An Office Had to Be Found

In the midst of an extended bout of “reader’s block”, I grabbed an old copy of Fahrenheit 451 off the shelf in an attempt to generate some “miles on the page” this week. I read it in high school and know its place on high school reading lists, but I know almost nothing about Ray Bradbury. I found the afterword and “Coda” more fascinating than the book. He wrote the first draft in the basement of a library, paying for typewriter time, surrounded by dusty old books:

In all the years from 1941 to [the writing of Fahrenheit 451], I had done most of my typing in the family garages, either in Venice, California (where we lived because we were poor, not because it was the “in” place to be) or behind the tract house where my wife, Marguerite, and I raised our family. I was driven out of my garage by my loving children, who insisted on coming around to the rear window and singing and tapping on the panes. Father had to choose between finishing a story or playing with the girls. I chose to play, of course, which endangered the family income. An office had to be found. We couldn’t afford one.

Finally, I located just the place, the typing room in the basement of the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. There, in neat rows, were a score or more of old Remington or Underwood typewriters which rented out at a dime a half hour. You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly, and you typed wildly, to finish before the half hour ran out. Thus I was twice driven; by children to leave home, and by a typewriter timing device to be a maniac at the keys. Time was indeed money. I finished the first draft in roughly nine days. At 25,000 words, it was half the novel it eventually would become.

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The Least They Can Do

I really, really wish I was spending my February break reading about history and teaching. Instead my Twitter feed and the front page of the NY Times are filled with stories about the ridiculous “idea” of arming teachers. Ironically, about two weeks ago I moved a lot of the political writers I follow to a “list” so I could check it when I want and not be bombarded with Trump news every time I opened Tweetdeck or Tweetbot. Now, both the historians and educators I follow are commenting on Trump’s lack of understanding of education, schools, and gun control.

A lot of people smarter than me have addressed gun violence and school shootings. I am thankful for the coverage from some of the non-political writers I follow – particularly John Gruber and the indafatigable Jason Kottke. I highly recommend reading them daily – they reward you with plenty of non-political writing and some of the most insightful commentary on the issues you should be paying attention to (but maybe not every day).

Now for me on this.

A few years ago I did a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar. It was the most rewarding history professional development I’ve ever done. After a week-long class with an incredibly talented and respected professor (“Professor”), our last session involved him opening up the table to “anything we wanted to ask”. (I’m leaving Professor’s name out, because I’m paraphrasing years later and to my knowledge he has not written on this topic.)

One teacher asked a general question about his assessment of public education in America. Professor took a moment, gathered his thoughts, and explained (much clearer than I will here) that in his view all successful nation-states/empires/kingdoms had two qualities: a strong military and a strong bureaucracy. In the United States, we have done the strong military very well, but never had a very strong bureaucracy. Instead, our bureaucracy was established pretty late and has always been subjected to that uniquely American strategy of “outsourcing”.

According to Professor, the one strong, well-run bureaucracy we do have are the schools & teachers – they’re organized, they’re mobile, they’re large, and they can get stuff done. (Ignore the reformers waving their examples of lazy teachers & failing schools for a moment.) As a result, whenever the U.S. wants to address a domestic issue they have to rely on one of the two really strong institutions: the military or the schools. As a result, we continue to push responsibility for more and more issues onto teachers and schools beyond, you know, teaching. Meals. Social services. Counseling. Basic public health.

Once you see this you cannot unsee it. And it’s impossible not to see it in the NRA and Trump “proposal” to arm teachers.

The tone of this McSweeny’s piece from Kimberley Harrington is off this week (imagine that, McSweeny’s getting the tone wrong!), but the penultimate paragraph captures the situation well:

Just to wrap up, our country has chosen to shift all of the weight regarding your safety away from our lawmakers and gun manufacturers and instead put it squarely on the shoulders of your principal and teachers. These people who kneel down on the first day of school so they’re just as tall as you. These people who shake your hand and say, “Good morning!” and help you rehearse for the spring concert and take you on field trips to see different rock formations — they are now in charge of keeping you from getting murdered. Which really is the least they can do for all that money they make.

That is all. I’m going to go grab a big, heavy history book and try to avoid the headlines.


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Scholarly in Their Approach

Michael Fordham offered up an interesting list of books for people beginning training as history teachers. Even though his audience is generally British school teachers, I always find his thoughts on teaching history helpful. I’ve added several of his suggestions to my nightstand (and I’m not just starting out). His criteria:

(a) are written by leading scholars, (b) have chronological, geographical and thematic breadth, (c) are written in a style that is easily accessible to the general reader but are nevertheless (d) scholarly in their approach with clear references to the historiography and source material.

His list is a little “euro-centric”, but in light of his audience/career it makes sense.

