Learning Communities

by Will Katerberg

blackboard with hand writing in chalk "History"Every year I teach a section of the history department’s capstone course on historiography. The most basic questions in the course are: What is the nature of historical knowledge? Is objectivity possible? Is it necessarily desirable? How does historical thinking work? What is the purpose of historical study? To understand the world? To contribute to changing aspects of the world?

Most of the students are seniors. Some are bound for grad school; others hope to teach elementary, middle, or high school history. Some have firm plans for medical school, law school, seminary, or a career in government or business. Some have no idea what’s next.

My favorite assignment is a take-home essay that is part of the final exam. The students reflect on their worldview, particularly the religious elements of it, and how it shapes the way they study and think about the past—and how studying history has shaped the way they view their lives and the world. They also talk about what they consider the most interesting or important issues that we studied over the semester.

Reading the students’ take-home essays gives me an insight not just into how they think, but also into how they feel and what they believe. Some express existential doubts about matters of faith, why they have been studying history, or what they’re going to do after they graduate. Many talk about how disorienting they have found the material in the course—which was part of the point!—and how they’ve only begun to put the pieces back together in a new way by the end of the semester.

Cartoon drawing of 2 students walking with the caption "I like my history teacher. He's kind of old and I think he lived through much of the history he's teaching."What students tell me shows how much this course and their time at Calvin has shaped them. In turn, reading what they say has powerfully influence my sense of who I am as a historian and a teacher, and a mentor to some of the students.

This past year, one student emphasized how during his time at Calvin he discovered the depth and breadth of racial and economic inequality in Grand Rapids. He found the careers of activist scholars such as Howard Zinn compelling in the ways they have contributed to both higher education and society. Thinking about the question posed by Christian historian Perry Bush—“What Would History Look Like if ‘Peace and Justice’ Really Mattered?”—shaped his own work in a research project that semester. Yet he also remained committed to pushing back against postmodern scholars and zealous activists, where they threaten to treat the past as a matter of our arbitrary construction. We need to do justice to, be faithful to, the complexities of the past. “History,” he concluded, “should speak to the problems of the present without sacrificing the complexity of the past.”

A student hoping to become a teacher emphasized how much more self-conscious he had become about what he would teach his future students, and how. The past does not tell its own story, he explained, the historian does. Truths about the past that seem obvious become confusing or seem strange when we tell the story from a different narrative point of view, or start and end the story in different places. The power that a teacher can have over students just beginning to learn about the past struck him in a new way, leading him to advocate the importance of diverse perspectives in the classroom for his future students.

Studying these issues from the viewpoint of the historian’s vocation also bled into other areas of students’ lives. One said that she found the diverse interpretations of the past beautiful. “The past is not just the past. There are so many stories and so many characters and so many lessons.” She celebrated the power of stories and the “endless possibilities for creativity” in the work of the historian. She also “grieved” that the past can as a result be “manipulated, whether goodheartedly to tell a fine story or deceitfully to indoctrinate.” How can we find assurance, whether in our knowledge about the past or in matters of faith?

Cartoon of Inspector Gadget character with tools labeled as "skill sets for the 21st century", "learning environments," "a thinking pedagogy," etc.My favorite observation from this past year’s essays helps to answer this last question. It came from a student who said that our class had become an important community for her. She also explained how valuable is was for her to discuss the role of communities in making possible the work that historians do, whether in classrooms, scholarly conferences and peer review, or in public history settings such as museums, national memorials, and parks. When her own understanding failed her, she appreciated what she learned from other people in the classroom. She found comfort in the generations of modern historians who came before us and wrestled with the same kind of disorienting questions that sometimes bedeviled us. Her experience of community in our classroom had renewed her desire to transfer some of what she’d learned to others in the future.

Christians often emphasize how important it is for them to be part of a community of faith when their own faith falters. At their best, classrooms do much the same. When we wonder why we spend huge sums of money and many, many hours, days, and years  studying a subject like history, and wonder what its purpose is, communities of learning help us to keep the faith. Historical knowledge matters. And the work my students have done together has the power to shape their careers and lives, whatever kind of work they end up doing after graduating.

This post is part of a series on Critical History and Sacred Tradition.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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The Cost of Faithful Witness in South Africa: Russel Botman, 1953 – 2014

by Ronald A. Wells.
smiling Russel Botman wearing university robes

Russel Botman

Russel Botman, a friend who was a Reformed theologian and university president, died on June 28 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. A sixty-year old dying in his sleep is not typically a matter for international attention. But, in later press investigation and commentary a more complex story emerged. The context of his life and the circumstances of his death should interest us because they illustrate a theme about the personal toll exacted on those who would follow in the gospel train of Mandela, Tutu and King in trying to implement the changes needed to live in a just and democratic society.

