History In and Out of the Classroom

From The Federalist:

Americans have a hunger to understand, explore, and connect with their history. Richly sourced, intellectually demanding accounts of the country’s defining moments and characters do more than break through the noise.

Indeed, historians are probably the scholars most celebrated outside the confines of the academy. They are among the few who shape our cultural landscape—from a place of learning. As though to prove the point, Chernow’s 832-page 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton, also a New York Times best-seller, inspired the most talked-about Broadway musical in a generation. Only on the American college campus is American history on retreat.

How strange it is that U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning the study of American history and, at some institutions, the study of history altogether. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni evaluates the general education programs of more than 1,100 colleges and universities every year. The 2018–19 report found that only 17 percent of them required any kind of foundational course in American history or government. As of 2016, only four out of the top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) required a course in U.S. history in their history majors.

In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising that history programs in the United States are struggling to generate student interest. When the American Historical Association drew attention to cratering undergraduate degree production last year—the number of history degrees awarded annually has fallen almost 34 percent since 2011, more steeply than any other discipline in the liberal arts.

This is true even at my alma mater Dartmouth College, where I attended my 25th reunion last weekend.

Previous thoughts on the matter.

UPDATE: This is the 1000th post published on FFT since the blog’s inception in September 2014!


• Philip Jenkins reviews Jay Rubenstein’s Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History (OUP, 2019)

By their own lights, the Crusades were remarkably successful. In a series of military struggles that had the church’s blessing, armed expeditions extended and reinforced the influence of Latin Catholic Christianity and of the Catholic Church. They conquered Mus­lim kingdoms in Spain and Sicily, subjugated pagan realms in the Baltic lands, and smashed heretical movements in southern France. For each outburst of militant zeal, warriors expected to receive all the spiritual benefits they would have received had they traveled to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, however, was the Cru­sades’ one region of conspicuous failure. Christian forces could hold neither that holy city nor the territorial footholds they had secured throughout the Levant. In a brilliant and thoughtful book, Jay Rubenstein shows how that exception proved important to Latin Christian Europe and traces the legacy of that searing disappointment.

See Steve Donoghue’s review also.

• According to French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, King Louis IX died on crusade in 1270, not on account of dysentery, but on account of scurvy:

Caused by a lack of vitamin C, the painful and potentially fatal disease was the scourge of sailors until the turn of the 19th century.

While the local food in Tunisia where the Eighth Crusade landed in 1270 contained lots of vitamin-C rich salads and citrus fruit, the crusaders’ meat-heavy diet and Saint Louis’ extreme piety appears to have been his undoing.

“His diet wasn’t very balanced,” said Charlier… “He put himself through all manner of penances, and fasting. Nor was the crusade as well prepared as it should have been,” he told AFP.

“They did not take water with them or fruit and vegetables.”

More at the link.

Alumni News

History graduate Hannah Mayo Harris ’13 writes: “This is coming a few days late, but I am so humbled and honored to be recognized by Fellowship of Christian Athletes women’s ministry and Mandy Ledford, who is one of the most loving, awesome, kind, Godly people I have had the pleasure of knowing. I am so glad that God knows what he is doing (far more than I know) because he placed me in career at a school with a program that was exactly where I needed to be. I have been blessed with the very best girls on the planet to coach since I have been at Murray High School, and I am so fortunate to have been surrounded by them! Coaching and walking with God is all about relationships, and I try to demonstrate the importance of those daily. It was even more special to have Jordan speak about me. I pray I get to continue to coach/influence, demonstrate unconditional love and grace, and to help girls find their strength as well as to root their identities in something solid for many more years to come.”

Well done, Hannah!

The Longest Day

A post in commemoration of a significant event that took place 75 years ago today.


From Wikipedia: “A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties.”

Tiananmen Square

Thirty years ago today, the Chinese Communist Party massacred thousands of student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The most iconic photograph of the event was taken by American photographer Jeff Widener the next day.

