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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Things Are All Upside Down

Earlier this year, at a potluck dinner, a new acquaintance learned I was a history teacher and did that thing many do – told a story about themselves. Her story was a familiar one: about how “crazy left-wing” her high school history teacher at an international school was; “our textbook was A People’s History” I was told. I nodded and suggested “that’s fascinating”.

If you’ve worked with me you know I am crystal clear about my concerns of history teachers who over-rely on Howard Zinn. I have always had my concerns, and several years ago Sam Wineburg wrote the definitive explanation of those concerns. However, a recent trip to see The People Speak at BAM clarified for me that I often conflate my concerns about the use of Zinn in the classroom with Zinn’s work.

Our amazing AP US History teacher managed to organize a trip of 50 students and 5 teachers to see everyone from Maggie Gyllenhaal to Stacyann Chin perform speeches from throughout American history. The performances ranged from the familiar and expected to the new (to me). A selection from Howard Zinn’s The Problem is Civil Disobedience (did I just link to “netstorm”?) is what resonated the most:

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.

Later that week a student shared a lyric he wrote for a rap he was working on: “you didn’t vote in the election so you can’t complain, open your notebook ’cause Professor Zinn is about to explain” (I am paraphrasing a few weeks later and will clarify). My student’s lyric and the impact of this reading as performed at The People Speak was a (needed) reminder of the importance of the historian as an activist, especially Zinn, a point Wineberg alludes to in his original article and one made clear by the Zinn Education Project in response.

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Civil Fine of Their Own

I recently decided to pay less attention to politics and even lesser attention (grammar?) to the politics around education. I teach at a charter school and charter schools make strange bedfellows; liberal teachers with a social justice tilt often funded by right wing organizations that may or may not love our schools because of their ability to disrupt the teachers’ unions. That said, I care just enough to write one quick post about the topic.

In reporting on eduction, Malcolm Gladwell once said something to the effect of, “every low income high school student needs his own Jewish lawyer.” Gladwell was exploring a program in California that provided scholarships to high achieving students in poor performing schools. Apparently that is DeVos’s plan to fix our nations’ schools. From the Times:

Tuition at the school, just outside Orlando, is normally $6,260 per year, according to the school’s website. The Florida scholarship program allows businesses in the state to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofit scholarship organizations that give tuition assistance for students to attend schools like St. Andrew. The families’ portion of the tuition bill varies.

I don’t know the details of the Florida program – and do not care enough to do the research – but this is a scary model for addressing the nation’s public education system. Good for the businesses in Florida that are helping out students, but this is no way to address the actual needs of our public schools. What about the kids that don’t qualify for scholarships?

Prior to her nomination as education secretary I had never heard the name “DeVos”- at least not in a way that made me remember it. A week later her family popped up in the first 100 pages of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money:

[Richard Devos] and his co-founder, Jay Van Andel, were forced to pay a $20 million fine. The fine didn’t make much of a dent in DeVos’s fortune, which Forbes estimated at $5.7 billion. By 2009, DeVos’s son Dick and daughter-in-law Betsy were major donors on the Koch list and facing a record $5.2 million civil fine of their own for violating Ohio’s campaign-finance laws.

How the hell do you get a $5.2 million fine for violating campaign-finance laws?

FN1 – I find the chants common in charter schools occasionally cute and somewhat disturbing (think The Wall). This one falls 100% on the side of disturbing:
“What are our goals? Where are we going?” Ms. Peters-Gipson asked.
“College and heaven,” they said in unison.
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An Illusion of Nutrition

The guys from On Top of the World podcast recently began a fascinating exploration of food history. They mentioned a critique of overemphasizing (or maybe solely focusing) on the role of sugar in the slave trade. Expanding the exploration of sugar (or food generally) is an incredibly powerful way to expose students to what a diverse understanding of history looks like in the classroom and out.

The connections between the demand for sugar, the rise of the coffee trade, and labor systems in Latin America was a focus of this year’s attempt to effectively teach industrialization. We read a selection from Mark Pendergrast‘s Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. Much like the impression made by Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, a short passage from Pendergrast’s book keeps popping up in student essays and discussion:

With the advent of textile and iron mills, workers migrated to cities where the working classes lived in appalling conditions. As women and children entered the organized workforce, there was less time to run a household and cook meals. Those still trying to make a living at home were paid less and less for their work. Thus, European lacemakers in the early nineteenth century lived almost exclusively on coffee and bread. Because coffee was stimulating and warm, it provided an illusion of nutrition.

The rest of the passage (and the focus of class) was about the impact of this demand on labor systems in Latin America. However, this passage was “sticky” – it pops up in discussion and essays almost weekly. Granted, many of the references are connected to my ubiquitous Colectivo coffee mug, but this one paragraph has really shaped their understanding of industrialization. I mean, seriously, how many APWH Key Concepts are addressed in that ONE paragraph?

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A Lost, Bowlegged Cossack with Rickets

A medium to longterm goal of mine is a re-write of our ancient civilizations, pre-history, and Neolithic Revolution curriculum. Pre-600 CE is not an area of expertise of mine; I know enough about it to know it’s way more fascinating than the lessons I currently have. The story of Joachim Neander and the inaccurate, incomplete, and pretty racist historiography of neanderthals as described in Jon Mooallem’s article, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” will definitely make it into the re-write:

Joachim Neander was a 17th-century Calvinist theologian who often hiked through a valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, writing hymns. Neander understood everything around him as a manifestation of the Lord’s will and work. There was no room in his worldview for randomness, only purpose and praise. “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe,” one of his verses goes. “Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.” He wrote dozens of hymns like this — awe-struck and simple-minded. Then he caught tuberculosis and died at 30.

Almost two centuries later, in the summer of 1856, workers quarrying limestone in that valley dug up an unusual skull. It was elongated and almost chinless, and the fossilized bones found alongside it were extra thick and fit together oddly. This was three years before Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” The science of human origins was not a science; the assumption was that our ancestors had always looked like us, all the way back to Adam. (Even distinguishing fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the grasp of many scientists. One popular method involved licking them; if the material had animal matter in it, it stuck to your tongue.) And so, as anomalous as these German bones seemed, most scholars had no trouble finding satisfying explanations. A leading theory held that this was the skeleton of a lost, bowlegged Cossack with rickets. The peculiar bony ridge over the man’s eyes was a result of the poor Cossack’s perpetually furrowing his brow in pain — because of the rickets.

One British geologist, William King, suspected something more radical. Instead of being the remains of an atypical human, they might have belonged to a typical member of an alternate humanity. In 1864, he published a paper introducing it as such — an extinct human species, the first ever discovered. King named this species after the valley where it was found, which itself had been named for the ecstatic poet who once wandered it. He called it Homo neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

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