It happens often.
I am asked what I do maybe in a store, or a Dr.’s office, or at a restaurant. Who knows where? All of those have happened this fall. I tell them I am a history professor at Fresno Pacific University. Or an alum comes by the university, and we chat for a while.
If they are, let’s say, mid-thirties or older, I often get this response. “I really enjoy history now. I didn’t get much of it when I was in college.” An alum might say it a little differently, “…when I was in your class. But I really enjoyed it!” Good recovery.
History seems to make more sense after we have gained a little experience in the world. Much of what we do with undergrads is try to open eyes to what is happening in the world around, and in broad strokes explain how the world we live in got to be what it is, for good and bad.
The next question is sometimes “do you have any good history books to recommend?” Since I have been asked recently, several times, here are a good handful of titles that might be interesting or thought provoking.
The 500-year anniversary of the Reformation provoked much rethinking of the Protestant heritage. One that has sparked a lot of discussion, and that I have used in the revision of Medieval and Early Modern Civilizations (which I have been teaching on and off (mostly on) since the early 90s, is Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape the Our World (2017). The subtitle explains its subject. Well worth it.
On the nature of European and American civilization, and especially the influence of Christianity in our long and turbulent history, Larry Siedentop Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014). This one has a complicated argument, but it rewards sticking with it. It goes back to the New Testament, discusses the medieval origins of the modern focus on human rights, and the unique ways in which Christianity has contributed to our understanding of the individual and the ways we relate to churches, governments and society.
One that has come out of my research work, that uncovers our deep roots is Eric Nelson The Hebrew Republic (2010), an exploration of the influence of Old Testament on the formation of republican governments from the 16th-18th centuries. Along with this narrower subject, a broader work might be added to, David Ruderman, Early Modern Jewry, A New Cultural History (2010), a topic and people that has much to teach us.
One that I am just now working on is Camilla Townsend, The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive (2017). My students said I need to learn to read the Nahuatl language, but I will settle for the translations of the histories of and by the Nahua as they narrated the explained their traditions after the conquest of Mexico.
Two others are more philosophical, or at least develop the history of ideas and their influence. First is Gertrude Himmelfarb, The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004). I hear more nonsense about the Enlightenment, positive and negative, than I can keep track of. Himmelfarb, who is always thoughtful and pointed, offers a dose of good sense.
Finally, John Rist, in a series called Reading Augustine, writes On Ethics, Politics, and Psychology in the Twenty-First Century (2018), explaining what St. Augustine would have to say to us today. It ends with a radio interview of the 5th century Bishop, who has been transported to our very day, and recently traveled through Germany, Italy, and spent some time in Oxford, reading and studying. Perhaps needless to say, he finds our world a bit odd. Who would have thought St. Augustine could be funny?