A month has passed since I last wrote to you guys, and I apologize. I’ve had lots of good intentions, but I’m not sure they count for much. (Something about the paving on the road to hell comes to mind.) One of the things that have kept me busy has been a new course that I am teaching on the American Revolution, and my goal going forward will be to share with you some of what I am thinking as that course unfolds. Here’s my first shot.
At the University of Washington, where I taught for twenty-two years, professional specialization ruled the day. I had forty-four colleagues in the history department, and we divided and sub-divided and sub-sub-divided the past and then immersed ourselves into our chosen slivers of the human story. There are aspects of this approach that I wholeheartedly endorse. It shows an appropriate respect for the awesome complexity of the past and the almost indescribable challenge of mastering even the tiniest part of it. We need deep knowledge of the past, and specialization is essential if we are to acquire that. But as a Christian historian, I also feel a special burden to connect with the world outside of the Academy, most especially with my brothers and sisters in the Church. Here specialization gets in the way. In my experience, the narrowness of focus that specialization demands often makes it hard to talk about history with Christians at church, even with those who are genuinely interested.
All of which is to say that, even though I’ve taught on U. S. history for more than a quarter century, I’ve never offered an entire course on the American Revolution until now. Eleven of my forty-four colleagues at UW focused on U. S. history, and the dozen of us carved up the field into pretty small plots. I gradually became the U. S. “Middle Period” specialist, immersing myself in the three generations or so spanning the creation of the Constitution through the end of Reconstruction.
One of the great things about teaching at Wheaton College is that this kind of narrowness just won’t do. I have six colleagues in the History Department here, not forty-four, and we try to cover as much of the globe as we can. And so by necessity I am branching out, and this course on the American Revolution is a modest step in that direction. It’s been both rewarding and unsettling. The rewarding part is that I feel like a student again. (Sounds corny, I know.) When I came to Wheaton five years ago, I knew just enough about the American Revolution to be dangerous. I’ve worked to change that, and by stealing the odd moment here and there during the school year, I’ve read a couple of dozen books on the topic. It’s been a blast.
But I still know next to nothing about the American Revolution, and that’s the unsettling part. Don’t get me wrong. I could marshal the names and dates that the College Board equates with mastery of history. But I know that my knowledge is superficial, and I’ve been keenly aware of that as the semester has unfolded. On the first day of the term I shared this with my students, explaining that I was eager to teach a course on the American Revolution because I wanted to learn about the American Revolution and I was delighted by the prospect.
I’m not sure what they thought about this. For far too long we’ve been educated to think of history courses as a kind of service for hire in which experts convey content. The professor’s job is to share indisputable facts. The student’s job is to absorb these facts and retain them until the final exam. Wheaton students (or in most cases, their parents), pay a lot for this transmission of knowledge, and it can be more than a little disconcerting to be told by the old guy in the front of the room that he’s far from an expert on the subject matter.
But I am an expert—just not in the way that students typically expect. I have spent the better part of three decades grappling with what it means to think historically, and the better part of a decade and a half wrestling with what it means to think Christianly while we are thinking historically. And in the end, that’s what I most want my students to take away with them.
Here I’m simply echoing the view of Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the twentieth century. From his post at Cambridge University, Butterfield concluded that “it is better for men to forget what they have actually learned of Louis XIV and cling rather to the experience they gained in the study of history and in historical exercises.” The reason, he went on to explain, is because “history is more useful when transmuted into a deeper wisdom that melts into the rest of experience and is incorporated in the fabric of the mind itself.”
It’s the deeper wisdom that we’re after.
More to come soon.
Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com.
Editor’s Note: Look for new installments of Dr. McKenzie’s series on teaching the American Revolution every Tuesday for the next several weeks.