In the first post in this series, we looked at our department’s revised mission statement, adopted last August. I closed that post by noting that we left the mission statement itself without explicit reference to Christianity, since it would be followed by two objectives that make our religious commitments eminently clear. Today we’ll look at the first of those two objectives, the one that accompanies our mission statement’s ambition to “prepare students who are… imaginatively comfortable in a historic past….”
1. Our students will gain a broad knowledge of human history, deepened by the integration of Christian faith and learning, the recurrence of marginalization and interconnectedness as historical themes, and the development of their own particular passions and interests.
Believing that all of God’s creation — including all human beings, who bear the image of God — is worthy of study, we have constructed our curriculum broadly, so that it familiarizes students with the histories of peoples from multiple regions, including the United States, Europe, and parts of the Global South. Our curriculum features survey courses that each give an overview of a region, era, and/or field while also enabling faculty to teach to their interests and expertise and students to conduct more focused study on narrow topics of their selection.
Within this admittedly broad objective, our curriculum and courses will reflect the following shared emphases:
MARGINALIZATION AND EMPATHY
We affirm that our faith and learning are necessarily interrelated, so courses will frequently lead students to consider what is distinctive about the discipline of history as Christians practice it. While students should expect to see their professors model varying philosophical and methodological responses to this question, we share the guiding assumption that historians who follow Jesus Christ ought to imitate him in paying special attention to those on the margins of society: the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, to name but a few groups. Rather than simply repeating comfortable narratives of power and privilege, we will seek to tell the stories of those who are powerless and dispossessed. In particular, our courses will consider categories like gender, class, and race that have often been used to perpetuate injustice.
Such emphases demand that we work even harder to develop a basic skill for historians: empathy. We affirm that history is not merely the collection of an objective set of facts, but requires us to be aware of our own subjectivity and to develop the imaginative understanding necessary to see the world as others see it. As a special focus, we will be hospitable to those of different religions and ideologies.
THE “CLOUD OF WITNESSES”
While we are interested in the stories of people from all faiths (and those professing no religious belief), we will be particularly attentive to the role played by Christians within history.
This does not mean that we will engage in hagiography, celebrating uncritically the temporal story of the church and its members; all Christians sin and fall short of the glory of God, and so even their ecclesial institutions are inherently flawed and prone to subverting the very gospel they proclaim. But we are guided by the biblical image of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), which reminds us that we are but the latest participants in a millennia-old narrative of God and his people, a story that will not always be comfortable for us to tell but nonetheless inspires us to persevere as we “run… the race that is set before us.”
No single history can be studied in isolation. So while each course may focus on a particular group, territory, civilization, or event, students should expect to encounter themes of interconnectedness: categories central to international and transnational history (e.g., war and diplomacy, empire, migration, trade and commerce, cultural exchange, technological development, human interactions with their physical environment); comparisons between societies and cultures; and attentiveness to continuity and discontinuity across time.
In addition, we will emphasize the connections of individual courses to larger educational projects. Each course helps to build foundations for further study in later history coursework, in the Bethel general education curriculum, and in students’ lives after college.
We recognize that those who study history do so out of a God-given, passionate curiosity about the past that is as distinctive to the individual as it is unusual in contemporary American culture. So while providing basic foundations for broad historical knowledge, we leave ample room — in the curriculum and in individual courses — for students to explore their personal interests. This is exemplified by our capstone course, a seminar facilitating original research by senior students into virtually any historical topic.
In the next and final post in the series, we’ll share our second overarching objective, in which we focus less on knowledge and more on the cultivation of wisdom…
– Chris Gehrz