Thinking Outside the Box (Part 2)

Posted by Bill McCoy on Jun 18, 2015 2:00:00 PM

In Part 1 of this blog post, I talked about the necessity of cultivating a habit of "outside the box thinking" and how I experience that in my work as a historian. Such habits of thought are, I think, among the most valuable elements of the kind of education we pursue at Eastern Nazarene College.

Perhaps the best example I can give for the necessity of this "outside the box" thinking is with regard to the problems my students and I often encounter in my course on genocide in the 20th century, which I was teaching this past spring semester (Learn more about that course's trip to the D.C. Holocaust Museum). In that class in particular, it’s not unusual for us to start to feel boxes closing in around us. We will talk, for example, about the principle of state sovereignty, which has been a valuable bedrock in establishing orderly relations amongst the members of the international community, but which has also been used by states perpetrating genocide and other crimes against humanity to claim that their own internal affairs are no one else's business.

Perhaps even more troubling, we find ourselves running into the apparent inertia of political systems that seem determined to serve only the most powerful interests and can't be bothered with every bleeding heart cause that appears on the horizon. We’d like a world that works differently, but it seems too messy, too inevitable that such noble aims will fail. Often, I have heard students fall back on the all too understandable refrain, "That's just not the way the world works."

Screen_Shot_2015-06-15_at_5.28.18_PMBut isn’t part of the point of studying history so that we understand that things were NOT always this way? That we have arrived at this moment in history not by the inevitable hand of God, but as a consequence of particular choices, both intentional and otherwise? And if things were not always so, how can we legitimately accept the answer, “That’s just the way things are”? Yes, we may have become accustomed to a world that works in a particular fashion, but the careful study of the past should offer us some hope that different choices do exist, though they may be difficult to make.

I remind people as often as I can that a liberal arts education is one that "is suitable for a free person," that it should aid us in finding freedom in a world that constrains us in so many ways. This, I think, is one of the ways in which that freedom becomes manifest in our individual lives, when we can begin to reflect critically on our world, climb out of the boxes that constrain our thinking, and creatively envision greater possibilities. I certainly always hope that is what happens for my students when we are together in the classroom, but even more so, I hope it becomes a habit indicative of the lives they lead when they depart ENC and move out into the world around us.


Photo: Class of 2015 Outstanding Seniors - History majors Jake McAuliffe and Maegan Bourne - Via Facebook

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Written by Bill McCoy

Dr. Bill McCoy is assistant professor and chair of the History Department at Eastern Nazarene College. Professor McCoy teaches The West in the World Since 1500, Africa in World History, Twentieth Century Genocide, and survey courses in European and World history. He has also led two travel courses to Swaziland themed around the History of Medical Missions. His doctoral dissertation, completed at Boston University, examined the history of leprosy care in southern Africa, with particular emphasis on missionary activities and the history of humanitarian aid in the region.

Topics: ENC Faculty, History, Academics