Monthly Archives: June 2013

Emergency alert

Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Scarry is professor of aesthetics at Harvard University and a social theorist. In Thinking, she examines the fact that modern governments have a tendency to use “claims of emergency” and then proceed to undermine democratic traditions while increasing the power of single individuals or offices at the top of the chain. Citizens, argues Scarry, allow governments to take actions that in the past would have been debated in the public eye.

Ultimately, Scarry points out that thinking clearly and acting quickly are not mutually exclusive, despite the opposite assertions of many governments.  Her main concern is that societies watch abridging of rights and laws directly in front of them and accept these changes as long as they themselves are not directly impacted.  Scarry believes that in order to prevent such “emergency” decisions being reached, societies must both protect people and feel obligated to do so.  The book, really an extended essay at about 108 pages, makes some analogies, goes globe trotting for examples (China, Japan, Switzerland, etc), and references anyone from Clinton Rossiter to Aesop.

In Rossiter, Scarry finds commentary on emergency rule that, in Rossiter’s mind were sure to emerge in American communities as a result of multiple crises from the 1940s forward until his death in 1970.  Scarry wonders whether emergency has made people “surrender power of resistance and our elementary forms of political responsibility” (7).  She defines the problem of emergency as follows – governments or individuals declare an emergency (eg, aftermath of tsunami or terrorist attack) and decide that action must be immediately taken.  Secondly, this action must be relatively quickly taken, perhaps without, as Scarry fears, full contemplation of the consequences.

The Aesop reference is to the tale of the drowning boy.  A boy bathes in the river but cannot swim.  As he is in danger of drowning, he calls out to a passerby for help.  While assisting the boy (in some versions before assisting) the passerby lectures the boy on the dangers of entering rivers with an inability to swim.  The boy pleads, “lecture me later, right now I need your help, so save me now.”  One interpretation of the fable is that lecture during a time of crisis is inappropriate.  Scarry argues that thinking in a time of crisis is entirely appropriate.

If societies prepare carefully for emergency situations, states Scarry, then dictatorial actions may be avoided.  The book offers several examples of how nations and people prepare for crises, (eg, CPR training, Swiss shelter building, or the protections in the United States Constitution against declaring war) and Scarry emphasizes that these actions should inspire us to take care in how to think rather than simply react in a crisis.  In conclusion, it should be pointed out, that much of Scarry’s book focuses on the dangers inherent in the powers of a nuclear armed country.  Americans live in a nation where nuclear power has made, for Scarry, the emergency of war, the declaration of war, and its aftermath, are all party to the actions of a few instead of the republic.  Is she successful in her argument?  Perhaps not fully, but the text is an interesting read, particularly in terms of some of the questions it asks about equity in an emergency.

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Exploring democracy, American style

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Abridged with an Introduction by Michael Kammen, translate by Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

This particular version of the Tocqueville classic is an entirely new translation prepared as part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture. The series editors point out that texts such as this are designed specifically to give readers the opportunity to study the past in a similar manner to that of professional historians. Further, the editors remind us that historians often welcome multiple points of view as a story’s telling can be as important as what the story says (v).

Pr. Kammen describes Democracy as “the most famous and profound inquiry into the society, polity, and culture of the United States” (vii). A quick glance at most American history textbooks would confirm this observation, as readers would be hard pressed to discover an edition that ignores Tocqueville’s trip to the United States and the subsequent observations. Tocqueville tells us much about America in the age of Jackson, though as Kammen reminds us, he also makes observations about issues such as liberty and equality that speak to modern readers too (vii).

Democracy from Bedford includes sections and chapters that are regarded as both famous and represent the mindset of Tocqueville on a range of issues. Kammen also includes background information on Tocqueville himself, the journey he took, defines how Tocqueville used terms like democracy and equality, and adds a chronology and questions for consideration section. In his preface, Kammen makes reference to one of the concepts from Tocqueville with which I have always been fascinated – the Frenchman’s insistence that democracy was irresistibly the future for human society. I still wonder about that point, though certainly democracy is, in my mind, the preferred form of governance.

Tocqueville’s work was originally published in two volumes after he returned to France, drawing on observations he made while traveling with a companion in 1831 and 1832. Tocqueville was attempting to describe how American society and politics worked, especially in relation to the still new federal system. As one would anticipate with any memoirist, Tocqueville was heavily influenced by the culture and politics of his native France, particularly his impression of a lack of liberty, political stability, and the presence of despotism in his native land.

