Our Mission and Objectives (part 3)

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.

Last time we looked at the first of those objectives, which focused on student acquisition of historical knowledge. Today we’ll close the series by sharing the second objective, which affirms that knowledge of the past is not enough if, as we put it in our mission statement, our students should be “actively engaged with the present.”

2. Our students will cultivate wisdom, so that they can live skillfully in the present day, serving others and glorifying God wherever they’re called.

As important as it is for our students to gain a broad knowledge of the past, we view our task as more formative than informative. Above all, we hope to form our students as followers of Jesus Christ who “busy themselves on Earth” though “their citizenship is in heaven” (in the words of The Letter to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic). While they sojourn in this world, our students will “busy” themselves in a variety of callings, but all to two basic ends: what the Pietist educator A. H. Francke summed up as “God’s glory and neighbor’s good.”

To do this requires not merely knowledge, but wisdom, which Eugene Peterson defines as “the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.” So, knowing that our students will encounter a variety of conditions after leaving Bethel, we seek to cultivate wisdom through the development of two basic sets of skills:

LIFELONG LEARNING

The completion of a Bethel degree is but one stage in a lifelong process of learning, defined by the apostle Paul in the famous admonishment: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Rom 12:2a). So to help them avoid the trap of being “conformed to this world” and to sustain the ongoing renewal of their minds beyond college, we equip our students to ask good questions (rather than accepting assumptions and arguments without challenge) and to locate, identify, and evaluate sources and synthesize and analyze data and interpretations as they seek answers to those questions. So, across the curriculum and culminating in the capstone experience, our courses will train students in skills like critical thinking, reading (not just books and articles, but in a variety of media), and research.

Students should thereby be equipped not only to continue their studies in graduate or professional school (for those called to careers in education, law, ministry, health care, business, etc.), but also to ask and answer questions they might encounter as voters, consumers, parents, employees or employers, church members, and in other roles.

COMMUNICATION

Because learning itself is not a purely individual pursuit and because our students will follow callings that will take them into conversation with people of varying backgrounds, they must be able to communicate effectively. We place highest importance on the ability to write well in a variety of genres, but coursework will also prepare students to communicate orally or via audio-visual media.

Of course, we also want students to recognize that communication does not travel in one direction alone. They should also have the skill of listening, cultivated in part by treating courses as conversations in which students must pay attention to the voices of peers, professors, other scholars, and women and men from throughout history.

For our students and alumni who’ve been reading this series, we’d love to hear your take:

Do the stated mission and objectives seem to match up with what you experience(d) at Bethel?

Which of the objectives seem most important to you?

Are there other objectives you think are important but neglected in this statement?

– Chris Gehrz

<<Read the previous entry in this series

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Two Tutoring Opportunities

A pair of Twin Cities-based programs are looking for current students or recent graduates who are interested in working with local high school students.

First, College Possible (formerly Admission Possible), which is open to recent college graduates and describes itself as

a nonprofit college access program, is recruiting recent college graduates to serve as AmeriCorps members helping make college admission and success a reality for low-income students!  We will be selecting close to 100 talented, idealistic people to serve in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Omaha and a new 4th site to be named soon.

A variety of positions may be available, including serving as a coach to high school juniors preparing to apply to college or to those already admitted and preparing for the transition. Other jobs include organizing college visits, practice exams, community service days, etc. They stress the following four points as highlights of the experience:

1.  We have 80+ socially-minded, idealistic, talented college graduates from around the country working hard towards a common goal.2.  AmeriCorps members are instrumental in the organization’s success and are making a real difference in helping make college admission and success possible for low-income students.  To date, 98% of our graduating seniors have been admitted to college.

3.  Members who serve with Admission Possible/College Possible gain understanding of the inner workings of a successful non-profit organization, and become extremely marketable for future graduate school and job endeavors.  Past members have gone on to attend graduate school at Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford; others have pursued careers in social work, teaching, and law.

4.  Every year our AmeriCorps members become connected to an immediate social network of like-minded, idealistic recent graduates.  Past members have found some of their closest friends during their year of service.

If you’re interested or have questions (e.g., about benefits and placement), visit the College Possible website. Or get in touch with one of their coaches in the Twin Cities, former Bethel History major Lauren Peffley (’09) (e-mail her: LPeffley(at)admissionpossible.org).

