04 April 2010

History and Memory

In the summer of 2001 I had the good fortune of spending a week at Amherst College studying the Underground Railroad with David Blight, and Jim and Lois Horton. It was a fascinating experience and helped me grow in my understanding of the complex interplay between history and memory. Professor Blight, in particular, opened the door to thinking long and hard about the nature of historical memory related to the Civil War. Why do we remember what we do? How are our memories shaped by present circumstances? Is history really "what happened" back there, or is it how we choose to remember it? These are relevant questions for any of us who teach history.

Professor Elliot Gorn of Purdue University wrote on this subject in a thought-provoking article published in 2000 titled, "Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and the Past." "It's not easy being a historian," writes Professor Gorn, as he lays out the nature of competing versions of the past and how those outside the field view historians as "mindless empiricists -- tweedy, seedy, and dull." Of course, he does not leave it at that, but goes on to explore the complicated nature of history and how teachers of history need to explore that with our young students.

Much of the difficulty with history relates to our confusion of history and memory. As Gorn writes, "Collective memory involves folk or popular notions of the past, which tend to be mythic and usually flattering to those whose past they describe." This type of "history" gets us into trouble because it papers over differences that were very real, allows us to see the past as we want it to be -- allows us, in short, to miss the richness of history, the "tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity -- and, therefore . . . reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues."

Gorn has hit the nail on the head in this article. The debates we continually witness about "what history should be taught in our schools" clearly illustrate this tension between collective memory and history. Is our job to provide a soothing version of the past for our students that reinforces a popular but naive collective memory? Or, should we challenge out students with the truth, at the risk of upsetting them? As Professor Gorn says, that's our job and I heartily agree.

Here's a link to the full article by Professor Gorn.


06 February 2010

History Teachers of the Future

This is an interesting piece on Islamic perspectives of history and it spurred the thoughts that follow.


Perhaps it is because of my age or point in my career, but I've been thinking a lot lately about what history education is going to look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and so forth. I'm becoming more and more convinced that if you are looking at another 15 years in your career, what we are doing now will look like "Abraham Lincoln writing on a piece of slate by candlelight" to our colleagues (or us if we're still teaching). Here's a couple things to think about:

First, the increasingly diverse population of America will demand a more complex approach to history education. We experience this in the school district I teach in when we have frank discussions of American Indian perspectives and how those are best infused into our classrooms. Corresponding with that will be the great challenge of retaining some sort of "American" narrative that provides some semblence of unity for the population, the citizenry. I am increasingly convinced that governing in this environment is becoming more and more challenging and the pressures on political leaders will be enormous. Think about the power that Fox News and AM talk radio, for example, has had on the image of Obama in the past 12 months. 63% of self-identified Republicans believe that he is a bonafide Socialist, according to a recent survey that is considered credible. 39% believe he should be impeached. I site these statistics as an example of how the political narrative can be changed by media outlets in a dramatic way in a very short period of time. Whether one supports Obama or not, it is symptomatic of our charged environment that this has happened. To put this in context, realize that since the late 19th Century, for any mainstream American politician to be labeled a "Socialist" is politically devastating. Now the charge is out there and we are witnessing the "echo chamber" effect and if people hear all of this enough, they start believing it. The President is a pragmatic politician (most of them are) who has people from the left wing of his party upset at him as much (or more in some cases) than his Republicans foes. How do we help students navigate the complex media environment that we are dealing with? The kids that sit in front of me every day are having a lot of difficulty sorting all this out. (sidenote: I also think Obama illustrates the incredible naivity that voters often have about the ability of one person to "fix" the problems facing the nation -- and certainly, politicians who are seeking office do a lot to promote this type of thinking. It inevitably leads to disappointment). Realize also that both parties use these tactics to drive their narrative and we end up with "parallel universes" in which, as one man told me recently, we are unable to talk to each other about political issues because our ideas have become fixed. Hence, the "straw man" fallacy of argument drives the debate -- each side defines the other in the most extreme terms possible, leading to the sense that we are completely polarized. One question I'm left with is, "what actually unifies us anymore?"

Second, along with this polarizing political environment, picture students sitting in front of us with a Kindle or some other type of reader that has replaced the textbook. The device will connect them to e-texts, on-line libraries, TV, data-bases of all sorts, video resources, instructor's notes, and on and on. This is coming faster than we realize and it will completely revolutionize the classroom. In spite of all that "power" students will still need adult practioners who understand how to synthesize all this. Otherwise, their knowledge will be piecemeal, fragmented, and lacking coherence. Perhaps it will take a generation of history teachers that are actually part of that contextual environment in their formative years to really understand it.

Third, the preceding paragraph highlights the upside to technology and as we all know, there is an incredibly negative aspect to all of it as well. The "multi-tasking" phenomenon with student's lack of ability to focus on anything in a prolonged way, internet addiction, social networking -- these all produce some major baggage for young people. Increasingly, we have a generation of young people (and adults) who retreat from authentically understanding the political culture and move into private worlds. The increasing body of research on this is convincing and, as far as I'm concerned, devastating.