Tocqueville was descended from an aristocratic family that suffered mightily during the French Revolution. His maternal great-grandfather lost his head to the guillotine after acting as legal counsel for Louis XVI, his parents were imprisoned during the Terror, and eventually, his father lost status and power as France swayed back and forth between Republic, restored Bourbons, and constitutional monarchy. Born in 1805, Tocqueville’s full name is a mouthful – Alexis-Charles-Henri-Maurice-Clerel de Tocqueville. He was the third son and educated by a private tutor who instructed him in faith (Catholic) and the classics. By the time he was 16, Tocqueville had been exposed to a variety of enlightenment era thinkers, including Voltaire and Rousseau. These influences would impact his views on democracy and religion for the rest of his life (1-3). Democracy gives the reader the “best hits” of Tocqueville’s travels and entices people to consider the unedited version.

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America, Firsthand

Anthony Marcus, John M. Giggie, David Burner, America Firsthand, Volume Two Readings from Reconstruction to the Present. 9th Edition, Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Years ago I decided to experiment with a high school level history class and skip the traditional “textbook” as assigned reading.  The students would receive information about the “meat” or content of the time period we were studying in class lectures and their reading assignments were primary documents.  In addition, there were four assigned books, (one historical fiction), which focused on a discrete topic and were generally read one per quarter.

In general, students responded well to this arrangement, though it was sometimes a difficult sell to the parents, and there were times when students needed a bit more information than I had anticipated to make sense of the documents.  Overall though, I enjoyed approaching history in a different manner while teaching students about how historians construct history and historical arguments.  America Firsthand, now in its ninth iteration, is my textbook of choice for repeating this experiment with college level students.  It has been a few semesters since I taught this course, and the edition is a new one, so I started picking my way through the source choices about a month ago, and reading the book more in earnest this week.

The editors view the book as a grouping of personal views as to how Americans lived their lives and were a part of the path of history.  In addition, the text offers readers both context and credible sources.  An important point emphasized by the editors is that America Firsthand, “when used in conjunction with the supporting pedagogical apparatus, [can] evoke habits of inquiry and critical reflection that lie at the heart of historical analysis” (vii, viii).  It was (and remains) these ‘habits of inquiry’ and ‘critical reflection’ that I sought for students over the years.  My former high school students and certainly the majority of

All editions of America Firsthand contain the ‘points of view’ sections which give students multiple perspectives on a single event and questions, designed to spark conversation and inquiry about the documents themselves.  The documents are preceded by headnotes which contextualize material and over the years, editions have added so-called ‘gloss-notes’ to help readers with names, places, terms, and events.  There is an essay on how to use sources in the study of the past and a variety of visual portfolios, the latter of which I have found particularly effective for student consumption.

This particular edition has some new sources such as a lynch mob photograph from Indiana and an excerpt from Albert Parsons’ description of firsthand observations to the Haymarket Riot of 1886.  The lynch mob photograph should prove interesting as it gives me another contextual touchstone for an exercise conducted in class on lynching in general.  This exercise was adapted from the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America book and companion website by Jon Lewis.  The Parsons document is headed by an important question – “do you trust this account of the Haymarket affair?” (79)  Given Parsons’ involvement in the Knights of Labor movement in the years after the Civil War, a legitimate question about reliability should be considered by all readers.  While Parsons was a journalist, and had changed his opinion about a number of issues over time (serving on the Confederate side in the Civil War but becoming a Republican Party supporter and marrying a woman of mixed race after the conflict), his involvement in the labor movement gives his description of the event for which he was thrown in prison and ultimately executed a certain twist.  It’s a great opportunity to use the excerpt as a training device on reliability, historical source analysis, and examination of an issue which might not be studied at length by students in other situations.  Perhaps placed in connection with Martin Duberman’s work of historical fiction on Haymarket, this event could become a major interpretive moment in a class with a labor base.

America Firsthand is divided into seven parts or themes and while each of these might have been reorganized or included different types of documents, it works fairly well in dividing a course on post-Civil War United States history.  On the other hand, sometimes, there isn’t a direct relation between sources which instructors need to be cautious about (eg, points of view on the Battle of Little Bighorn followed by points of view on the African American experience in the “New South”).  Each part includes “for critical thinking” and closes with the aforementioned visual portfolios – one of my favorites in the new edition focuses on advertising that uses race in the interwar period of the twentieth century.  I’ll be interested to see how students respond to this portfolio given its obviously racist overtones.

