Anchored by the Classic Learning Test

The Explanatory Power of History | James LaGrand

January 04, 2024 Classic Learning Test
The Explanatory Power of History | James LaGrand
Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
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Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
The Explanatory Power of History | James LaGrand
Jan 04, 2024
Classic Learning Test

On this episode of Anchored, Soren is joined by James LaGrand, the director of the Messiah University Honors Program. The two discuss James’ love for the explanatory power of history. James describes the lost sense of wonder and discovery that accompanies the educational shift from teaching history to teaching social studies. They also talk about the honors program at Messiah University and how the Great Books have helped create community among the honors students. 

Today’s episode of Anchored is brought to you with support from America’s Christian Credit Union. Find out how ACCU can be the banking partner to your school or family by visiting

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Anchored, Soren is joined by James LaGrand, the director of the Messiah University Honors Program. The two discuss James’ love for the explanatory power of history. James describes the lost sense of wonder and discovery that accompanies the educational shift from teaching history to teaching social studies. They also talk about the honors program at Messiah University and how the Great Books have helped create community among the honors students. 

Today’s episode of Anchored is brought to you with support from America’s Christian Credit Union. Find out how ACCU can be the banking partner to your school or family by visiting

Soren Schwab (CLT) (00:00.918)
Welcome back to the Anchored Podcast, the official podcast of the Classic Learning Test. My name is Soren Schwab, Vice President of Partnerships here at CLT, and today we're joined by James B. LeGrand. Dr. LeGrand is a historian of modern America. He teaches a wide range of courses on American history, and his research and writing focuses on the intertwining of political and social history during this time. He serves as a referee, editorial reviewer, and consultant for journals.

scholarly presses and textbooks. Before moving to Pennsylvania to teach at Messiah College in 1997, he lived in Boston, Ottawa, Canada, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Bloomington, Indiana. Dr. LeGrand is now the current director of the Messiah University Honors Program. He and his wife, Betsy and their three children live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and we are so honored to have him on the show today. Welcome Dr. LeGrand.

James LaGrand (00:56.152)
Thank you very much, Sorin.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (00:58.046)
As we always do on the Anchored Podcast, we're going to start talking about our guest's own educational journey. So let's talk a little bit about where did you grow up, what kind of schools did you attend K-12, and what was your experience like?

James LaGrand (01:10.896)
Sure, happy to answer this question, partly because I thought about this. I really would like to honor a couple of schools that were so valuable and informative to me. I grew up, as you noted there, in Canada, Ottawa's the national capital, right across the river from Quebec. And so it's a bilingual country, and my parents placed me in a French immersion school, Hopewell School in Ottawa. And so...

Kindergarten through grade eight, I attended French immersion class. That meant that all of my classes were in French, except I think for English, obviously. PE, I think they did in English and science. And everything else was in French. And that, don't ask me to speak it because my speaking skills have decayed a bit, but still certainly read and understand and...

just remember very fondly that experience, things like little moments like singing the national anthem, Oh Canada, every morning in French along with my classmates. So that was a really phenomenal experience in lots of ways, I think shaped me. And then when I was in grade nine, I think it was, my family moved to the States across the border, Michigan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. And there, there was a...

a quite large at the time and long-standing Christian school community. The Dutch Calvinists that settled there way back in the in the 1890s, a little bit like Catholics tended to do, as soon as they landed they built a church, but they'd also built a school. And so my Christian school there, Oakdale Christian was the name of it, really, really a wonderful school. Wasn't

built in the 1950s or 1970s or the day before yesterday, I went to a Christian school that was built in the 1890s. And the city of Grand Rapids had changed around it. And so it was in, we can call this part of Grand Rapids the inner city, but that's what people who didn't live there, they called it that. But it did mean that it was a fully integrated Christian school. And that was a marvelous experience to sort of experience diversity in a genuine.