Second, for current Bethel students (including those who will graduate this May)… Breakthrough St. Paul. A collaboration between Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood and the St. Paul Public Schools, Breakthrough is currently recruiting college students for paid teaching internships in their summer 2012 program. Those selected will take part in an intensive nine-week program: designing and teaching courses, planning field trips and other special events, and meeting with parents.

Learn more at the Breakthrough website. The deadline for 2012 internship applications is February 27, but interviews are given on a rolling basis, so they encourage early applications.

Students can learn more about Breakthrough St. Paul by attending an informational session at Bethel: next Thursday, February 9th, 10:15-11:00am, AC 228.

MN Private College Job Fair

For current students… The annual Minnesota Private College Job and Internship Fair is February 21st and 22nd, 9am – 3pm, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Over 150 organizations are already registered for this event (click here to see the full list of employers, or to search by types of organizations, types of position, or geographic location), and approximately 1800 students are expected to take part.

The first day of the fair students are able to meet with organizations’ representatives. Students can come for a portion of the time and do not need to spend the entire day at the fair. The second day of the fair is reserved for scheduled interviews only.

Here’s a short video introduction:

Interested? Here’s what you need to do: (from the Bethel Career Services office website)

  • Register for the event online, by email, or in the office of Career Services – CC 322 – by Feb. 17
  • Pay the $10 Registration Fee (Registration fee can be paid for at the prep session)
  • Attend a prep session: Feb. 8, 4-5pm, CC 125; Feb. 9, 4-5pm, CC 125; Feb. 14, 10-11am, CC 313; or Feb. 16, 10-11am, CC 125
  • Update your resume and consider submitting your resume on the Private College Job Fair web site

From AC 2nd to… Seminary (part 2)

Our new series “From AC 2nd to…” profiles former History majors who have followed a variety of professional and educational tracks in their post-Bethel careers.

Today we’ll conclude our interview with Seth Rima (‘09), M.Div. student in Pastoral Studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. (Read part 1 here.)

What about your Bethel History major best prepared you for seminary? Is there anything you wish you had done differently in preparation for that track?

My transition into seminary has been remarkably smooth, largely due to the similarities I’ve found in preparation. If you are going to write on a topic in theology you need to find your sources, and the History track has prepared me well for the gathering of obvious sources as well as the sources that on first glance have nothing to do with the topic at hand. It’s also been helpful as I’ve worked to form theses and defend them, to know that there are several layers one has to peel back in order to get to the root of many topics. It is hardly ever right on the surface, and that is how it is oftentimes when we analyzed historical movements or the revolutions and coups that have taken place. There is always a spark, yes, but perhaps more importantly there is kindling to be lit ablaze as a result. So I guess you could say history made clear that context is crucial, so when I learned that in hermeneutics, it was only logical, and that appreciation for context has dramatically changed the way I read Scripture and apply it.

I also very much appreciated the discussion we would have and the market of ideas that would develop as time went on in classes I’ve taken from you [Chris Gehrz], AnneMarie Kooistra, and G.W. Carlson, to name a few. That has helped me not take offense when someone sees something in a different way than I do in conversation. It is much harder to harbor frustration with someone who you view as working with the same goal in mind, whether it is understanding a period or event in history, or discovering what the Bible says about faith vs. works.

I also just know the names that many of my peers aren’t quite familiar with, like Origen, Anselm, Martin Bucer, and the like.  So classes like CWC and The Reformations were just very helpful in a practical way. They provided a kind of historical and theological scaffolding that many don’t have when they decide to enter Seminary.

Do you continue to have an interest in history? How do you find yourself learning about the past now that you’re past college?

I absolutely love history still, and always will. There is just something about history that just makes it so much easier to put yourself in another person’s shoes. I love all kinds of history, whether it is sports-related, political (particularly Presidential), or ecclesiastical. I suppose it’s far too late to save myself from “nerd” status at this point, so I’ll cop to some of my modes of learning these days. I lump political geography in with history, and I have been known to play games that freshen up my memory of things like national flags, the border/shape of nations, and the location of various sites/cities on a world map. I also use a website called Sporcle to do all sorts of quizzes on anything from the roster of the 2001 Seattle Mariners, to the 50 most populous US cities, to the names of the Roman Emperors. I also enjoy reading blogs, like The Pietist Schoolman (and not just to suck up)and anything on the two World Wars, or church history, and I hope to someday keep up my own regular blog. I also have a system for reading, and historical books have their own category, so for instance the next historical work I will read is Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.

On top of all that I have a younger brother who is like a more studious version of me, so I love talking to him about various subjects, and look forward to doing that the rest of my adult life!

