History and Civic Virtue

This hasn’t been the kind of blog where posts often consist of extended quotations from other blogs framed by some brief comments of my own. But today I’ll break with that pattern, since (a) sermon prep (still can’t believe I’m writing those words) is proving a welcome but time-consuming distraction from blogging, and (b) John Fea has a modest proposal that deserves whatever wider attention I can provide:

John Fea
John Fea

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  Second, it would offer programs on historical thinking and historical content to a wide swath of the public.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.

Sign me up! My only suggestion — being a Europeanist and international historian — is that it not be confined to the study of American history, a field which itself is increasingly, and rightfully, taking on an international, transnational, or otherwise global dimension.

But I’d echo all of John’s points, two in particular. First, the notion that studying the past is akin to visiting a “foreign country,” a profoundly cross-cultural experience that should make us think more deeply about our assumptions. And second, that such an experience has tremendous potential to shape the virtues that John mentioned — plus some others I know he values, like patience.

Intriguingly, what John suggests resonates with the way our department revised its objectives this past summer. We streamlined the statement to build off of two basic goals. First, we want our students to gain a broad knowledge of human history (viewing all of God’s Creation, including His human creations, as worthy of study), as deepened by four recurring themes. One of them was that we pay special attention to those on the margins of societies, with an eye to cultivating the related virtues of empathy and hospitality.

Second, we want our students to cultivate wisdom — in the sense (as Eugene Peterson defines the word) of “living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.” Specifically, we want to equip our students to live as alien citizens who are “in the world but not of it.”

James Davison Hunter
James Davison Hunter

To understand how I (speaking just for myself now, not my department) understand that idea of preparing students to live “skillfully” in this world, I can do little better than quote something else John recently wrote, responding to a talk given at Messiah by James Davison Hunter on his “faithful presence” model of Christian engagement with the world:

Faithful Presence requires Christians to:

• be fully present to others in and out of the church.

• be fully present and committed to tasks and work

• be fully present in social influence. (family, neighborhood, place of employment).

• do what they are able to shape institutions and individuals for Christ through faithful presence

• enact Shalom and sacrificial love wherever God places you.

Those who want to bring change in society through prophetic preaching or radical activism may not necessarily like Hunter’s model.  He is calling for Christians to be patient and invest, over the long haul, in places and communities.  He is calling Christians to listen, understand, and serve others.

I think Hunter’s message resonates with several themes that are often discussed at this blog.  First, Hunter’s vision is compatible with agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry who challenge humans to stay put and enact change at the local level.

Second, Hunter’s vision is compatible with the kinds of things I have been saying lately about the study of history and the humanities.  The study of the past does not produce prophets or radical activists in the progressive, populist, or New Left tradition.  Rather, it produces world-changers who are skilled in the virtues of hospitality, civility, humility, and empathy because they have learned to listen before condemning and show charity before criticizing.

I might echo C.S. Lewis and add the virtue of joy (not happiness, but joy) to that list, since I wouldn’t want students to pursue this kind of long-haul world-changing without it, but hospitality, civility, humility, empathy, attentiveness, and charity all strike me as scholarly and civic virtues that history is distinctively (if not uniquely) well-suited to develop.


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