An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Teaching the Generations

Many of you know how you can read a Scripture passage and something jumps out at you that you never saw before. I attribute that to the leading of the Holy Spirit. A few days ago, I was reading in Psalm 71 when my mind (and spirit?) was arrested by just a few words—verses 9 and 18—separated from the rest of the text but united in thought.

Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone. . . .

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

What did this mean to me? Well, first of all, although I am certainly getting old-er, I don’t yet consider myself old in the classic sense. My strength is not yet gone, I am not yet seriously contemplating retirement, and I don’t feel forsaken of God.

I am gray; I’ll grant that one. But if none of the rest is totally applicable to me, why was I affected by these words?

One never knows when one’s strength will ebb more quickly, and I believe I have a lot to do still in my life and in the ministry God has given me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was grading students in finals week, another semester nearing its end.

It was those final words that meant the most to me, especially when coupled with the potential onset of older age: I teach the next generation; I want those students to know of God’s power, His mighty acts, and His abiding presence that He wants to implant within each one of them.

I began my university teaching career rather late. I didn’t receive my doctorate until I was 38, which was the time I got my first fulltime position. My 30th year of teaching will begin this upcoming fall, and I am now seeing, via Facebook, some of my former students beginning to send their children to college.

That is stunning to me. How can this be, I ask myself? The old cliché about time marching on is rearing its head. If any of my former students were to send their children to Southeastern to study under me, I would be teaching a second generation. Astounding. Why? Because in my mind, I’m not that old.

I am grateful for the many years the Lord has given me to teach those who will carry His light into this sad parody of a society we live in today. I look forward to continuing that quest. My health is still good; my strength is not gone; the vision remains vivid in my spirit.

And to all of my former students, I offer this word: send your children to me and I promise to give them all I can, everything the Lord has placed in me to pass on to the next generation.

Gratitude for My Calling

While I don’t write this blog every morning, most mornings I do consider whether to write and what needs to be said. Specifically, I pray for God’s guidance. It’s easy to write a blog that critiques the government and culture—and often that’s what I believe I should do—Jesus didn’t spare His words toward the sinfulness of the culture in which he walked, particularly the hypocrisy of those who considered themselves leaders.

Yet I also want to highlight the good and help readers recognize the blessings the Lord bestows. That’s where I am today.

I think of what God allows me to do as a professor of history as I attempt to direct university students into the renewed mind that should characterize all Christians.

Take this semester, for instance. I’m teaching four courses that permit me to showcase Biblical principles.

In my historiography course, I do this quite specifically as we examine disparate worldviews in the philosophy of history and survey the various schools of historical thought over time. The Biblical worldview and the principles associated with it contrast nicely with what secularists want us to believe.

My American history survey course introduces the facts of history (of which many of the students are unaware) and shows how to evaluate what has happened in light of Biblical truths.

My course detailing the American Revolution, which should be more properly called the American War for Continued Self-Government (but that’s a topic for another time), is more than an account of battles. It deals with all the historical background that led to the conflict and reveals that the controversy had a Biblical basis.

Ending that course with an examination of the Constitution and with a book that delves into how the Founders understood issues that continue to bedevil us today is illuminating.

A new course I’m teaching is on America from 1877-1917, in which I show how the thought processes of many changed with the advent of evolutionary theory; again, that lets students know why we are where we are now. I can also lead them through an analysis of the nature of progressivism, the pros and cons of big business, and the principal leaders of the era, both positive and negative.

There’s so much talk about critical thinking in edu-crat world that the term has become nearly a meaningless cliché. I hope that my courses actually fulfill that goal.

On top of those opportunities, I participated in a forum where I could present my viewpoint on the unbiblical nature of socialism and nanny-state government. The room was packed to overflowing. While I afterwards thought of a hundred and one other things I wish I had said, the feedback on what I was able to say in a limited time has been encouraging.

There are very few institutions of higher education that allow someone with my views to openly declare them. My thanks to my institution, Southeastern University.

I’ve been free to develop specialized courses, some of which one would be hard put to find anywhere else: Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism; The Witness of Whittaker Chambers; C. S. Lewis: History and Influence.