James LaGrand (03:33.068)
in an organic way, not in a sort of external or programmatic way. So those are two of the most significant, I would say, educational experiences. Went on to Calvin College, where eventually I started out undeclared, but eventually studied history there and was involved in the orchestra and worked in the student newspaper, the chimes there. And then went to Indiana University in Bloomington, got my PhD.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (03:59.714)
So, and you just mentioned, you know, Calvin College, your BA, and then your MA, and your PhD, and all three of those in history. So, needless to say, you are a historian by trade, by passion. When did that come about? Were there, were you, have you always been fascinated in history? Were your parents kind of history buffs and kind of instilled that in you? Talk to us a little bit about that.

James LaGrand (04:07.117)

James LaGrand (04:23.728)
Sure. I think I, from as long as I can remember thinking about sort of significant things, I was interested in history, although I didn't enter college with that in mind. I was one of these undeclared majors. I thought maybe I might be a writer. I subscribed and read to a lot of magazines, political magazines at the time. I thought I might like to do that. But eventually, history really grabbed me. Certainly, part of the reason for that, I'm sure, is that

My father, one of his jobs, he did a few things in life, but what brought him to Canada was to teach history, medieval history at Carleton University. So history was sort of all around us in the home. But I think in addition to that, what has always struck me about history and often on my first day of my history classes at Messiah, I'll say something like this, is that history has tremendous explanatory power. I think every discipline has

different special abilities, different virtues, but history has this particular ability to answer those deceptively simple questions, the why questions. Why is the society in the way that it is? Why did that nation act in that way? Why the start of this war? Why the end of that war? Those are such short answers. They don't use a lot of jargon.

but they are so complex and profound and take a lot of research and thought to unravel. And so I would say that it's the appeal of the explanatory power of history that most drew me and led me to study it, eventually major in it, and earn my doctoral degree in it.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (06:15.743)
That's fantastic. I'm wondering if a lot of students, when they're taught history, if that's the kind of explanation that they're getting, right? If it's taught through that lens or with that in mind. And I mean, I'm looking at some recent studies here on the history major. And it's an all time low.

James LaGrand (06:38.859)

Soren Schwab (CLT) (06:42.57)
I think since it's down one third, so students that pursue a major in history in college, it's down one third from the 1980s. I as a lover of history and a student of history, I don't understand it, but there are obviously some reasons for that. Do you have any insight as to why you think that the study of history has decreased so much in, I guess, in significance in the higher ed?

James LaGrand (07:08.992)
I think I might. It seems to me that there's several different causes on different levels. One of them, this one I think is probably fairly obvious is that history has suffered and declined as the liberal arts have suffered and declined, at least at many institutions. Now, one of the things I love and so cherish about CLT is it's carrying the flag for the liberal arts and doing so.

for its own sake, for their own sake, because of the inherent goodness and satisfaction that comes from studying human beings on human terms, but also reminding parents and students that a perfectly satisfactory life can be led through the study of the humanities. But I think we both know that there's a lot of...

focus in the opposite direction out there. So as the humanities and history in particular, you're drawing attention to those statistics have declined, the pre-professional fields have grown, STEM fields has grown. I think that is one of the causes. And some of that is probably somewhat legitimate. I also think that some humanists have not done as good a job as they might have at promoting their field.

But I do think there, I'll just mention one other thing. I'm sure there's lots of factors. At the same time, certainly other historians would disagree about this, but I have the strong sense that when some folks visit a sort of typical campus today, and they might be interested in the humanities, but they might be interested in particular in history, and then they look at how history is done on that campus. A sort of.

philosophical position, the worldview from which it comes, the sort of endless focus on critique and criticism of all sorts of dismantling, of taking apart. I think there's some folks, and usually they're pretty quiet about it. They don't even write a note to the president or write on social media about this. But I think their conclusion is this school, as regards history, the study of history and the humanities,

James LaGrand (09:34.004)
sold their birthright. They've given up their sort of first love. And I have to say that I sympathize with that position. I do think that that's a not unreasonable position. If you look at the fields within the humanities, including history, in some quarters, I want to note that, not all quarters, but some quarters, they don't, people don't even recognize

the types of things, the types of dispositions, the types of habits that for a long time have drawn people to study history and to learn.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (10:12.342)
Wow, I appreciate your sharing that and I've been thinking about that quite a bit. And I think that especially that last point that you made, I've been wondering about that, but I wasn't sure if I'm just completely off. But what I loved about history was stories of great men and great women, right? Learning more about human nature and fallen human nature through the study of history, like you said, that explanatory power.

