Monthly Archives: August 2011

America’s youth are still ignorant when it comes to history

The latest bulletin from the Bureau of “We Get It, We Get It”:

A recent study called “The Nation’s Report Card” said less than one quarter of all students is proficient or shows a solid academic performance in American history.

Shockingly, while most quizzed could identify a photo of Abraham Lincoln, hardly any could say why he was an important president.

If there’s anywhere students would be able to answer a question about Lincoln, many would think it would be at the Lincoln memorial, in Washington DC.

But the study and a field trip made it clear that kids aren’t learning history.

Interesting that kids could ID a picture of Lincoln but couldn’t say anything significant about him.  Lincoln’s face is one of the most visually distinctive in American annals, so on a perverse and twisted level, it sort of makes sense.  For kids weaned on reality TV, historical figures are not unlike modern pseudo-celebrities, famous for being famous.  “Hey, isn’t he that guy from the $5 bill?”

That furious clickety-clacking you hear is the sound of keyboard commandos announcing the discovery of yet more evidence that history teachers are incompetent and our school systems irreparably broken.  That’s because they haven’t read the rest of the story, or they have read it and they don’t care.

Why that’s the case, and how to fix it, is up for debate.

Possibilities include apathetic students, how history is tested, and the No Child Left Behind Act squeezing history out of the classroom in favor of math and reading.

As crazy as it sounds, lousy testing standards and policies that minimize history requirements may actually contribute to the problem of historical ignorance. History teachers have to play the hand they’re dealt, and that hand isn’t always pretty.

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Moving day and an overgrown fort

The staff of the National Museum of Health and Medicine are packing up and vacating their former quarters at Walter Reed.  The museum’s new digs are only a couple of miles away, but there are about twenty-five million items in the collection.  If you’ve ever moved, you can probably sympathize.

“Honey, where’d you put the Revolutionary War field amputation kit?”

“It’s in that big box in the living room, with the fragment of Abraham Lincoln’s skull and our wedding album.”

Man, I hate moving.

On a completely different note, a writer from a Big Apple daily scouted out the site of Fort Washington and found an overgrown redoubt overlooking the Hudson River.  Judging by the photo, it looks like the place could use some TLC.

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What’s Blair Mountain worth?

One of America’s largest labor uprisings, and the biggest armed civil insurrection since the Civil War, started ninety years ago—and there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of it.

Thousands of West Virginia miners, thoroughly sick of horrid working conditions and the coal companies’ efforts to prevent them from organizing, squared off against forces led by Sheriff Don Chafin at a ridge called Blair Mountain.  The ensuing “Battle of Blair Mountain” deserved its moniker, for it was a battle in every sense of the word—a five-day armed struggle along a fifteen-mile front, in which dozens died and hundreds were injured, complete with the deployment of air power.  (Pilots hired by the sheriff dropped bombs on the miners’ positions, and the Army Air Force flew surveillance.)

The miners nearly broke through the coal companies’ enforcers, but finally disbanded and headed to their homes when the presence of the U.S. Army tipped the balance against them.  Some of them faced indictments for murder, conspiracy, and treason afterward. Appalachian History has a more detailed post on the affair, which is well worth reading; the Battle of Blair Mountain is also the subject of a recent book by Robert Shogan.

What I find most striking about the story is the fact that it’s largely unknown.  I’m ashamed to admit that until a few years ago I’d never heard of it myself, despite the fact that I’m a history aficionado who’s lived most of his life in Appalachia.  How in the world has one of the largest and most important civil uprisings in the nation’s history—planes took to the air against American citizens on our own soil, for crying out loud—been such a neglected historical subject?  Is it because it happened in a region that most Americans either ignore entirely or (if they think about it all) treat with contempt and disdain?  I hope the answer is not so simple as that, but I’m not optimistic.

These days Blair Mountain is a battlefield again, but the modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain is over preservation.  A few years ago Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was subsequently removed.  It needs to be reinstated. The site is threatened by surface mining, which would destroy this historic landscape and the archaeological resources it contains.

