All roads may lead to Rome, but the historical nexus of the Mediterranean world is Sicily, said LaGrange College history professor Kevin Shirley.
“Everybody who has been a player in the Mediterranean has been engaged in Sicily,” said Dr. Shirley, leadoff speaker for 3D Journeys, LaGrange College’s lecture series and travel experience that kicks off its seventh season at 10 a.m. Monday.
Sicily’s pivotal role in world history is one reason for its choice as this year’s 3D study topic. It didn’t hurt that the island, located near the tip of the “boot” of Italy, is spectacularly beautiful and a popular travel destination, rich in culture and natural wonders, said Nancy Durand, who cochairs the 3D committee with Ann Beason.
A college-hosted trip to Sicily, to be led by President Dan McAlexander and Celeste Myall in May, sold out quickly, but travel is not a requirement for the lectures.
“The ‘armchair travelers’ are among our most enthusiastic participants and make up about two-thirds of the audience. They come because the lectures are outstanding, and they enjoy learning about the different countries,” Durand said.
Dr. Shirley’s opening lecture will highlight Sicily’s critical role in events that shaped the world from ancient times until WorldWar II, but don’t expect a boring list of dates and battles. A video clip of Shirley on the LC web site is introduced with the words, “This is not your grandfather’s history class.”
Shirley brought his lively teaching style to LC in 1998, shortly after earning his Ph.D. in history from Florida State. Anative of Chicago, he’s been passionate about history almost as long as he’s been a Cubs fan – and is still celebrating his favorite team’s historymaking 2016 World Series victory.
He tries to share history through the lives of the people who make it.
“I have always been fascinated by the human equation, the way people in the past solved problems, formed answers. I was intrigued by that from an early age,” he said.
In the case of Sicily, the “human equation” has included Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Byzantines, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards and more. All have left their mark.
“You’d be surprised,” Shirley said. “Human beings really haven’t changed all that much…They are always trying to make sense of the world, to figure out what happens next.”
Shirley’s passion for teaching derives from his strong belief that “history matters.”
“Understanding the past and understanding how we got where we are factors into how we make decisions about the future of our country and our world. It really, really matters,” he said, his voice ringing with conviction.
One way he’s trying to help is through leadership of National History Day, which actively engages students in grades 6-12 in the historical process. As co-coordinator for History Day in Georgia, Shirley has worked to expand the program, helping to create mentoring programs for students and serving as program director for a summer workshop for teachers from around the country, held on the LC campus.
“I see it as an opportunity to help beyond the confines of my classroom or the Hill,” he said.
The college’s expanded support of National History Day, he said, reflects its commitment to fulfilling its mission of transforming lives.
“Every institution has a mission and a vision, but not every institution is really committed to it. LaGrange College is making real its mission. I have evidence of it. I have seen kids do things they never in the world thought they could.”
The audience will be older and the results likely less dramatic, but Shirley sees the 3D lectures as another way to transform lives and to remind his audience that history matters.
“The idea is that you spark some interest that leads to a deepened appreciation. You stoke an intellectual fire.”
Free and open to the community, the lectures are held on the fourth Mondays of January, February, March and April, at 10 a.m. in Dickson Assembly Room of Turner Hall. Parking is in the Sunny Gables lot, 910 Broad St., with shuttle service to the door.