Malcolm Foley directs the Black Church Studies Program at Truett Seminary in Waco. Today at the Anxious Bench he responded to my post on AHA president James Sweet’s article on presentism. I responded to the piece in the comments section at The Anxious Bench, but could not get it to publish. Here is what I wrote:
Thanks for this, Malcolm. I AM afraid about the decline of history in American universities and liberal arts colleges. But I am not afraid because I might lose my job or be forced to give-up control over some kind of “fiefdom” over which I preside. (Please help me find the “mini-kingdom” over which I rule–I’m still looking for it!) In other words, I do not fear the loss of the discipline of history because of economic reasons or concerns related to power. I fear the loss of the discipline of history because I believe it offers a way of thinking that is essential to the creation of a strong democratic society and a thoughtful church. The study of history forces us to come to grips with the past on its own terms, not ours. Unlike other liberal arts disciplines such as sociology, religious studies, political science, etc. it emphasizes the sheer otherness of the past.
This is not to say that a historian is not interested in continuity–indeed I have spent a lot of my career pointing out continuity and even allowing the present to guide my understanding of the past. As I wrote in my original post, I will continue to do so. But history forces us to deal with otherness in a way in which other disciplines (even those disciplines who peddle in the past) do not. And, as I argued almost ten years ago in Why Study History, confronting the otherness of the past–listening to it, empathizing with its people–can cultivate virtue in our lives. This, of course, is not to say that the study of history is better than other disciplines, it is just different.
As far as “boundary policing” goes, I plead guilty. I have a Ph.D in history. I am not a religious studies scholar or a political scientist. I was trained differently. I teach different kinds of courses than those trained in these other disciplines. I fully expect those scholars to defend the boundaries of their disciplines as well. Anyone who has sat in a general education committee meeting knows what I am talking about here. For example, I couldn’t imagine hiring someone with a Ph.D. in religious studies or political science or sociology or theology to teach history at my institution. If that is “boundary policing,” then so be it. We all have boundaries to police. Moreover, I currently serve as president of an organization affiliated with the American Historical Association, not the AAR, ASCH, or some other professional association. (Having said that, if you heard my Conference on Faith and History presidential address last April on your home campus at Baylor I tried to suggest that there should be plenty of room for all kinds of approaches to history, including ones that privilege presentism).
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I’m glad to see you blogging at The Anxious Bench these days and wish you well on a great semester.