Category Archives: critical thinking

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.


The Complexity of American Exceptionalism


On September 25, columnist David Brooks penned a piece explaining the meaning of American exceptionalism—and how some of the idea’s staunchest defenders are managing to betray it altogether.

First, what is American exceptionalism? James W. Ceaser, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, divides the concept into a distinction between America as “different” and “special.” Ceaser’s distinction can be summarized in a statement George H. W. Bush made in his 1988 GOP nomination acceptance speech. Bush was making a dig at his Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when he said, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader—a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

Ronald Reagan, the oft-referenced patron saint of today’s GOP, saw America this way. He was fond of adapting Lincoln’s 1862 description of America, calling it “the last best hope of mankind.” He also used a version of John Winthrop’s descriptor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, saying that America was “a shining city on a hill.” American exceptionalism is a potent patriotic concept and both Republicans and Democrats have been consistently employing it, especially since 9/11.

Which is why Brooks is confounded by the fact that GOP figures like Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and Ben Carson seem to be betraying exceptionalism with their recent exclusionary statements aimed at immigrants and Muslims.

For Brooks, the spirit of exceptionalism is oriented to the future, not the past. But as Brooks explains, “The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future.” He laments that exceptionalism, that is, “this hopeful nationalism is being supplanted in the GOP by an anguished cry for a receding America.”

But while there is much to commend about Brooks’ piece, he is right about exceptionalism—and his critique of those who would undermine its meaning—only from a certain point of view.

Brooks considers exceptionalism through a set of specific contextual lenses, namely immigration and religious pluralism. Understood in these contexts, Brooks is undoubtedly right. The GOP figures he critiques are, without doubt, exclusivist in their pining for a bleached and Protestant American past.

But the problem is that exceptionalism is a painfully ambiguous term, and cannot be defined with certainty in a narrow context. If we think historically about exceptionalism—that is, how it has been articulated since the colonial period—we find that the concept is much more complex.

Brooks rightly notes that many in the GOP are exclusionary and oriented to the past. He is also quite correct that exceptionalism should be understood as inclusive and future-oriented. But this represents only one form of exceptionalism, and it is not the one to which Americans historically default. Inclusive exceptionalism is the ideal, and if Americans have ever secured this form of exceptionalism, they have had to fight hard for it.

Consider Abraham Lincoln as an example of inclusive exceptionalism. Throughout his public career, he knew that emancipation of the slaves was consistent with the Declaration of Independence, the document he thought was foundational to the American idea. He had little patience with those, like his 1858 opponent in the US Senate race Stephen A. Douglas, who thought that the phrase “all men are created equal” only meant white men. Speaking to Douglas’ position in the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln said, “I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

But it took a great civil war, three amendments to the Constitution, and another hundred years thereafter for white Americans to legally acknowledge the equal humanity of African Americans. And in practice, many white Americans still aren’t there.

The point is that exclusivist American exceptionalism has historically been the normal patriotic understanding since colonial times. Inclusive exceptionalism is the form truest to the American canonical documents, like the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But inclusive exceptionalism requires struggle. It does not come naturally.

During the nineteenth century, the term commonly in use to describe American patriotism was “manifest destiny.” The idea was that God had destined America to overspread the North American continent, extending the rule of the United States south into Mexico and north into Canada. By the end of the century, and into World War I, manifest destiny had a global reach. Speaking in 1920 on what he saw as America’s God given responsibility to bring Christian civilization to the world, Woodrow Wilson said, “This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

But manifest destiny was a concept that was based on exclusivism. Slavery, nativism, Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans, and colonialism were all logically necessary to manifest destiny, an exclusivist brand of American exceptionalism.

Furthermore, exclusive exceptionalism posits an America that can do no wrong. Ronald Reagan gives us the best recent example of “innocent America” rhetoric. In his 1984 presidential nomination speech at the RNC in Dallas, Reagan said, “America is the most peaceful, least warlike nation in modern history. We are not the cause of all the ills in the world. We’re a patient and generous people.”