Let me pause here to state that I’m not opposed to the coal industry’s very existence, as some people are.  At the same time, though, I don’t think it should be immune from criticism.  Discussion about coal shouldn’t be a zero-sum game in which any critique of the industry automatically means that you’re against fossil fuels or gainful employment.  I stress this because I don’t want readers to take my endorsement of efforts to preserve Blair Mountain as a denunciation of coal or coal miners.  My attitude toward the coal industry is mixed; I’m glad that it provides jobs to people of this area, and as an energy source it’s indispensable.  (A popular bumper sticker in my neck of the woods reads, DON’T LIKE COAL? DON’T USE ELECTRICITY.)  At the same time, though, I’m also aware that it’s a problematic industry that has created and continues to create a great many problems.  Appalachia’s relationship to coal reminds me of what Jefferson said about America’s relationship to slavery: “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

At the end of the day, this is about a specific place that’s very special.  Blair Mountain is an important historic site, and should be designated as such and protected.  Check out the Friends of Blair Mountain website and see what all the fuss is about.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, History and Memory

Watergate neither important nor historic subject, says commentator

Out of the realm of online punditry comes this tirade from Debbie Schlussel over the placing of a historical marker at the parking garage where Deep Throat met with Bob Woodward.  She doesn’t think the spot is worth it.

“It’s just not important, nor is it history, even in the most elastic use of the word,” she writes, thus establishing once and for all the fact that the downfall of a sitting U.S. president really isn’t that big of a deal.

After all, it “contributed nothing to America and the survival of the West.”  See, you can’t interpret or commemorate historical events without glorifying them, so the only aspects of the past we should be marking are the ones that elevate our collective sense of general worthiness.  We seem to be having a hard time keeping that straight, don’t we?

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Last Full Measure unfilmed, loan unpaid

A cautionary tale for local government entities thinking about investing in Civil War movies:

Nine years after borrowing $300,000 from Washington County [MD], director Ron Maxwell still owes about $263,000 in principal and interest.

Maxwell borrowed the money in 2002, after making the Civil War film “Gods and Generals” in the Tri-State area, including Washington County.

The loan agreement gave Maxwell until 2005 to start working on another Civil War film, based on Jeff Shaara’s book “The Last Full Measure,” and to produce at least half of it in Washington County. Otherwise, Maxwell would have to repay the money, with interest, by 2010.

Records show that Maxwell last made a payment more than three years ago.

Maybe it’s time to chalk it up as a loss, which is what I did with the money I paid to see Gods and Generals.  Come to think of it, having seen Gods and Generals, I’d give Maxwell $300,000 to not make Last Full Measure.

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The Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect

Check out Gary Gallagher’s list of five overrated Civil War officers (with a tip of the hat to John Fea).  One of them is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, not because he was a poor commander but because fiction and film have elevated him into the stratosphere of popular memory.

I call this the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect.  It happens when a work of fiction or film sends a previously obscure subject into the stratosphere of popular imagination.  There were plenty of brave and talented field officers at Gettysburg, but only one got top billing in The Killer Angels and the movie adaptation.

Likewise, up until the 1990′s, Velociraptor was just one of many little carnivorous dinosaurs that rarely got any press.  And with good reason—other than its svelte form (the name means “quick robber”) and formidable claws, there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about it.

Clever girl! Velociraptor mongoliensis compared to a human, from Wikimedia Commons.

Then Michael Crichton came along.  Dinosaur artist Gregory Paul had assigned a larger relative, Deinonychus, to the genus Velociraptor, and Crichton adopted this classification in Jurassic Park.  The raptors in his book were therefore substantially bigger than their real-life counterparts, and formidable enough to take on his human characters.

Steven Spielberg evidently thought that even the beefed-up raptors in the novel were too puny for the big screen, so by the time the raptors made it to Hollywood they were about three times as tall as they had been in the fossil record.  Ironically, after the book came out, scientists identified yet another large relative of Velociraptor, as big as the ones in Spielberg’s film.

I’ve drifted off-topic, haven’t I?  Sorry; I’ve got this thing for dinosaurs.

Anyway, the point is that works of fiction often have a much greater impact on the way people remember the past than the interpretations of the people who study it.  How many monographs on Gettysburg do you think it would take to equal the impression made by Shaara’s novel?  I’d say quite a few.

