The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

All history is not the same

by Sally Jongsma

Dordt College history professors say that most students don't know the potential that history has for deepening their understanding of issues and their cultures How you understand history can change how you live and how you vote, says Dr. Paul Fessler, the newest member of the Dordt College history department.

“That’s why where you study history is important,” adds Dr. Hubert Krygsman. “Students may think that history is merely factual, but no matter where they go, history is taught from a particular perspective.”

Krygsman, who is Canadian, gives as an example the fact that in the history courses he took in school, the underlying theme was the struggle for power between different socio-economic classes. Whether students were aware of it or not, textbooks viewed events from that perspective.

Fessler says history teaching in the United States is also largely based on power struggles, but probably focuses more on the intersection of race, gender, and culture. But for the professors in Dordt’s history department, history is something different.

“History is the discipline that studies how humans have used their God-given formative power to shape culture, both obediently and disobediently,” says Dr. Keith Sewell, the third member of the department. He and his colleagues believe that to study history, you need to look at how events and actions reflect the “spirits” that have driven people, countries, and movements over the years. All students get exposed to that perspective in History 100, a required general education course.

“Studying history alerts students to the notion of historical development,” says Krygsman. “We can’t be exhaustive in one course, but we try to help students understand the main outline of development in western civilization to set the context for other disciplines.”

Krygsman says he tries to use specifics to help students in different majors see what this means. He’ll ask, for example, if anyone knows when in the development of business procedures such practices as double entry bookkeeping, or the privatization of property, or the establishment of limited liability companies began. “We want students to know that what they’re studying has a history. It’s something for which people are responsible to God,” he says.

“Deepening our historical understanding gives us a better understanding of the world in which we live and serve,” Sewell adds.

All three professors find that perspective an exciting way to enter the field and to teach others about it. It helps them see historical events and developments as much more than “facts, names, dates, and dead people.”

They also just enjoy history. Sewell says it may have something to do with his being an elder son; Krygsman appreciates how it connects him to the past; Fessler thinks his interest may stem from the fact that his father was nearly sixty years old when he was born.

“He would tell me stories that made the early twentieth century come alive and not seem that long ago,” he says.

Their students, however, generally aren’t so interested in history when they enter college. In fact, many don’t hide the fact that they hate history—which they see as the dry, boring memorization of facts, names, and dates.
That may be more because of the way the subject is taught than the subject itself, Fessler believes. Part of his enjoyment of history comes in teaching it: to wake students up to its intrigue, to help them see that people have been dealing with fascinating but similar issues and problems for centuries, and to show them that it affects who they are today and how they live.

Krygsman begins his class by asking students where they’ve come from and what makes it possible for them to be here. “That immediately makes them become historically sensitive,” he says. Teaching from the point of view that he and his colleagues do brings students into his office every semester to say they’ve never studied history this way before and, further, they’ve never enjoyed it so much.

“History is pivotal,” says Sewell. “Every human action has a history. People shape and form governments, schools, art, families, science, and businesses based on their history.”

“People who believe in the sovereignty of God look at things differently from people who believe in the sovereignty of man,” says Sewell. For example, much contemporary democracy is based on the Enlightenment notion of the sovereignty of man, of people. He believes that it is important for people to recognize that. He asks his students whether they believe in the sovereignty of God or the sovereignty of man, urging them to consider the serious implications of each belief.

Fessler feels truly blessed to live in a democracy and enjoy the freedoms we have in the United States, yet he also points out that the assumptions upon which western demo-cracy is based—such as the notion that human reason can solve the world’s problems—are contrary to a Scriptural view.

“So, when an emphasis on excessive individualism or property rights, for example, comes forward in our society, we need to constantly re-examine our response as Christians—not to merely trust what the political parties say or even how the founding fathers would have responded. This is a vital realization for Christians being sent out into the world to do the Lord’s will.”

Krygsman notes that the Industrial Revolution, which brought such profound changes in life through urbanization, new technology, and dramatic social change, is an outworking of liberal humanistic capitalism. Knowing these things doesn’t give us easy answers about whether they are good or bad, he adds. The Industrial Revolution had some very positive consequences. It enabled the western world to feed a growing world population; it enhanced life; it brought a measure of justice to certain classes of people.

“But knowing this history drives us to think about these things in a different way,” says Sewell. “The language used is shaped by our humanist culture. As Christians we can’t afford to be ignorant of that.”

Sewell laments the fact that Christians must work within organizations and with resources that originate from or operate out of a spirit that is not based on God’s sovereignty. Political systems are often shaped by people who believe in the sovereignty of man rather than of God. Textbooks are written by authors who see history as power struggle rather than as culture forming in response to God’s call.

Nevertheless, this is the world we live in, and understanding history can help us not only know how we’ve gotten here, but also how to try to shape our world in ways that we believe are obedient to God’s call, the Dordt College history professors believe.

“In the Industrial Revolution the ultimate goal of business became efficiency,” says Fessler. Today, he believes, we need to look at specific practices and institutions to see what impact such goals have on people—what effect mega-stores have on the people who shop there and on business people. “How does having efficiency as the prime goal affect our ability to live stewardly lives before God’s face?” he asks. Being aware of these roots can help us see distortions and possibly better ways to do business or promote human rights.

Do students sense the difference in this approach? Some do and some don’t, and some don’t right now, say the professors.“Some roll their eyes, thinking we’ve overstepped our bounds and gone beyond the discipline of historical fact,” says Krygsman. “Others come to a better recognition that being a Christian business person, teacher, scientist, artist, or anything else comes with great challenges.”

That’s why they also believe taking history at a Christian college is so important. It’s not simply that they are trying to sell their own courses—although they have valuable insights to share with their students. But a message heard in several ways is easier to understand and remember. Taking courses in a variety of disciplines that all have the same starting point and that are driven by the same spirit helps students see connections across the curriculum and encourages them to act on them in their own lives.

Krygsman, Sewell, and Fessler will keep trying to get students enthused about history in order to help them understand and shape their world in ways that are God-glorifying.