catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 10 :: 2003.05.09 — 2003.05.22


A perspective on history

How you understand history can change how you live, work and vote. Sounds like a piece of propaganda from a history professor, doesn't it? If you can get beyond that I am, in fact, a history professor, at least consider the potential truth in this statement.

History usually gets a bum rap. High school students across the United States and Canada recount horror stories about how much they despise history and their high school history teacher. One of my good friends from college, Jeff DeVries (who has written in these electronic pages), was horrified back in 1987 that I would chose such a dry and boring major as history! Sometimes, as in Texas and Missouri, the problem stems from school districts that often assign football coaches to the high school history department, seemingly under the assumption that history is pretty straightforward or that it is irrelevant enough that less than stellar academic teachers can take care of this requirement. (Disclaimer: I know that there are very many excellent football, basketball or baseball coaches who also excel in the classroom! Please don't send e-mail!) In other cases, their teachers present history as a dry recitation of boring facts, names and dates. Whatever the reason, high school students and many college students hate history.

Before you can get anything out of a subject, you've got to at least find something interesting to attract you. Somehow—-despite the best efforts of extremely poor history teachers—many of these anti-history people, as they grow older, wind up becoming fascinated with the subject! I've heard the story countless times: "I used to hate history but now I can't read enough history books." Why? In part, the answer lies in their own growing personal history, I think, and an awareness that they?re no longer an indestructible youth and that their parents, grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents were, in some ways, a lot like them. In addition, I think they've probably read some good stories. Academics (i.e. people like me) sometimes focus too much on the broad picture and impersonal forces without telling enough good stories to illustrate these points. My interest in history stems from my dad, Rudolph Fessler, who was born in 1913 and was 54 years old when I was born in 1967. He would tell stories that made the early twentieth century come alive. He'd tell about how he and his friend Gay Mentovah built a still out of steel milk jugs and tubing during the final years of Prohibition and wound up with 80 proof liquor! Or of how my grandfather, a druggist at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan, sold blank prescription forms for medicinal alcohol during Prohibition (the only legal way to get whiskey or rum during the 20s and early 30s) to help fund my family's exodus from Harlem to suburban New Jersey. (N.B. My family is not composed of lushes and alcoholics, they were just Catholic!) I could tell hundreds of other stories, as I'm sure you could tell similar stories from your family history as well. Similar stories exist for different cultures and different eras in world history, if only we take the time to learn them. The point is that these stories draw us willingly into history in a way that a dry recitation of facts never could.

OK, you might be saying, history has the potential for some great stories, but how is that going to transform how I approach life and culture? A good question, but one that even many people who teach history at the undergraduate and graduate level really can't answer, especially those who adopt a secular approach to education. They never move beyond the cool stories (or the broad movements or whatever else catches their fancy) which are necessary but become pointless if not put in the context of a larger issue or debate.

This struck home just this past month when I participated in a Listserv exchange (H-Teach) on the internet for history professors who teach survey courses. Someone started a discussion by asking the question, "Why do we teach history?" The answers started pouring in, in part responding to the question by saying "I know I have been successful as a history professor/teacher when my students . . . "

"..understand what it means to think historically about something. By this I mean being able to see an event or artifact across time."

"..leave my class with a sense of why someone (else) might want to be a history major. History is fun, or at least it ought to be."

"..walk into the history section of a bookstore 5, 10, 20 years from now and say "Hey, I remember talking about that in what's-his-name's class. That was interesting," and walk out of the store having bought the book."

" a primary source document and place it into the appropriate context."

Or, this weirdly postmodern response: "..that they each are the only relevant judges of their own success, which is totally independent of my own; and, that they realize that they can only imagine history, and they must for their own survival in an increasingly dangerous world."

"stay in the classroom, or follow me in my office, after the bell rings, to discuss/debate the causes/effects of the Vietnam War."

Although I'm normally a "lurker" on these discussion lists who rarely posts responses, I had to respond:

I haven't really seen a broader, religious (in my case, Christian) perspective on this question…do we not have broader goals and frameworks than the narrow methodological ones (which I agree with, I might add)? I know I have been successful as a history professor/teacher when my students can learn how and why they bring their own world view and framework to the interpretation of history—-so they realize why people have different approaches to history. I want them to walk away knowing that I've done all I could to help them learn to frame their own Christian perspective to address questions not only in history but in and throughout their lives.

Here's one of the responses to my posting:

One's faith is the assumptions one has and believes about the nature of existence. It is impossible to have none. I used to describe mine to students as "messy Rinzai Zen Buddhist, sort of influenced by 1950's rural Congregationalism." It is necessary to explain to students what this means and how to guard against it. It is also extremely important to tell them they must urgently explore their own, and constantly challenge them, and avoid imposing them on others.


Should a history teacher feel responsible to transfer a particular set of religious assumptions or values to students. I find the thought horrifying and manipulative. Quite to the contrary, he should urge them over and over to defend themselves from it, because there will be occasions when the best of us unconsciously slip up.

I counter-responded:

Is a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) perspective that informs the basis of our work equally as valid as a Marxist perspective in the classroom and in scholarship—or a secularist perspective? Or does Christian/religious-based scholarship not fit into contemporary academic debates?


This year, I've gotten a job at Dordt College—a Reformed institution in the Calvinist/Kuyperian philosophical strain. However, I have taught for years at secular institution. I wanted people to know where my perspective originated. In addition, I want to bring to students? attention that a Christian perspective doesn't mean viewing history simply as "HIS story" from a providential perspective (as if we could know the mind of God).

