Street-level September

American History teachers sometimes send me letters asking for advice about textbooks. I make suggestions — for example, Thomas Kidd’s American History (B&H, 2019) is a good main text to use — but also emphasize use of old newspapers to see how people in their own eras viewed important developments.

As a teenager I started doing that on my own by hitting the Boston Public Library and cranking microfilm on Saturday mornings before Red Sox games. Now it’s easy to do online by subscribing to either newspapers.com or newspaperarchive.com. (You can try each with a 7-day trial subscription.) Along with reading the stories, it’s fun starting in the late 19th century to look at whole pages, ads and all.

History books that illuminate different perspectives are helpful. Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Nelson, 2019) is a judicious look at how the United States began. H. W. Brand’s comparison of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln in The Zealot and the Emancipator (Doubleday, 2020) raises important questions about ways to bring about social change. Amity Shlaes has written good histories of the 1930s and the 1960s, The Forgotten Man and Great Society (Harper, 2007 and 2019).

Teachers who want to use literature and music in their history lessons can gain important perspective from Karen Swallow Prior’s book The Evangelical Imagination (Brazos, 2023). One of her mentions pushed me right away to listen to “Hurt,” a song originally performed by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and to compare it with Johnny Cash’s rendition of the song in 2002. Prior shows how Christians can affect culture: “Cash transformed a song seething with unsettling, quiet rage into one of the most haunting and soulful songs in modern music.”

I emphasized street-level learning during my two decades of teaching journalism history at The University of Texas at Austin. The presidential debate season has now begun, and we will supposedly learn about candidates through suite-level exchanges of soundbites. Hardly. Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House (Random House, 1992) provides a vivid, visceral sense of the presidential election campaign of 1988. Reporters and political groupies still talk about it as the best book for understanding the ups and downs of intense competition among driven people. Cramer’s analysis of the then-middle-aged Joe Biden is still relevant today.

Warning: Cramer’s book is 1,047 pages of vivid, Tom Wolfe-type prose — but teachers should encourage students to dive into subjects that particularly interest them. Stephen Eide’s Homelessness in America (Roman & Littlefield, 2022) has accurate history. I’ll fight false humility and recommend my own The Tragedy of American Compassion (Regnery, third edition, 2022) regarding the history of poverty-fighting, and The Story of Abortion in America (Crossway, 2023)

For advanced students worried by “America is falling apart” talk, Dennis Rasmussen’s The Disillusionment of Americas Founders (Princeton, 2021) shows those concerns have always been around. High school seniors who can stand some gritty facts and grisly stories might read about how other societies did fall apart. Tom Holland’s Rome-centered Rubicon (Anchor, 2002) and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (many printings over the past 70 years) are gripping. Jose Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God (originally in Spanish, first translation published by Knopf in 1955) remains my favorite novel: It describes Spain’s descent from 1931 to 1936. Civil war followed.

In brief

David George Moore’s Stuck in the Present (Abilene Christian, 2021) is a good explanation of why Christians should study history. Daniel Darling’s Agents of Grace and Brandon Guindon’s Intentional (both Zondervan, 2023) have good advice on overcoming political tribalism, including “Listen to understand” and “Be interruptible.”

The True Story of the Whole World by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (Brazos, 2020) is a useful introduction to the Bible. Edward Welch’s When People Are Big and God Is Small (P&R, second edition, 2023) shows how to overcome peer pressure and fear of man.

100 Places to See After You Die, by Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings (Scribner, 2023), satirizes bucket list books by looking at afterlives imagined within various mythologies, religions, and cultures:  Ancient Egypt’s “Where to Stay” highlights “Aaru, the Field of Reeds,” and its “What to Pack” section includes burial with servants and mummified pets. James Nardi’s The Hidden Company That Trees Keep: Life from Treetops to Root Tips (Princeton, 2023) illuminates the complex biological world of trees.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.