Bringing History to Life

Kerry Irish

Photo by Jeremy Lloyd

If you attended George Fox as an undergraduate student in the past 20 years, there’s a good chance you took a class from history professor Kerry Irish. And if you did, there’s an even better chance he left a lasting impression. Known for his engaging lectures and vivid storytelling – sometimes while in full costume – Irish brings history to life in a way that makes an enduring impact. Recently the Journal sat down with this popular professor to talk about his unique teaching style, his favorite moments in history and his two decades of service at George Fox.

What originally inspired you to teach history?

It was two gentlemen who were here at George Fox at the time I was a student, Ralph Beebe and Mark Weinert. They were Christian men and teaching history, and if it hadn’t been for their example I’m not sure the idea would have taken hold that you could have a ministry and teach a subject other than Bible. It was their example that taught me that, and I’ve been thankful for that ever since.

How do you keep your students engaged?

Almost all American students value equality and freedom at some level – they understand those are basic American values. So to show them how those values developed, I think it almost immediately engages their attention. They see the relevance of the past to their present lives. ... But I’m not above flagrant dramatics in order to keep their attention. If you’re going to describe Washington at the Battle of Princeton when he leads a mounted charge against the British soldiers, sword in hand, it would be helpful to have a sword in hand to wave about at that point.

What about teaching gets you excited?

Every day when I walk into the classroom, that’s my purpose for the day. There’s nothing else I’m going to do on any day I’m teaching that’s going to be more important than that class. That’s my purpose.

If you could experience any moment in history, what would it be?

Pick any aspect of the ministry of Jesus Christ – I would want to see some of those events. ... The raising of Lazarus is my favorite biblical story – I’d like to have seen that. But it would have been great to simply walk the dusty roads of Judea on any given day with Jesus Christ.

Who is your favorite character in American history?

I think George Washington’s influence on all of us is underappreciated. His role, not just as commander-in-chief in the Revolution – which was obviously significant – but also as president is still underappreciated. ... We do not win the revolutionary war, it seems to me, without Washington. Now there were other factors as well, but I think Washington is the glue that holds us together. … Most historians would tell you that Abraham Lincoln is the greatest American president, and they’re almost right – it’s George Washington, with Lincoln a close second.

Do you have a favorite famous quote from history?

One that I oftentimes tell my students is a quote that Dwight Eisenhower repeated [originally attributed to Benjamin Franklin]. ... He said, “Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” I think a lot of people have heard that quote, but it’s helpful for our students to know that they have to purposely prepare for what God has called them to do.

What has kept you at George Fox for more than 20 years?

I appreciate having the ministry that I have here, and I really appreciate the students we have here. Every year we graduate a few students who have become close, and I always think about how I’m going to really miss those people. But then the next year new students arrive with new stories and new needs and talents – great talents that attract our attention and that we try to help develop. It’s a refreshing process.