Outside the official classroom, I’ve had other opportunities. Starting in January, I will be teaching an evening class on Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at a local church.

Some people my age think of retirement. I’m not there, at least not seriously, despite my jokes on that subject at times. God has given me so much to do, and it is so productive, that it would be wrong to let go of it at this time.

So today I reflect with gratitude on my calling, and I continue to carry it out with enthusiasm. Thanks be to God for His great love and favor.

Honesty & Integrity in Higher Education

As a new academic year approaches, I continue to be grateful for the liberty I have to teach from my Christian conservative perspective. At my university, I don’t have to tread carefully; I can fully expound on Biblical principles and make application to the courses I offer.

Professors at secular universities who have my perspective are not always so blessed. Neither are the students who swim against the progressive tide at those places:

Even guest speakers who go against the prevailing orthodoxy on campuses are experiencing hostility. Most often this is directed at conservatives who are invited to share at an event, but I recently noticed a fascinating divergence from the usual: Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, had an invitation to speak at Berkeley withdrawn. Why? He had made comments critical of Islam.

Liberals love clichés, especially ones about freedom of speech, etc. The reality is somewhat different than their self-righteous pronouncements:

While my university does have a definite statement of faith that all professors must sign, that covers only the basics of Christian doctrine. There is room for discussion on many issues, as long as that discussion is based on those basic beliefs.

Take history, for instance—my subject. There are many questions that arise from a Christian standpoint when looking at the history of America. What about slavery? What are the real reasons for why we had a civil war? Was big business good for the nation or a detriment? What are the proper limits for civil government? Was it right to engage in a particular war? What about the dropping of those atomic bombs on Japan? Can that be justified?

Christians will differ on some of those issues. I have definite views. My study of history from my Biblical perspective leads me to believe that there was a lot of Christian influence, especially in early America. I also like to highlight people and events that bolster that viewpoint.

Yet that doesn’t mean I whitewash history to make it conform to my preconceived notions. While I would like for Thomas Jefferson to have been a Christian, I have to tell students that the evidence indicates he wasn’t. Many people love Andrew Jackson, but I frankly abhor much of what he did. Southern partisans praise Stonewall Jackson; my praise is muted, to say the least.

It has become fashionable to decry all of American history because of some of the blemishes in our character that have occurred, but we need to be more nuanced than that:

Honesty. Integrity. Those are my guidelines when teaching.

If only those were the guidelines for most of American higher education.

Loving & Critiquing Higher Education

You critique what you love. I love education; that’s why I worked hard to get a doctorate in history; that’s why I continue to gain more knowledge and insight with a wide range of reading interests; that’s why I teach at a university. Yet I critique education frequently in these posts because I’m alarmed at the dismal state of learning in this nation.

In particular, since I do teach at the college level, I’m dismayed by what a college degree means now. It’s so much less than it used to mean. I see students walk across the stage at graduation who couldn’t figure out how to pass quizzes in my basic American history survey courses. So many who end up in college just aren’t prepared to be there.

Of course, that the result of an education they did or didn’t receive prior to arriving on campus.

I don’t blame them, in most cases. And if students who are not really ready to be in college nevertheless shows a determination to learn, I’m right there with them. I want them to succeed; after all, I am an educator.

Once they are in college, however, another problem erupts all too often lately. What are they now getting out of their college education? Are they being introduced to Christian principles and morals? Well, not on most campuses anymore. How about at least an appreciation for what Western civilization has created, despite the follies and errors that have accompanied those achievements?

It’s always beneficial to learn from the follies and errors. As a history professor, I keep hoping that lessons from the past can correct wayward policies in our current society.

Alas (that sounds like a good, old-fashioned way of using words), all some students ever hear are diatribes against the past, especially a European-American-centered past. Those Westerners did everything wrong, you see, and we must rebel against it all.

You, as parents, get to pay for this indoctrination. There might be an alternative:

There are so many horrific examples of where we are in higher education that I could pick and choose what to highlight. The most recent one, though, hails from the state of Washington at an institution of supposed higher learning called Evergreen State College near Olympia.

