“Clear-Eyed, Nuanced, and Frank”

This morning, dozens of scholarly and educational organizations in the United States—including PEN America, the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Federation of Teachers—have signed a joint statement condemning broadly-worded bills that aim to curtail discussions of racism and history in schools and colleges.

First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, June 16, 2021

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 3 (The Renaissance)

This is the third regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Renaissance.”

This week’s episode of How Should We Then Live is even more ambivalent about its subject than the episode on medieval Europe was.

It’s also, I would say, less focused on history as such. That is, today’s episode is more an interpretation of art history, which is its own academic discipline. But Francis Schaeffer is still making claims about Europe’s intellectual and cultural evolution. He is using the art of the Renaissance to support his overall argument that we must base our social life on a foundation of Protestant Christian values if we want to preserve both order and freedom.

I would say this episode seriously taxes Schaeffer’s approach. For him, the Renaissance, like the medieval period, is just too likable to work well for his argument. Intellectually, he needs the Renaissance to show signs of decay, or at least the causes of decay—signs that Europe was slipping toward the despair that he associates with post-Christian modernity. His argument needs the Christian humanism of the Renaissance to prefigure the secular humanism that Schaeffer finds so threatening in the 20th century.

Yet in this episode, we see Schaeffer, a sort of evangelical dissident from mid-20th-century fundamentalism, absolutely revel in Renaissance culture. His enthusiasm, however much it may be mixed with skepticism, is infectious.

The other thing today’s viewers will find extraordinary about this episode is the absurd level of access Schaeffer’s crew had to some of the masterworks of European art.



Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 3 (The Renaissance)”

The Conspiracy Theorist in Your Class

This week, the historian Elizabeth Stice warned readers of Inside Higher Ed that college professors in the United States may face a rising number of undergraduates who believe in conspiracy theories—including the kinds of toxic conspiracy theories that drive anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence.

Stice issues a challenge to instructors:

The situation is further complicated today, because many people are already skeptical and suspicious of higher education. Those who doubt ‘experts’ are unlikely to be easily convinced and will be wary of being ‘brainwashed’ in other directions. …

We stand at a crossroads. How will colleges and universities counter the rise of conspiracy thinking that compulsively creates internal enemies and distorts reality? How will we do it in ways that are compelling and convincing? The battle is not for attaining the moral high ground but for expanding minds. … What is our plan?

Unsurprisingly, considering her role as a history professor, Stice writes that the liberal arts disciplines have a particularly important role to play in promoting reality-based thinking among students.

I would like to use this opportunity, though, to argue (again) that it’s not simply liberal arts courses that have a critical role to play here—and not only at the undergraduate level. What matters is the comprehensive model of a liberal arts education as a cultivation of the student’s entire imagination, starting early.

I’m convinced that any individual course is as likely to stoke conspiracy theories as to alleviate them. That’s because conspiracy theories happen, for the most part, as a result of inquisitive and articulate people dealing with partial information about how the world works.

This is one of my concerns about recent controversies in both K-12 and higher education. Often American political and academic leaders seem fixated on certain kinds of courses—for example, on the first-year courses that colleges sometimes require on the topic of diversity—or certain academic theories that may or may not be taught at all—while adopting rhetoric that undermines public confidence not in those specific things, but rather in the very concept of an education that happens holistically across many different disciplines.

And many academics in the classroom, for their part, seem fixated on addressing such problems by doubling down on expertise, promising to teach specialized skills of research and analysis, as if better research skills would solve the problems that arise when Americans “do their own research” in the absence of a well-rounded understanding of how the world works.

Meanwhile, some pundits confuse a failure to offer a diverse education (covering many different approaches, concerns, disciplinary tools, and debates) with the individual instructor’s or specific discipline’s supposed failure to permit “viewpoint diversity” in the classroom—as if a content-neutral concept of viewpoint diversity weren’t tailor-made for conspiracy theorists and other defectors from reality.

But what can any teacher do about this problem? How can a huge institutional and policy problem be addressed in my classroom?

For a history teacher, I think one answer is to go big and small at the same time. We need to introduce students to the bigness of the past—its variety, its complexity, the inherent insufficiency of any single interpretation—while also showing students that the past is about real people’s lives, not about abstractions.

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 2 (The Middle Ages)

This is the second regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re just starting out, I recommend starting with the project introduction and reading the posts in order. They really will make more sense that way. Today’s episode is “The Middle Ages.”


It occurred to me only after I published last week’s post that it could shed light on a key incident in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

A year ago this week, police officers in Washington, D.C., invaded the grounds of an Episcopal church near the White House and tear-gassed protesters and clergy members who had gathered there. As you’ll recall, the U.S. attorney general ordered the attack just before Donald Trump held an awkward photo-op in front of the church, displaying someone else’s Bible as if he were a child at show-and-tell.

Some evangelical Protestants praised this assault. “Thank you[,] President Trump,” wrote Billy Graham’s son; “God and His Word are the only hope for our nation.” The president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference fawned over Trump for brandishing the Bible on camera “like a boss.” And a minor politician in Florida recalled thinking “Look at my president! He’s establishing the Lord’s kingdom in the world.”

Perhaps, I’m saying, such odd reactions shouldn’t have been surprising, in light of the episode I watched last week. The very first minutes (and the promotional materials) of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live had put fear of urban disorder at the heart of its message to evangelicals. Judging by the stock footage involved, this had included a specific fear of Black protesters.

Of course, a lot has happened in American evangelicalism since 1977. Much more recent developments were more important to what transpired last summer. But I think it would be a mistake to discount the significance of the message Francis Schaeffer delivered in that early transitional moment.

If I’m right, then the second episode of How Should We Then Live, which I watched this week, continues to provide some distant backstory for last summer’s attack. Specifically, it may help explain some of the conditions that led to evangelical leaders in 2020 praising the use of a Bible as a symbol of violent secular political power.

Why a Bible, in particular? It’s an odd thing to see in this context, when you think about it.

Ostensibly, today’s episode, “The Middle Ages,” covers about one thousand years of western European religious history. But what it was really about, I’m going to argue, is the role that the Bible should play in American churches and public life.

In this respect, Episode II of How Should We Then Live speaks both to politics in the 1970s and to a specific theological debate that was then raging inside American evangelicalism.


But first, let me acknowledge what a delicate task this episode must have been for Francis Schaeffer to undertake at the time. This is a respect in which U.S. evangelicalism has changed considerably in the last five decades.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 2 (The Middle Ages)”

Expect Contradictions

Contradictions, however, are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting [historical] evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without cross-currents. … No age is tidy or made of whole cloth.

—Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, xxiii