As I make my final choices in organizing this course, I’ll need to carefully balance some of the readings in the ninth edition with some additional primary sources to enhance the opportunity for historical inquiry that the collection in America Firsthand promises.  Any collection of primary documents often challenges teachers with this task however, and it is one I enjoy pursuing.

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Sesquicentennial visitations

This week I am co-leading a group of teachers on a tour of Civil War battlefields at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I am also reading through a few books here and there including some texts I will be using in a summer course that begins the week of July 1. Yesterday was a special privilege as I was walking the grounds over which my great-great grandfather passed 150 years ago last month.

Readers of this blog will recall that in teaching the American Civil War to high school students, I would somewhat playfully emphasize the deaths of two important commanding officers at Chancellorsville – my students had heard of Stonewall Jackson for the most part. They had not heard of the former theater manager from Detroit who helped recruit company A of the 5th Michigan, and then rose to lead the regiment.

By April 1863, Sherlock had been wounded at least once, promoted to Major, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and become commander of the 5th Michigan for Daniel Sickles’ III Corps. Of course Jackson’s mortal wounding at Chancellorsville holds the balance of Confederate hopes more so – was the battlefield a great victory for the South or did the loss of over 20% of fighting effectives and Jackson harm the Army of Northern Virginia irreparably? Walking yesterday over the ground was enlightening and, for me, seen through different eyes than my last visit here in 1984.

Our park guide, Beth Parnicza, was excellent and helped us understand the flow and confusion of the battle, as well as making us think about it’s consequences (both immediate and long term). One can readily see that if you ever had the chance to take students to a battlefield, it can clearly make a deeper impression about the event.

We took only partial steps over what was a wide space, but walking at Catherine Furnace, Hazel Grove, and Fairview in particular was eye opening. The 5th Michigan was placed into 22 different positions during Chancellorsville and we covered only perhaps 5 of them yesterday. I was fortunate to also be traveling with a colleague whose great grandfather was also in the III Corps, was an officer in Berdan’s sharpshooters, and whose unit was often attached alongside that of Edward Sherlock’s. His letter describing the battlefield near Catherine Furnace and Fairview in particular is detailed and revealing – “The bullets began to whistle uncomfortably close but in a few minutes I got so excited I did not think of them” (George A. Marden, letter courtesy of Rob Wilson, but also in Special Collections at Dartmouth College).

In the heat of June, seeing scattered cicada shells about, I wondered about the temperature in May 1863, whether the whirr and buzz of insects and chirping of birds was the same then in the few quiet moments as what we experienced. When our guide stopped at Fairview and we cast our eyes back to the higher ground we had occupied at Hazel Grove I thought Sherlock was lucky to not have been killed on the orderly withdrawal from that hill. Of course, Sherlock was not so fortunate at Fairview, as a shrapnel burst took his life, leaving friend John Pulford in charge.

I stood at the lunettes near the cannon monuments at Fairview musing on that fact and wondering whether anything would have changed had the shrapnel clipped Sherlock’s arm rather than his chest. Hard to say obviously, but in the years after the war, the family, like so many across the United States must have struggled. In addition to losing a husband and father, Mary Sherlock and her children never received the body for the resolution of that “good death” of nineteenth century culture.

Making history personal for students is not always as possible as the example I offered above, but sometimes the space itself can speak to students. Chancellorsville can be made to speak as you walk the trails, marvel at the insanity of establishing lines in an open field of artillery fire, or pass through the confusion and disorientation of the woods north and east of the park visitor center. A site visit, combined with judicious readings from documents and letters, studying campaign maps, and examining photographs can all enrich a student’s understanding of the past.

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Crossing over…

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Students in my classrooms quickly learn that I enjoy working historical fiction and other non-traditional sources into my courses. There are any number of reasons for this strategy, but chief among them is to give students a different type of experience with history story-telling. Yes, some students get this type of story from watching history films, but my point is I would like students to get this type of narrative through reading.

