At the end of this year, a feature of our school’s life for decades—Steve Nolt’s time here as a student and acclaimed professor—will be ending. As this illustrious paper was once home to his column, “Steve Nolt: Buts and Nolts,” it is a fitting place to commemorate him and reflect on what he has taught hundreds of Goshen students through the years. While nothing I could write would capture the spirit of Steve’s teaching in full, here are some distinct principles that stood out to me as a pupil:
1. Seek out Irony, and Learn from it
A sense of irony is at the core of historical understanding. None of us are exactly what we imagine ourselves to be, and neither are our societies. Steve’s students who are unfamiliar with Chinese history might be surprised to learn of a revolutionary 18th century scholar, Zeng Jing, whose literature extolled human rights and principles of governance by consent of the governed. The emperor engaged Zeng Jing in conversation, and they wrote back and forth for years. He was ultimately persuaded of the legitimacy of imperial rule and became a supporter of the throne (though the emperor’s son would later have him executed as a potential rebel, as it happened). Steve loves to tell us the stories that we don’t expect.
In a class in Immigration and Ethnic History, we saw ways in which racial privilege and hierarchy have changed dramatically and have also stayed the same over the last two centuries, with groups of Southern and Eastern Europeans (once considered practically sub-human) achieving coveted near equality with Anglo Saxons, while darker skin continues to be a mark for discrimination. Counterintuitive changes in social concepts like race and hierarchy are important, both for under-standing our past and hopefully shaping our future. In his own teaching and in well-crafted research assignments, Steve helps students strengthen their sense for identifying changes and continuities in history.
2. Do Justice, Love Mercy, but be Humble and not Loud
Steve is, however, not an overt crusader. He points out irony, but doesn’t dwell too much on its evil twin, hypocrisy. He doesn’t badger, and the perspective of a given course is deeply embedded in a long-term plan, not just preached in an opening lecture.
In my Colonial and Revolutionary American History course, we had four distinct units, centering on Native American cultures and how western histories misread them, ethnic diversity among British colonists, the development of the slave trade and slave experiences and the differences between Monarchical, Republican and Democratic social structures. Building the course in this way established justice; it centered the story on the vulnerable and oppressed more than it did on the George Washingtons and John Smiths of U.S. history. It was a subtle and ultimately humanizing way to teach fairness.
Steve demonstrates rather than tells why U.S. minority history is valuable, and his approach implicitly values often neglected voices rather than “featuring” or “highlighting” token stories as a small piece of a broadly establishment narrative.
Teaching history with a focus on the downtrodden of history is important. It exposes us to parts of the human experience that top-down history ignores. History in the model of Steve’s courses empowers us to see how injustices in our world today emerged, and how they are built into our systems. It also gives us hope, as we see how things can change for the better, as well as worsen, and as we see ways people can persevere in working towards better societies. Teaching in this way fulfills Jesus’ call to us to love, serve and be conscious of the marginal among us.
In his life, Steve has sought to live that call and many others, and he has been an extraordinary asset to Goshen. Even as an undergrad student, he showed leadership in his field.
His aforementioned column in the Record featured insightful reflections on Mennonite history, a unique topic for a column in a school paper. As a professor, he was an attentive grader who clearly cared about his students. His lectures were illuminating and peppered with good humor, and his assignments were demanding. He balanced a full teaching schedule with a vigorous and fruitful career as a writer. While that writing work is less visible to students than his teaching, it has been quite significant, building the body of lore of Mennonites in the U.S. and also presenting our stories to outsiders and articulating Anabaptist visions of community and forgiveness. Steve is also renowned as an SST leader and a dedicated scholar. To history majors, he has been a warm and friendly mentor, and a good friend. He will be greatly missed.