Anything else you’d like to say to current or prospective students thinking about majoring in History at Bethel and/or considering going to seminary after college?

Wow, dangerous move, giving a History Major an open-ended question like this! I think majoring in history is the best decision I ever made while in college (besides asking my now-wife on that date!), because it was something I enjoyed. Beyond that though, history is such a far-reaching subject. It touches every aspect of life, because it isn’t just (as some would say) boring stuff that’s already happened, it’s the stuff that happened that has shaped the world in which we live. Having a firm grasp on history means you can talk to anyone about anything, and therefore work to understand the context that they are coming from, because Solomon was right… “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9).

With seminary, I think it’s crucial just practically speaking to make sure you are doing your research the right way, not cutting corners, and working hard on the little things, like formatting and procuring sources. History is a great proving ground for the work aspect of seminary, so it’s a natural fit. In reality though, no one should go to seminary if they don’t really feel the call to use the information that they gain. These days it’s pretty common to hear of a grad student who
is working in a completely different field, and it works pretty well anyway. With seminary, one should be making a covenant with their seminary that they are going to take the knowledge that they gain and put it to use in the world, because the one thing the world needs desperately is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and while that mission isn’t saved just for those who go to seminary, it isn’t something that seminarians can abstain from. The Seminary education has to flow out, or it’s just stealing.

Read the next entry in the From AC 2nd… series>>

The Start of Spring (Semester)

Today, February 1st, is the start of spring semester around Bethel. Here are a few things to look for this semester on top of our usual course offerings:

The Retirement of G.W. Carlson

Long-rumored, much-feared, finally here… Yes, Spring 2012 marks the last semester of full-time teaching for G. William Carlson, Professor of History and Political Science. A search for a new professor is underway, and we’ll hope to have an announcement about a hire later this spring. But of course, no one can truly replace GW.

Look for much more at AC 2nd as we plan what promises to be a glitzy send-off for the famously shy Prof. Carlson.

The (Temporary) Absence of AnneMarie Kooistra

Our correspondent reports that Dr. Kooistra submitted her Interim grades on Monday afternoon, which means that she is officially on sabbatical, doing everything that professors wish they could do if they weren’t busy teaching classes, advising students, or serving on committees. Look for her to show up in August looking even more relaxed than usual.

The Premiere of Our First Z-Tagged Course

This semester Ruben Rivera will be offering HIS217UZ Hispanic Christianity (formerly: Christianity in Latin America), which he has revised to meet the “Z-tag” requirement in Bethel’s general education curriculum. The goal of such courses is that “students will experience an off-campus person-to-person (ideally one-on-one) intercultural engagement, of at least 25 hours with a specific cultural group that supports the development of awareness of one’s own culture and the culture with which the student is interacting. Students will develop an increased understanding of the complexity and tension cultural difference has on interaction with others.” In this case, students in Hispanic Christianity will perform service-learning projects with Hispanic churches or faith-based organizations in the Twin Cities.

The Bethel Colloquium on Pietism Studies

Three years after Bethel hosted a national research conference on Pietism, we’ve organized a follow-up colloquium on Pietism studies — Friday, April 20, 2012 — that’s free and open to the public. Featuring talks by Scot McKnight and Jon Sensbach and a roundtable discussion of Pietism in various denominations, this event is being coordinated by our own Chris Gehrz and theology prof Christian Collins Winn (with G.W. Carlson and Eric Holst, editors of the recently published The Pietist Impulse in Christianity). The links above will take you to further details at Chris’ blog.

Crowdsourcing

Were you a History major in college who went into another profession but always wished that you could find a way to keep your hand in with historical research?

Check out the growing phenomenon known as “crowdsourcing,” in which museums, archives, libraries, and other organizations invite the general public to help transcribe and tag sources, edit articles, and otherwise contribute to history online. As a starting point, check out this new blog on historical crowdsourcing from some of the participants in a popular session on the topic at the recent American Historical Association meeting.

Or consider taking part in one of these major crowdsourcing projects related to U.S. history:

  • Just before Christmas, the U.S. National Archives launched its Citizen Archivist Dashboard. (H/T AHA Today) Sign up as a “citizen archivist” and you can tag primary sources like WWII propaganda posters, U.S. Information Agency films, photos of the 1963 Civil Rights March, letters from a Confederate spy, and a petition to block the annexation of Hawaii. Or transcribe files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a letter from Albert Einstein, or a report on the sinking of the Titanic. Or help edit Wikipedia articles related to National Archives collections.
  • As we noted this summer on our Facebook page, the University of Iowa Libraries are looking for volunteers to help transcribe their sizable collection of Civil War letters and diaries.

