For new prof, lessons of history can shape the here and now

Talk to Bill Kostlevy about his favorite subject-history-and he’ll likely tell you that it isn’t really about the past.

It’s ultimately about the present, he’ll say, because those who control our interpretations of the past are the ones who shape the here and now.

As Tabor College’s new associate professor of history and political science, Kostlevy wants to empower his students to be those leaders of today’s society.

And the best way to do that, he said, is to spark their interest in the past and then enable them to think critically about the key questions embedded in the stories of both past and present.

“It’s basically, I think, getting people to reflect on central issues like the meaning of life and why we do things the way we do,” Kostlevy said of teaching history.

“Mastering facts is important,” he added. “On the other hand, you need to be able to answer the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions-the really important questions.

“Basically, I want to get students asking those questions,” he said. “Often there are several answers that may be right.”

Kostlevy has been looking at the big questions and small details of history for a long time now, he said, as a student and a professional researcher at several educational institutions.

After graduating from Asbury College near Lexington, Ky., the Wisconsin native earned a master’s degree in history from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc., and a master’s degree in theology from Bethany Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill.

After serving for five years as pastor of a Church of the Brethren congregation in Michigan, Kostlevy accepted a position at Asbury Theological Seminary on a special three-year grant project to write a guide to manuscripts about the Wesleyan Holiness Movement.

“It’s a renewal movement in Methodism,” Kostlevy said of the movement. “The major expression people understand is the Salvation Army.

“What was interesting is I traveled all over the United States gathering manuscript collections documenting holiness movements,” he added of his 41-state tour. “That was a really fun experience.”

When the project was completed in 1991, Kostlevy stayed on at Asbury for the next 13 years as archivist.

“During the course of that time, I completed my doctoral dissertation (in history) at Notre Dame,” he said.

In 2004, Kostlevy accepted the position of archivist at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

The move uprooted him and wife Gari-Anne for a one-year stint on the West Coast before an opening at Tabor would bring them back to the Midwest for Kostlevy to fulfill his true passion-teaching.

“The archives are centered around collecting primary source material and preserving the records that history is created from,” he said. “And I really enjoy doing that.

“But I was offered a chance to come here and teach history,” he added. “My desire has always been, since college, to teach history.”

Kostlevy’s course schedule at Tabor this fall includes American History, International Relations and World Civilizations, he said.

Kostlevy will then teach World Civ again in interterm and spring semester, in addition to American History, History of Kansas, and Geography in the spring.

Kostlevy doesn’t mind one bit that most of his classes are lower-level, he said.

“One of the things I like about doing intro classes is that it forces you to know a little bit about a lot of things,” he said.

“The tendency in academic disciplines is to know more and more about less and less,” he added. “And courses like World Civilizations and American History make you look at the bigger picture.”

And it’s a big picture that even the average student can catch a glimpse of, Kostlevy said.

“One of the geniuses of history as a discipline is that it’s a discipline that anyone can understand,” he said. “Well-written history-communicated effectively-doesn’t have a unique vocabulary rooted in abstract concepts.

“It’s rooted in stories.”

Studying history also helps each of us find ourselves within the smaller stories of the bigger picture, Kostlevy said.

“Anyone who enters an academic discipline, I think they tend to see that as an avenue of self-exploration,” he said.

“Part of our motivation is a desire to understand ourselves.”

In helping Tabor students learn more about themselves through studying history, Kostlevy has enjoyed getting to know them as well, he said.

“I’ve been really impressed with the students, especially in terms of their compassion and concern for each other,” he said.

“I expected students that would be above average, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how accepting they are and how they interact with each other.”

Kostlevy said he hopes eventually to help his students interact with those in the surrounding community who have stories of their own to share, in the form of what he calls oral history.

“In the long term, one of the things I would like to do is to get them to have some experiences with oral history,” he said.

“But first I need to learn more about Hillsboro and the surrounding area.”

Kostlevy is already well ahead of some in doing so, having grown up in a small farm community similar to Hillsboro, he said.

“That’s one of the things that makes the Hillsboro area so attractive,” he said. “I really like Hillsboro and Marion County-it’s a fun place to be.”

In addition to attending area baseball and hockey games, Kost-levy and his wife enjoy frequenting antique shops and auctions.

“At this point, we’re still getting settled in, but I am looking forward to taking advantage of opportunities in the area,” he said.

Gari-Anne, Kostlevy’s wife of 26 years, is a librarian who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease research.

“We are both avid readers,” Kostlevy said. “We share lots of research interests.”

And just because Kostlevy himself has settled into a long-awaited teaching position doesn’t mean he is finished with the research side of the historical field, he said.

Possible topics for further study include the settling of the American West, the farm cooperatives of the Midwest and the early 20th century social reform movements and the religious revivals that accompanied them, he said.

“I really want to publish my doctoral dissertation, which is the history of a holiness communal society of the Metropolitan Church Association,” he added.

The group imitated the biblical narrative in Acts 2 of the early Christians who “had everything in common,” Kostlevy explained.

“They believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent, and especially given that reality, putting Acts 2 into practice made sense to them,” he said. “It’s a denomination that, while very small, was influential in the origins of Pentecostalism.”

Kostlevy and his wife have visited a number of communal societies over the years, including several in New Harmony, Ind., and in Harmony, Pa., he said.

Kostlevy said he hopes to pass on to his students a fervor for the past and an ability to learn from it to shape the present.

“Seeing people get excited about history is really the most rewarding part of the job,” he said.

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