Sunday, May 24, 2015

David Letterman at the 1971 Indy 500

We break from our Memorial Day weekend hiatus to offer you this.  The legendary Jim McKay throws it to Letterman and then apologizes for mixing him up with Chris Economaki. I love how Mario blatantly dismissed Dave's rather obvious second question.  If I am doing my math correctly, Dave is twenty-four years old here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Author's Corner with David Sehat

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible?

DS: I was dismayed at the way that the Founding Fathers were referenced in contemporary political debate. It wasn’t just the Tea Party conservatives but also liberal Democrats. Politicians of all stripes invoked the Founders in support of nearly everything under the sun—limited government, multicultural egalitarianism, abortion rights, restricting abortion, and so on. The only thing that all these references had in common, it seemed to me, was that the Founders always (supposedly) agreed with the person who was invoking them. I began to wonder how we got here. This book is the result.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Jefferson Rule?

DS: I argue that it is an unspoken rule of American politics that we must agree with the Founding Fathers in all things. And that that rule has long distorted American political debate in predictable and recurring ways.

JF: Why do we need to read The Jefferson Rule?

DS: If you want to know why our politics are so messed up, why they have been messed up for a long time, how people in the past invoked the Founders, and how Founders rhetoric has a long history of sending political debate off the deep end, then this is the book for you. I also try to show why the sentence “The Founding Fathers believed [fill in the blank with your preferred political position]” is almost always meaningless as best and dishonest at worst. And I’ve got some killer stories in the book that make it a fun read.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DS: I went to grad school first at Rice and then at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly after George W. Bush was elected president. I had studied various other things—philosophy, theology and biblical studies, some literature—but I realized that what I cared about tended to resolve itself into history of one kind or another. I also began dating a woman (who later became my wife) that knew a lot more about the past than I did. Having her around made me realize how many times I made completely spurious references to history in order to support my position in a discussion. So I decided to become an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m kicking around various ideas. I’ve begun working on a book about the politics of climate change but I’ve put that research on pause to make sure that is the direction that I want to go. For me the issue is always, what do I want to think about for the next several years? Climate change might be too depressing.

JF: Thanks David!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #103

Well folks, this is the final countdown. My manuscript is due at Oxford University Press in about a week.

I still have a lot to write, but I am optimistic that I can get it all of this done. If you want to watch me suffer through this insane week feel free to follow me on Twitter @johnfea1

Some of you may remember my previous writing binge.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

More Photos From the Last Days of the American Bible Society in New York City

On April 22 I posted some pictures I took as the American Bible Society began the process of packing up and moving to Philadelphia after 199 years in New York City.  I made what is probably my last visit to the New York Bible House on May 7 and 8.  Here are some pictures (with captions) from that visit.

What is left of archivist Kristen Hellman's office

The movers were present everywhere
A file cabinet from the ABS world-class library is ready to be moved
What is left of the ABS world-class Bible library

Packing boxes in the 3rd floor lobby with empty display case in back



These boxes were left on the archives shelves specifically for me

All the other archive shelves are empty and on their way to storage

One last look at the ABS Archives


Free books are everywhere!


My final research push

Waiting for my train home.  I have a book to finish

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Author's Corner with Calvin Schermerhorn

Calvin Schermerhorn is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860?

CS: The book starts with the premise that some of the most creative people in American history were among the most destructive as well. I was struck by the savvy creativity and intense entrepreneurialism of slavery’s businessmen. And at the same time I was shocked and disturbed by the effects on subjects whose lives were shattered, ended, or turned upside down by the slave trade. That massive forced migration was vital to the production of American cotton and sugar -- and to the U.S. and global economy. And that same process of human trafficking was absolutely reliant on chains of credit linking New Orleans and Richmond with New York and London. To tell that story, I looked for a bridge between big-picture history of processes and small-focus history of people and particular events. The Business of Slavery bridges macro-history and micro-history by looking at American capitalism at the level of the firm. Many of the subjects of the book were “Masters of the Universe” to borrow from Tom Wolfe. Several were New Yorkers. But I really wanted to tell the story of those who were trafficked and sold, including kidnap victim Solomon Northup, who published Twelve Years a Slave, and also several obscure subjects like Sam Watts who was bought, sold, and mortgaged with money that traveled oceans.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Business of Slavery?