The other thing that struck me about Gallagher’s piece is the reaction it elicited from readers.  Take a look at the comments; some readers assumed that because Gallagher takes issue with certain evaluations of a few Confederate generals, he must be politically correct and have an anti-South agenda.  Never mind that he included Union commanders in his list, and never mind that he didn’t say one word about the Confederacy itself.  Perhaps the online defenders of True Southronness should set aside the Confederate flag; a doctor’s reflex hammer seems like a much more appropriate emblem for them.

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For globe-trotting Americanists

It’s time for those of us who make a living by teaching to get back to the business of turning America’s youth into godless Marxists who despise their country.  A lot of us who are specialists in American history will find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, teaching the world history survey courses that have become mandatory at many colleges and universities.

I’ll be teaching two sections of pre-1500 world history this semester, trying to cover everything from the dawn of mankind through the medieval era before Christmas break.  Teaching these surveys is fun and challenging at the same time.  As I’ve said before, history is a big tent, and the difference between studying classical Athens and studying the Revolutionary War is as profound as the difference between geology and zoology.

I was lucky enough to be able to take a pretty diverse array of world history courses as an undergraduate, but in grad school I focused on the early history of the U.S.  Now that my bank account’s replenishment depends heavily on teaching world history, I’ve spent a lot of time going back to subjects I’d neglected for a long time. That has meant reading a lot of general works on ancient and medieval stuff.

Since there are probably quite a few other Americanists out there who’ll find themselves in the same boat, I thought I might change gears here and recommend a few of the resources which have been particularly helpful to me in preparing these courses.  Let me stress that these are only general works; I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to build comprehensive bibliographies of this kind.  I’m approaching this post not as a seasoned trail guide, but as an often-bewildered and very green hiker who just happens to have found some decent maps to share.  I make no claims that any of these books are the best of their kind, only that I’ve found them handy as I’ve grappled with the Herculean task of walking a classroom full of students through the first few millennia of the human past.

The New Penguin History of the World (5th ed.) by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad.  This acclaimed work has gone through several different updates, and the latest revisions actually came after the death of its original and primary author.  It’s much stronger on modern history than it is on earlier periods, and much stronger on the history of the West than it is on other civilizations.  As a one-volume overview, it’s necessarily brief on pretty much everything, but it’s a handy volume to have on hand when you find yourself putting together an outline on some subject that’s not that familiar to you.

Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean by Charles Freeman.  Anybody who’s teaching the first part of the world history survey should get this book.  It’s clear and comprehensive, covering the political, social, and cultural aspects of three of the major civilizations that shaped the ancient world.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Ancient Iraq (3rd ed.) by Georges Roux.  This is a very popular introduction to early Mesopotamia, written by a former petroleum company employee who acquired a love of the ancient Near East.  It’s quite readable, and covers most of the major developments in the Fertile Crescent from the beginning of civilization to the later first millennium B.C.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Ian Shaw.  This book, which covers Egyptian history from the earliest archaeological traces through the Roman era, is the result of a collaboration by a group of Egyptologists, each of whom contributed a chapter.  Like many such books, the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven, and the text as a whole is pretty dry and sterile.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic outlines of Egyptian history, I’d recommend you read the Egyptian chapters in Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome before tackling this volume, since the authors seem to assume that the reader already has some familiarity with the subject.

Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts.  There are, of course, several good general works on ancient Greece in English.  One of my professors assigned an earlier edition of this text for a college course I took on the ancient Mediterranean, and I recommend it highly.  It’s very inclusive in its coverage, but it’s also clear and well-organized.  The same publisher came out with a similar textbook on Rome that I haven’t read yet.

The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.  This has become the go-to introduction to medieval Europe for the interested layman.  Cantor is best at guiding the reader through the major intellectual and religious developments, but the whole book is worth the investment of time, and it includes a great list of recommended readings.

A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders.  This book is a little old, and it doesn’t have the high profile of more recent works on the Islamic world by such eminent scholars as Bernard Lewis.  But I like it for its conciseness and clarity; it offers a very helpful refresher in an easily digestible package.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin.  The forgotten half of Christendom that maintained the legacy of the Romans after the empire in the West fell tends to get short shrift in historical memory.  This is a fine guide to a surprisingly vibrant society.