Here are my four additions, particularly for anyone teaching a world history course:

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History – J.R. McNeill & William McNeill
Empire of Cotton: A Global History – Sven Beckert
Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures – Matt K. Matsuda
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food – Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Add your suggestions/questions in the comments.




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Inaccurate Factual Background

Both my personal education and teaching career include lessons on the Supreme Court’s distinction between de jure segregation and de facto segregation – it’s included in law school and mandated by many state standards in secondary education. Richard Rothstein’s important 2016 book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, pokes a million holes in this flawed legal theory. He opens the Epilogue with this summary:

When Chief Justice Roberts wrote that if residential segregation “is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications,” he set forth a principle. But the principle supported his conclusion – that government remedies for segregation were impermissible – only because he assumed an inaccurate factual background: that residential segregation was mostly created by private choices.

Over the previous 215 pages Rothstein outlined the ways local and state governments actively created and enforced the policies that segregated communities throughout the U.S.. With examples of exclusionary zoning laws, FHA requirements for segregated communities, enforcement of restrictive covenants, tax-exempt status of churches and hospitals that enforced segregation, and even the licensing of real estate agents who claimed an “ethical obligation” to impose segregation, he paints the picture of a powerful state enforcing segregation far beyond the Jim Crow South. Tyler Cowen highlights some examples.

His proposed remedies begin not with Congress or the courts, but in the classroom. Much like James Loewen, Rothstein points to the misleading language of popular high school textbooks on residential segregation:

One of the most commonly used American History textbooks is The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century. A thousand page volume, published by Holt McDougal, a division of the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, . . . The 2012 edition has this to say about residential segregation in the North: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing on how it was implemented.

This is not a textbook I see in many classrooms these days, but the problem persists and I would not be surprised to find it in many others. I am curious to check how Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! addresses the topic.

May I suggest you skip the textbook and go straight to the sources? You can find articles and examples of restrictive covenants online. As I went to write this, I assumed examples of the Levittown restrictive covenants would be readily available online – I have used them in class for years. But my usual primary source destinations came up short. What a shame. I used to use a variation of this lesson from, but the link is now dead. Email me if you want the documents.

[Update – 11/14/18] On Friday, I checked out a copy of the textbook our APUSH class uses, Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!. We have an older addition, but, as expected, Foner addresses much of Rothstein’s argument:

The move to the suburbs also promoted Americanization, cutting residents off from urban ethnic communities and bringing them fully in the world of consumption. But if the suburbs offered a new site for the enjoyment of American freedom, they offered at least one familiar characteristic – rigid racial boundaries.

Suburbia has never been as uniform as either its celebrants or its critics claimed. There are upper-class suburbs, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, and “suburban” neighborhoods within city limits. But if the class uniformity of suburbia has been exaggerated, its racial uniformity was all too real. As late as the 1900s, nearly 90 percent of suburban whites lived in communities with non-white populations of less than 1 percent – the legal decisions by government, real-estate developers, banks, and residents.

During the postwar suburban boom, federal agencies continued to insure mortgages that barred resale to non-whites, thereby financing housing segregation. Even after the Supreme Court in 1948 declared such provisions legally unenforceable, banks and private developers barred non-whites from the suburbs and the government refused to subsidize their mortgages except in segregated enclaves. In 1960, blacks represented less than 3 percent of the population of Chicago’s suburbs. The vast new communities built by William Levitt refused to allow blacks, including army veterans, to rent or purchase homes. “If we sell one house to a Negro family,” Levitt explained, “then 90 or 95% of our white customers will not buy into the community.” After a lawsuit, Levitt finally agreed during the 1960s to sell homes to non-whites, but at a pace that can only be described as glacial. In 1990, his Long Island community, with a population of 53,000, included 127 black residents.

This is just one of a number of entries addressing segregation in the North and West found in Foner’s work. Much better than “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods,” but I still recommend the primary sources.

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Teachers Weren’t Leveling With Us

There’s a lot I love about Elif Batuman’s The Idiot – an outsider in Cambridge, decline of the Ottoman Empire as a narrative device, first email addresses, 1995 – including a strangely unsolicited critique of modern theories of education in the U.S.. The passage below could have been found on Doug Lemov’s blog or in Michael Fordham’s Twitter feed. While studying for an exam at Harvard, the narrator struggles with the songs her friend Svetlana (from Yugoslavia (again, 1995)) created to remember declensions of irregular nouns in Russian:

Svetlana was way better than I was at memorizing. She accepted it in her heart as something necessary. Growing up in America, I had been taught to despise memorization, which was known as “rote memorization,” or sometimes as “regurgitating facts.” The teachers said that what they wanted was to teach us to think. They didn’t want us to turn out like robots, like the Soviet and Japanese schoolchildren. That was the only reason Soviet and Japanese children did better than us on the tests. It was because they didn’t know how to think.