CS: The slavery business shows the creative destruction of a vital sector of the American economy from the War of 1812 to disunion in 1861. Rather than a localized or marginal process, the process of commoditizing people was deeply enmeshed in a national economy and international finance and shows the process of modern capitalism more strikingly than any other enterprise.

JF: Why do we need to read The Business of Slavery?

CS: It’s a good read about a troubled and troubling history. The Business of Slavery follows the money. In a narrative of seven firms or partnerships, along with the stories of the captives themselves, the book goes beyond traditional questions of slave-labor and production, looking instead at strategies of firms. It’s a business history rather than merely an economic or cultural history. It reassembles chains of supply, chains of credit, and maps international networks responsible for slavery’s growth. It turns out that the hopeful modernity of capitalism, including individual liberty, advancing technology, and the immense social trust and optimism required for the system to work were also components of turning people into products and flinging them across a vast geographic space, from the head of the Chesapeake Bay to the bottomlands of the Brazos River in Texas.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CS: I was pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Harvard Divinity School when I came across some truly inspirational historians doing work in American intellectual and religious history. I wasn’t very good at theology. And I wrestled (and still do) with the divide between personal faith and what is suitable for classroom instruction and scholarly debate. But I always had an interest in history. I’d gone to historic sites as a kid, collected coins, and even served as a costumed interpreter in a living history museum (I played an English colonist in Maryland among Yaocomico Indians). And the kinds of questions historians asked inspired me to delve more deeply into the past of the Chesapeake region where I grew up, particularly its deep yet scarcely mentioned African American history. It’s been a tremendously fulfilling journey from there.

JF: What is your next project?

CS: I’m finishing United States Slavery: A Family History for Cambridge University Press. It delves into American slavery’s history from the Revolution to Reconstruction through the lives of enslaved people, contextualizing family ordeals with the big processes of westward expansion, financial integration, and the upheaval of war and its legacy. In my spare time I’m writing a historical novel on the unintended consequences of human intention and action. The main drama is American slavery and the coming of civil war, particularly around Richmond, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts. The novel follows a handful of characters, free and enslaved, telling their personal stories, revealing the secrets and emotions the archives can’t or won’t, all textured with the stuff of history.

JF: Sounds like promising work, thanks Calvin!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

Here are a few things online that caught my attention this week:

Alec Baldwin interviews David Letterman

Robert Darnton rides off into the sunset

Jeremy Adelman reviews three new books on the history of capitalism

Remembering William Zinsser

New churches in public schools

Michael Kazin reviews Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

What is Joseph Ellis reading?

Mark Bauerlein and Dana Gioia discuss the Catholic writer in America

Johan Neem on Mark Bauerlein's "What's the Point of the Professor"

An 1826 Freemason mystery

Lauren Winner reviews Lisa Wilson, A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

Robert Putman talks about Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  Nicholas Lemann reviews the book here.

The 40th anniversary "Born to Run" poster is here.

2015-2016 OAH Distinguished Lecturers

Wilfred McClay makes a case for the liberal arts

Chris Gehrz break down the Pew Religious Landscape Study

Balancing old books and new books in the classroom

Friday, May 15, 2015

David Letterman: Talk Show Host

I was wandering around New York City the other night trying to find my way from the American Bible Society headquarters to my hotel, when I came across the old Ed Sullivan Theater, now the home of the Late Show with David Letterman.  As I walked by the theater I remembered that Letterman would soon be leaving the late night airwaves.  Indeed, May 20, 2015 will be his last show.

Letterman has been on the air for thirty-three years.  I started watching Late Night on NBC in college. He was doing things on television that I had never seen before--Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, dropping things from 5-story buildings, crashing into velcro walls wearing velcro suits, the high-top sneakers, the Late Night Monkey Cam, throwing pencils, "viewer mail," and Top Ten lists from the various "home offices."  It was hilarious. I used to love when he would interrupt other television shows being filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I still prefer "Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band" over "Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra."  And let's not forget the recurring characters--Chris Elliott, Larry "Bud" Mellman, Marv Albert with the "The Wild and Wacky from the World of Sports," Dave's Mom, and Biff Henderson. And how many times was Teri Garr a guest?


I have been loyal to Letterman from the beginning.  I was mad when he did not get the Tonight Show gig in 1992, but I was happy that he could continue to do his thing on CBS.  I always felt guilty when I would flip the channel to Jay Leno because he had a more interesting guest.  I actually thought the "Oprah...Uma. Uma...Oprah" joke at the Academy Awards in 1995 was very funny.  

