high school, I had always enjoyed my history classes. AP United States, though, made something click. After clearing out of my head the misconception that a History major is good only for teaching, I enrolled in two history classes in my first semester at Hope. One of them was History 140 with Dr. Gibbs; the topic was early modern Europe. From that point, I was hooked on German history in particular. While working on my history major, I also worked on a German major. I went to a Lutheran k-8 school—they still teach German there! So, I had some experience coming in. But over my first three years at Hope, I spent a lot of time developing my research and writing skills, and had a lot of contact with German primary sources.
Since my freshman year, I had also had a strong interest in law and government. Part of what made History attractive to me was that it’s traditionally seen as a good pre-law school major. Now, law and German history—how does somebody combine those? You might imagine my excitement when I found out that my hometown of Frankenmuth, Michigan could help set me up with an internship at a law firm in our sister city of Gunzenhausen, Germany.
Coincidentally, a very distant and previously-unknown relative of mine had founded the firm. So, this past summer, I spent about a month working as an intern at the Meyerhuber Rechtsanwälte (lawyers) firm. I had the incredible opportunity to see many aspects of the German legal system—the frequency of small lawsuits, the ways in which the court structure differed from the American system (no juries, and no case law). I also saw that my History major had definitely taught me some very important skills. Being able to find information that could build your case was crucial. The complexity we deal with in history is also good practice. None of the cases I saw were cut-and-dry. Almost all of them involved a question about the law, and building a successful argument required careful thinking on the part of the attorneys.
While I was in Germany, I also took some time away from the law firm to interview a group of people running a volunteer refugee organization. What I found was that this went far beyond providing food and shelter. These volunteers were working hard to help refugees in Germany, many of them from Syria, with the problems that they face entering a new country very different from their own. Language and integration courses, education, and finding work for refugees are some of the group’s primary objectives. The ultimate goal for the refugees is self-reliance.
My experiences in Germany over the summer guided the development of my current Honors History project on the history of German refugee policy and how that history applies to the present day. This project is still in the writing phase; however, it will be a website by the end of the semester. At the moment, I am applying to law schools, and I have a new focus and understanding because of my internship in Germany. I’m also glad that I have the opportunity to process that experience in my coursework here at Hope.
We argued as my father drove me home from the airport. It was winter break in 1999, and I tried to explain to him that I wanted to change majors, dropping business to pick up history instead. “But what will you do in real life?” he asked.
At the time, I had no answer. Other than historian or college professor, I couldn’t think of a single job a history degree would secure. Telling my father that I really hadn’t thought that far ahead wasn’t an option, so I shrugged and said, “Lots of people go into careers that are unrelated to their undergraduate degrees.”
I pursued my history degree with a passion, learning how to research and write papers, question sources and my own assumptions. A watershed moment occurred while writing my history senior seminar paper for Professor William Cohen. I sat in front of him, trying to explain why I wasn’t farther along. I had reams of research, but my thesis felt tenuous. He told me, “Don’t try and rearrange history to suit your thesis. Your thesis should grow from your research.” It seems obvious, but it can be difficult to see the bias creeping into your work.
My father’s question was prescient (for me at least), and in a twist of fate that I recognize as ironic, I graduated and went to work for a large investment bank. My background in research and writing set me apart, and I moved up the food chain. Today, I work at a Registered Investment Advisor as a financial analyst, and every day I use the skills I learned in the Hope College History department to read and judge the veracity of financial filings and management discussion. Every day I question the source of information and ask why assumptions are made. My history degree has proven invaluable, and I genuinely believe it has been the key to making my career.
However, a career is not a life, and the methodology learned while pursuing a history degree is not something that is easily compartmentalized. It shapes my understanding of the news I read and the politics I embrace. The United States is living through a contentious era right now, and I have been frustrated by the current state of political discourse. I see people on both sides of the aisle rush to embrace any news, true or not, that supports their political viewpoint. I want to take the opportunity to reflect on what Professor Cohen said to me. Don’t start with a belief and then find the news to support it. Allow the news to inform your beliefs. Use rigor in examining sources and bias, and base your arguments on data and fact, not emotion.
My father asked me what I’m going to do in real life. This is it. I’m going to chart the course of my life – public and private – by using what I’ve learned: Be curious. Research. Question. Apply.
I arrived in D.C. a couple of weeks ago as part of Hope’s Washington Honors Semester, excited to tackle the new challenges of living in a city. For those who don’t know me, or have not heard my ramble on about my interests, I am a History and Political Science double major with a focus in African American studies and public history. Museums have always been a passion of mine and I will find any excuse to spend all of my free time in them. Currently, I am an intern in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives and the African Americans Studies program at the National Museum of American History. Much of my time has been spent exploring the museum and the city and I have loved the experience.
This city is also home to something very close to my heart: The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Last summer, I worked as a research intern under Dr. Anna-Lisa Cox, a scholar and author in the field of African American history. I loved every second of the research, and my very own research project stemmed out of the work I did for her. For me, working with African American history is a unique, emotional, and passionate experience, one that is hard to put into words. From the second I stepped foot in the city, I knew I had to visit the museum immediately. Last week, I was able to do a quick walk through the museum on my lunch break, and this is the story of my first visit to the NMAAHC.
