This is the catchy slogan that will be emblazoned on the new Wheaton College History Department t-shirts for 2015-16. We plan on rolling out the new model at the college’s Academic Fair Saturday after next. The resulting buzz, we are confident, will lead to a dramatic upsurge in history course enrollments. That’s the plan, anyhow.
“History: It’s Happening” won out over several other clever possibilities. Some preferred “We Put the Stud in Study.” I liked “It’s Complicated”–which is my standard response to almost every student question–as well as the more profound sounding “Res Implicata Est” (Latin for “It’s Complicated”).
One of my colleagues who specializes in Early Modern Europe suggested a quote from the 1612 book The Anatomy of Melancholy: “We shall have a glut of books! . . . We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” Accurate enough, but it didn’t go over well with the focus group brought in by our marketing staff.
In addition to being pithy, “History: It’s Happening” has the virtue of encapsulating what historians refer to as historical consciousness. Historical consciousness isn’t an easy concept to define, and I think it works best to explain it in conjunction with two other terms.
In every course that I teach I set at least three broad learning goals for my students:
The least important, though not unimportant, objective is historical knowledge—information that enhances our understanding of the time and place we are studying. Historical knowledge is our least important objective in part because we retain so little of it, in part because even when we remember it, it does little to change who we are.
More important is the development of historical thinking skills. We hone these skills not by memorizing historical facts but by analyzing historical evidence and constructing historical arguments. In the process we sharpen our capacity to read perceptively, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, skills that are critical to success in any number of vocations.
But our most important goal is to develop historical consciousness. Historical consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice. It’s a mindset that transforms the way we view the world. Individuals with historical consciousness feel the weight of the simple truth that each of us lives in time. They recognize that our lives are profoundly influenced by historical forces–large and small, personal and impersonal–and they are keenly aware of the particular historical contexts that frame their own lives and the society in which they live.
History: it’s happening.