I actually know more people who think Letterman is not funny than people who think he is funny. (This probably says more about the people I hang out with than it does about Letterman's comedy). For example, my Letterman fandom has never been appreciated in my house.  My kids and my wife think Letterman is boring. They don't watch late-night television, but they do like to catch Fallon and Kimmel on YouTube when they get home from school or work or practice.  I cannot remember the last time I watched Letterman's show when I was not alone.

Today I ran across Richard Zoglin's op-ed on Letterman in The New York Times and I thought it really captures what makes Letterman different from the younger late night hosts currently on the air. Here is a taste

But it’s easy to overlook the most important thing Mr. Letterman has nurtured in his three-plus decades as a nightly talk-show host: talk.

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

How times have changed. The late-night world that Mr. Letterman leaves behind is almost all performance. Jimmy Fallon has turned the “Tonight Show” into a festival of YouTube-ready comedy bits  lip-syncing contests, slow-jams of the news, musical impressions, games of Pictionary and egg Russian roulette. His interviews, meanwhile, have resurrected the kind of Merv Griffin-style celebrity gush that Mr. Letterman thought he had stamped out years ago.show a few months ago. 

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

1.  David Barton on the American Bible Society
2.  The Author's Corner with Andrew Hartman
3.  Sunday Night Odds and Ends--May 10, 2015
4.  Brendan McConville on the Professional Study of the American Revolution
5.  Tal Howard Leaves Gordon for Endowed Chair at Valparaiso University
6.  The Author's Corner with John Ferling
7.  James Grossman: History for Patriotism
8.  Dispatches from the History Major: "I'm Done (Sort Of)"
9.  Farewell Megan Piette!
10.  Most Popular Posts of the Last Week--May 8, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Farewell Megan Piette!

If you regularly visit The Way of Improvement Leads Home to watch the Virtual Office Hours or read about the latest book featured at The Author's Corner, then you may know Megan Piette.

Megan joined the The Way of Improvement Leads Home team two years ago as our first intern. Since then she has produced four solid seasons of the Virtual Office Hours (including two blooper reels) and has facilitated dozens and dozens of author interviews with historians and writers.

Well, it is time for me, and the readers of this blog, to bid farewell to Megan.  She is graduating on Saturday with a double major in History and Business and then hopes to pursue a career in event planning.  She will be getting married soon and hopes to move to North Carolina with her fiance as he pursues a career in the auto racing world.

I will definitely miss Megan.  I will miss her creativity, her work ethic, and especially all the fun we had filming the Virtual Office Hours every week.

I had coffee with  Megan yesterday afternoon and she gave me an original 1984 Springsteen Born in the USA LP as a going away present.  Wow! What a gift!  I told her that I would use it as a backdrop for future Virtual Office Hours so that viewers will always remember the influential role she has played in getting the VOH off the ground.. Move over Founding Fathers Pez dispensers, here comes the Boss.

Thanks, Megan! 

If you have enjoyed the Virtual Office Hours or the Author's Corner over the last two years I encourage you to head to the comments section below and bid Megan a warm farewell!



The Author's Corner with James L. Huston

James Huston is Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. This interview is based on his new book, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agricultural and Sectional Antagonism in North America (LSU Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agricultural and Sectional Antagonism in North America?

JH: My motivation was twofold: first, a belief that the agricultural North had been underappreciated in the works investigating sectional conflict for the last sixty years, and, secondly, a conviction that for decades now the “free labor ideology” had been weighted more and more to industrial wage labor instead of agricultural labor. It was the attempt to understand northern agricultural labor that led me into British agricultural history, to reevaluate northern free labor ideals, to come to grips with the pervasiveness of the northern family farmer, and to confront the obvious polarity between the plantation economy and the northern family farm economy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?

JH: By using British agricultural history as a standard for evaluating farm dimensions, treatment of labor, and the ideology of superiority (i.e., Burkean conservatism), I came to find the plantation of the South a fledgling duplicate of the British estate agricultural system, while the northern family farm came to be its opposite in nearly every aspect. Because the northern family farm dominated northern life–far more vital than industrialization–the sectional collision came over whose system of land use, small family farms or gigantic plantations, would extend into the West, and this question was the economic joint of conflict so obvious in northern congressional party victories after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, culminating in the creation of the Republican party.

JF: Why do we need to read The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?