Unfortunately, Brooks—probably without realizing or intending it—also falls into the trap of innocent America in his recent article. His sunny picture of the exceptionalism that he criticizes the GOP for undermining is consistent with the uncritical articulation that Reagan presented to the world throughout his public career. But innocent America is also exclusivist, because in this America, there is no racism, no poverty, no oppression—only equal opportunity and justice for all.

In contrast, President Obama may present the best contemporary example of inclusive exceptionalism. He uses the term “exceptionalism” all the time in his speeches, and clearly believes it. But he has no struggles in accepting moral ambiguities in the American character. In a speech he gave at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma earlier this year, the president said, “each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”

Here, Obama situates himself squarely within the inclusive exceptionalist tradition. He articulated the idea that America’s real strength is moral, spiritual, and philosophical. And by making that statement in Selma, Alabama, we are reminded that true patriotism—the expansive, generous, and optimistic vision expressed in the greatest American documents—must be championed through sacrifices.

Exclusive articulations of exceptionalism are nothing new, and they are not limited to the GOP. When making reference to exceptionalism, it’s necessary to understand the power of context in locating its meaning.

Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Confession of a Southern WASP


Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001

This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.

West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.

Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?

And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?

I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.

Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.

My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.

As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.

But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.

This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.

Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.

And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.

If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.

That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).

But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all.  Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.

Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–

Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.

May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.

How to Write a Research Paper


Panther Creek Trail, Cohutta Wilderness, Georgia

I love hiking in the mountains. But hiking can be a true pain in the neck if my attitude isn’t right. Same thing with a research paper–it can be a beautiful journey, but if your attitude isn’t right, it can be a real drag. A good hike is the result of good planning. And a good experience writing a research paper is birthed from a good plan.

My students in History of Philosophy here at Southwestern are hard at work researching their paper topics, which are due at the end of the semester. Yesterday, I had a nice conversation with one of them–he’s writing on Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective conceptions of the Forms, doing a comparison/contrast from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. So this post is written to my students who are HARD AT WORK (wink, wink), and anyone else engaged in a research project who is looking to make a plan.

The following isn’t the only plan one could make, but it works for me. Here goes:

1. Pick your topic.

What historical idea, event, or thinker has been of particular interest to you as you have proceeded through the course? When you can identify some broad concept that interests you, then come up with a question you would like to explore in your 10-12 page paper.

The question you ultimately frame will be the overarching issue of your paper. The answer to your question is your thesis statement.

You may not know the answer to your question at the beginning of your reading and research. The important thing at the beginning is to frame a question that you will seek to answer in the length of 10-12 pages. But once you begin the outlining process, you’ll want to know how you are going to answer your question.

You may think you know the answer to your question, but be open to adapting your thinking, or even changing your mind as you delve into your research.

2. Pull your sources.

Hit the library! You want to look for primary sources as well as secondary sources. The primary sources are necessary for you to get a first hand account of the issue you are exploring. The secondary sources provide you with a sense of how the conversation is proceeding among historians and philosophers about your issue. You will need to have enough primary sources to show that you are interacting with the historical figures themselves, and you will need to have enough secondary sources to show that you are up on the status of current research.

How many sources should you have for a 10-12 page paper? I get that question all the time. Think quality, not quantity. Your sources should be relevant, balanced between primary and secondary, and you should be engaging with all the sources you place in your bibliography. For this length of a paper, a good rule of thumb is 8-12 sources. But focus mainly on the kind of sources you are pulling, not so much on the number of sources you have included in your bibliography.

3. Read your sources.

Collect your sources into one place, and start reading through them. Take one source at a time. Start with the primary sources, and look at your secondary sources after you’ve worked your way through those primaries.

You are looking for material that is pertinent to the issue of your paper, that is, the question you raised at the beginning of the process. As you go through your sources, put little post-it markers on pages you will return to later. Those are good because they stick well on the pages but don’t do any damage to the pages when you remove them.

Read through your sources, marking them up with post-its, one at a time. When you’ve gone through all your sources, they should be loaded with post-it stickies.

4. Take notes on your sources.

Now that you have read through your sources, you will want to open up your word processor and compile notes from each of those sources. Go back through your stickies and write notes on the pertinent quotes and ideas from each source. I even copy sections from the sources verbatim into my notes–but I’m careful to keep my notes absolutely separate from any drafts that I write later.