A story in a leading newspaper – The Times of South Africa – had the provocative title, “Who Killed Russel Botman?” It was not sensationalist journalism. The author was Dr. Jonathan Jansen, the Vice-Chancellor (president) of the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. He wrote “It is a subject nobody wants to talk about – the high personal cost of transformation.” He quoted others, across the country and at Stellenbosch, to answer his own question: “They killed him,” through “relentless pressure on a gentle soul.”

Jansen attended the funeral, where, out of respect for the family, no one mentioned the storm that had been swirling around Botman in recent months and years. But then, he writes, Russel’s sister-in-law “dropped a devastating one-liner, expressing a measure of relief for his departure: ‘dark clouds of evil were gathering around him.’ There were quiet nods all around; we knew what she meant and her words were needed.”

These events point to the slow pace of change in the new South Africa, and to those who are impeding it.  Despite it being over twenty years since Mandela walked free, there is still a considerable under-representation of the Black majority – students, staff and faculty – in the universities of the nation. Those trying to change that are called “transformation officers,” either at the head of the university or in a special unit designed to monitor and promote change. Russel Botman was at the top of the list of people trying to transform a prestigious institution.

Dr. Botman was a person of mixed race, so he was classified as “coloured” by the Apartheid regime. Therefore he had attended the University of the Western Cape, the school no one ever really wanted. The Whites begrudged its existence and the coloured folks wanted to go to the already-existing universities, like Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand. Russel felt called to the ministry, and he later pursued that vocation before finding his true calling in academic life.

While at Western Cape he sat under the wise counsel of Professor Daan Cloete and the challenging insights of Professor Jaap Durand. The latter gave his students their marching orders: “I challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on Apartheid.” That is exactly what his students did.

Allan Boesak in 1986

Allan Boesak (1986)

Russel joined others, especially the charismatic chaplain, Allan Boesak, to incline their theological studies towards the pressing questions of opposing Apartheid. It was a complicated system of racial and other classifications. Everything fit into a whole, and it was all undergirded by theology. The architects of Apartheid (ironically, many from the university Botman was later to head), drew on the works of the Dutch political and religious leader of a century ago, Abraham Kuyper [see James Bratt’s recent biography of Kuyper]. Kuyper’s vast system called for a cultural theology of differentiation into “sovereign spheres.” In South Africa that was used to support a differentiated racial system.

But the students at Western Cape would not allow that hijacking of the neo-Calvinist Reformed faith. They rediscovered the social justice side of the complex Kuyper. Allan Boesak would write in his landmark book, Black and Reformed, that the full Kuyperian heritage was for all peoples and it spoke the words of social justice. They worked on this in the nearby town of Belhar, thus the document they produced became known as “The Belhar Confession.”  They stayed with it and got various synods in many countries to declare that the theological basis for Apartheid was a heresy. Therefore, when Apartheid fell, it was as much a religious revolution as a political one.

Russel’s area of vocation in post-Apartheid South Africa was religious and academic life. He was called to be a “transformational” leader.  Like Bishop Tutu, Russel was a no-nonsense gospel advocate for social justice; but also like Tutu, he knew that that there was “no future without forgiveness.” That was Russel’s genius as a leader: tough-minded thinking and a gentle heart.

Beyond that, he was a good scholar. Last year Princeton Seminary awarded him the prestigious “Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Theology and Public Life.” The world of South African theology had changed. But, the realities on the ground were not so open to change. Of his books, one I treasure, and have on my desk as I type this, is (with Robin Peterson), To Remember and to Heal: Theological and Psychological Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation. The foreword is by Bishop Tutu.

Those were the qualities that, one supposes, the University of Stellenbosch saw in asking him first to join the faculty in 2000, and then, a few years later to join the administration. In 2007 he was named Vice-Chancellor, the first non-White ever to be tapped to lead a historically-White university. Because he was bilingual (English and Afrikaans), as are most “coloured” people (in the old Apartheid categories), he was right to lead Stellenbosch, a place where language rights is a volatile part of the academic scene. It was where many Apartheid-era thinkers had been schooled. Indeed, six of the seven prime ministers were graduates of Stellenbosch, including Apartheid’s main architect, H. F. Verwoerd.


Centre for Inclusivity at Stellenbosch.