I guess if kids in K-12 now, if they're even taking history and not social studies, I suppose, and if most of what they're exposed to is just through the lens of oppression, through the lens of racism, through the lens of creed, whatever it might be, I don't know if I would fall in love with the study of history if that's the approach. And so I guess to that last point,

I wonder if you can offer any insight, you know, if we're talking social studies versus history, how would you approach that and kind of the difference between the fields? And obviously, I would assume you make the case for history as a legitimate study in K-12 as well.

James LaGrand (11:22.248)
I would. I have colleagues, I know people whom I respect that are advocates of the social science approach. I think we're familiar with what the claim is there, that there's something beneficial about the integrated approach. It's more practical. I think what is lost is the experience and the sense of wonder and of discovery and of exploration that is

long been capable and evident in the sort of pure study of history. So one of the ways that's done and one of the things that's I think less often evident in social studies classrooms really at all levels is the reading and the discussion and the wrestling with primary sources. The study of primary sources is the essence of history. You can't do any history without primary sources.

And one of the things that we've done in the history program at Messiah for as long as I've been there, and as you know, it's been a long time, is to very much front load that, forecast that for students, put those before them every week. Even in a large survey class, every week there's a small group seminar in which we round the table, talk about what we saw and how we interpret this important.

primary source text. And that's not an easy thing. That's not a simple thing. It's not sort of finding the heroes and the villains, the good guys and the bad guys. It's exploring language and considering argument. And all of these liberal arts skills and inclinations come together quite beautifully in the reading and in the analysis of primary source text. And that simply, I think there's almost no time for it.

the social studies model, I see that as really one of the greatest losses in that kind of transition.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (13:24.162)
That's fascinating as you're talking I'm think so I grew up in Germany and certainly kind of more progressive Model and so growing up history was usually I mean I knew my dates You know 1492 and 1517 and 1789 and 1870 and 1914 When I when I went into college and I transferred over to Hillsdale was the first time I was exposed to Herodotus And Thucydides and I kind of expected well, it's history, right? So that's what it's gonna be

And I was just mesmerized that can be the study of history, learning about the lives of great men and great women. I had no... I mean, it just completely changed my approach to history. I almost became a history major. And so I love that you mentioned that. Of course, you mentioned earlier CLT. That's one thing through CLT. I know it's the test, right? Who wants to talk about the test? But some students, especially at public schools...

When they take CLT, sometimes it's the first time they're exposed to a primary historical source. It's heartbreaking, but at the same time, whatever it takes to expose them to these things. Clearly at Messiah, that's not the case. Your students are exposed much, much sooner to these great works. You work in administration at Messiah. In fact, you are the current director of the honors program at Messiah.

Talk to us a little bit about your work there and about the program itself.

James LaGrand (14:54.16)
Sure, happy to. We have a quite large honors program. There's many different types of honors program. I'm always quick to say that there's no, I genuinely think there's no sort of perfect type, perfect approach. Ours is on the large side, so 420 students in total. And one of the reasons we do that is to be absolutely sure that any type of qualified and suitable student, no matter what they're studying,

can participate in the life of the honors program. So it's very tough in some places, just logistically speaking for say engineering students or pre-physical therapy students or nursing students to be part of a Folsom honors program. And sometimes there needs to be a choice. And Messiah, we decided long ago when the program began, we did not want to force that choice. So that also means we have a fairly small and

you know, deliberately small footprint in terms of our curriculum. There's four honors courses that students take together, but there's also many, many opportunities during the year to participate in honors activities. And I suppose since I took over the program about five years ago, the thing that I've most sought to do and have been very thankful to see the reception is to build more of a culture for the honors program.

group of students and I came up with six themes that we wanted to have manifested in the honors program. And two of those are, the way we put it is that we believe in exploring fundamental questions and facing disputed questions. And both of those are in some disrepute on some campuses today. Some of those kinds of questions some folks think are

sort of passe and we've moved on from that. And then when we're talking about disputed questions, questions about which reasonable people differ is one of the ways that's put. That can be, that can be thorny, right? That can be controversial. And there's ways in which some colleges and universities shy away from that. But we certainly believe that, although we don't try to gin up controversy, to avoid it, to avoid those.