JH: The book attempts a sharp correction of much that has been written about the antebellum economy and its influence on politics. To be specific: first, the plantation was squeezing out the southern yeoman farmer, and northerners realized the plantation had this effect. Second, the plantation, not an agrarian ideology, resulted in the lack of southern urban life; in the North, the small family farm made town life indispensable. Third, northern life centered about the farm and its attendant villages and small towns; nearly three-fourths of the northern states were distinctly rural. Fourth, the demands of the family farm created the free labor ideology, and social mobility was a reality for farm hands in the rural North (otherwise known as climbing the agricultural ladder). Moreover, the belief that laborers should have high wages, be able to save, and accumulate property can be seen with remarkable clarity when northern farm laborers are compared to British farm laborers. Sixth, the prevalence of the small family farm was the backbone of egalitarianism and democracy in the North; the plantation and slavery gave rise to the ideals of inequality, aristocracy, and mastery. Seventh, congressional districts can be divided into categories of farming, industrial, and those falling inbetween; when this is done, the reaction of the northern farm community to expansion of slavery outside of its settled borders due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, becomes unmistakable and awe-inspiring. Thus, the sectional confrontation in the late 1850s had as its basis a stark and dramatic division of the nation into small northern farmers and great southern planters; industrialization was irrelevant.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JH: History has always been one of my stronger subjects in high school and college. At Denison University, I had superior teachers who sparked my interest further and brought alive the matter of controversy over interpretations. Upon graduation in 1969, I determined to follow my instincts and attend graduate school. Since then, I have evolved my own rationale as to the importance of history: to enable people to understand the trends in which they live and why those trends existed in the first place.

JF: What is your next book project?

JH: I am finishing a work on the British-American argument about inequality and equality as the proper basis for a society. This was an outgrowth of the work I did on British and northern agriculture, partially because of the number of British travelers to the United States who investigated not only democracy, climate, flora and fauna, but who also tried to assess how well a people could live without an aristocracy, an established church, and class customs. The time frame is 1776 to 1930, and the book will continue into today’s current debates over equality and inequality (especially those of conservative economists.) Although the trend among current historians is to stress the obvious inequalities in American life, slavery and relations with Native Americans being among the most obvious, the nineteenth-century argument has distinct relevance for debates today among political philosophers, economists, and historians.

JF: Good stuff, thanks James!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Loren Collins on How To Enter the Job Market with a B.A. in History

Great stuff at the AHA blog from Loren Collins, a career counselor at Humboldt State University with a B.A. in history.  

I have been preaching this stuff for several years through my series "So What CAN You Do With a History Major" and my Why Study History?, but Collins does it a lot better.  Here is a taste:

History degrees are versatile, viable, and valuable, but so often they are not understood or marketed on these terms. You may have chosen history because you had visions of devouring stacks of ancient primary source documents in a glorious repository in an ancient European metropolis. Or maybe you dreamt of standing in front of a high school class much like your own high school history class, waking the heart of a high school student a lot like you once were. Or, like many of us, you simply chose the major because you liked it and you knew you’d have to figure out a job down the road. Whatever your motivation, the first thing you need to learn is how to market your degree

History is dynamic, and you should be a bright, capable, and thorough thinker, writer, communicator, and researcher because of your time as an undergraduate. The problem is that no one will know it until you tell them! People make assumptions about various majors all the time, and in the news they often recite and rehash false stories about college education that go unchallenged. On your resume, in your cover letter, and during interviews and networking scenarios you need to quantify your experience in terms employers can understand and change the common perceptions out there. Your ability to do this can make all the difference. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers cite the following as the top skills employers look for in college graduates:

Here is the takeaway:

1.  Learn how to market your degree
2.  Explore the job field.  ("Where do you want to work?)
3.  Start targeting employers before they put out their job ads

James Grossman: History for Patriotism

Jim Grossman
In this month's Perspectives on History, AHA Executive Director James Grossman describes why he thinks history education in the United States should be "patriotic."  I love his answer.  Here is a taste:

Whether history education should be “patriotic”...begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others?...

Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just “happen.”

All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions.

But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” reads as mere rhetoric.

I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.

Read the entire piece here.