Geraldine Brooks gives readers ample opportunity to explore story telling of the type that I believe can resonate with students of many ages. Not only is her narrative clear, but on several occasions, the visuals are so brilliantly crafted that you can “see” and sense the kind of colonial community she is attempting to bring to life. A fine example of this skill appears early in the text:

The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward….So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family before the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without (5).

There are some who might not enjoy certain stylistic choices made by Brooks. Written in first person narrative, Caleb’s Crossing also makes an attempt at capturing the rhythms and alternative word choices of 1600s era New England. Not unlike watching a film in which English is the language, but the dialect or accents is quite foreign at first, the words and patterns become steadily more familiar. Still, this style seems a big stilted in some sections.

The last is but a minor complaint however. I found the book equally effective for creating a picture of the time period portrayed as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and stronger than Caroline Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter, both of which I have used in the classroom. For younger students, some of Caleb’s Crossing
may explore themes that are difficult (eg, miscarriage, implied accusation of rape etc), yet the book’s value far outweighs any potential controversy.

Brooks provides the reader with a helpful afterward discussing the actual historical figures who inspired her writing, as well as commenting on a variety of sources and research. The inclusion of strong female and native characters are welcome as both Bethia and Caleb reflect more truly than most interpretations, the varieties of people extant in New England. We meet real historical figures along the way and indeed Caleb himself is based on a real person.

In addition to exploring the daily life of English settlers and native people, Caleb’s Crossing effectively reveals thoughts on the spiritual world of these “accidental” neighbors. Brooks lets readers better understand this particular past through descriptive narrative, creating characters we want to know more about, and by making language and words an important part of the story. Brooks clearly grasps that culture is embedded within language, and we can see that as Bethia and Caleb come to know each other and through the important use of Wampanoag words. It is a novel well worth reading, and should be considered a useful source to give students a readable and accurate portrayal of the time period.

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“Discovering” the poor?

Jacqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater, Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale, 2009.

This book is an interesting example of the oddness of this project – from time to time, I pick up a text that is either on the shelf or near one, and I can’t figure out its provenance.  So, it will sit for awhile in one place or another (The Blue Sweater has been in at least three places over the last 7 months) until such time as I investigate it.  Being away from my office today, picked it up from current location (just below two pieces of fiction, one of which I have read, the other I didn’t feel like reading) and started it on it this morning.

Ms. Novogratz worked as a banker for a few of years before working with UNICEF and the World Bank.  Eventually, she founded Acumen Fund, a venture capital outfit based on a concept entitled “patient capital.”  This concept has been described as a “bridge” of sorts between the traditional “efficiency and scale” of markets and philanthropic efforts.  Essentially, the idea is to invest in philanthropic efforts, hoping for an eventual return, over a long time run.  There will be, in other words, both a return on the investment (accountability) and a thoughtful sustainability to the philanthropy.  An example of this work in action is Water Health International which began as a relatively small investment opportunity for Acumen ($600,000) and has moved towards $30,000,000 in capital raised over the past nine years, all while providing access to safe drinking water (initially in rural India).  I noted that the company has developed a project in Ghana as well, with some help from Coca Cola.  This fact begs a question – given that water has an economic value, and soda uses a tremendous amount of water, is this an odd relationship?  I wonder, but I digress.

In the opening segments of the book, Novogratz expresses her firm belief that poverty can be eliminated, while also offering some thoughts on her own family’s experience as poor people and immigrants.  Novogratz suggests that people should truly be treated as equals in a connected world.  We are human beings and by providing opportunities and choices, we can provide each other with dignity in our lives.  She emphasizes that this is not her story per se (though much of the text is first person) but rather a collection of the stories from others, including monks, genocide survivors, young women, the elderly, etc (xi – xiv).  Also early in the text, Novogratz gives us the reason for her title, The Blue Sweater, in an intriguing and almost unbelievable story of globalism based on a childhood gift, donated to Goodwill, and found by her randomly on a young boy in Kigali, Rwanda some 11 years after she gave it away herself.

Some readers may not enjoy the memoir style quality of Novogratz’ narrative, but in terms of offering readers a personal touch, this tone and content can be effective.  It is particularly moving and arresting in any of the many sections in which she discusses Rwanda and the horrors that befell this nation in 1994.  It was in response to the Rwandan genocide that Novogratz “concentrated on understanding the potential of philanthropy to effect change in the world” (153).  She emphasized that this terrible violence visited upon Rwanda reminded her how accountability and interconnectedness were both important – given opportunities, people will believe in change and their ability to make improvements in their lives. 