The soldiers driving the tanks were not so evil that they were prepared to run over the protestor, but the man was spirited away and has never been seen since.

For many other photographs of that fateful day follow this link from Business Insider. It deserves to be remembered, especially given how China, and its Western flunkies, have tried assiduously to throw the whole thing down the memory hole.

When they do acknowledge its existence, they will say, well, we were right to crack down. China has a history of revolutions starting from seemingly innocuous events (e.g. the Railway Rights Protection Movement), and the students of 1989 were allegedly trying to do the same thing. So by asserting its authority, the CCP maintained the regime, which could then institute reforms on its own terms and its own schedule, setting up China to be the economic juggernaut it is today. Compare this to the rest of the formerly Communist world, particularly Russia, which was looted by oligarchs (in cahoots with the Harvard Boys), and even now is in demographic free fall, with much less global influence than it once had.

There is something to be said for this critique.

But real countries don’t massacre their own citizens.

The Hunt for Silver

From Priceonomics (hat tip: Instapundit), a bit of interesting business history:

Until his dying day in 2014, Nelson Bunker Hunt, who had once been the world’s wealthiest man, denied that he and his brother plotted to corner the global silver market.

Sure, back in 1980, Bunker, his younger brother Herbert, and other members of the Hunt clan owned roughly two-thirds of all the privately held silver on earth. But the historic stockpiling of bullion hadn’t been a ploy to manipulate the market, they and their sizable legal team would insist in the following years. Instead, it was a strategy to hedge against the voracious inflation of the 1970s—a monumental bet against the U.S. dollar.

Whatever the motive, it was a bet that went historically sour. The debt-fueled boom and bust of the global silver market not only decimated the Hunt fortune, but threatened to take down the U.S. financial system.

The panic of “Silver Thursday” took place over 35 years ago, but it still raises questions about the nature of financial manipulation. While many view the Hunt brothers as members of a long succession of white collar crooks, from Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff, others see the endearingly eccentric Texans as the victims of overstepping regulators and vindictive insiders who couldn’t stand the thought of being played by a couple of southern yokels.

In either case, the story of the Hunt brothers just goes to show how difficult it can be to distinguish illegal market manipulation from the old fashioned wheeling and dealing that make our markets work.

More at the link. Stephen Green comments that: “Anyone ‘smart’ enough to try to get rich cornering the market for a natural resource ought to have a long talk with these guys. In the long run, it never works, as high prices cause people to find substitutes or new sources.”

Hermits and Anchorites

Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.

An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.

I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.

Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.

More at the link.

Alumni News

Pleased to learn that Reinhardt history major Caleb Land ’06 was named Teacher of the Year at Utopian Academy for the Arts Charter School, where he teaches social studies.

The photo shows Caleb with his wife Emily Land ’06, who writes that he “has been accepted to the University of Georgia and already started on his Masters Program, and this Sunday was installed as a Pastor at our church.”

Wonderful news – congratulations, Caleb!

Medieval Details

Currently reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989). I was pleased to note that the late great Maurice Keen has a cameo role in it:

When Simon and Jenny came back he nodded benignly and told them: “You’re with Dr. Keen, I believe. Corner of the quadrangle, up the stairs to the top.”

When they reached the cluttered room at the top of the stairs their tutor in medieval history and introduced themselves, Jenny called him “Professor” and Simon called him “Sir.” Dr. Keen beamed at them over his glasses.

“Now,” he said merrily, “there are two things and only two that I do not allow. One is wasting your time and mine; the other is calling me ‘sir.’ ‘Dr. Keen’ will do nicely. Then we’ll graduate to ‘Maurice.’ By the way, Jenny, I’m not a professor either. Professors have chairs, and as you see I do not; at least not on in good repair.”