Tal Howard Leaves Gordon for Endowed Chair at Valparaiso University

Tal and Agnes Howard
My old employer, Valparaiso University, keeps attracting quality historians.  Last month I learned that my friend and prolific historian Tal Howard is leaving Gordon College to become the Phyllis and Richard Dusenberg Chair of Christian Ethics and Professor of History at Valpo.  For the last decade or so Tal ran the honors program and the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon.  His wife Agnes, a fine historian in her own right, will also be joining the faculty of Christ College, Valparaiso University's honors college. Congrats Tal and Agnes!
Here is an article from the Gordon College student newspaper:
Tal Howard’s office in the Center for Faith and Inquiry feels similar to a sanctuary. The walls are lined with bookshelves filled with historical and influential academic volumes on ethics, Christianity and philosophy. The hours in this room spent deep in thought and in meaningful conversations seem to have saturated the walls and floor with an air of the profound.
The office will only remain Howard’s for one more year. After spending more than a decade at Gordon, he and his family plan to head west to Indiana, where he will start a new chapter of his career as a professor at Valparaiso University.
The ties that the Howards have made in Massachusetts made leaving a “difficult decision,” Howard said.
“I don’t expect the heartache to fully heal,” he said, explaining that leaving is an “excitement with a lining of sadness.”
Agnes, Howard’s wife and a history professor at Gordon, agreed. “While there are things to look forward to, it is sad to leave dear friends and community at Gordon,” she said.
Nevertheless, Howard said he’s excited for the future, adding that his new position will give him ample time for writing and research for the three books he has under contract.
At Valparaiso, Howard will serve as Professor of History and the Humanities and holder of the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics. Howard’s wife, Agnes, will be appointed as lecturer at Christ College, the four-year honors college at Valparaiso. Howard came to Gordon 15 years ago as a professor in the history department. He held that position for four years before the college received a $2 million grant, with which he developed the Center for Faith and Inquiry (CFI), which houses the offices of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF) honors program, the Faith Seeking Understanding lecture series and the Respectful Conversations scholarship and symposia.
Since then, Howard has been directing JAF’s first 11 cohorts, doing “a lot” of writing and researching, directing the CFI and continuing to serve as a member of the history department faculty.
Agnes has taught various first- year courses, most recently The Great Conversation and in the history department. She has also been involved with Gordon-in-Orvieto. “I have enormously enjoyed getting to know students here, both in my own classes and in the JAF groups,” she said.
Howard wears a lot of hats, but colleagues and students say they are consistently struck by his humility and ability to facilitate deep thinking.
Ryan Groff, Administrative Director of the CFI, first met Howard during his interview for JAF while a student.
“It wasn’t a grill session, but more a conversation on my interests and what I appreciated at the time, which was absolutely a result of Tal’s personality,” he said.
While in JAF, Groff said he was struck by Howard’s ability to ask a question and have conversations, not just explain an opinion. “His personality sets that tone for the program,” Groff said. “The table that Howard sets is inviting.” Matthew Reese ’15, JAF alumnus and current CFI Apprentice, said Howard “is one of the most reputable researchers at Gordon. … But he’s humble. For someone who doesn’t know who he is, he can be an unassuming person to be around, but he’s quite the academic giant and extraordinarily brilliant, but at the same time without losing any of his personality.”
Reese said Howard taught him how scholarly research functions.
“As someone who is thinking of going into academia, it’s really helpful to learn to be academic,” Reese said.
Howard said one lesson he’s learned during his time at Gordon was the value of interdisciplinary conversation and the importance of people in shaping those conversations. As he leaves, he wants to be remembered for his work with JAF, where he hopes students will continue to have a deep understanding of tradition, recognize that faith has many intellectual resources, and ask deeper questions about themselves and their society, while letting a love and joy of learning flourish.
Howard is looking forward to finishing up his last year with JAF, the 12th cohort (“A nice, Biblical number,” he said) and a term packed with influential lecturers for the Faith Seeking Understanding series.
In his email to JAF alumni announcing his departure, Howard wrote that “establishing JAF and working with its many wonderful students has been one of the greatest pleasures and honors of my life; through it … I have received an education.”

Brendan McConville on the Professional Study of the American Revolution

Brendan McConville of Boston University, a friend and fellow Jersey boy, delivers one of his usually stirring lectures.  This one is at the American Revolution Reborn 2 Conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.  McConville pulls no punches.  It is one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time, and I agree with most of it.  I know that Brendan has been taking a lot of heat for this lecture, but some of these things needed to be said.

Here are some provocative quotes:

"If you add the word "Atlantic" or "world" or "global" or "continental" or "race" to a study, it does not necessarily make it any more interesting or comprehensible. At this point they have become cliches rather than offering insight or direction."