5. Go through your notes and organize them by theme.

Once you’ve gone through all your sources, taken notes from each of them, go ahead and print off those notes. Leave room for yourself in the margins to take notes on your document.

Read through all your notes. As you are reading those notes, write little one to five word descriptions in the margins that encapsulate the ideas being expressed in each of your sources. Underline quotations that you might be able to use in your draft.

Go through your notes with a fine-toothed comb, and you will find yourself backing your key ideas for your paper into a corner.

6. Write a detailed outline of your paper.

Using your notes–and your notes of your notes–you are now ready to write your outline. Your outline will be divided into three sections: your introduction, your body, and your conclusion.

In your introduction, you are aiming to do three things: tell your audience what issue you are going to tackle, tell them what your conclusion is going to be, and tell them how you are going to explain your conclusion. So, the question you came up with at the beginning of the process is your issue. The answer to that question is your thesis statement. And your explanation of how you are going to explain/justify your answer is your methodology.

Each of these three aspects of an introduction are essential. You must address each of these aspects in the first paragraph of your paper.

Your body–the guts of the paper–will be divided into the reasons you have for arriving at your conclusion, your thesis. These reasons should be broad, and you are going to explain each reason in course of your paper’s body. You might have three reasons, or five–not much more than this in a 10-12 page paper. But in your body, locate three to five reasons why you are drawing the conclusion you stated in your thesis.

Your conclusion should be concise–you restate your issue and your thesis. You restate the reasons you came to your conclusion. And you can find a way to bring your paper to an end with a little rhetorical flourish–but keep it short and simple.

So, here is the basic structure of your outline:

I. Introduction

A. Issue: Question you are raising

B. Conclusion: Your thesis statement

C. Methodology: How you arrive at your conclusion (your reasons justifying your conclusion)

II. Reason One

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Two

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Three

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

IV. Conclusion

A. Restate Issue

B. Restate Conclusion

C. Restate Methodology

Throughout the paper, you will need to be interacting with your primary and secondary sources. Number the pages of your notes document so you can quickly move around in your notes as you write the paper.

Writing the outline is the most important part of the process. If you have an organized, logical, and detailed outline, then writing your first draft is easy-peasy. But if your outline reflects fuzzy thinking, is not detailed enough, or is missing some key elements, your draft is going to look awful. Spend time on the outline, and make it right no matter how long it takes (within reason).

7. Write your first draft.

Now that you have a tightly organized, detailed, logical outline, you are ready to write your first draft! At this point, your ideas should be sufficiently developed and organized so that your writing of your draft is as natural as can be. You just follow the yellow-brick road you have laid down in your outline.

Use your sources to support your observations, your insights, and your ideas. Don’t let your sources carry your water for you. When you reference your sources, those references should never stand alone. You should always use them to support your own thoughts and ideas.

Writing the first draft is the fun part. The hard work of reading, research, organization, and framing the intellectual structure of the paper is all done. Writing the draft is like bringing the furniture into the new house. Be creative and have fun.

8. Edit/rewrite.

Go back through your first draft and eliminate form, grammar, spelling, punctuation errors. Clean up fuzzy and illogical thinking. Tidy up sloppy prose. Break up run-on sentences. Make sure you’ve cited all your sources properly (Turabian form, 8th edition as of this writing).

Get someone to read your draft for you–someone who will be honest with you, but someone who has your best interests at heart.

Does your paper address the issue you stated at the beginning?

Does your thesis answer the issue you stated at the beginning?

Do your reasons and explanations flow logically to the thesis? In other words, do your reasons follow one from the next to the next, all the way to the thesis?

Are you interacting with the pertinent primary sources?

Are you also engaging the secondary sources? Are you secondary sources up to date? Are they reputable and respected in the field?

Are you expressing your own voice in your paper, or is your paper just a litany of who-said-what? Do your sources support your conclusion, or are you letting your sources speak for you? Make sure your voice is distinguishable from those of your sources.

Is your prose clean and clear? Are you using active voice? Are you avoiding logical and historical fallacies?

