Monthly Archives: December 2009

Getting (greatly) depressed for the holidays

Two facts you might have picked up on: I don’t regularly post book reviews, and I don’t talk about modern history much.

The reason for the first is simply that a lot of the books on my reading list have been out for a while.  A lot of fine work got published either before I was born or before I wanted to study history, while other books that I intended to read as soon as they were published just fell through the cracks.  Occasionally a book gets published that is so important to me that everything else has to take a number, and I read it as soon as it’s available.  I usually try to put up a review of these recent books here.  For the most part, though, I figure most of you don’t sit around waiting for my detailed analysis of some fifteen- or twenty-year-old monograph, so I keep my reactions to these titles to myself.

The reason for the second fact is that modern history just doesn’t interest me.  After the nineteenth century, it starts to look more and more like contemporary human activity, and contemporary human activity is something of which I often disapprove.

Right now, though, I’m going to make a rare exception to both of these generalizations by endorsing a somewhat older book on a recent topic.  Not long ago, I realized that I needed to beef up my lectures a little by filling some gaps in my knowledge about the thirties and forties.  For that reason I bought a copy of David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, part of the Oxford History of the United States.  I expected reading this nine-hundred-page behemoth to be a chore, but I was happily quite mistaken. 

Even to someone as averse to modern political and economic history as myself, this book is thoroughly enjoyable.  I won’t post a “review” here, partly because the book came out in 2001, partly because it covers so much territory that I couldn’t do it justice, and partly because I haven’t finished it yet.  Instead, let me just offer a hearty recommendation.  Like all the volumes in the Oxford series, it’s extremely readable, and Kennedy has managed to deftly orchestrate a lot of different themes and topics in such a manner that it seems effortless.  He’s also remarkably balanced in his appraisals of the leading figures of the era and the measures they undertook.  If you’re as leery about dipping into twentieth-century American history as I generally am, then this might be the best place to start.

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A modest request for assistance

Some of you may know that Richard Burton starred in a movie called Prince of Players about Edwin Booth and his relationship with his infamous brother.  My mom caught part of it on TV, and she wanted me to try to find it on DVD or VHS so she could see the rest of it. 

As far as I can tell, though, it’s not available anywhere.  Would any of you folks happen to know where I could get a copy?

By way of thanks, here’s something neat I found while I was looking for it online.

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Of critics and classrooms

A little while ago I was one of the few non-teachers at a Christmas party.  The faculty of the school where my mom’s a principal were celebrating the start of the holiday break. 

I tend to hang out with teachers a lot; in fact, I know more teachers than I do members of any other profession.  It was the family business.  My grandfather and both of his siblings were teachers.  He married a teacher, and had two sons who also became teachers.  The younger one was my father, who left law school to cover my grandmother’s classes as a temporary gig when she got sick, and ended up staying in the classroom for three decades. 

Mom worked in the county school system, got a doctorate, and then taught education classes to prospective teachers in college.  When the college decided to start its own prep school, she designed the curriculum and became the founding principal.  She’s on her third tour of duty there now.  My aunt is a kindergarten teacher, and her younger daughter is about to start her own teaching career. 

Since my parents both worked in schools, many—probably most—of their friends and acquaintances have been teachers and educators, too.  They made up the bulk of adults I knew as a kid, and are a pretty fair proportion of the ones I know now. 

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with history, it relates to an issue that pops up with some frequency in the historical blogosphere.  The issue, it seems, is that left-wing nut jobs are in control of America’s classrooms, and they’re trying to poison the minds of our children with their radical, agenda-driven approach to history. 

The people who tell me this often support their argument by citing anecdotal instances from the news or from personal experience in which history teachers have said or done things that indicate some nefarious, leftist design.  They also tend to lump teachers together with college professors, which at first glance seems like a sensible conclusion.  (People in college humanities departments tend to be very liberal, those people teach classes, K-12 teachers also teach classes, and thus K-12 teachers must be predominantly liberal.) 

Furthermore, teachers’ unions have a pretty well-deserved reputation for standing to the left of the center.  The NEA hasn’t endorsed a Republican presidential candidate in over three decades.  Over 90% of its donations went to Democrats during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and it has lent its influence to a number of liberal social causes. 

From condemning teachers for being agenda-driven wackos, it’s just a short hop, skip, and jump to condemning them for being incompetent.  They’re so busy filling kids’ heads with liberal mush, we’re told, that they don’t do their jobs, which explains why so many younger Americans can’t find the Bill of Rights with both hands and a flashlight. 

Lately I’ve been trying to count the teachers I’ve known who were or are leftist radicals trying to turn their impressionable young students into pajama-wearing shock troops of Marxism.  So far I haven’t come up with any.  

(As a side note, my dad was probably the most conservative person I knew.  He was a longtime political activist, a member of Southerners for Reagan, an officer of the Tennessee Conservative Union, and a delegate for Pat Buchanan to the Republican National Convention.  His dislike of all things leftist was both intense and public.  I once heard him offer an invocation before a meal—an associate pastor of our church was present—which he closed by asking God why He saw fit to make so many liberal Democrats.  He thought it was hilarious.  The other people at the table weren’t amused, and neither was my mom when she found out about it.) 

