Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Proposal: American History for a Civil Society

I was recently browsing the web and came across the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue & the Common Good.  From what I can tell, it seems to be a well-funded center devoted to the promotion of a "good society," a "good economy," and a "good life."

Frankly, I am quite impressed with their mission.  I am interested in many of the questions the leaders of the Agora Institute are asking.  At this point, they seem to have a somewhat conservative bent (at least in terms of the speakers they have invited), but I know that Eastern University is a rather diverse place and questions of civic virtue and the pursuit of the common good are issues that transcend partisanship and left-right ideology.

As I looked at the Agora Institute website, I thought about a vision that I have had for some time about a center or institute devoted to the study of American history and its implications for the common good and civil society.  It is time to share this vision with my readers.

I am in the process of completing a book that, in part, explores the kind of civic virtues that the study of history can promote in American society.  (And any society, for that matter).  Anyone who has followed this blog or reads my Patheos column (especially here and here and here and here) is familiar with my ideas on this front.  My thirteen-year career as a history professor, and some of my own reading and study at the intersection of theology, history, and civil society, has led me to the conclusion that the study of the past, and the process of historical thinking, has the potential to produce citizens who not only understand how to think about the way the past informs the present, but also see the past as an encounter with a "foreign country" that can result in the cultivation of certain social virtues such as humility, reconciliation, intellectual and cultural hospitality, empathy, and solidarity.

What might such a center or institute look like?  First, it would be ideal if it could be connected to an institution of higher learning, but it does not have to be.  Second, it would offer programs on historical thinking and historical content to a wide swath of the public.  American history teachers would benefit from seminars in content, but also in historical thinking and pedagogy.  High school students would benefit from summer institutes or "history camps."  Churches would benefit from workshops in church history and American religious history.  College students could benefit from intensive summer programs in historical thinking and its connection to civil society.  The general public could benefit from intellectually rigorous tours of historical sites.

Of course such a center would have a social media presence, a public lecture series, and perhaps even a radio program and podcast.

I know this is a big vision, but we history professors can dream, can't we?

What do you think?

And if there is anyone out there who has a few million dollars to invest in such a project I would love to hear from you!!