I was always clear about my own Christian presuppositions and tried to show how my Christian approach to, say, the Enlightenment, is different from how someone from another perspective may interpret it. In the United States, at least, a large percentage of our students are practicing, professing Christians who do not really know how that perspective can make a difference. Either they're often buying the line from the Christian right and Rush Limbaugh or they are accepting blindly the secularist, Marxist, etc. perspectives that dominate higher education. I think it was useful to expose students—even those who are Marxist or secular to see that a Christian can have a say at the academic table. And to show them that a Christian perspective doesn't mean rejecting some of the insights of a Marxist or secularist—but that you need to be aware of the presuppositions underlining their insights (and to reject those).

Even this year at Dordt College, I do NOT want somebody merely regurgitating my perspective for a good grade NOR do I try to "brainwash" them. In a pedagogical approach taken from someone else, I begin my introductory classes by taking a lecture from a historian with a certain perspective (sometimes Marxist, sometimes environmentalist, or multicultural) and lecturing on it as if it were my own—then I stop?and ask them to critique it. Do they "buy" it? Are there problems? What are they? The point of the lecture is that they shouldn't just accept what a professor says; that they shouldn't just write it down in their notes without thinking—-that they should challenge my perspective. Just because they're Christians doesn't mean they have to buy my Christian perspective—there are a multitude of Christian perspectives.

With no false modesty, I'm not the most articulate person to put forth this type of approach and it?s surely not original with me! George Marsden, historian at Notre Dame, in his Oxford University Press release, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship addresses many of these issues far more persuasively. In addition, the Conference on Faith and History is an affiliate organization of the American Historical Association—and the purpose of this organization is "…to encourage Christian scholars as they explore the relationship of their faith to historical studies, to provide a forum for the discussion of current scholarship, to foster research in the general area of faith and history, and to enable interaction among scholars and people from all walks of life who are interested in this subject." (For more, go to the Conference on Faith and History's web page.)

The hollowness of secular higher education is apparent, I think, in even a few of the samples reproduced above. There is no solid core or rationale for the study of history or education in general. Many teachers are left with the mundane, rather empty phrases that give meaning to their study and teaching of history.


If most secular college history programs have any philosophical coherence, it focuses on the intersection of "race, gender and culture"—-the holy trinity of the multiculturalism junta or, perhaps, class struggle, if there's any remaining Marxists in the department. There's definitely a key difference at many Christian colleges (especially in the Reformed tradition). As one of my colleagues has noted, people who believe in the sovereignty of God look at things differently from people who believe in the sovereignty of man. For example, much contemporary democratic ideals stem from the Enlightenment notion of the sovereignty of man. While I feel truly blessed to live in the United States and to enjoy the benefits of democracy, I often point out to students that the assumptions upon which Western democracy are based, such as the notion that human reason can solve all the world's problems are contrary to a Scriptural view. So when an emphasis on excessive individualism or property rights, for example comes to the forefront of a societal debate, we as Christians need to constantly re-examine our responses as Christians. A study of history allows us to unravel, to a degree, the convoluted nature of culture and the often antithetical philosophical pillars supporting our culture. We shouldn't merely trust what political parties say or even ask what would our Founding Fathers do (WWOFFD, maybe?!?!). This is a vital realization for Christians attending college and then being sent out into the world to try to transform it!

The study of history also includes far more than merely politics. Fittingly, for a Kuyperian, the study of history has the potential to cover every square inch of creation. This includes sports history or economic history. Sport history is one of my interests. Stemming from my life-long passion for the New York Mets and baseball, I've examined the impact of sport on American society. At times, many of us form identifications with a professional or big college sports team (take even the sorry Chicago Cubs, for example) and make that the ultimate focus of our loyalty, if only perhaps for brief stretches of time in our lives. Understanding how spectator sports has developed into a business in the late 19th century and how this shift impacted American culture can be truly sobering. While I still believe there is value in spectator sports and I'll continue to root for the Mets, my study of sports history has changed how I spend my free time.

The Industrial Revolution, in another example—which brought such profound changes in life through urbanization, new technology, and dramatic social changes—is a result of capitalism based on Enlightenment-era liberalism. Knowing about these radical changes in society, however, doesn't lead to easy answers about whether the changes are good or bad. The Industrial Revolution had some very positive consequences. It enabled the Western world to feed a growing world population; it enhanced life in many ways and brought a measure of justice to certain classes of people. But it also brought many problems. The ultimate goal of business became efficiency. History gives us the vantage point to see the "big picture" from which our culture has emerged. In this case, we need to look at specific practices and institutions to see what impact such goals have on people—-what effect mega-stores have on the people who shop there and on the other businesses in the area. How does having efficiency as the prime goal of business affect our ability to live stewardly lives before God? Being aware of these roots can help us see distortions that we've been blind to in the past. Perhaps from the historical vantage point, we can find better ways to conduct business or promote human rights or spend our time.

I began by saying that "how you understand history can change how you live, work and vote". As I hope you've gathered by now, I don't mean that if you memorize a bunch of dates and names, then you'll be a better Christian who can transform the world—-as if a history course or history book can be some sort of talisman. One of the amazing things about a college education is the moment when your insight from a history class, for example, clicks with what you've learned from Philosophy 101 and a Psychology course! How much more essential is it that these "aha" moments be triggered from a Christian perspective! In conjunction with other disciplines, the study of history can play a large role in giving us the vantage point to view our own culture a little more clearly and give us the tools to help transform it—and the stories are pretty cool, too!

Some ideas and examples in this piece are adapted from an article by Sally Jongsma based upon an interview with the Dordt College history department for the Winter 2003 Dordt College Voice. Thanks to Sally for her permission and the insights of my colleagues in the history department Hubert Krygsman and Keith Sewell!

Some questions for discussion:

What have been the qualities and tactics of your teachers who have taught history really well (as it should be taught)? How did they change or affirm your perspective on learning history as essential?

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