The NMAAHC experience starts in an elevator that descends nearly seventy feet below ground. About fifteen of us crammed into the elevator, eyes on each other, dead quiet, and standing completely still as we descended to learn about some of the darkest and forgotten stories of American history. The exhibits have 3 levels: C3 – “Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877,” C2 – “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 – 1968,” and C1 – “A Changing America” 1968 and Beyond.” The most striking part of the museum for me was the contrast between big and small, both physically and historically. Physically, the museum has large, powerful quotes engraved in the marble walls contrasting the small exhibits and small objects. Historically, they have the iconic artifacts like a Jim Crow railway car, a prison guard tower, Emmett Till’s coffin, and slave chains. The museum also makes a point to highlight the “small” stories, most often parts of African American history that are not taught in the narrative of American history like stories on farmers and daily life. One of the most powerful and forgotten stories for me was the small display on J. Marion Sims’ medical experiments on slave women, most often without anesthesia. I knew about the experiments before visiting, but experiencing it in a tangible way was disturbing and powerful. As a woman, it spoke volumes to me about the transcendent nature of how we view the female body and how these notions have intersected with race.
I walked through the exhibits with tears streaming down my face. Tears still stream down my face as I write this. This is a hard reality. I watched as fellow humans hugged each other during particularly difficult exhibits, like the one on Emmett Till. I watched as parents explained pieces of history to their children. Nobody laughed and nobody smiled. I normally feel a strong connection to history when I visit museums, but in this particular museum I felt an even stronger connection to history, to the people around me, and to all of the people in this country who sacrificed to help others. As difficult as it was to walk through, I am proud to live in a country that works hard to educate people on the darkest parts of history. This is not just African American history, this is American history and it must be remembered and discussed. We must do this.
I walked out of the museum humbled and determined to contribute to educating others on the importance of understanding history. The experience also made me appreciate the presence museums on a deeper level. I have had so many friends tell me that museums are boring, that they only focus on people that are dead, and devote time to events that are irrelevant (fellow historians, I know we have all had at least one friend say this to us). I will say this: history is never irrelevant. My visit to the NMAAHC has pushed me to think harder about how I educate those around me and the ways I can teach others in a compassionate, understanding, and loving way about how we can use lessons of the past to create a better and more humane future. Spread love, even in the hardest times.
If you are planning to visit Washington, D.C., please visit the NMAAHC. Timed passes are available on their website. The lines are long and the crowds are big, but it is completely worth it. It should also be noted that I only had an hour for lunch, so my goal was to quickly walk through the exhibits to see what the museum held. There are upper levels devoted to community and culture galleries that I plan on visiting again. There is no way to fully experience the museum in an hour, or even in one day. If you are unable to visit this museum, consider contributing in a different way: have these difficult conversations with your family and friends, do not shy away from tough issues, and push yourself to be compassionate towards people who face different struggles every day.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the American Historical Association Meeting in Denver, Colorado. Each year, thousands of historians from all regions and all eras get together at this meeting to hear about the latest research and see all the latest history books that have come out in the past year. I had the pleasure of attending sessions about fashion history, Catholic thinkers of the 20th Century, and using history to write about current events. I also participated in a session about religious encounters during World War II and presented a paper titled “Demand for National Action: Protestant and Catholic Women in World War I America.” Someone even tweeted our session! You can read his tweets here: https://twitter.com/danielsilliman/status/817469381160505344
Dr. Lauren Janes also came to Denver to network with other historians about the pedagogy of World History through her poster presentation on “Teaching World History with Food History.” We were also excited to see her new book, Colonial Food in Interwar Paris on display at the Bloomsbury exhibit!
And now we are back and getting ready to start our semester. I hope you’ll follow our blog and please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have ideas for blog posts.
A historian can make himself unpopular by disagreeing with the oft-expressed sentiment that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We don’t know the year of Jesus’ birth. It was probably between 4 and 6 BC. Yes, Jesus was born Before Christ.
As for the month and day, there is no historical evidence that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, not in the New Testament and not in any Christian document of the first couple of centuries AD. The earliest Christian writer to say anything about the date of Jesus’ birth is Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 AD. He says that different churches, if they observed the birth at all, placed it anywhere from April to September. An anonymous calendar from about 250 AD says the birth of Jesus should be celebrated “on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month.”
By the fourth century the growing church was in competition with pagan cults that focused on the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 22. The Persian god Mithra, whose cult became very popular in the early Christian era, was supposedly born on Dec. 25. Shepherds attended his birth. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in mid- to late December. They placed greenery and candles in their homes, exchanged presents, and went to parties. Lucian of Samosata, in the late second century, says of those mid-winter celebrations, “Let no one conduct business, personal or public, during the festival, except what pertains to sports, luxurious living, and entertainment.”
Some Christians were attracted to these celebrations, so the church wanted a festival to draw them away. Easter came in the spring; everyone knew that. No one knew when Jesus was born, though, so about 350 AD the bishop of Rome decided that the church would celebrate his birth on Dec. 25. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s a very muddled history, as the church picked up traditions from the pagan beliefs of people who were brought into Christianity without entirely giving up their old practices. The Germans gave us trees with lights (“O, Tannenbaum”). Saint Nicholas gradually evolved from stories about a kindly bishop in modern-day Turkey. The Magi became a trio because early Christian artists needed one man to carry the gold, another to carry the frankincense, and one more to carry the myrrh. We have no idea how many there actually were—only that there were two or more. And we certainly don’t know their names, which were attached to them only several centuries later.
All of this is not to say that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are unreliable. It’s just to remind us that a lot of what we think we know about Christmas doesn’t come from the Bible at all. The “season” had lots of reasons long before Jesus’ birth.