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Taking Up The #Historiannchallenge: Interviewing Myself

Here’s the Ann Little post that inspired what follows below.
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Tim Lacy: The New York Times Book Review Interview

What books are currently on your night stand?

A number—too many—and literally on the night-stand/bookshelf next to my bed. I’m in the middle an annual reread of Lord of the Rings, but after that I’ll take up Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Christopher Beha’s The Whole Five Feet, and Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne.

What was the last truly great book you read?

I’m reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I’m almost done with Kenneth Burke’s much-referenced, Attitudes Toward History. Prior to Balzac I finished Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

Who are the best historians writing today?

Good question. I read for topics more than prose, and more short pieces than books. That said, I really enjoy the work of Read more…

Great Books and “The Modern Conservative Tradition”

I was recently asked the following question: “Is there a simple way to explain how the Great Books/Classics became part of the modern CONSERVATIVE tradition, both educationally and politically?” My short answer is “No!”—replying to the “simple way” part of the inquiry. But my longer, more considered, and more polite reply follows.

Before answering, I must make two clarifications. First, if we think of the “modern conservative tradition” as existing in the post-World War II time frame, you might divide conservatives’ relationship with the great books idea into three periods—two of which primarily involve affinity, and one which is mixed, or maybe even leans toward skepticism. Of course these three periods are somewhat arbitrarily constructed. Each involves intersections with notions of ‘dignity’, ‘tradition’, ‘individualism’, ‘fear’, ‘the common good’, ‘relativism’, and ‘identity’. Second, for the purposes of this essay and in my other work, I use ‘great books’ as distinct from ‘the classics’. The latter, to me, focuses on ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as Medieval and some Early Modern works (Descartes even up to Locke). The former includes moderns and recent works—think Emerson and Whitman on up to Freud, Hemingway, and Woolf (though we could push that up to the 1980s, if wanted). Of course conservatives and liberals view these chronological boundaries differently, and use the terms without nuance (e.g. to conservatives Tocqueville is a “classic” author). Anyway, I’ll avoid using “the classics” or “classics” for the most part.

The first period of the “modern conservative tradition,” which existed from the 1940s until the 1960s, involved what historian George Nash called the “paleoconservatives.” Read more…

Living Life in the Abstract: Biblical Knowledge and Christian Right Politics

Three immediate thoughts on this piece about biblical ignorance the Christian Right:

(1) I don’t think that playing gotcha on the books of the Pentateuch is a good way to assess Bible knowledge/ignorance (i.e. that wasn’t a good example for the article’s thesis);
(2) Won’t a certain sector see this deficit as an incentive to actually increase the quality and quantity of bible study groups?
(3) And if (2) happens, won’t that actually increase, in the near term, the possibility of misapplied verses and bad politics?

The problem with Christian Right politics is not so much bad Bible knowledge but an unwillingness—after injecting theology into the public square—to tolerate compromise, process, and democracy. That kind of liberalism reads as license to them. The true believer in so-called pro-life politics abhors compromise. Living life in the abstract makes it difficult to deal with practical messiness of democracy. – TL

Foucauldian Power Plays: “Arnoldian”

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

I’ve read and reread Matthew Arnold many times now. I’m reviewing *Culture and Anarchy* again today. For all his faults, I am more convinced than ever that Arnold gets a bum rap from American cultural (and intellectual) historians. “Arnoldianism” and “Arnoldian” are lazy tropes used—much like Marxist, Marxism, socialist, or socialism—to brand and dismiss a certain class of historical cultural figures and intellectuals one wants to avoid examining in detail. In other words, “Arnoldian” is a Foucauldian power play for historians. – TL

Faculty Faith Statements

I can get behind substantial portions of this reply (esp. the critique of The Enlightenment). But the real issue, as I see it, is in the final paragraph on faith statements—because that’s the problem fronted in Peter Conn’s original critique of Wheaton College (IL) in an article on accreditation issues. I think both Conn and Jones underestimate the on-the-ground complexity from their con and pro positions, respectively. Both ignore the practical workarounds of faculty, as well as the pressures of the constricted job market that require sometimes quiet assent. And then there’s the granddaddy problem of them all: does the institution require *literal* assent to every point in the statement, knowing of course that all scripture scholarship does not require literal interpretations to make the scripture deeply meaningful. As a point of reference, here is Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose.” – TL

Historical Thinking: An Addition

After pondering my conversations with (medical) students over the past six months, I’ve decided that the memorable mnemonic of “The 9 Cs” has to be updated. Because I’m constantly emphasizing the notion of competing narratives with my students this seemed a natural addition:
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Competition: The notion of competing narratives is essential to historical thinking. It is especially related to complexity and conjecture. Narratives compete for our attention most obviously in politics and in family memories. But the principle is also at work in reading and constructing histories generally. The “winning” narrative usually displays the best integrated and plausible storytelling, for people are fond of comprehensiveness in their histories (even while generalists understand the importance of narrowed and specialized historical inquiry). That said, no one story can ever integrate everything. And changing one or two elements (citations/sources) can change the perception and slant of a historical narrative. As such, a good historical thinker always knows that other legitimate narratives exist.
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So it’s now “The 10 Cs.” I’ll update that entry with a new post. – TL

The Stories We Tell: Historical Thinking on Film

The-Stories-We-TellI don’t recall which of my friends recommended this documentary, but Jodi and I finally watched it last night. It’s fantastic.

If were teaching regularly, I would use this at the start of a course to emphasize several points about good historical thinking: memory, competing narratives, perspective, sources, selection, emphasis, context, presentism, and on and on. I can’t recommend this enough to all of my historian friends.

Have you seen it? What did you think? What other films or documentaries put the full range of historical thinking on display? – TL

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