A research project is like putting the pieces together in a puzzle. It’s also like building something from the ground up. And it’s like cooking a dish from scratch. It’s fun, intellectually engaging, and deeply fulfilling. I hope you enjoy the journey. As you read, research, and write, remember to stop and smell the roses and make memories for yourself as you proceed down the path.

American Exceptionalism in the Eyes of High School Students

OldGloryMatthew Davisson has been teaching several sections of United States history at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, VA for nearly fifteen years. He has also served as an AP exam reader for several years, and I know he has worked alongside Jonathan Den Hartog in that capacity. Mr. Davisson has had a reputation for being a larger-than-life teacher of history at Covenant for the entire time he has taught there. He and I taught at the same time briefly at Covenant–I was teaching Bible courses in 2000-2001 when he first came, so we go way back.

Davisson is famous for showing up for class in character. He comes as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and numerous other luminaries of US history. When he lectures, he is loud, gregarious, dramatic, and just fun to take in. His lectures are always the picture of organization, but not stuffy or stifling. He engages the students, brings them out, and his love for history is for them as contagious as a childhood disease.

His students had a joint history/English project in which they wrote on the meaning of American exceptionalism. I asked Davisson if it would be all right if I shared some of his students’ work here on the blog. He checked in with his students, and they all graciously agreed to allow me to post some of their insights. Be checking in over the next several days to see what Davisson’s juniors are saying about American exceptionalism. This will prove to be a fascinating window into the perspectives of high school students from a diverse range of backgrounds on this topic.

I’ll start posting tomorrow. Stay tuned for some thoughtful analysis!

Tracy McKenzie Introduces Us To Alexis de Tocqueville


“The County Election” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

In writing and thinking about populism in American politics, Wheaton historian Robert Tracy McKenzie got to thinking about America in the age of Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828 and served until 1837. And in considering the ramifications of the state of American politics in the age of Jackson, McKenzie directs us to one of the most important books on America ever written–Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.

It’s one of the most intriguing studies, not only of American politics in the 1830s, but of American values, habits, assumptions, and beliefs during that time. As a historical work, it is a fascinating window looking into America’s past. Much of what Tocqueville saw in Americans remains today. And much of what he saw is gone forever–good things and bad things.

McKenzie urges us to take up and read Tocqueville, because Tocqueville made a contribution to an ongoing conversation of which we can and should be a part. He cites C. S. Lewis on the value of reading old books–old books reveal our blind spots in a way that contemporary books do not, indeed cannot.

So here is a bit of McKenzie’s introduction to Tocqueville. Consider McKenzie to be a mutual friend of yours and Tocqueville’s. McKenzie knows Tocqueville very well, and wants to introduce him to you because he wants you to benefit from his wisdom as much as he has. Take up and read his book, and in doing so, be a part of an ongoing conversation that will help mold and change you as an American, but also as an individual, in beneficial ways–

As the French Revolution of 1789 gave way to the Great Terror of 1793, Tocqueville’s grandfather went to the guillotine and his parents, then young adults, went to the dungeon and barely escaped with their lives.  By the time that Tocqueville was born a dozen years later, Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France.  The implications of these events were clear: proclaiming  liberty was not the same thing as preserving it, and the establishment of political equality guaranteed neither liberty nor justice.  These lessons haunted Tocqueville his whole life long, and Democracy in America cannot be understood apart from them.

You should know that though Tocqueville was an aristocrat in temperament and lineage, he both foresaw and accepted that democracy represented the wave of the future.  He hoped to refine the trend, not resist it.  If he was critical of what he saw in America–and he often was–he was on the whole a sympathetic critic.  He was fascinated with the United States because he believed it to be the freest nation in the world, and he always hoped that his native France could learn from the American example.

Finally, we should respect just how seriously Tocqueville approached his subject.  The stakes were almost incalculably high, he believed.  “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” Tocqueville wrote in the very last paragraph of volume II.  “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

“The Tocquevillian Moment” and Other Adventures at Furman University


I’m just wrapping up a wonderful day at Furman University. Since graduating in 1992 (was that really 22 years ago???), I have not spent very much time on campus. It has really changed! Made me feel old.

But what a tremendous day it was. I can’t say enough about all the classy people at the school who made me feel right at home.