By high school, I sensed that the teachers weren’t leveling with us. Our biology teacher would say: “I don’t want you to memorize and regurgitate, I want you to understand the elegant logic of each mechanism.” Nonetheless, on the test you had to draw a diagram of RNA transcription. When it came to science or history, reason got you only so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how steps followed from each other. It wasn’t as if there was only one way the world could have turned out. It wasn’t like strawberries had to grow from bushes. There were lots of ways things could have turned out, and you had to memorize the particular one that was real.

Or . . . did you? Was there only one way the world could have turned out? If you were smart enough, could you deduce it? A tiny part of me held out the hope that you could. And that part was bad at learning Svetlana’s song.

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Three of the Total of Eight Documents

If I won a Genius award (not going to happen), I would spend my time turning published academic history articles into high school lesson plans. The Stanford History Education Group is probably the closest project to this, but I am not sure if their inquires are driven by specific academic works.

Henrietta Harrison’s recent article, The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, would be my first project. Her work made me question everything I think I do well as a history teacher. On so many levels this article challenged everything I know and do about history. Here’s the skinny:

She begins by describing pretty much every textbook’s and teacher’s approach to teaching the Qianlong Emperor’s letter:

Since the 1920’s, historians, scholars of international relations, journalists, and teachers have used [the selection from the letter] to illustrate the failure of traditional China to acknowledge the rising power of the West: the Qianlong emperor foolishly imagines that George III is paying tribute to him, while his deprecation of the British gifts is interpreted as a rejection of Western science and even the industrial revolution. China’s foreign relations, associated with the giving of tribute and embodied in the ritual of the kowtow, are thus contrasted with the egalitarian diplomatic practices of the rising European states.

I would argue many textbooks and my class go further in using the letter to support the claim that the Qing Empire dismissed the strength of the rising industrial powers in Western Europe.

Prof. Harrison argues, through her laborious research, that the letter misrepresents the Chinese response to Europe and that in order to truly understand the letter you must understand the archival process following the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911. Harrison writes:

What brought the Qianlong Emperor’s letter to public prominence was the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the rise of Han Chinese nationalism. In 1914, a translation was included in a new history of the Qing by two British writers living in China. It was from this English source that it was picked up by Chinese scholars, for whom the Qianlong emperor’s apparent ignorance and complacent fitted neatly with a revolutionary agenda.

Harrison describes the process of opening the archives and the influence of western historians on those visiting the Qing archives in the early 20th Century. In describing the process of the writing of the series Collected Historical Documents by Xu Baoheng, she notes:

Many of the documents about the military response to the [Macartney embassy] were in what was known as the palace archives, which contained the Qianlong emperor’s personal correspondence, but these had not been opened. The documents were there precisely because these defense issues were both important and secret, unlike the question of ceremony and ritual, which were part of the public presentation of Qing diplomacy.

. . .

Xu chose to publish three of the total of eight documents about the kowtow. His decision to do so gave the issue a prominence quite unrelated to its position in the archives as a whole and was directly affected by the longstanding British scholarship that emphasized protocol and ritual.

. . .

As a whole, the selection of archives published in Collected Historical Documents had the effect of depicting the Qing as ignorant and passive in the face of the rising power of the West.

So in short, world history textbooks’, and thousands of history students’, narrative of Qing naivety and weakness in the face of rising European threat is totally and completly  inaccurate because we rely on one letter from a massive archive that was selectively released for political purposes following the collapse of an empire. This would make an AMAZING SHEG lesson.

My other big takeaway is simply the amount of work that went into writing this one article. I am not super connected to the academic history world, but this article seems like a really big deal. I spent about an hour poking around the Internet and this was about the most I could find about Xu Baoheng. And it is a big deal because Prof. Harrison put in a ton of work; an amount of work I actually struggle to comprehend.

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Rearrange the Past

One of the biggest benefits of teaching AP Research is the excuse of spending time on JSTOR reading old Journal of American History articles. An early search of mine was for Richard White articles. His 1999 article, “The Nationalization of Nature,” includes one of my favorite descriptions of the work historians do:

In posing the issue within environmental history as one of transnational versus national studies in different periods, I seek to emphasize the anachronistic nature of history itself. I am using terms – national, global, environmental- that themselves have histories; they have taken on both existence and meaning over time. I am reading modern meanings back onto a world that did not originally contain them. I emphasize my use of such terms to stress both the complexity of the historian’s choice and the historian’s freedom. We constantly impose categories on the past that the people of the past neither knew nor used, even as we seek to reflect accurately how people in the past understood their world. We sometimes seem to live in the paradoxical hope that concepts we use to rearrange the past will help us to mold -to arrange- the future.

If our students could explain the significance of this passage, I feel like I would have done my job. Also, what amazing prose.

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