History in Action

by Amanda Armour Greenhoe (Excerpt from an article in the Fall 2015 edition of Spark)
student and professor talk together over a table in the professor's office

History professor Bruce Berglund with Dan Paulson ’15 history/business major. (Photo by Jill DeVries.)

You’re surfing the internet when you find an article on the Italian Grand Prix, a tale of fast cars at dangerously fast speeds. This story of the race’s 1928 running, written in 2015 with the advantages of hindsight and historical context, soon has you reading about how a high-profile crash put pressure on a Fascist Italian regime and how the European church responded. As a reader, you’re suddenly making a slew of connections, led down an interdisciplinary path of connect-the-dots from sports to politics and religion. And, along the way, history has become something entirely different from what you expected.

Experiences like this—when history surprises—are regular for readers of professor Bruce Berglund’s recent endeavor, The Allrounder. The online international sports journal, which Berglund started just over two years ago, brings history and a variety of other disciplines to life through the lens of athletics.

Is this really history, you ask? Berglund, and likely the thousands already following the publication, argue yes.

“It’s only recently that the discipline [of history] has changed in such a way that sports history is recognized as an acceptable area of research,” he said.

Berglund’s work with The Allrounder, in addition to his broader scholarship on the history of sport, exemplifies the excitement around “history in action” at Calvin. Or, as some refer to it, applied history.

Applied…to what?

Conceptualizing “applied history” is difficult. Some scholars use it as a synonym for “public history”—history outside of the classroom and other scholarly settings, such as in museums, documentaries and historical fiction. Others see nearly any form of history that draws connections between past and present as fitting the category.

Professor Will Katerberg, currently serving as chair of the history department, says that people often apply history in their daily lives to make sense of what is going in their lives and the world around them, comparing something in the present to analogous circumstances in the past. He calls this form of applied history “history by analogy.”

When it comes to analogical history, Katerberg says we must be careful not to draw merely surface comparisons. He references, for example, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in the 2000s, which prompted some to point out connections between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, while others likened the military intervention to the Vietnam War. Considering historical nuances, Katerberg says the failures of the French- and British-run mandate system in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, part of Iraq’s own history, might better illuminate the situation.

“History by analogy depends on doing good, detailed history, acknowledging its messy complexity, in which we understand the past as best we can on its own terms before we try to apply lessons from the past to our own time,” Katerberg explained. “It ought to lead us to be wary of simple historical lessons, certainly of emotional and politically driven historical parables, and incline us to try to understand events in their specific, unpredictable historical circumstances.”

Once this legwork has been done, thoroughly and thoughtfully, then historians can “apply” their findings to real-world tasks or problems through analogy. This, Katerberg says, is a form of applied history done well. It helps us see the present in more complex ways, rather than simplifying it.

For an additional way to understand applied history, consider the Calvin history department’s mission statement: We study the past to understand humanity’s place in the world, to remember those who came before us and to help us live more wisely in our own time.

Wise living in one’s own time—considering the context of history and our place in it—would seem to be the essence of applied history. And Calvin students can’t get enough of it.

>> Read the rest of the article in the Spark, Calvin’s alumni magazine.

Amanda Armour Greenhoe is a writer and Calvin’s social media manager. This article originally appeared as a cover story in the Fall 2015 issue of Spark

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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