You’re surfing the internet when you find an article on the Italian Grand Prix, a tale of fast cars at dangerously fast speeds. This story of the race’s 1928 running, written in 2015 with the advantages of hindsight and historical context, soon has you reading about how a high-profile crash put pressure on a Fascist Italian regime and how the European church responded. As a reader, you’re suddenly making a slew of connections, led down an interdisciplinary path of connect-the-dots from sports to politics and religion. And, along the way, history has become something entirely different from what you expected.
Experiences like this—when history surprises—are regular for readers of professor Bruce Berglund’s recent endeavor, The Allrounder. The online international sports journal, which Berglund started just over two years ago, brings history and a variety of other disciplines to
“It’s only recently that the discipline [of history] has changed in such a way that sports history is recognized as an acceptable area of research,” he said.
Berglund’s work with The Allrounder, in addition to his broader scholarship on the history of sport, exemplifies the excitement around “history in action” at Calvin. Or, as some refer to it, applied history.
Conceptualizing “applied history” is difficult. Some scholars use it as a synonym for “public history”—history outside of the classroom and other scholarly settings, such as in museums,
Professor Will Katerberg, currently serving as chair of the history department, says that people often apply history in their daily lives to make sense of what is going in their lives and the world around them, comparing something in the present to analogous circumstances in the past. He calls this form of applied history “history by analogy.”
When it comes to analogical history, Katerberg says we must be careful not to draw merely surface comparisons. He references, for example, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in the 2000s, which prompted some to point out connections between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, while others likened the military intervention to the Vietnam War. Considering historical nuances, Katerberg says the failures of the French- and British-run mandate system in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, part of Iraq’s own history, might better illuminate the situation.
“History by analogy depends on doing good, detailed history, acknowledging its messy complexity, in which we understand the past as best we can on its own terms before we try to apply lessons from the past to our own time,” Katerberg explained. “It ought to lead us to be wary of simple historical lessons, certainly of emotional and politically driven historical parables, and incline us to try to understand events in their specific, unpredictable historical circumstances.”
Once this legwork has been done, thoroughly and thoughtfully, then historians can “apply” their findings to real-world tasks or problems through analogy. This, Katerberg says, is a form of applied history done well. It helps us see the present in more complex ways, rather than simplifying it.
For an additional way to understand applied history, consider the Calvin history department’s mission statement: We study the past to understand humanity's place in the world, to remember those who came before us and to help us live more wisely in our own time.
Wise living in one’s own time—considering the context of history and our place in it—would seem to be the essence of applied history. And Calvin students can’t get enough of it.
Artifacts and apps
In just a few weeks, students created exhibit proposals on a wide range of topics—from human interaction with elephants to the story behind the former Ramona Park in East Grand Rapids—each incorporating the museum’s existing artifacts.
Students also examined individual artifacts to carefully uncover a historical context for each piece and present it
“Most of these objects, looked at in isolation, would seem like curiosities without great significance, but when students dig into the background of these objects and explain what stories they form part of—stories about changing consumer tastes, trends in fashion and entertainment, and the movement of people around the globe that brings objects from one continent to another—they become much more interesting.
“It was a great experience for students to articulate these invisible stories behind the visible objects, and then see their own discoveries published on the web for a worldwide audience.”
Over the past two years, professor Kristin Du Mez has also invited students in her “U.S. Social and Cultural History” course to be surprised by history and to share their surprise with others through the internet. Each class has the chance to capture local history and contribute to the increasingly popular GR Walks mobile app.
Du Mez teamed up with the app’s developer Josh Leo ’06 to expand its historical walking tour options in the city of Grand Rapids. As part of the course, students scour historical photos, newspapers and city maps and make connections with local librarians and archivists. In the end, they create a walking tour unique to that semester, highlighting a certain area or topic.
“I wanted to give students an opportunity to put their historical skills to practice in ‘the real
For her students, it’s a chance to apply history just around the corner.
Bert de Vries, professor emeritus of history, has followed his own impulse to share historical knowledge in
The expansive site, which de Vries has embraced as a passion project since the 1960s, is by most accounts an archaeologist’s dream. The desert area boasts first- to ninth-century artifacts, some still waiting to be uncovered, even as other pieces of ancient architecture tower above the researchers.
Can an archaeological dig like this one be considered applied history? De Vries thinks so.
“We want to get away from archaeology being only for archaeologists,” he said. “Archaeology belongs to many other communities besides the academic community. I see applied archaeology as a component of applied history.”
Every season, de Vries works with a team including Calvin students, Calvin graduates, local Jordanians and international teammates at Umm el-Jimal. Their ongoing findings are incorporated in a guided trail tour for the surrounding community and visitors, and on the Umm el-Jimal website, which serves as an interactive museum for the general public.
“To me,” de Vries said, “this becomes a matter of justice. It’s a way of restoring access to heritage information that was taken away from people.” Working alongside him on dusty days at Umm el-Jimal, Calvin students get firsthand lessons in both justice and history.
But there’s justice to be found right on campus as well. In fact, back in Grand Rapids, professor Eric Washington also finds his students at the moral intersection of the past and present every semester.
Take, for example, the time late author Anne Moody’s words came at just the right moment in his “African-American History” course. Last fall, Washington says, his students were struck by these words from Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, detailing her experience in the 1950s American South:
“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. Now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.”
To the millennials in Washington’s classroom, the Civil Rights Movement could easily have seemed
“People were saying the same thing in 2014 that Anne Moody said in 1955,” Washington said. And, he notes, it is Moody’s personal account that, years later, is helping students see connections between racial tensions of the past and those that still exist today.
“I don’t know how much I said that day about making the connection,” he remembered. “I don’t think I had to say a lot; I saw it
A living science
From issues to artifacts, history can and will be applied to the world—so much so that Van Liere says the distinction between “applied history” and “history” is an artificial one to most historians.
“Most historians take for granted that there are already various kinds of ‘applications’ embedded in most kinds of history,” she said. “‘Applied history’ is really just one facet of history that’s done well, not a separate pursuit.”
After all, if no topic is beyond the bounds of history, then it seems that history, and the critical thinking
It has long been said that history should be studied because “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” While these words penned by Edmund Burke ring true in principle, Calvin’s program shows that there is also more utility to the discipline than avoiding missteps of the past.
Put simply, those who do know history are prepared for positive change, in nearly any arena, in the future. By applying history, Calvin historians are in fact making history in powerful ways for the next generation.
Amanda Greenhoe is a writer and Calvin’s social media manager.