He gestured happily at the collection of semi-collapsed upholstery and bade his students be comfortable. Simon sank his frame into a legless Queen Anne chair that left him three inches off the floor, and together they began to consider Jan Hus and the Hussite revolution in medieval Bohemia. Simon grinned. He knew he was going to enjoy Oxford.

Alas, the author should have consulted with Keen about the contents of his book. On page 187 we read:

He had a light lunch in a small sandwich bar off the street, called Crutched Friars, where monks once hobbled with one leg bound behind them to cause pain for the greater glory of God, and he made up his mind what he would do.

Needless to say, the “Crutched Friars” didn’t use that type of crutch, at least not habitually. Their name derives from the Latin Fratres Cruciferi, meaning “cross-bearing brethren,” and refers to the staves that they carried with them, which were surmounted by crucifixes.

It’s somewhat like how Edmund Crouchback, younger brother of King Edward I, was not actually deformed, but simply a crusader, “crouchback” being a corruption of “cross-back,” referring to the crosses that crusaders would stitch onto their clothing.

This is the Modern World

Solar eclipse of 29 May 29, 1919, used for the Eddington experiment. Wikipedia.

One hundred years ago, as Paul Johnson writes in the opening chapter of Modern Times, a significant event took place.


The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe. It had been apparent for half a century that the Newtonian cosmology, based upon the straight lines of Euclidean geometry and Galileo’s notions of absolute time, was in need of serious modification. It had stood for more than two hundred years. It was the framework within which the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the vast expansion of human knowledge, freedom and prosperity which characterized the nineteenth century, had taken place. But increasingly powerful telescopes were revealing anomalies. In particular, the motions of the planet Mercury deviated by forty-three seconds of arc a century from its predictable behaviour under Newtonian laws of physics. Why?

In 1905, a twenty-six-year-old German Jew, Albert Einstein, then working in the Swiss patent office in Berne, had published a paper, ‘On the electrodynamics of moving bodies’, which became known as the Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s observations on the way in which, in certain circumstances, lengths appeared to contract and clocks to slow down, are analogous to the effects of perspective in painting. In fact the discovery that space and time are relative rather than absolute terms of measurement is comparable, in its effect on our perception of the world, to the first use of perspective in art, which occurred in Greece in the two decades c. 500-480 BC.

The originality of Einstein, amounting to a form of genius, and the curious elegance of his lines of argument, which colleagues compared to a kind of art, aroused growing, world-wide interest. In 1907 he published a demonstration that all mass has energy, encapsulated in the equation E = mc^2 , which a later age saw as the starting point in the race for the A-bomb. Not even the onset of the European war prevented scientists from following his quest for an all-embracing General Theory of Relativity which would cover gravitational fields and provide a comprehensive revision of Newtonian physics. In 1915 news reached London that he had done it. The following spring, as the British were preparing their vast and catastrophic offensive on the Somme, the key paper was smuggled through the Netherlands and reached Cambridge, where it was received by Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy and Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Eddington publicized Einstein’s achievement in a 1918 paper for the Physical Society called ‘Gravitation and the Principle of Relativity’. But it was of the essence of Einstein’s methodology that he insisted his equations must be verified by empirical observation and he himself devised three specific tests for this purpose. The key one was that a ray of light just grazing the surface of the sun must be bent by 1.745 seconds of arc — twice the amount of gravitational deflection provided for by classical Newtonian theory. The experiment involved photographing a solar eclipse. The next was due on 29 May 1919. Before the end of the war, the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, had secured from a harassed government the promise of £1,000 to finance an expedition to take observations from Principe and Sobral.

