September 16, 2011 | Andrew Steiner

Original artwork by George Gogas.

Since they met on a bus to a conference in 1999, history professors Carol Higham of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Will Katerberg of Calvin College have led historical conferences in Wyoming, Alberta and Berlin, collaborated on a book-length study of the American West and co-edited a series of related textbooks.

In early August, Katerberg and Higham received a $133,150 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct a three-week-long teaching institute about the place of the American West in global history. The institute, which takes place June 24–July 14, 2012 at Calvin, will welcome 25 middle and high school teachers from around the United States.

Many frontiers

Growing up in Canada, Katerberg watched Hollywood westerns on TV and dressed up in buckskin to play cowboys and Indians with his friends. That’s common, he said: the mythic American frontier has largely eclipsed the frontier histories of other countries:

“In many ways that’s part of the idea behind the institute,” Katerberg said. “Canada had a very similar frontier. Mexico had frontiers—Argentina and Brazil … Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, all can be compared to the U.S.”

Using the wide-angle lens of comparative history, Katerberg and Higham hope to raise questions about “American exceptionalism,” which Katerberg defines as the myth that America is “a place where the normal historical rules don’t apply.” The belief, therefore, is that the evolution of America as a nation has been different in fundamental ways from the evolution of Old World societies, Katerberg said.

The patterns of conquest typically associated with American history were operating in countries around the world, he asserted: “During the 1870s when the American army was fighting the Sioux in the West, the British were fighting the Zulu in South Africa.”

Historical humility

As well as being factually suspect, Katerberg believes American exceptionalism underpins a dangerous theology. “The idea that America is a place where you can leave the problems of the Old World behind ..., from a Christian point of view, that’s heresy,” he said. “America is neither the source of sin nor the solution to sin. It’s another place where the story of sin and redemption—redemption coming from God—plays out.”

Each of the teachers at the institute will craft their own lesson plans using primary texts. One example could be a comparison of the gold rush guides published in California during the 1840s to those published in British Columbia during the 1860s. The directors of the institute hope to create a website where the teachers’ lesson plans can be accessed and adapted by other teachers for their classrooms.

The institute also includes a field trip to Lowell, an outpost on Michigan’s own frontier, founded in the 1830s.

The human frontier

“Every human being, in a sense, goes through something of a frontier experience,” said professor Robert Schoone-Jongen, who is serving as director of pedagogy for the American Frontiers institute. “You’re going from what you know to what you don’t know.”

“My piece will be, in part, the history of immigration in Minnesota,” Schoone-Jongen said, “but I’ll be broadening it out to immigration as a frontier. The implications of that for teachers now is huge.”

Katerberg, himself the product of a Dutch immigrant community near Hamilton, Ont., appreciates the role of immigration for an increasing number of American students: “Immigrants from Asia and Africa and Latin America are a growing presence in American school classrooms,” he said. The institute will emphasize the often volatile meetings of cultures and ethnic groups that characterized frontier expansion.

A community of scholars

Katerberg, Higham and Schoone-Jongen will deliver lectures and lead discussions, along with several guest presenters, including Bill Van Vugt, chair of Calvin’s history department, and Jamie Skillen, professor of geology, geography and environmental studies.

Having attended eight institutes as a high school teacher and helped direct one at Calvin in 2009, Schoone-Jongen believes the institute will inspire and refresh those who attend. “High school teachers have to be reminded that they’re still scholars,” he said. “There’s a reason why they wanted to teach history. An institute gives them a chance to rediscover that.”

To learn more about how the West is studied at Calvin, check out The Mellema Program in Western American Studies.

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Will Katerberg, co-director of American Frontiers institute

Conquests and Consequences: The American West from Frontier to Region, the first in a series of history textbooks about the American West, was co-authored by Carol L. Higham and William H. Katerberg. It was published by Harlan Davidson in 2009.

The original cover artwork by George Gogas (b. 1929) is entitled “Judith Basin Encounter: When Charlie and Pablo had a Bad Day on the Freeway.” The Judith Basin Encounter Series plays with the work of Charlie Russell and Pablo Picasso, contemporaries with diametrically opposed painting approaches.

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