Russel had considerable success in his first five-year term in turning Stellenbosch away from what he called a culture of exclusion, in which White and male leadership and perspectives were seen to be normative. But in his second term he intended to move the university toward a culture of inclusion. He likened his task “to redesigning and rebuilding a huge passenger plane – while flying it.” His goal, he said, was to have Stellenbosch be a place “where the daughter of a farm worker would feel equal to the son of a farmer.” The vehicle for the way forward was to be a Centre for Inclusivity, which was to monitor and promote inclusion on campus.

Some on the Council (similar to a Board of Trustees), a minority but a formidable one, bitterly opposed the Centre and what it stood for. To them it was an affront to their heritage and all they thought the university had valued for over a century. They did what they could to frustrate, discredit, and undermine Russel. They planted rumors and innuendo in local media, especially in the Afrikaans-language radio stations and newspapers. They leaked the agenda of the Council meetings beforehand, so that the local Afrikaans press could debate the issues before they were discussed in the Council. On the day before what was to be Botman’s last Council meeting, a local paper said there would be a motion of no confidence in him. There was none, but it was part of a campaign to rattle him and wear him down. The chair of the Council publicly deplored such actions by his colleagues.  A few days later, on Friday June 27, 2014 Russel said he felt unwell, and went home. His heart stopped beating sometime overnight. We know who killed Russel Botman and why they did so. They will not be brought to justice.

Russel Botman is gone now. Rest in peace, my friend.  Yet, even now, I believe Russel would ask us to quiet our anger at those who pushed him to the edge, while at the same time, to renew our commitment to the goals he stood for. He would want us to stand with Dr. Martin Luther King in pointing to the arc of history and to the justice toward which it bends.

Ronald A. Wells is Professor of History Emeritus at Calvin College, and is mostly retired, living in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where he directs the Symposium on Faith and Liberal Arts at Maryville College.

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The Trouble with Quotes on the Internet

by Kate van Liere.

A few weeks ago a bumper sticker caught my eye on a pickup truck in a Best Buy parking lot. It read, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have. –Thomas Jefferson.” I am no Jefferson scholar. I’m not even an American historian—my knowledge of Jefferson’s oeuvre barely extends past the prologue to the Declaration of Independence—but this “Jefferson quote” jumped at me, as I hope it would at any liberal arts major, as patently anachronistic. Of course Jefferson believed in limited government, but saw the greatest threat to liberty as monarchical tyranny, not the twentieth-century welfare state. And the sage of Monticello would never have used such condescending modern phrases as “giv[ing] you everything you want” and “tak[ing] away everything that you have.” Enlightened men of letters did not write like modern dads scolding acquisitive teenagers.

Coffee mug featuring the quote incorrectly attributed to Jefferson.A quick internet search revealed a much more plausible source for this aphorism: its author is unknown, but it seems to date to the early 1950s, when it became popular with Republican politicians. One can appreciate the appeal of this warning against the dangers of unbridled state power during the Cold War.  Gerald Ford used it as a Congressman in 1954, and again as president twenty years later. Its false attribution to Jefferson is much more recent, probably a Tea Party invention. But now that you can buy this spurious “Jefferson quotation” emblazoned on coffee mugs, T-shirts, buttons, sofa pillows, and baby onesies, the misconception may continue to multiply.

In trying to track down the source of this quotation, I discovered that research librarians at Monticello have compiled an impressive collection of spurious Jefferson quotations. Mount Vernon’s website has a similar resource for spurious Washington quotations, as does Winston Churchill’s fan website. Abraham Lincoln may be the biggest victim of false quotations; in fact both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have quoted the same pseudo-Lincoln passage in presidential speeches. It must have been exasperation over all these fabrications that led Abe to utter his well-known warning, “The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.”

Portrait of Lincoln with the quote "The Problem with quotes on the internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity."It’s not hard to see the irony in the internet’s dual role in such stories of false attribution. As “Abe” so wisely warns in that brilliant meme, the web makes it dismayingly easy for false quotations, like false information in general, to spread exponentially. But the web, used carefully, is also a rich mine of true information that can help us to unmask falsehoods. Didn’t I just admit to using it to ferret out the truth about that baffling bumper sticker?

Sadly, figures less popular than American presidents don’t always get the same corrective treatment. So I’d like to use this little corner of the internet to try to set the record straight about another Enlightenment writer, the English historian Edward Gibbon.

cover of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireGibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whose first volume was published in the same year as Jefferson’s Declaration, is one of the greatest historical works ever written. It also used to be widely read, but these days, although most educated people have heard of Gibbon, few read him. That’s understandable; he is learned and witty, but long-winded (the Decline and Fall fills more than a thousand pages) and not easy to digest. So it is no great surprise that bloggers, students, and others wanting to sum up Gibbon’s argument about why the Roman Empire fell rely on second-hand attributions. If you browse the web for Gibbon quotations on decline or decay, as many bloggers clearly do, you may well find these lines about the causes of “cultural decay” attributed to the great writer:

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:

Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.

