Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Ideal History Major

I recently sat before my college's tenure and promotion committee to make the case for why I should be promoted to full professor.  (The case was made successfully, I might add).  As I entered the room, I noticed that each member of the committee had a copy of an essay I wrote for the occasion.  All Messiah College faculty members, in preparation for tenure or promotion, must prepare an essay reflecting on the relationship between Christian faith and their scholarly discipline. I had submitted a draft of chapter seven of my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  The chapter, entitled "The Power to Transform," offered my thoughts on how I integrate my faith with my vocation as a historian.

"The Power to Transform" is one of the most important chapters in Why Study History? I think it makes an original contribution to the literature on Christian faith and liberal arts learning.  The committee graciously praised my argument and my prose, but they were troubled by what might be called the essay's sense of "historical exceptionalism."

Let me explain.

At one point in the chapter, I quoted a passage from Sam Wineburg's classic  Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts:

For the narcissist sees the world--both the past and the present, in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates ("leads outward in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history. (Bold print is mine).

The members of the committee thought that the claims Wineburg made (and I developed in my chapter) about the study of history--it humbles us, it makes us hospitable to others, it forces us to see the world through the eyes of others, it relieves us of our narcissism, it educates us, it humanizes us—could be claimed for other disciplines as well.  A philosopher and a scientist on the committee were particularly critical of my historical exceptionalism.  Couldn’t philosophy and the study of the universe accomplish the same tasks?  Perhaps my claims for the study of history were too strong?  (To see how I addressed these criticisms, or if I addressed them at all, you will have to read Why Study History.  It will appear with Baker Books next month).

I thought about my meeting with the tenure and promotion committee after reading Mark Edmundson’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Ideal English Major.”  Edmundson pulls no punches.  He thinks everyone should be an English major:  He writes:

Soon college students all over America will be trundling to their advisers' offices to choose a major. In this moment of financial insecurity, students are naturally drawn to economics, business, and the hard sciences. But students ought to resist the temptation of those purportedly money-ensuring options and even of history and philosophy, marvelous though they may be. All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English. Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being. (Italics are mine). 

An English major is much more than 32 or 36 credits including a course in Shakespeare, a course on writing before 1800, and a three-part survey of English and American lit. That's the outer form of the endeavor. It's what's inside that matters. It's the character-forming—or (dare I say?) soul-making—dimension of the pursuit that counts. And what is that precisely? Who is the English major in his ideal form? What does the English major have, what does he want, and what does he in the long run hope to become?


But the more I read Edmundson’s excellent piece, the more I thought about my argument in Why Study History?  According to Edmundson, the study of literature is character-forming and “soul-making.” As Wineburg reminds us above, and as I argue in my “Power to Transform” chapter, the study of history does the same thing.  The study of English produces life-long readers.  So does the study of History.  English majors are trained to see the world through the eyes of others.  History teaches students to empathize with the lives of others.  Such an encounter can change one’s life.  If you don’t believe me, read Why Study History?  I  included a few testimonials.

I like Edmundson’s conclusion: 

Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we're talking about more than a mere academic major. We're talking about a way of life. We're talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center. 

What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.

I think I like it so much because it reminds me of something I often say to my undergraduates:  “historical thinking is a way of life.”  The study of the human experience as it has existed through time should teach students to pursue truth, live in this world, and make us better people.  I agree with most of Edmundson’s piece, but I question its exceptionalism.