This morning, I met up with my advisor, Marian Strobel. Here is a fun story about Dr. Strobel, who once saved me from utter disgrace and abject humiliation. I had Dr. Strobel for Women’s History and US Since 1941. She is a wonderful scholar/teacher, and I have never forgotten her influence on my life. She took me under her wing when I was a scared freshman, and she has remained a mentor to me all these years.

I spent most of the day in the library writing on my book. The James B. Duke Library at Furman is truly second to none. It was fantastic when I was a student, but it is really impressive now. And the nice folks on staff there were very helpful.

At 4:30, I went down to the Student Center to find a seat for Wilfred McClay’s lecture entitled “The Tocquevillian Moment . . . And Ours.” I figured I’d better get down there so I could get a good seat, but wouldn’t you know it–Paige Blankenship of the Political Science Department had reserved a seat for me on the front row. Like I said–classy folks.

Then Dr. McClay spoke–a tremendous lecture. McClay set up the lecture by demonstrating a connection between Tocqueville’s time in the 1830s-40s and our own. Both his time and ours are marked by tectonic shifts in culture. Tocqueville was witnessing great social, political, economic, and religious changes in his native France, and of course, the changes wrought by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning of the American career in democracy. We in our own day are witnessing the enormous changes brought about by advances in technology (which, McClay noted, are an extension of the changes in Tocqueville’s day, in that we are seeing a democratization of information). With great change comes the prospect of hope, but change also brings anxiety for the future. McClay taught that history helps us to navigate challenging times, because history connects us to past generations that dealt with challenging times of their own. The past offers we who live in the present a lifeline.

Tocqueville saw great hope in American democracy, but he was anxious about the degenerating influence of self interest that is inherent in democracy. Tocqueville looked to the past for ways in which this degenerating influence could be controlled. Part of his solution was to be found in educating the citizenry in how to pursue self interest, rightly understood. That is, teach people what virtue is, and how to pursue not only individual good, but also the common good. In other words, do well by doing good. This is the key to a liberal education, and to training people how to be able to govern themselves.

McClay applied Tocqueville’s lessons to the challenge faced by institutions of higher education today. Those challenges are many, but hyper-connectivity to the internet and the ever-expanding costs of higher education are two of the big ones. Like Tocqueville, we should affirm that change is good–and unstoppable. But we should resist the temptation to uncritically accept the idea that four year residential colleges and universities are doomed. But how?

In short, accept the changes offered by technology that offer the greatest good to the greatest number of people. But recognize that information mediated by technology is often thrown at us in fragmented, contextless bursts. An education is obtained through the careful, deliberate, and patient process of receiving information that is situated in context, and then critically evaluated. An education is had in the physical presence of a teacher, other students, and a classroom. Physical presence makes relationship and trust possible, and without these, true education can hardly take place.

McClay spoke of reading books, and particularly old books. Reading Plato’s Republic, for example, is helpful because we avail ourselves the opportunity of critiquing the usually sacrosanct idea of democracy. We need to think critically, even about an idea that we all embrace, if for nothing less than to know our democracy better, and to improve on it.

After the lecture, the Political Science Department hosted a dinner in Dr. McClay’s honor at a place in Downtown Greenville called High Cotton–fabulous food! Ty Tessitore, who is heading up the Tocqueville Program this year, graciously included me, and I was assigned a seat next to Dr. McClay. We chatted about his and Ted McAllister’s new book on place, along with other topics. I’m looking forward to seeing him in September at this year’s Conference on Faith and History.

Sitting across from me was yet another of my professors from undergrad days–Lloyd Benson, a nineteenth century US historian. I took Dr. Benson’s US from 1820-1890 course during the summer before my senior year, and it was a truly formative experience for me. He remains one of the best teachers I have ever had. We had some fun with “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” and I got to bounce some ideas off him on some of my ideas on exceptionalism. And I also enjoyed some fun conversation on Thomas Hobbes with Jenna Silber Storey, an insightful political philosopher.

Many thanks to Ty Tessitore and Ben Storey for their work on the Tocqueville Program at Furman–and for their gracious hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed being with all my friends at Furman, both old friends and new.