John Fea’s (@JohnFea1) New History Podcast Fulfills a Necessary Public Function

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If you enjoy history, want to keep up with new books in history, learn how to think historically, and hear from the many of the best historians in the world, check out award-winning historian John Fea’s new podcast “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.”

Many of you are familiar with Fea’s work. He serves as chair of the history department at Messiah College. He is author of several books–including most recently his newly released history of the American Bible Society, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016). Prior to this book, he gave us Why Study History: Reflections on the Importance of the Past (Baker, 2013), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: An Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2011), and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). He also co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) with Jay Green and Eric Miller. Fea’s Was America Founded was a finalist for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize in 2012 (watch for the second edition of Was America Founded to come out later this year). And I was deeply honored that he wrote the foreword to my book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.

Fea is not only a prolific writer of books–he also regularly engages the public through his widely read historical blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” His analysis of current events in politics, academia, faith, and the state of the historian’s craft are always edifying and profound. He is also the biggest fan of Bruce Springsteen I have ever seen. (That fact will become obvious when you hear the opening of each episode).

Fea brings his expertise and engaging personality to the forefront in his new podcast. He is joined by producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling, who was one of Fea’s students at Messiah College and is now working on his dissertation. (Hermeling’s presence on the podcast is a testament to Fea’s effectiveness as a teacher and advisor to students). During the first segment of each episode, Fea and Hermeling have conversation together about their teaching, research, and small personal details. They are obviously good friends, and enjoy a fine rapport as two historians interested in engaging the public with important historical issues. In the second segment of each episode, Fea interviews a featured historian on his/her work.

Fea and Hermeling have produced four episodes to date. In Episode 1, James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, talked with Fea on #EverythingHasAHistory. Episode 2 featured Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade. Fea and Williams discussed the history of the culture wars since the latter half of the 20th century. In Episode 3, Fea engages Yoni Applebaum in a fascinating conversation about history and politics. Episode 4 came out on February 28–Fea and Hermeling welcomed Sam Wineburg to discuss teaching history in a STEM dominated context.

As Fea explained in Episode 1, his boyhood dream was to become an investigative journalist. He became a historian after graduating from seminary because, as he said, he loves telling stories about the past. What makes Fea’s podcast engaging is that he combines elements of these two vocations as he discusses issues with Hermeling and with his guests. Every episode has featured famous historians who have done important work–but Fea’s questions are not only about their work and interests. His questions bring history out into the open, so to speak. He brings the importance of history to bear on issues of interest to society as a whole, as well as to specialists, through his conversations with his guests.

In this way, Fea’s podcast serves a distinct public function. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote extensively about what he termed “interest rightly understood” in his Democracy in America. Tocqueville did not think Americans were all that virtuous, but they were pragmatic enough to make a number of small sacrifices of their personal interests to help advance those of their communities. Fea acknowledges that many people don’t particularly like history, and he often addresses the objection from students and parents that a history major is not useful in our technology laden society. But people are interested in politics, sports, religion, movies, etc. And if the public can adopt a historical perspective on what interests them by thinking historically, then everyone benefits.

In Chapter XVIII of Volume I of Democracy, Tocqueville wrote,

The majority of [Americans] believe that a man, by following his own interest rightly understood, will be led to do what is just and good. . . . they judge that the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them to-day to be good, may be superseded by something better to-morrow.

While I take issue with certain features of Tocqueville’s anthropology here (as I suspect Fea might as well), I think Fea would agree that the “diffusion of knowledge”–specifically, historical knowledge, and methods of historical thinking that attend that knowledge–is a good thing for our society, that it leads to civility in discourse among other benefits. Furthermore, Fea clearly believes that historical knowledge helps lead society toward “a state of improvement,” as Tocqueville wrote. That makes Fea’s blog and podcast very aptly named indeed.


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