How we "swim" with this new environment will determine how effective we will be with the new students that walk into our classrooms. It will determine our relevance (or not) in the curriculum. Our job has never been more challenging. What are the important discussions that we need to have with our students based on the world they are inheriting? What should we be asking them to read? What should our courses look like? If ever there was a time when we have to "keep our eye on the ball," this is it. Teaching is not for the faint of heart in 2010.

24 January 2010

Confronting our History

Amid all the noise surrounding the health care debate, attempted terrorist attacks, the Copenhage Summit, and everything else that happened in December of 2009, President Obama signed a significant resolution on the 19th of December. The idea for the Resolution, first pushed by Senator Brownback of Kansas , was included as Section 8113 in the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, H.R. 3326, Public Law 111-118. The short description on the original resolution reads like this: "To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States."

It's important to note that the Resolution initially had bipartisan support, certainly in terms of sponsorship. Official apologies of this sort, no doubt, rankle many on the far right, but it should be noted that Senator Brownback (R) was the originator of this particular action -- Senator Dorgan (D) of North Dakota was a co-sponsor -- it was actually Dorgan that managed to have it included as part of the Defense Appropriations Act. As one who has spent the past twenty years teaching in a school in which roughly 20% of our students are American Indian, I applaud this action by those in the House and Senate that voted their approval. It would have been more effective, I believe, to have had the resolution as a "stand-alone" action, but I still see this as a victory. Here is a press report of the signing:

This is one of those stories that flies under the radar unless you are tuned in to the story of the Native American people. On November 5th of 2009, President Obama had a meeting with tribal leaders from around the country and the text of his remarks are worth reading and offer great insight into his attitude toward the "first nations." Again, on a somewhat personal note, HoChunk President Wilfrid Cleveland is one of those that spoke to the President and you can read his statement and the President's remarks here:


Interactions of this nature are terribly significant and it is unfortunate though not surprising that they receive almost zero coverage in the national media. The critics of the President, of course, continually chastise him for his "apologetic" posture on the world stage, but I suppose we hear what we want to hear. As one who has devoted my adult life to the study and teaching of history, it is critically important for our nation that we get our history "right" and that we not sugarcoat the nature of US Government actions regarding the treatment of American Indians and African Americans. I see this as similar to the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" that was set up in post-Apartheid South Africa. How do we move forward if we do not acknowledge the wrongs of the past? How can healing ever begin?

17 January 2010

History Without Reading?

Jim Cullen has written a thought-provoking piece recently concerning the teaching of history and reading (or better, not reading). He offers several insights into students in the 21st Century and how we need to better grasp the type of readers (or non-readers) that they are. Essentially he makes the case that if we assume our students are reading, we are misguided and that we need to be much more savvy than that. Further, he asserts that we need to bring more imagination into the teaching of history so that they see a reason to read.

Cullen's explanation of this is terrific and he articulates a number of things that I have been feeling for several years. There is simply no question that the students sitting in front of us in 2010 do not "read" the same way that many of us from the boomer generation may have been schooled. Technology has changed their interaction with words, their attention span, and perhaps their willingness to patiently work through difficult texts. However, I'm not convinced that there was some golden age when students plunged into reading their assignments. My sense is that many of us found ways to avoid reading as we proceeded through our history classes, learned to skim, learned to abbreviate. There is a certain amount of maturity necessary, after all, for in-depth reading.

I would be very interested for comments on this post from my current students, former students, and colleagues because I think it is something that we need to talk about further. The full article is here:


Thanks, Mr. Cullen, for your excellent and thought-provoking article.

20 December 2009

"Invictus" and Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison at the hands of a white regime that oppressed blacks and maintained a system of apartheid in order to maintain power. How he endured what he did is beyond my comprehension. The Victorian poet Ernest Henley wrote "Invictus" in 1875 while laying in a hospital bed suffering from tuberculosis of the bone, a condition that ultimately meant amputation. Mandela recounts that the poem provided him inspiration while in prison, an amazing example of the power of words:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Source: http://www.bartleby.com/103/7.html

My wife and I recently saw the film "Invictus" which recounts the story of Nelson Mandela's relationship with the South African Springboks Rugby Team in the middle 1990s and their victory in the World Cup Tournament in 1995 over the heavily favored team from New Zealand. Certainly more than a "feel good" sports movie, the film carries a stirring message of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Mandela's story of 27 years in prison is amazing to say the least.

I first became aware of Mandela during my college years in the 1970s. At that time the story of South African apartheid was hot and we explored the particulars in various classes I was taking related to international studies and African studies. Mandela was criticized during his years as President for focusing too heavily on the reconciliation issue and not enough on the problems that continued to plague the black majority in South Africa. Whatever his political legacy may be, I left the film overwhelmed by his ability to "love those that had persecuted him," and his willingness to work for reconciliation.

