So sometime last spring we realized that it had been over forty years since the Bethel History Department substantially revised its mission statement and program description. Yes, our mission statement was older than Bethel’s current campus, and dated back to the Nixon Administration (at least).
Now, as historians, we don’t necessarily have a problem with things that are, y’know, old. But aside from one member of the department, there’s been a bit of staff turnover since the Vietnam War, and it seemed like it might be a useful exercise to spend part of our summer workshop rewriting our mission statement and objectives.
Here’s how we decided to state our mission:
The Bethel University Department of History prepares students who are “bilingual,” imaginatively comfortable in a historic past and actively engaged with the present.
I like this statement for several reasons. First, it’s relatively succinct. If I put my mind to it, I could probably memorize it and repeat it to all prospective students and their parents. (If I put my mind to it…) In any case, the key points are easy to remember and communicate.
Second, it stresses that historians rely on a faculty not normally associated with academic disciplines outside of “the arts” — the imagination. After all, we can’t run experiments, or observe past time… We can only gather partial evidence and use our imaginations to connect the dots.
Third, it suggests that historians are not simply antiquarians — we have roles to play in our own time. But it resists the temptation to suggest that the only or principal value of studying the past is to learn lessons for the present. I think we’d all affirm that learning about the past is valuable in its own right. At the same time, undertaking that kind of project also helps historians to engage well with the problems of the present day. (In the third part of this series, we’ll start to talk more about this, emphasizing the idea that education is primarily about formation, not information.)
Fourth, it underscores that we are, above all else, a “teaching department.” To make that perfectly clear, we added a brief follow-up sentence: “While we serve a variety of constituencies (including, as scholars, professional societies and the larger academy), our mission is centered on teaching and student learning.”
As with most decisions in our department, adopting the mission statement provoked little heated discussion but a couple of valuable debates. The first discussion had to do with the word “bilingual.” We wondered if it implied a belief that the past and present are radically different, like two languages whose speakers can’t begin to understand each other. Ultimately, we liked that it was somewhat jarring, perhaps even eye-catching — since it’s not necessarily the first word that comes to mind in describing historians. It also suggests a kind of intercultural competency, the ability to move between worlds, even within the same conversation.
The second discussion dealt with a more serious objection: the mission statement made no explicit mention of our commitment to Bethel’s mission and identity as an evangelical Christian university in the Baptist and Pietist traditions. Perhaps we could add “Christian” in between “prepares” and “students”?
In the end, we decided it wasn’t necessary, since the mission statement was to be followed by two objectives that would make eminently clear that we regard Christian belief and practice as integral to our work as individuals and a department. More on those two objectives in the coming days…
– Chris Gehrz