One thing that’s often missing from blanket denunciations of radicalized teachers is any evidence that the person has actually made some attempt to find out what the political inclinations of most American teachers are.  Instead of relying on anecdotes and general suspicion, why not just ask the teachers about their political affiliations? 

From Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that people have indeed asked, and that teachers are pretty normal folks, after all.  Here’s a compilation of survey data indicating that the breakdown of political affiliations among teachers matches up pretty well with the population as a whole.  Note also that the breakdown for teachers is quite different from that for college professors, despite the fact that critics of American education often lump the two groups together. 

In 2001, the NEA itself conducted a study which sampled a group of public school teachers.  More of them self-identified as Democrats than Republicans—45% for the former, 28% for the latter—but Democrats still made up a minority (though a plurality) of those surveyed, and that minority presumably included Democrats from across the spectrum of that party.  The remaining 27% claimed no party affiliation at all, and doubtless included some who were fairly conservative.  An impressive 77% were members of a church or similar religious organization.  Remember that this study sampled only teachers in public schools, the group most often singled out by critics of American educators as both too liberal and too secular.  Factoring in private and parochial school teachers would probably bring the percentage of Democrats down more, as in the study linked above. 

It’s also worth noting that teachers in states with paycheck protection laws haven’t been at all shy about stopping unions from spending their dues money on political causes.  Such payments fell by 90% in Utah when teachers in that state got the choice to opt-out.  Whatever the political inclinations of the NEA and its affiliates, it’s clearly a mistake to assume that all dues-paying teachers share them. 

One other thing about K-12 teachers is too often ignored.  These folks are professionals.  When I was in college, many of my fellow students in the history program were double-majoring in history and education in order to teach when they finished their degrees.  Those of us who were strictly history majors had it comparatively easy; we had to fulfill the history program’s requirements from the catalog under which we entered.  The folks going into K-12 education, by contrast, had to fulfill the history program’s requirements, the education program’s requirements, and the requirements to become a licensed teacher in the state where they planned to work.  Furthermore, if the state’s requirements changed partway through their schooling, then they might have to add an additional year’s worth of classes or more in order to accomodate them. 

The crucial difference between studying history as a subject, as I did, and studying history in order to become a history teacher is that those doing the latter get trained to teach as well as to study and interpret.  I “teach” college, but I’m not a trained teacher.  K-12 teachers are.  They’ve spent years learning pedagogical techniques, curricula, and child development.  They have to, because they’re expected to know how their students learn as well as they do the subject matter of their classes.  As someone who teaches history at the college level, I’ll be the first to tell you that K-12 teaching is much more difficult, and that the professional requirements for it are more exacting. 

I don’t have a problem with people critiquing the state of history education in America.  It’s an important topic in which we should all be invested.  Such a critique, however, needs to be informed.  We need to be careful about drawing generalizations, and we need to stop blaming the folks working in the classrooms for policies that originate in administrative offices and legislative chambers.  Let’s leave the broad brushes at home, lest we wrongly use them against decent, hardworking, and competent professionals engaged in a brutally difficult, generally thankless, and critically necessary task.  Fair enough?

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Remind me again which people are speaking

The History Channel recently aired The People Speak, a documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn.  There are many people who would condemn Zinn’s writing for purely ideological reasons, and for that Zinn has no one to blame but himself, since he has worked diligently to keep his scholarship and his activism closely intertwined. 

I think history should inform social and political activity, since it provides the context necessary to understand the way society operates.  However, if you’ve already diagnosed mankind’s ills and devised a cure, as Zinn seems to have done to his satisfaction, then conducting some historical investigation into the subject seems a little beside the point.  What’s the point of asking the questions if you’ve already decided the answers? 

His supporters argue that he gives a voice to the marginalized people left out of traditional history books.  To that I’d ask where these supporters have been for the past few decades.  By the time Zinn published his popular survey of American history in 1980, many scholars had already been engaged in “bottom-up” studies of the past for some time, and with a good deal more diligence and sophistication than is evident in Zinn’s own work.  If his book presented any substantially new information, I’m not yet aware of it, though if some reader out there could correct me on this I’ll gladly make a public note of it.

The strange thing about this film project is that for a movie devoted to the forgotten and marginalized, there seem to be quite a few historical notables represented.

Matt Damon, one of the actors involved, is quoted in some of the online promotional material: “Change doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the bottom.…Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America.”  What everyday citizen who struggled to initiate change from the bottom does Matt Damon portray in the film?  Congressman/governor/ambassador/cabinet member/party leader/chief executive/planter Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t believe Mr. Damon appreciates the irony here.

By the way, I know Matt Damon is a big Zinn fan, but is he really the most appropriate choice to read the Declaration of Independence?  (Remember this cinematic gem?)

Of course, every thirty minutes The History Channel spends airing this is thirty minutes they can’t spend on this sort of thing, so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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The surprising thing

…isn’t that one can purchase an article of clothing bearing an image of Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris.  The surprising thing is that it’s this particular article of clothing.