James LaGrand (17:19.7)
disputed questions really sort of can short circuit an education. And we want the most fulsome education as possible for our honors students.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (17:32.674)
So over 400 students that are part of it. Just for our audience, how big is Messiah University? How many students do you have?

James LaGrand (17:40.548)
The undergraduate population is about 2,500. We've got about 1,000, I think, graduate students as well. So that's a fairly good chunk of the undergraduate population, the honors program.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (17:51.342)
Yeah. So what is kind of, I guess, a typical student? You know, is there a certain type of student that is usually interested in or because it is larger, it also maybe attracts a more diverse kind of student population?

James LaGrand (18:09.58)
Yeah, I think there's, I'm quite sure there's many types of students. I've been struck by that and pleased that it seems to fit the needs for all types of students. So some of them are students who know the classical Christian school world very well, who know the CLT very well, have read, for instance, some of our books of the year. That's one of the things we do every year. First year students read a common book together. We're in a sequence of three of them.

the Odyssey, Confessions, and Inferno. And it's interesting that some students, and they're very good and kind and Christian, and so they say quietly, oh, I've read this a few times. So we get some students like that. But what I'm noticing is that we get a lot of, say, engineering students or nursing students that I think somewhere sort of deep down, they are hungry for a genuine.

humanities, liberal education, but they've never received it. And that's one of the needs we seek to fill. That's one of my favorite parts of the year. We just recently had seminar week, what is it, 12 different seminars on the first portion of Dante's Inferno. I meet with all these first year students in small groups and they are just absolutely captivated by this.

One of the students, I loved her comment, as you know, we're wrestling with inferno. It is heavy, challenging material. But she said, I love that we read this together. We read it over the year, we read it slowly, there's no test on it. We have seminars in both fall and spring, they hear lectures on it. It's a kind of a leisurely approach to these great books. But there are some of those students that know

not from Dante before they come here, but they love this experience of reaching back, reaching back in time, reaching back in the church. They feel more themselves. This is one of the things that happens, right? When you study history, you know yourself better. You even feel more yourself when you understand yourself right and you understand yourself in greater cultural, social, historical, religious context.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (20:34.222)
That reminds me when I was a freshman at Hillsdale. It was a great books class. And I believe it was the Odyssey. And the professor asked, you know, who's read this before? And it was about 50-50. And the student that raised their hand, he said, I am so envious of you because you get to read this book for the very first time. And there's something special. Now, reading it for the third and fourth is still incredible, but reading a great book for the first time, that feeling and what it's like.

stirs inside of you is just an absolute marvel. You mentioned earlier that you've been trying to be very intentional about culture and so as you talk about the book of the year and reading together slowly throughout the year, have you noticed changes there in culture and community?

James LaGrand (21:23.06)
I have, I think one of the things that has happened, this is certainly something I hoped for, I will say even prayed for, is that some of the content and the questions and the challenges really of these great books extend beyond the classroom walls. So last year when Confessions was the book of the year, I heard of some students who...

absolutely on their own and organically and not for any kind of credit, got together in their first year Honors Residence Hall and read aloud some of their favorite portions, the portions that were most beautiful, that were most true, that spoke most sort of directly to their heart and soul. I'm as I'm sure you can imagine most heart and soul.

when I hear those sorts of accounts of life within our Honors Program. That is genuine student life within an Honors Program.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (22:35.134)
and very different from the stereotypical college life with the lazy river and the late night parties. So very different experience. If one of our listeners may be a parent, maybe it's a student, maybe a teacher wants to either learn more about the honors program or just get a kind of taste of what life at the honors, at Messiah and the honors program is, what would be the best next steps?

