Nevin on History

John Williamson Nevin believed in the centrality of history in a college curriculum. This makes sense because every subject has a history. Every idea comes from somewhere. We need to hear his words again, especially since Americans are notoriously provincial in their historical memory: “You mean there was civilization before America? There was a church before the Baptist church?” History should teach us a little humility.

In Hart’s summary: “Not only did history interest Nevin for understanding the development of Christianity and the organic qualities of the church, but it also proved to be a subject that gave coherence to the college curriculum. Because the study of history involved the ‘universal relation of the system of nature to the system of living mind in the economy of the world,’ it offered a means of training the mind to see things whole,” (John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist, P&R, 182).

Nevin also resisted the drive toward “practical” education and a million specialized degree programs. Rather, he held fast to the tried and true heritage of liberal education: a broad familiarity with the classics of the pagan world and Christendom, an education that prepared you to do anything, precisely because it prepared you to do nothing (the vision New St. Andrews College is seeking to recover).

Nevin delivered these words to the 1867 graduating class of Franklin and Marshall College: “Let it be our ambition then, and our care, to maintain in vigorous force here, an institution that shall be devoted supremely to liberal education, in the old and proper sense of the term; liberal, as being free from all bondage to merely outside references and ends, as having to do, first of all, with the enlargement of the mind in its own sphere. This, after all, must remain the true conception of education forever,” (Hart, 186-187).

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