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A belated exhibit endorsement

When I was a kid, one of my favorite haunts was the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum.  My dad and I usually found some excuse to stop by whenever we were in Knoxville so I could check out the fossils.

Back in those days, one of the smaller exhibits was a display on Knoxville in the Civil War.  It was in a tiny room next to a specimen storage area, with a potent smell of formaldehyde in the air.

The McClung has changed a lot in recent years, upgrading its core exhibits and bringing in some first-rate traveling shows.  The new galleries on Tennessee paleontology, southeastern Native Americans, and human origins are on a par with any museum in the country.  It was exciting to see all this going on, especially as someone who’d been visiting for years.  So when the museum unveiled an updated Civil War exhibit back in 2007, I determined to get down there and see it as soon as possible. 

For various reasons, though, I never did.  Circumstances would always get in the way.  (I’d be in Knoxville but remember the exhibit too late to get to the museum, I’d be on campus but run short on time, etc.)

A few weeks ago I had to run to UT on an errand, so I was determined to hit the McClung, forty-five-minute parking permit be darned.  I hoofed it over to the museum, pored over the new exhibit, absolutely loved it, and made a note to recommend it to all of you fine people.

Then I forgot to do so.  (They say your short-term memory is the first thing that goes.)

So allow me to extend my deepest apologies, and to partially redeem myself by directing your attention to the museum’s website about the exhibit.

This display is a fine piece of historical interpretation, one that packs a lot of information into a confined space with clarity of presentation and elegance of design.  The 1863 Confederate siege of the city and attack on Fort Sanders take center stage, but it covers the wartime political divisions in East Tennessee and the way Knoxvillians remembered the war, too.  We’ve come a long way from the days when the Civil War Knoxville display consisted of a few artifact cases and photographs tucked away in a back room.

A few features deserve special mention.  There’s a nice cross-section of armaments and accoutrements on display, along with archaeological material and some archival pieces.  One of the things that I really enjoyed was an interactive, 3-D map of the siege, where the major positions and other key locations lit up with the push of a few buttons.  The exhibit also includes a video with computer renderings of the fortifications and surrounding terrain, alongside footage of the same area as it appears now.  I’m very familiar with Knoxville, but seeing all this really helped me get my head around the geography of the siege in a way that it had never been before.

The museum is also screening a documentary on Fort Sanders, shot in and around a full-scale replica of the earthwork.  This modern-day fort proved so impressive that it’s still used in reenactments of the assault.

So there’s my belated endorsement.  See this exhibit.  It’s well worth the hassle of trying to park at UT.

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There are no gimmicks

We’re getting close to the end of the semester, which means I’m getting e-mails and questions from students who are worried about their grades.  It always happens around this point in the academic year. 

A lot of the students who contact me want to know “what they can do” to get a decent grade.  It reminds me of the rich young ruler’s question to Jesus in Matthew 19: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”  It’s asking for tips.  It’s asking for a list of pointers that, if followed properly, will inevitably and mechanically result in the desired outcome. 

I usually repeat what I say to the whole class at the beginning of the semester, which consists of the obvious things that apply to any college class.  Be diligent in your attendance, take copious notes, read the material carefully, get your assignments in on time, and study, study, study.  

What was it the rich young ruler said to Jesus?  “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?”  That’s similar to what some of my students tell me.  And at that point, I usually fell pretty powerless, beause there isn’t really anything else I can tell them. 

From Wikimedia Commons

That’s the hard part when it comes to teaching—and taking—a history class.  There just aren’t any gimmicks that a student can adopt to ensure a good grade.  And in that respect, history classes are different. 

A couple of afternoons a week I tutor high school Spanish.  I don’t mind doing it in the least; in fact, it’s almost like a mini-vacation from teaching history.  I like history much, much more than I like Spanish, but I find working with students in Spanish to be a lot easier, and in many cases more rewarding.  I think part of the reason is that it’s an easier subject through which to guide someone.  There are certain rules and standard practices to a language, and once a student masters them, he’s got his game on.  You can see what areas need improvement, and you can tell him what to do to improve them. 

Not so with history.  If you want to do well in a history class, there aren’t any standard grammatical or mathematical rules that will apply in any given situation.  There’s just a lot of complex, subtle, detailed information.  Sure, there are particular ways of thinking historically, and there are certain standards that any aspiring historian has to meet.  But when it comes to the kind of gimmicks that you can wrap your head around once and then plug in when you need them, they’re just not there. 

You study until you’re staurated in it, and that’s all there is.  It comes easier to some people than to others, but that’s just because some people are good at assimilating this kind of verbal information, or because they enjoy doing so.

Jesus told the rich young ruler that if he wanted eternal life, he should sell all his possessions and take up the life of a disciple.  A lot of commentators think the point is that Jesus didn’t want rote adherence to a set of guidelines.  He wanted total, all-consuming commitment.  It was a hard lesson for the rich guy to learn; he “went away sorrowful,” as the King James puts it.  When I tell my students that a high grade requires nothing but persistent, brutal effort, they’re not too crazy about it, either.

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