When I first saw this bizarre set of bullet-points attributed to Gibbon, it provoked the same jarring sense of anachronism as the pseudo-Jefferson bumper sticker. These cannot be Gibbon’s own words. Yet a little Googling turned up the identical text attributed to Gibbon on in a wide range of websites, from the apparently reputable Affordable Housing Institute to a somewhat more dubious economics blog to an Evangelical jeremiad about pedophilia in The Baptist Press. All of them presented it as an exact quotation from the Decline and Fall.

How could this string of awkward phrases pass for the words of one of the best historical writers in the English language? Not only is the syntax completely unlike Gibbon’s magisterial prose style, but much of the vocabulary is wholly anachronistic. “Obsession with sex” may not be a modern phenomenon, but surely it is a twentieth-century phrase, as is “living off the state.” In fact, the word “obsession” does not even appear once in Gibbon’s entire Decline and Fall. Nor do “freakish”, “sensationalistic”, or “disparity.” Gibbon never used the word “perversion” in the context of “sexual perversion.”

stack of multiple volume's of Gibbon's work.I make these claims not to show off my knowledge of Enlightened prose, but to suggest another way that you can use the internet to spot an internet fake. I don’t have the literary expertise to make all those assertions about Gibbon’s vocabulary from memory. But I can review Gibbon’s entire text, and search it for words or phrases, on the CCEL website, an indispensable electronic resource created by Calvin professor Harry Plantinga. (In the process of looking up this link, I made the nice discovery that one of my former students, Calvin seminarian and onetime History major Laura de Jong, has written the site’s brief introduction to the Decline and Fall.) Better still, you can read the whole text online if you can’t get your hands on a printed copy. All right, I know that is not realistic. I have not read the whole text either. But you can sample a chapter or two. If you are really interested in Gibbon’s broad explanations for the fall of Rome, try chapter 71, or the “General Reflections” chapter.

Even in these chapters, though, you won’t find Gibbon summing up the “causes of decline” or “marks of decay” as neatly as in the bullet-pointed pseudo-Gibbon. The real Gibbon expressly warned that “the complaints of contemporary writers, who deplore the increase of luxury, and depravation of manners” tell us more about their own anxieties than about reliable historical patterns. (Chapter 37) He was right. Like the Cold War warning against big government, the “five marks of cultural decay” listed here say much more about the fears of modern Americans than about those of their supposed author.

If it’s misleading to present Jefferson as a critic of modern socialism, it’s even further from the mark to depict Gibbon as prophet of cultural decline, or as a critic of sexual perversion, decadent art, or welfare dependency. The first and the fourth of these apocryphal five “marks”—the ones about affluence—bear some resemblance to Gibbon’s own account of imperial Rome; he did have a lot to say about luxury and misplaced wealth. But the main culprits in Rome’s decline, as he saw it, were not ordinary citizens misbehaving, growing dissolute, or creating bad art. They were degenerate and immoral rulers, foreign invaders, and (most problematic for modern Christian readers) Christian converts and clergymen.

Indeed, Gibbon had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Christianity. While he praised the moral integrity of the early Christians, he did not hide his disdain for their “intolerant zeal” and “superstition.” And he argued (especially in Chapter 15) that the Christians’ zeal for the Kingdom of Heaven made them unreliable citizens and contributed to Rome’s military weakness in the face of barbarian invasions. This is one of the most difficult aspects of Gibbon’s argument for modern Christian readers to digest, and one that seems to elude many of the Christian bloggers who present these “five marks” as proof that a great Enlightened thinker shared their views about the inevitable connection between moral corruption and the decline of a great empire.

In short, Gibbon was not a committed Christian, a moralist, or a political scientist. He did not believe that one could systematically recognize the onset of “decline” or “decay” by observing distinctive patterns. He was a skeptical historian who reveled in historical ironies, and believed that historical trends that might seem morally good from one perspective might have undesirable consequences. He is a wise and witty observer of politics and society, but an unlikely godfather for most political parties.

With election season upon us, we should be on guard for spurious quotations that offer false ancestries for modern opinions. As nobody once said, “Good ideas should not need historical quotations to make them credible.”

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and co-directs Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

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