The sheer volume of anecdotes and memories of her time before and after creating the Acumen Fund may overwhelm some readers as well, though again, some can be particularly instructive.  For example, Water Health International, I learned, provided water to people in 15-liter plastic containers which I found problematic.  Plastic, and its production, can have toxic consequences.  In this case however, the problem was when people would place the clean water into contaminated clay pitchers.  As I would have hoped, the response was not to eliminate the clay, which had cultural connections and importance, but rather improve education on how the clay containers needed to be sanitized prior to use (270).

Finally, I appreciate Novogratz’ important concluding statements about humanity in general.  We must develop empathy and imagination in order to support change and value in this world.  I emphasize empathy all the time with my teacher candidates – you cannot be an effective teacher if you don’t have some sense of empathy.  It’s not just my idea of course as business leaders, Novogratz herself, and economists/speech writers like Daniel Pink believe in this value too.  Novogratz talked about the “other” in poverty and how it is easy for people to avoid or ostracize the “other.”  In the classroom, we strive to avoid this, though it is easier – we do this in our personal relationships too.  But, points out Novogratz, to give of ourselves without expecting a return, to interact with others looking at each person as an opportunity rather than an affirmation of fearing the “other,” is a difficult task and one that must be embraced.  Ultimately, argues Novogratz, “we are redefining the geography of community and accepting shared shared accountability for common human values” (284).  Perhaps her optimism will not work well for all readers, but I can’t say that I dislike her hope that if we can act with empathy and concern for others, we can see a world where truly, people are created equal.

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Why the South lost

Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, Still, Jr. Why the South Lost the Civil War, second discussion

As I pointed out yesterday, the will of Southerners was vital  in supporting the Confederate war effort.  The authors argue that military power’s decline, directly impacted civilian will.  Further, doubts were extended as Southerners wondered about whether religion could shore up the Confederacy.  Yet, the South continued the struggle, partially because the North was also tiring of war.  So the question remained – how did the authors explore the issue of will and why, after the winter of 1863-1864, did the South fight on at all? (292,293)

By that winter season, it was clear that the attempts at offensive thrusts from the Confederacy were completed.  The authors suggest that one reason the South lost was because the Confederacy did not fight with soldiers and civilians and they did not successfully get the citizens to actively continue believing in the war effort.  I’m not quite convinced as the authors are that the use of military answers to military problems was a bad solution – I’m not an expert, but if you have military problems, how else do you solve them?

Here, the authors explore the final campaigns, proposals to free the slaves if they served in the Confederate armed forces, issues, again, of popular morale dipping, the fact that Southerners began to revisit why they fought the war in the first place, and, as always throughout the text, the place of God in the outcome (299-417).  By the time William Sherman had taken Savannah, it was clear to many Southerners that their defeat was inevitable.  If God would not support the Southern cause, then Southerners could use their faith as a “bridge to the acceptance of defeat” (353).  Also in this section is an interesting (though perhaps not completely convincing) discussion of slaveholder guilt – the idea that Southerners knew that emancipation must be the answer.  As with other sections of the text, the authors are presenting synthesis, so we learn quite a bit about alternative opinions on this issue of “slave guilt.”

In their epilogue, the authors present the case that the Confederacy could have been successful as an entity at least until the fall and winter of 1864.  This section asserts that had the Confederacy seen a collapse of the home front in the North, independence for the South could have been possible.  Finally, they conclude, as author historians have done, that a lack of a strong nationalism across the Confederacy could not maintain efforts, waiting for the Northern civilians and politicians to end the war.  This same weakness would not push extreme measures like guerilla warfare beyond the logical conclusion of a rationale “hope to win.”  Ultimately, the South lost the war militarily but didn’t “lose themselves.”  Southerners were able to hold onto independence in a different manner by claiming “they had fought successfully for state rights, white supremacy, and honor” (422).  While the entire book repeats a few points here and there, overall it explores a number of issues very clearly.  One of the most interesting points that is offered in the last half of the text is the point I expressed earlier – independence was found after the war, more so than during its prosecution.  When we examine this history – the reconstruction era South, the era of the “New South,” the Civil Rights period in the 20th century – all of these eras and themes have to face that question of a united South, a South trying to salvage elements of control after a failed revolution for independence.

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