Evergreen, from what I read, began in the 1970s as an “experimental” college. The timing of its origins, as well as the word experimental, are clues to the worldview offered at this place.

Earlier this month, students staged an event where they told white students and white faculty that they should stay away from campus for a day. Apparently, that was supposed to be a teaching moment for how minorities feel marginalized.

One biology professor, Bret Weinstein, dared to criticize this advanced way of thinking. Keep in mind that Weinstein is a liberal/progressive himself. He just thought this was absurd.

The result? Weinstein was castigated for his unenlightened thinking, mobs took over the campus, property was destroyed, and the college had to close its doors for three days due to all the death threats.

This is higher education?

An anomaly, you ask? Not all secular institutions of presumed higher education have gone this far, but the worldview that led to this fiasco dominates most university campuses today.

Try being an open conservative on a secular campus and see what happens. Try being an evangelical Christian on those same campuses and see how you are treated.

But if you are an ardent Marxist, a militant homosexual, an angry feminist, or a radical environmentalist who believes the ecology is more important than people—well, then you fit in nicely.

I’m simply trying to do my part to help my students examine all things through a Biblical lens. I’m hoping they may provide some balance to the dominant worldview.

Keeping Up with the Times

As a university professor, I’m naturally interested in keeping up with the times. As I survey the climate of campuses throughout our nation, I’m beginning to realize I’m truly out of step. Perhaps I need to change some things to fit better into that current climate.

As a start, maybe I can alter my courses so they won’t be so focused on learning actual facts from history and evaluating the various interpretations of those facts in light of a Biblical worldview. And I probably should make my courses more fun, right? What could possibly go wrong with that innovative approach?

Neither should I be so adamant about correcting students’ writing or be so concerned about their grasp of fundamentals. This is a new age, after all:

Yes, I have a long way to go before I will fit into this new culture.

The Joys (?) of Grading

I am a professor of history. I live, eat, drink, and breathe my profession. I see it as a calling from God. He provided His Word and the principles from His Word to guide me into my thinking about history, government, culture, and anything associated with those subjects.

I love teaching. I love reading/researching. I’ve even learned to love writing, which is the hardest of those loves to carry out effectively. Yet the love of God and His truths is what inspires me to do them all.

There’s one aspect of the calling He’s given me that’s not as easy to love as the others: grading.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to interact with students and enjoy the learning that takes place without all of the time-consuming grading? Yes, that would be nice. But it wouldn’t work.

I know from experience that even some of the best students won’t read the books assigned unless there is some kind of evaluation that follows afterward. Love of learning purely for the love of learning resides in the hearts of the few, not the many.

For instance, when I first taught a Civil War class to a group of history majors, I set it up in such a way that one of the students would be responsible each class session for making a presentation about the reading assignment while another had to come up with questions about the reading for the class to discuss.

My assumption was that, since they were history majors and ostensibly in the class because they wanted to learn about the Civil War, that they would eagerly read and discuss. What I found instead is that only two of the students were prepared for each class session: the one given the task to make the presentation and the one chosen to come up with questions.

The rest of the students were ignorant of the facts that were to be part of the discussion because they hadn’t read the assigned pages. After all, they didn’t have to make a presentation or come up with questions.

Needless to say, I don’t conduct my classes in that way anymore.

That’s why we must give assignments. That’s why we must grade those assignments. It’s a matter of accountability and a way to teach personal responsibility. Most won’t learn much of anything without those assignments.

Those assignments don’t teach students only; they also teach me personal responsibility. As much as I don’t like being bogged down by grading, the Lord keeps nudging me about why I must do that. It not only holds students accountable and makes them better people—it does the same for me.

So, as I enter this final month of the semester, I will try to keep that in mind. God wants me to do the best for my students by offering honest evaluations of their work and helping them to improve their thinking and writing.

He also wants me to improve my attitude toward all that grading; He’s using it to make me more like Him.

Chip away at my rough edges, Lord. Although I may not always enjoy the time I spend grading, I know I need You to continue to shape me more into the image of Christ.