Early in March 1919, the evening before the expedition sailed, the astronomers talked late into the night in Dyson’s study at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, designed by Wren in 1675-6, while Newton was still working on his general theory of gravitation. E.T. Cottingham, Eddington’s assistant, who was to accompany him, asked the awful question: what would happen if measurement of the eclipse photographs showed not Newton’s, nor Einstein’s, but twice Einstein’s deflection? Dyson said, ‘Then Eddington will go mad and you will have to come home alone.’ Eddington’s notebook records that on the morning of 29 May there was a tremendous thunderstorm in Principe. The clouds cleared just in time for the eclipse at 1.30 pm. Eddington had only eight minutes in which to operate. ‘I did not see the eclipse, being too busy changing plates . . . We took sixteen photographs.’ Thereafter, for six nights he developed the plates at the rate of two a night. On the evening of 3 June, having spent the whole day measuring the developed prints, he turned to his colleague, ‘Cottingham, you won’t have to go home alone.’ Einstein had been right.

The expedition satisfied two of Einstein’s tests, which were reconfirmed by W.W. Campbell during the September 1922 eclipse. It was a measure of Einstein’s scientific rigour that he refused to accept that his own theory was valid until the third test (the ‘red shift’) was met. If it were proved that this effect does not exist in nature’, he wrote to Eddington on 15 December 1919, ‘then the whole theory would have to be abandoned’. In fact the ‘red shift’ was confirmed by the Mount Wilson observatory in 1923, and thereafter empirical proof of relativity theory accumulated steadily, one of the most striking instances being the gravitational lensing system of quasars, identified in 1979— 80. 5 At the time, Einstein’s professional heroism did not go unappreciated. To the young philosopher Karl Popper and his friends at Vienna University, ‘it was a great experience for us, and one which had a lasting influence on my intellectual development’. ‘What impressed me most’, Popper wrote later, ‘was Einstein’s own clear statement that he would regard his theory as untenable if it should fail in certain tests …. Here was an attitude utterly different from the dogmatism of Marx, Freud, Adler and even more so that of their followers. Einstein was looking for crucial experiments whose agreement with his predictions would by no means establish his theory; while a disagreement, as he was the first to stress, would show his theory to be untenable. This, I felt, was the true scientific attitude.’

Einstein’s theory, and Eddington’s much publicized expedition to test it, aroused enormous interest throughout the world in 1919. No exercise in scientific verification, before or since, has ever attracted so many headlines or become a topic of universal conversation. The tension mounted steadily between June and the actual announcement at a packed meeting of the Royal Society in London in September that the theory had been confirmed. To A.N. Whitehead, who was present, it was like a Greek drama:

We were the chorus commenting on the decree of destiny as disclosed in the development of a supreme incident. There was dramatic quality in the very staging: the traditional ceremonial, and in the background the picture of Newton to remind us that the greatest of scientific generalizations was now, after more than two centuries, to receive its first modification … a great adventure in thought had at last come home to shore.

From that point onward, Einstein was a global hero, in demand at every great university in the world, mobbed wherever he went, his wistful features familiar to hundreds of millions, the archetype of the abstracted natural philosopher. The impact of his theory was immediate, and cumulatively immeasurable. But it was to illustrate what Karl Popper was later to term ‘the law of unintended consequence’. Innumerable books sought to explain clearly how the General Theory had altered the Newtonian concepts which, for ordinary men and women, formed their understanding of the world about them, and how it worked. Einstein himself summed it up thus: ‘The “Principle of Relativity” in its widest sense is contained in the statement: The totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of “absolute motion”; or, shorter but less precise: There is no absolute motion.’ Years later, R. Buckminster Fuller was to send a famous cable to the Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi explaining Einstein’s key equation in exactly 249 words, a masterpiece of compression.

But for most people, to whom Newtonian physics, with their straight lines and right angles, were perfectly comprehensible, relativity never became more than a vague source of unease. It was grasped that absolute time and absolute length had been dethroned; that motion was curvilinear. All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres. The world is out of joint’, as Hamlet sadly observed. It was as though the spinning globe had been taken
off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards of measurement. At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.


If you’d like to keep reading, see the Internet Archive, from which this excerpt was taken. The American Thinker also published a piece on the Eddington experiment.