Why Historical Horizons?

by Will Katerberg

Why Historical Horizons and why a blog from a History Department?

My colleagues and I have lots to do. We teach classes and supervise students doing research papers and honors theses. We serve on committees and as administrators. We go to conferences, present papers, and meet publishers. We travel to do research, sometimes to exotic places, where we spend most of our time in archives. We publish essays, articles, and books.

So why add a blog to all this other stuff?

It’s because the historical profession and higher education are in a state of flux. Some of this flux is creative, with scholars doing exciting new work. Some of it is destructive, as colleges and universities respond to a changing higher education market.

The social history class that my colleague Kristin Du Mez is teaching is an example of the creativity that I’m talking about. She and her students are working on the local history of Grand Rapids. They’re not just writing essays, they’re hoping to contribute to an iPhone app called GR Walks. The app is a fun way for residents and visitors to learn about Grand Rapids, and the students will learn new ways of presenting history. Another of my colleagues, Bruce Berglund, does podcasts about the history and culture of sports. He uses Facebook and Twitter to spread the news about new podcasts.

This isn’t history like your parents and grandparents learned it in school.

I hasten to add that my colleagues also are doing the kind of work you probably expect from historians, and doing it very well. Our specialist on Medieval Europe, Frans Van Liere, has a new book out on the history of the Bible in the Middle Ages. I could go on, shamelessly advertising the marvelous work my colleagues are doing.

The flux that is damaging is a tale of woe that doesn’t need to be repeated here in any detail, but it amounts to deep cuts in education, from middle school through to graduate programs in universities, particularly in the arts and humanities, the study of history among them.

History is not practical, not a necessity, people today often think, agreeing with Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister in the 1980s. She once encountered a student while touring a university and asked him what he was doing. When he told her he was studying history, she told him: “Young man, history is a luxury in which this country can ill afford to indulge.”

Why Historical Horizons? “Horizon” is a useful metaphor for the background framework of our experience, the circumstances and assumptions that shape how we understand things and act, the way memories of the past shape us in the present, including our perceptions of the future.

So what should history be for? Should we study the past for its own sake, simply to understand it? Should we study history to help us better understand the present and the future?

What should historians study? Historical topics that sell well on Amazon or get high ratings on cable TV? Or new topics that cross the boundaries of “history” into other fields of study?

How should we present history to our students, to each other, and the wider public? Podcasts? iPhone apps? MOOCS? Traditional lectures and seminar discussions? Thick books with footnotes?

None of these are abstract questions. Whatever we study and however we do it costs money. Why should tax dollars and the tuition dollars of students go to studying the past? Is it a luxury, like Margaret Thatcher said?

In short, what are the horizons of historical study today? My colleagues and I discuss these thing over lunch and coffee. We hash them out with colleagues from other departments on committees that decide where resources should go and what a Calvin College education should look like.

Historical Horizons is a forum for people working in the history department at Calvin College. We hope our students at Calvin, our alumni and colleagues around the world, and anybody interested in the past will find it interesting and useful.

Books and essays are long. They go through an intense process of review. This blog is a place where we can explore issues and ideas informally in short pieces of writing. Things that come up in our classes and stuff we run across while doing research. Historical reflections on contemporary issues. Thoughts on history as a discipline and what to do with a degree in history. We’ll point to stuff on the internet that we find interesting from the viewpoint of historians. We invite you to join us in the discussions.

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