James LaGrand (22:43.376)

James LaGrand (23:01.872)
Probably the easiest and most direct way would just be to get on a computer and at type forward slash honours and it will take you to the honours program site and you can get lots of information there about the program, about activities, about trips we go on, lots going on in the honours program every week. And there's also information there about how to contact us. So I'm always happy to be there.

to hear from prospective students or parents of prospective students if they have questions about our honors program. They'll also see their links to information about our honors days. We have one coming up in December and then several in the new year in January and February where prospective honors students come on campus. They meet current students, have lunch with them. They're interviewed by a member of the faculty and learn more about our.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (24:00.098)
certainly encourage everyone. Maybe even still in the fall, because fall in Pennsylvania is absolutely beautiful. Have the leaves changed yet? Have they changed color yet?

James LaGrand (24:10.776)
Just in the process of doing so, I'm blessed to be able to walk to and from campus, and every day the view, the vista is a little bit different and very lovely this time of year.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (24:13.12)
All right.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (24:25.102)
Beautiful, beautiful. Well, Dr. LeGrand, we have, of course, one more question that we asked every single one of our guests, and it's a tough one, I know. Is there one book or one text that you can point to throughout your life that has most impacted you and why?

James LaGrand (24:43.62)
Sure. Well, here's where my cheating and listening to previous episodes of the Anchored Cup Office made me feel, I think, qualified to sort of cheat and ask for two. I've heard that was done. So, like I mentioned, too, the one I've already mentioned, it is Homer's Odyssey. It is, you know, sometimes people...

Soren Schwab (CLT) (24:49.986)

James LaGrand (25:08.824)
are sort of cynical about, or maybe genuinely questioning about whether there are great books, who's to say whether there are great books. One of the things that's so remarkable about the Odyssey is that it speaks. It speaks so clearly and powerful and penetratingly across so much distance, distance of time and of culture and of religion. And it poses these questions that just grab you and they're good questions. They're not easy questions, right?

I suppose the main one is what do you make of Odysseus? Is Odysseus admirable or not? Do you find them exemplary? Should we order our lives on the basis of Odysseus, right? Really educated, reflective people have landed on different sides, all sides of those questions, but that's what makes them such wonderful questions to wrestle with. The reflections on home, what is the value of home? How much...

cost and suffering should we bear in seeking home. So I love this epic in its own right, but I certainly also love it because of the ways my students have come to love it. And then if I can, as I mentioned, just add one more, but I think is related in some ways. I'll put on my modern American historian hat for a moment and mention as my second book,

of great American cities. Maybe our CLT listeners aren't as familiar with this. It was a book published in 1961. She's a quite ordinary New Yorker at a time when urban renewal is all the rage. This is the time when whole city blocks of American cities and European cities as well are raised out of this sort of technocratic faith that we can rebuild better cities immediately, right? In an instant. And Jane Jacobs quite

perceptively sees this not as the life, as the glorious shiny future of cities filled with housing projects and shiny skyscrapers. She sees this as the death of them. And I think although she doesn't seem to write self-consciously as a religious believer, I read in that a love for the residents of cities like her and her...

James LaGrand (27:36.296)
understanding of the benefits of home and establishing urban homes in urban communities and the costs that they're paying. So I would note that as a as another favorite of mine, an influential book. It's also written like a dream. No one had a keener eye than Jane Jacobs. I recommend that to our listeners.

Soren Schwab (CLT) (27:58.943)
Wow, I think we've had the Odyssey before, but this one is a new one. So I forgive you for cheating, even though I kind of want to go back to the beginnings of the Anchored Podcast and figure out who was the first one that cheated, right? And then upon which all... Dr. LeGrand, thank you so very much. Again, we're here with James LeGrand, who is the director of the Messiah University Honors Program in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It was such a joy to have you on. Thank you, sir.

James LaGrand (28:14.504)
Thank you.

James LaGrand (28:29.328)
Thank you.