I’m still in the market for good overviews of the major eastern civilizations, so if anybody out there would care to recommend some general works on China or India, feel free to do so.

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Another article on Ed Bearss

…this time a lengthier piece on how he got into the battlefield business.  The man is eighty-eight, but his idea of “retirement” from the National Park Service is to work 225 days a year, leading tours of historic sites.  May he live to be 150.

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Repatriating the Civil War

Kevin Levin recently noted the case of three captured Confederate flags that are going to be sent back home to North Carolina.  I think it’s a fine gesture.

Coincidentally, there’s another story about repatriating Civil War artifacts in the news right now.  In 1861, the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers decided to make the most of their time in Harpers Ferry by picking up a souvenir—the bell from the firehouse where John Brown made his last stand.  They passed it along to a Maryland woman, and it remained in her possession until 1892, when some of the veterans from the 13th Massachusetts retrieved it and took it back to their home state.  It’s still there, hanging in a tower in the town of Marlborough.  Now West Virginia real estate broker Howard Swint thinks it belongs back home, and he’s going to court to try to make it happen.

According to the article, “Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it.”  Fair enough.  It’s certainly a part of Harpers Ferry’s history.  The National Park Service manages Harpers Ferry’s historic sites, and an exhibit featuring the bell and the story of its journey from West Virginia to Massachusetts and back would give the NPS a pretty neat opportunity to teach visitors about the way the Civil War has been remembered down through the years.

Still, the bell has been in Marlborough for so long that it’s become a part of that town’s history, too.  Like all artifacts, the bell has acquired its particular importance from the events that have happened to it.  Artifacts, I think, are subject to Lamarckian biology; the events they undergo become permanently wired into their DNA.  That, after all, is why we cherish some objects above others.

Some of the comments left on the web article indicated that Swint has stirred up controversy before, so I Googled him and came up with an editorial written by someone with that name just a few months ago, arguing for the removal of a Stonewall Jackson monument on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol.  In this piece, Swint (assuming, of course, it’s the same Howard Swint of West Virginia) claims that a Confederate monument at the capitol is inappropriate, given all the Confederacy’s unsavory aspects.

Here, too, I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters.  I tend to be dismissive of efforts to put up new monuments, but when it comes to the ones that have been around for a century or more, my preservationist instincts kick in.  Yes, slavery and racism are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Confederacy, and yes, Confederate symbols continued to be employed for racist purposes well into modern times.  But there comes a point at which things like old monuments or works of art are artifacts in themselves.  They tell us something about the way we used to be (or wanted to be, or wanted to think we were), so I say leave them be.

Just as the bell’s long stay in Massachusetts has become an intrinsic part of its history, so the idealized legacy of the most famous West Virginian to fight in the war has become an intrinsic part of the state’s history.  Tearing down an old monument seems sort of like getting a tattoo of your ex-wife’s name removed—you won’t have to look at it anymore, but all the baggage goes a lot deeper than the ink in your skin, so you might as well acknowledge it and try to develop some perspective and become better for it.

As for the bell, I don’t know how I’d make that call.  Since it’s not my call to make, I guess that doesn’t matter.

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So you want to enrich your child’s education. . .

I just ran across this bit of advice for concerned parents:

I’m going to tell you a little secret. Shhhh, come close ….the school curriculum is available, grade by grade, on the district’s website. (Here they are for District 102 and District 96.) And now I’m going to tell you why you care. By reading it, you will not only have a full and detailed preview of what your child is expected to learn over the course of the school year, but, it will give you valuable knowledge on how to prepare your child for the school year as well.

No, it won’t say “your child will be learning about the Revolutionary War so take a trip to Gettysburg,” but it will say that in fifth grade your child will need to explain the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. So now that you know that, you can help your child build priceless background knowledge.

Forget Gettysburg, they don’t concentrate on the battles in fifth grade. Heading east?  Do the Freedom Walk in Boston. Staying close to home?  Watch the Liberty Kids cartoon series or the HBO mini-series John Adams (great for the aftermath of the war).

A good idea, that.  People who drive all the way to Gettysburg to learn about the Revolutionary War are indeed in for a disappointment.

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