Please feel free to suggest any other crowdsourcing projects in the Comments section below. It’s a great way not only to continue your own education, but to make an important contribution to historical scholarship!

From AC 2nd to… Seminary (part 1)

Today we’re starting a new series called “From AC 2nd to…” It profiles former History majors who have followed a variety of professional and educational tracks in their post-Bethel careers.

We’ll kick off with Seth Rima (‘09), M.Div. student in Pastoral Studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Why (and at what point) did you decide to major in History?

I bounced from major to major my Freshman and into my Sophomore year. After taking some of the intro classes for each, I was frustrated because it seemed like none of them sparked a passion in me. I just had no interest in the busy work, and someone had told me that a big factor in deciding what your future was going to look like was recognizing what grabs you that is tedious to others. Growing up my two favorite books that I can really remember were biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison. I had always been intrigued by the characters of history, and found myself looking at old maps and reading old stories and trying to picture myself in them. History was something I always loved getting lost in as a kid, and that continued into college, so I decided in January of my Sophomore year (2007) to change my major to History.

Did you consider a double-major?

I actually only had the single major, although in hindsight I wish I had done more. I did hold a minor in Reconciliation Studies for around a year, but I didn’t really feel like I was as committed as I should be to the classes, and in History I felt that I was getting thrice-weekly case studies in why reconciliation is important through all of my history classes.  But like I noted above, if I could go back, I would have double-majored in either Biblical & Theological Studies, or I would have created a major that drew from Philosophy, Political Science, and Theology.

Seth Rima in Rome
Courtesy of Seth Rima


Can you talk about your experience studying abroad? How did it complement or supplement your Bethel education in general, and the History major in particular?

My experience studying abroad was something that is almost impossible to not take for granted, if that makes any sense at all. The opportunity to study abroad, particularly for a History major, is something that just has to be taken if it ever becomes possible. For me, studying in Florence and Rome was an opportunity to really gauge where my life was at and where it was going. Extenuating circumstances at home meant that I longed to just be outside wandering the city, seeing every possible site and soaking it all in, and my love and appreciation for history really helped keep me sane. It also made it an unavoidable time of growth in many areas. When I came back, it was both a spring and a pit in that I was so much more energized and participative in my classes, but also struggled with the distance between myself and the characters and places I was studying, when for so long I felt like the world was my classroom.

More than anything, my experience in Rome really marks an incredible turning point in my walk with Christ, because just from an everyday living standpoint, you never know how much it costs to follow Christ until you are surrounded by those who you love, but don’t follow Him. I learned a lot about myself, like areas of temptation, and areas of strength in my faith, that I never would have learned while in college otherwise.

At what point (in college or after) did you first consider going to seminary?

I grew up with horror stories from life in ministry echoing in my mind, not because my parents (my Dad was and is again a pastor) talked about it around us a lot, but because those grotesque stories of hypocritical Christians are the ones that stick with you when you are a kid that is wrapped up in yourself more than anything else. I was always going to be “better” than those Christians that didn’t live it out, and it wasn’t until late in my Senior year that I really started to think seriously about ministry. Even then I wasn’t sure about seminary until after I got married in June after graduating in December of ’09. I started to realize that the body of Christ is the body of Christ, no matter how broken it seems, and to have the honor to minister to it and hopefully assist people as they search for their part in that Body was something I really felt drawn to. There was a distinct call that I felt to grow in my knowledge of the Word and the Church’s history, and to help convey the importance of those things to others who have distinct occupational callings outside of our usual definition of ministry.

[to be continued tomorrow]

The US-Dakota War, 150 Years Later…

Four years ago the state of Minnesota celebrated its 150th anniversary, with the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) and other agencies producing a wide variety of commemorative exhibitions, events, and publications. For the most part, the mood was celebratory.

This year, the state marks a more somber sesquicentennial, that of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, fought primarily in the Minnesota River valley. As a front-page feature in yesterday’s Star Tribune pointed out, its commemoration promises to be enormously complex, and is already sparking controversy:

Some Dakota believe artifacts should be returned to them, and that Historic Fort Snelling should be razed or portrayed as a concentration camp used to punish hundreds of their ancestors after the war. Meanwhile, some descendants of the more than 400 settlers and soldiers killed in the conflict complained when early brochures about commemorative cellphone tours of the area hinted that only Dakota elders’ voices would be featured.