"By privileging novelty over mastery,  we have reached a strange impasse."  If you want to hear Brendan really riff on this point, fast-forward to the about twenty-minute mark.

"We have run out of oceans to call 'worlds'...and have run out of "borderlands."

"Digital humanities does not exist....we need to stop worshiping the tool box."

I also noticed that Brendan's graduate school adviser Gordon Wood is in the audience.  I have no doubt he loved this speech.



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Monty Williams Fired By New Orleans Pelicans

I do not usually do posts about a fired NBA coach, but Monty Williams is a class act.  See for yourself:




Dispatches from the History Major: "I'm Done (Sort Of)"

I hope you've enjoyed "Dispatches from the History Major this semester.  I know I have.  Here is the last installment of the semester from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  We are currently in contract negotiations for next year.  Stay tuned.  --JF

I’ve officially completed my sophomore year at MessiahCollege, and it feels so good! After finals, it’s tempting to stumble home, curl up in the fetal position, and vegetate; however, I can’t quite do this yet. One reason I can’t rest yet is because I’ve made it a point to look back and reflect on this past year instead of letting everything I learned slip away over the summer. There’s a lot of material to sift through in my head (five history course, four language courses, and one Bible course) and unfortunately not nearly enough room in this blog to talk about it all. So if you actually want to know about what I learned, come find me and I’ll gladly tell ya all about ancient Rome, Tudor-Stuart England, American urbanism, historical and archaeological methodology, New Testament scholarship, and the difference between the French and Latin subjunctive moods.

One of the things I love most about my Messiah education is just how easy my professors have made it to go back and do this type of recap. Four out of my five history examinations required a full scale synthesis of all the material we had covered during the course. When you have four primary texts and a handful of outside electronic readings this is difficult work. Yet doing this type of synthesis actually leaves you feeling like you took something away from the course when it’s all said and done. It’s nice knowing I’m going to get a degree AND an education when I finish up here at Messiah – none of this “C’s get degrees” stuff.

Another thing that’s preventing me from vegetating after an intense finals week is my May-Term course. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to go on a three-week archaeological expedition to the island of Cyprus with Dr. David Pettegrew and a handful of other Messiah students. I’ve never traveled internationally before so doing all that laundry I ignored this past semester, packing, channeling my inner Indian Jones, and saying farewells to family and friends has been a mini- adventure all on its own. By this time next week I’ll be on my way to the Mediterranean!

To top off all of this craziness, I have to prep this week for a four-month stint in France. I’ve been accepted to study at the Sorbonne in Paris this fall, which I couldn’t be more excited about, however, I still have to buy a plane ticket and get the majority of my paper work done before I leave for Cyprus. Should I travel with Icelandair or Aeroflot (a Russian airline)? I think I’m going to go with Icelandair just so I can pretend I’m a Viking during my hour and a half layover.

And with that nerdy history reference I shall end my final dispatch of the semester. Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to let you all know how the skills I acquired during this year helped me out on my international adventures, but until then I want to thank everyone who read these posts, shared their thoughts in a comment, or encouraged me during my journey. I’m very grateful also to Dr. Fea for providing me with a space where I could wrestle with some of the things I’m learning about history and about myself. Finally, I would like to thank all the members of the Messiah History Department for all that they do – they’re awesome dudes!  

Have a wonderful summer everybody,

James


Monday, May 11, 2015

The Author's Corner with Andrew Hartman

Andrew Hartman is Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University. This interview is based on his new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars?

AH: In 2008, just as my first book Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School had been published, my graduate school advisor and good friend Leo Ribuffo offhandedly suggested that perhaps my second book should be a history of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He knew then, and I soon discovered, that no historian had ever written a monograph about the culture wars. The topic matched my interests since it allowed me to explore education, politics, religion, and culture—all through the lens of intellectual history, which is my specialty. More to the point, A War for the Soul of America fits with my career-long research project: an historical exploration of American modernity, identity, and nationalism.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A War for the Soul of America?

AH: Many have regarded the culture wars as a mere sideshow or as a simple byproduct of deindustrialization, but A War for the Soul of America argues that the culture wars were the very public face of America’s struggle over the unprecedented social changes of the late-twentieth-century United States, as the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American. The hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, homosexuality, and multiculturalism that dominated politics in the period were symptoms of the larger struggle, as conservative Americans slowly began to acknowledge—if initially through rejection—some of the fundamental transformations of American life.

JF: Why do we need to read A War for the Soul of America?

