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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A Horror-Show, For Sure

Last night I flipped through Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Papers Vol. 1, looking for some peace of mind in his coverage of Nixon in 1969. I was not disappointed. From “Memoirs of a Wretched Weekend in Washington”:

The Inauguration weekend was a king-hell bummer in almost every way. The sight of Nixon taking the oath, the doomed and vicious tone of the protest, constant rain, rivers of mud, an army of rich swineherds jamming the hotel bars, old ladies with blue hair clogging the restaurants. . . a horror-show, for sure. Very late one night, listening to the radio in my room I heard a song by The Byrds, with a refrain that went: “Nobody knows. . . what trouble they’re in; Nobody thinks. . . it might happen again.” It echoed in my head all weekend, like a theme song for a bad movie. . . the Nixon movie.

With a byline of February 23, 1969, Thompson foretells a future we know too well:

President Nixon has moved into a vacuum that neither he nor his creatures understand. They are setting up, right now, in the calm eye of a hurricane. . . and if they think the winds have died, they are in for a bad shock.

Today Daring Fireball linked, appropriately, to Thompson’s Nixon obituary.

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Simple, Convenient and Seemingly Coherent Narrative

Michiko Kakutani provides me with another addition to my nightstand in his review of Jason Stanley’s “How Propaganda Works“. Leaving the Belfer National Conference for Educators years ago I completely re-wrote how I taught “propaganda”, but often felt I missed something from the conference. This description of Stanley’s definition  (and its unfortunate timeliness) is a sign that his book will help me re-write those lessons this year:

Mr. Stanley begins by offering a definition of propaganda that extends beyond dictionary descriptions of biased or misleading information used to promote a particular political cause or point of view. “Propaganda is characteristically part of the mechanism,” he writes, “by which people become deceived about how best to realize their goals, and hence deceived from seeing what is in their own best interests.” This is achieved by various time-tested means — by appealing to the emotions in such a way that rational debate is sidelined or short-circuited; by promoting an insider/outsider dynamic that pollutes the broader conversation with negative stereotypes of out-of-favor groups; and by eroding community standards of “reasonableness” that depend on “norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability.”

And yes, I am going to try and write again/more in 2017.

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Recently Read Cont…

Spring Break ended yesterday. A few books I finished over break (and the past month or so).

Empire of CottonSven Beckert One of the best global history books I’ve read in awhile. An insightful look into the origins of the modern capitalist system and a reminder that the more you read about the Civil War the more important you realize it is to the way the world looks today.

A Manual for Cleaning Women Lucia Berlin Once a year I come across one of those books or authors whom I’m shocked I made it to [x] age without reading, hearing about, etc… It’s only March and Lucia Berlin has that honor. Are these memoirs? Short stories? Incredible insight into the difficult lives of women in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in AmericaJill Levy Leovy’s book is brilliantly reported and makes a compelling case around the failures of the American criminal justice system in our cities. When she sticks to L.A. the book is amazing. Some of the generalizations around U.S. history and the Great Migration oversimplify a complicated topic.

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I’m Gonna Do That

I have an odd feeling there are a lot of thirty- to forty-something middle and high school teachers doubling as rock fans that struggle to reconcile the songs and stories of our guitar-wielding heroes with the advice we give our students every day. Over break I read the excellent Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. The book is full of incredible stories of the band “snatching failure from the jaws of victory“, a theme that Paul Westerberg applied to his high school career as well:

Though [Paul Westerberg] was only a couple of months away from a diploma, Westerberg stopped going to class. The elders at Holy Angels gave him opportunities to get his degree. “But by then I’d already made up my mind. It was also the rebellion factor: ‘Fuck ’em. I’m gonna stop before the finish line and not cross it.'”

Toward the end of his school days, Westerberg’s English teacher took him aside and offered a bit of advice. “He said, ‘Do what you know how to do.’ Hell, why didn’t you tell me that four years ago? What I really know how to do is play a G chord with the hammer on and the hammer off. I’m gonna do that.”

The Replacements fan in me loves this story. The teacher in me thinks, “um, couldn’t you have just stuck around and got your degree?” Regardless, his teacher’s advice is exactly the advice we need to give our students, and then just help them lengthen the list of what they know how [and love] to do. [The book goes on to explain that Westerberg spent hours in the library reading after dropping out: he could finally wear his glasses without fear of being beaten up.]

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We Filter and Warp the Thought of Others

With the APWH exam around the corner, my class is currently studying Period 6 (1900 to Present). Over the next few weeks we dig into the scientific developments of the 20th Century – Einstein, atomic bombs, immunizations, birth control, etc… Obviously, there is a lot going on right now to make these topics fascinating. Philip Ball’s Atlantic story, “Stop Calling the Babylonians Scientists“, provides an excellent entry point to the study of science in history class and “what” we define as science:

Historians call this tendency to scrutinize and judge the past according to the perspective of the present “Whig history,” a term coined in 1931 by the historian Herbert Butterfield, who criticized the practice for ignoring what people in the past were actually interested in doing. According to Butterfield, by engaging in Whig history we filter and warp the thought of others to make it fit our own—as though the aim of the past was to create the present. Weinberg’s book, along with a re-analysis of the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century by historian David Wootton (The Invention of Science; 2015), has reignited the arguments about Whiggishness in the history of science. Is it right to seek presentiments of modern science in the works of the ancients, or should we judge their “science” on its own terms?

Ball makes a clear distinction between the study of the heavens in ancient Mesopotamia with our more modern definitions of science as reflected in the works of the Greeks through the “scientific revolution”:

Reading these [astrological] signs was complicated and subjective. Certain features were omens, considered to presage particular events. One document, for example, suggests that if the moon is still visible on the 30th day of the lunar cycle then destruction of Babylonia is on the cards, but if the moon is seen on the first day of the cycle then good luck will follow. Mars, meanwhile, was a harbinger of evil, whereas Jupiter brought peace and plenty. With all the different possible parameters, it was never easy to read the gods’ code. That was the diviners’ job, and it more closely resembles a legal process of weighing up precedents than a scientist’s aim of finding an objective truth that “explains” the observations.

I will likely use this article for a seminar as we launch our study of 20th century scientific developments. My only  addition to the article would be some reference to the mathematic and scientific contributions of the Islamic world, South Asia, or East Asia to his world history comparison of civilizations.


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