Though Mandela's religion is not addressed in the film, it is evident that he operated from a spiritual position. Here is an excerpt of a speech he gave in 1999 at the Parliament of World Religions meeting in Capetown where he addressed this issue:

"In our country, my generation is the product of religious education. We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites, a minority of less than fifteen percent. They took no interest whatsoever in our education. It was religious institutions, whether Christian, Moslem, Hindu, or Jewish, in the context of our country; they are the people who bought land, who built schools, who employed teachers and paid them. Without church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today. It was for that reason, that when I was ready to go to the United States on the first of this month, an engagement which had been arranged for quite some time, when my comrade, Ibrahim, told me about this occasion, I said: I will change my own itinerary, so I will have the opportunity of appearing here. But I must also add, that I appreciate the importance of religion. Apart from the background I have given you, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you can see a cruelty of human beings to others in a naked form. But it was again religious institutions, Hindus, Moslems, leaders of the Jewish faith, Christians, it was them who gave us the hope that one day, we would come out, we would return. And in prison, the religious institutions, raised funds for our children, who were arrested in thousands and thrown into jail, and many of them one day left prison at a high level of education, because of this support we got from religious institutions. And that is why we so respect religious institutions. And we try as much as we can to read the literature, which outlines the fundamental principles of human behaviour. And, like the Bhagadgita, the Qur'an, the Bible, and other important religious documents. And I say this, so you should understand, that the propaganda that has been made for example about the liberation movement is completely untrue. Because religion was one of the motivating factors in everything that we did."

Source: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/mandela/index.html

The story of Mandela continues in 2009. Along with several other notable leaders (among them Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter), he helped form "The Elders" in July of 2007. In a dedicatory ceremony, he said this:

"The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."

Source: http://www.theelders.org/

The Clint Eastwood film shines a light on Mandela's story, something the world needs in 2009. As one who teaches in a racially mixed community, I was struck by the powerful witness he offers. There are lessons there for all of us.

17 November 2009

The Challenges of the 9/11 Trial

The various legal challenges that will result due to the announcement recently that several of the 9/11 conspirators will be tried in a civilian court and not a military tribunal present students of the law with some excellent questions to consider. We will follow these trials and the news surrounding them for the remainder of the term. Prior to posting a response to the questions, take the time to read the document I have linked to the Law and Society page spelling out the basic differences between military and civilian courts.

Here are the prompts:

1. Do you believe that by trying the suspects in a civilian court, the Justice Department of the Obama Administration is "redefining" the issue -- as in, viewing 9/11 as a crime instead of an act of war?

2. Does it concern you that the trials may become a public forum for the terrorists?

3. Are you concerned that the interrogation methods that the government was using (most notably "waterboarding") for the past 6 years will inevitably be challenged throughout the trial?

4. Finally, are you concerned about potential security issues that will surround the trials?

Feel free to offer your opinion on any or all of these questions.

21 October 2009

"Shockingly Ignorant"

In the early 1980s I was in graduate school and the focus of my thesis in history was the "movement for international education during the years 1900-1925" in American high schools. The topic gripped my interest due to the fact that there had been a substantial "peace education" movement in the schools during the early years of the century just prior to and during the years of the most cataclysmic war in human history (WW 1). That contradiction was worth exploring.

My research was being done in the context of rather dramatic criticisms being leveled at our schools for not emphasizing the world enough in the curriculum. Ernest Boyer, for example, made the following stinging observation in his 1983 book, "High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America,":

"Today's high school curriculum barely reflects the global view. The world has shrunk, yet American young people remain shockingly ignorant about our own heritage and about the heritage of other nations."

Harsh words, but have things changed much since 1983? How are we doing with all this in 2009? If we believe in the power of education, then it follows that schools have a special responsibility in this regard. Note the following observation from Cyrus Vance who served as Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter:

"It is in our schools and in our universities that each generation first learns of its world. The complexities of this uncertain age thus impose special responsibilities on them to create a deeper comprehension of global issues that will make the years to follow more understandable to the body politic" ("The World in the Curriculum," 1981).

If we accept Vance's premise that schools have special responsibilities to "create a deeper comprehension of global issues," then we certainly have a lot of work to do. To those of you that are completing 21st Century World in November of 2009, or any others that may care to weigh in, I pose the following questions for your reflection and response:

1. Do you believe that we are doing enough in educating students about the wider "world" in our curriculum, or are we perpetuating "shocking ignorance" of the globe? Explain.
2. Can you select 2 or 3 things that you have learned about over the past 8 weeks that you believe fall in the category of "need to know" for ALL students? Explain.
3. Do you have suggestions for improving our approach concerning global education in our schools?

Have at it people. I hope to hear from many of you and you will receive some additional credit on your grade for your efforts.