AH: For one thing, A War for the Soul of America is the first book-length history of the culture wars, the dramatic struggle which pitted liberal and secular Americans against their conservative and traditionally religious counterparts and captured the attention of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. This in itself makes the book worth reading for those scholars and citizens interested in American political culture and the things that divide and unite us. But more compellingly, my book is a meditation on the problem of American modernity in relation to historical change, continuity, and periodization.

Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly middle-class white Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” the modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to a lens of suspicion. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many Americans, particularly conservatives, recognized what they perceived as multitudinous threats to their once great nation.


JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AH: In the late 1990s I taught high school history and although I loved it I found myself wanting more and more time to read, research, and write history, so I decided to go to graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

AH: Marx in America, which will also be an analysis of the problem of American modernity. In a recent review essay of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx, Geoff Eley writes that most intellectual historians accept that “Marx’s thought became basic to the intellectual architecture of the modern world, whether as inspiration or anathema.” Marx in America will take up Eley’s presupposition, with the United States of America as representative of the modern world. More specifically I will ask: How have the ideas of arguably the world’s most important modern thinker, Karl Marx, been received in the country seemingly most hostile to them—the United States? This will be a big book and will take many years to research and write. But I am excited.

JF: Sounds intriguing, thanks Andrew!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Happy Mothers Day!

Liz Covart on "History Communicators"

John Turner on Timothy Gloege's Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.  An interview with Gloege is here.

Americanism and German family farms

Should anthropology course fulfill an American history requirement?

E,J. Dionne on Senator Chris Coons's defense of religious liberty at a meeting of The Secular Coalition

W.E.B. Du Bois on race

Theology courses at Notre Dame

James Oakes on the end of slavery in America

Is Mike Huckabee the last culture warrior?  George Will on his crusade to Christianize America

John Steinbeck's writing shed

"Rules for Christian Mechanics and Merchants," circa 1840

R.B. Bernstein reviews Joseph Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1783-1789

New resources for teaching history from the AHA "Tuning Project"

Q&A

What!?  Tenured Radical calls it quits

Tracy McKenzie on the differences between "heritage" and "history."

Museums in times of social upheaval and civic unrest

Where are all the National Park Service sites devoted to Reconstruction?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

David Barton on the American Bible Society

It looks like I am not the only one interested in this subject. This video was just released by David Barton:



This video is a good example of why David Barton is more a politician than a historian and why his "historical" presentations need to be looked at very critically.  Most of what he says about the founding of the American Bible Society is accurate, but he does not paint an entire picture of the founding or the men involved in the founding.

For example:

  • Boudinot did indeed respect the Bible.  He defended its inspiration and authority against attacks from skeptics like Thomas Paine.  He also turned to it to make predictions about the end of the world and to claim that native Americans were the ten lost tribes of Israel
  • John Jay was a devout Anglican Christian.  He also tried to ban Catholics from participating in New York government.

My point here is not to drag these founders through the mud.  Sometimes it is important to talk about the good things that founders did and celebrate their achievements.  But historians must be committed to telling the truth about the founders.  This may require placing their accomplishments in the larger context of their lives and, in some cases, an eighteenth-century world that looks quite different from the one in which we live.

Barton is more interested in a sugar-coated history that makes all of his constituency feel good about themselves and their country.  Why would he talk about the full or complete history of these figures, or even the full story of the ABS (take my word for it, it's interesting), when his only reasons for engaging the past is to win political points.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Author's Corner with John Ferling

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. This interview is based on his new book, Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury Press, May 2015).

JFea: What led you to write Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It?

JFerling: I taught the American Revolution course about thirty times during my career. I always had my students read a history of the Revolution, but was never entirely satisfied with any general history that was available (mostly because all shortchanged the Revolutionary War), so for years I longed to write my own version, and with Whirlwind I have finally done just that.

JFea: In two sentences, what is the argument of Whirlwind?

JFerling: It is difficult to sum up a thesis for a general history of the American Revolution, though I argue that the primary reason the colonists eventually sought independence was due to economic motivation. Unlike many historians (and John Adams), I argue that the War of Independence was part of the American Revolution, as it radicalized people, laying the groundwork for fundamental postwar changes that otherwise might not have occurred.

JFea: Why do we need to read Whirlwind?

JFerling: Whirlwind examines the reasons for the colonial insurgency, the reasons for the eventual break with Great Britain, the reasons for the American victory in the War of Independence, the changes unleashed by the American Revolution, and it asks whether the American Revolution and the American victory were inevitable.