The concerns reflect debates evident across the country over how to provide a more complete rendition of the past at historic sites, even if that means confronting deeply disturbing events long written out of the historical narrative.

Dakota Prisoners at Fort Snelling
The wife and children of Dakota leader Little Crow, among those interned at Fort Snelling - Minnesota Historical Society

The new director of the MHS, Stephen Elliott, is no stranger to such debates in the field of public history, having been part of the move to enhance coverage of slavery and African-American history during his nearly three decades at Colonial Williamsburg. Said Elliott, “You can’t turn your head from what is not pretty in history and, whatever we do, it’s not going to somehow heal things or settle it.” To guide their planning, the MHS has employed what it calls the “Truth Recovery Project,” modeled on a “cross-community” process developed in Northern Ireland by an organization called Healing Through Remembering.

Yet the Star Tribune reports that contention remains, much of it surrounding a noose used to hang a Dakota man named Chaska, one of 38 Dakota executed the day after Christmas, 1862. (President Abraham Lincoln pardoned 264 more.) Most experts now believe that Chaska had actually tried to protect white settlers, and his pardon is before the state legislature. While some Dakota leaders demand the return of the noose and other such artifacts, MHS officials and other public historians argue that it is important to preserve them as historical evidence.

However, they don’t agree on whether it’s appropriate to display the noose. The MHS showed it to Dakota groups invited to take part in planning, but don’t plan to include it in the forthcoming public exhibit and refused to allow the Star Tribune to photograph it.

“Partly out of sensitivity to the Dakota people, we feel strongly that the noose would tend to overwhelm the whole story and it would just become the noose exhibit,” [Minnesota History Center director Dan] Spock said. “It would detract from what we really want people to understand, which is this whole chain of events that leads to this war, and if there’s culpability people can see it.”

Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Museum in New Ulm, is the great-great-granddaughter of a man who defended New Ulm from Dakota attackers. The noose, she said, should be displayed because “it reminds us of what a horrible end there was to the war and to deny it and not show those pieces is like you’re trying to erase the shame of what happened.” She recalls the shoes and human hair at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington — “tell me that wasn’t a riveting experience” — and thinks artifacts are vital to understanding history.

Read the full Star Tribune article here. And here’s the MHS page detailing the planned exhibit, other 1862 initiatives, and the “Truth Recovery” process.

– Chris Gehrz

Our Mission and Objectives (part 2)

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.”

INTERCONNECTEDNESS

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.

PASSIONATE CURIOSITY

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

<<Read the first entry in this series          Read the final entry in this series>>

Jefferson, Slavery, and the Smithsonian

Peale, Thomas Jefferson
Rembrandt Peale's 1805 portrait of Thomas Jefferson

If you happen to be visiting Washington, DC between now and October, be sure to stop by the National Museum of American History and see its new exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” Created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (whose own building is scheduled to start construction this spring and be completed in three years) together with the Jefferson Foundation (which has its own, parallel exhibit on slavery at Jefferson’s estate, Monticello), the exhibit was recently the subject of an extensive review by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, who frames the topic’s significance well:

The astounding thing about American slavery is not that it existed — the enslavement of one people by another may be one of history’s universals — but that it persisted. It lasted into an era when its absence could be imagined and its presence could become an outrage.

That was one of the chilling peculiarities of slavery in the United States: As revolutionary ideas of human rights and liberty were being formulated, slavery was so widely accepted that contradictions between the evolving ideals and the brutish reality of enslavement were overlooked or tolerated.

We look back now, shocked at the cognitive and moral perversity. And that is one reason why a prevalent reaction has been to assert that the champions of those revolutionary ideals were hypocrites, including 12 of the first 18 American presidents, who were slave owners.

Which is why Rothstein was struck by the “far more subtle and illuminating assessment” of Jefferson presented by the new exhibition:

Jefferson didn’t just embrace the new nation’s ideals; he gave voice to our conception of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality? These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.

It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.

If you can’t make it to DC, you can always check out the slavery exhibit’s companion website, which has a variety of essays and documents on the subject, including four of Jefferson’s proposals to end what he called “This Deplorable Entanglement.”

– Chris Gehrz

PS: If you are headed to the capital… Through May the Jefferson and slavery exhibit in Washington will overlap with another fascinating exhibit on the United States’ third and most intellectually curious president: “Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” And the permanent collection on “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” is scheduled to remain open while the museum’s west wing undergoes a major renovation.