JFea: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JFerling: While in high school, I saw a documentary on the rise and fall of Hitler that turned me on to history, but the first several courses in history that I took in college were so boring that I was ready to jettison history as a major. As a sophomore, however, I took a course from a professor who emphasized reading books and discussing them in class, rather than using a lecture format; I found the experience so exhilarating that for the first time I wanted to teach in college and write the kind of books I was reading in that class.

JFea: What is your next project?

JFerling: I am already deep into a book on Jefferson and Thomas Paine as world revolutionaries.

JFea: I'm excited to see what you come up with! Thanks John.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pennsylvania History Wrap-Up

Yesterday was the last day of classes for the Spring 2015  semester at Messiah College.  It was also the last day of my Pennsylvania History course.  Teaching this course at Messiah has been an interesting challenge.  Pennsylvania History is taken by a cross-section of students: history majors, history majors with a public history concentration, and general education students pursuing a "pluralism" distribution requirement.  In other words, some of the students get pretty fired up about the study of the past, while others are just enduring the course in order to get their pluralism credits "out of the way."

The History Department at Messiah hopes to achieve multiple goals and purposes with this course. First, we hope that our students will gain content knowledge and learn how to think like historians. Second, we want them to develop an appreciation for the state in which they live or are attending college.  Third, we want to teach them practical skills for "doing" history.  These include digital history, local history, and oral history.

So how did this all work out?

In terms of delivering content, we read all of Pencak and Miller's Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  Students had a quiz on every chapter, exposing them to content from native Americans prior to the arrival of William Penn all the way up to the turn of the 21st century.  Most of the lectures in the class played off of my strengths in early American history.  We covered Pennsylvania history up to the Civil War.  These lectures focused on the  native American-European contact, William Penn and the Quakers, the connections between religious freedom and liberalism in the colonial era, the Paxton Boys Riots, the Enlightenment in Philadelphia, the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, early republican politics, and the Civil War in Pennsylvania..

Early in the semester the students did some work on the 1900 census for the city of Harrisburg.  They matched the names on the census records with the names on the 1900 membership rolls of the Market Square Presbyterian Church.  We were then able to begin identifying the religious commitments of the people on the census and, with the help of Digital Harrisburg guru David Pettegrew, were able to mark the Presbyterians on a 1900 map of the city.  As might be expected, Presbyterians lived in some of the most high-end neighborhoods of Harrisburg, especially those neighborhoods situated along the Susquehanna River.  Thanks to some ethnic mapping done by the Digital Harrisburg project, we were also able to compare the places where Presbyterians tended to live in 1900 with the  places where Germans (mostly Lutherans and Catholics), Irish (mostly Catholics), Greeks (mostly Orthodox), and African Americans (most AME or Baptist) lived.

Presbyterians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1900



The students were also required to complete an oral history project.  They interviewed someone who experienced a significant event in Pennsylvania History, prepared a transcript of the interview, and then used the transcript to write an eight-page paper on that particular event, using the interview as their only primary source.  Popular topics included rural Pennsylvania and the World War II homefront, the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, agricultural and family life in Pennsylvania, and the history of various religious organizations and denominations.  Students were held to professional standards of oral history practice.  One student loved the assignment so much that she wants to pursue an M.A. in history with a concentration in oral history.

Finally, students were asked to contribute to the Digital Harrisburg Project through an exploration of Catholicism in the city during the years 1900-1910.  Each student was given a ten-month period from a Harrisburg newspaper (thanks Newspapers.com) and told to write a five page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg during that period.  We then spent a couple of class periods trying to redact their various reports into some kind of narrative.  We never did decide on one overarching theme that defined Harrisburg Catholicism in this period, but we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationship between Catholicism and ethnic identity, immigration in the city, the Harrisburg Catholic response to the assassination of McKinley, Protestant-Catholic relations in Harrisburg, the local response to the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

I am not sure all of my students were thrilled about doing these assignments.  Some didn't really care about history.  Others wanted more content and fewer skills-based assignments. Some had no interested in Harrisburg.  But in general, like all diligent Messiah College students, they did the assignments with little complaint and perhaps even a bit of good cheer.  For a lot of them this was their first exposure to a history course and how historians think differently than nurses, engineers, or business professionals.

Keep your eye on the Digital Harrisburg Project website.  Some of the stuff that the class produced this semester may eventually find its way there.