Thursday, July 26, 2012

Penn State Scandal and Student Athletes

We teach about schools, teaching, and education. Whether discussing the New England Primer, the rise of public schools, school segregation litigation in Boston, the rise of colleges, Brown v. the Board of Education, prayer in school, or school shootings like the Kent State massacre, our history classes bring us to the realm of education.

And, we teach actual students who live out actual problems. Penn State has had and is having one of those moments. The Sandusky/Paterno scandal may get into some books, although probably not textbooks. But when I read the response of some football players and their vow to stick together, my heart went out to them (my heart just cries for the assaulted of the past and present). The student-athletes have been brought into the media whirlwind that they did not make. They were boys too not long ago (and perhaps some of them experienced or feared sexual mistreatment at one time or another). Some responses, like, this one seem to indicate an anger that they do not know where to place: "This program was not built by one man and this program sure as hell is not going to get torn down by one man."

My hope is that PSU has mobilized health care professionals, therapist, and others to be available to these young men. I hope their parents and professors, friends and families, will reach out to them to see that what is at stake is much bigger than the gridiron or the NFL. Some of these young men may be fathers themselves now or one day; they may be uncles and cousins; they already are sons and grandsons. All involved need help right now ... the kind of help historians can point out are necessary. Let's not forget what children went through during the Civil Rights crusades and how traumatic it was for them to bear the burdens of generations of exploitation. Carolyn McKinstry was a young woman at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when white terrorists killed four little girls there. Her later battle with alcohol seems, in part, an example of survivors' guilt.

Monday, July 23, 2012

the first years of our time: the sixties or the seventies?

I'm pretty sympathetic with Bruce Shulman's argument from The Seventies, that if we really want to locate the origins of our own current times, we could hardly do better than look at the transitions, left and right, that took place in what I call in my lecture on the subject "the most embarrassing decade."

But for a book I'm now writing I've been thinking a lot about liberty, and had something of a Katie Lofton/Oprah Winfrey "a ha! moment."  Then I saw my idea written up in the New York Times by someone else.

The op-ed piece, called the Downside of Liberty, was by Kurt Anderson.  In short, it argues: "What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won."

He got a lot of flack for that "selfishness" comment, and with good reason too, as he later admitted.  It's hard to think of the civil rights movement as selfish, for instance.

But the force of the argument brings us back to the 1960s again, seeing them, contra Shulman, as "the first years of our time," to use the subtitle of Henry F. May's great The End of American Innocence (which is about the 1910s, the first years of May's time--the book written in 1959).  No matter who you look at in the 1960s was advocating a kind of libertarian notion liberty.  Advocates for social justice wanted individual creativity to thrive.  Advocates for economic transformations wanted the preservation of individual entrepreneurs. 

At root, what changed was language.  The idea of sacrificing for the common good took a hit for the argument that no one should impinge on my liberty.  For better and for worse, it has been the dominant rhetoric in American political discourse ever since.

As teachers, is it useful to think about "the first years of our time" as a teaching too?  And if so, what gets the nod?  The traditional champion: the sixties?  The contender: the seventies?  Has Wilentz convinced anyone that it should be The Age of Reagan?  Or is this all pedagogic conceit?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Paperless Textbook Option

Following up on Ed's recent post about balancing a book's beauty with its gee-whiz visual aesthetics, I wanted to continue the conversation about survey textbooks and formats. I've also been thinking about Gail Collins' article that appeared in the NY Review of Books (which I finally got around to reading using Pocket last week) about how Texas's odd textbook politics affect the whole nation, and about the quirks of the US survey textbook market. In my historical methods class I've often used this clip to illustrate this for my students (from PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, April 2010).

On our campus, every professor makes her or his own decision about what book to use. We don't adopt survey textbooks department-wide. Of course there are very good arguments for and against departmental adoption; that's not really what this post is about (although I'd love to hear from people who have managed to reach departmental consensus on a survey text and why). But in the absence of being told what book to teach from, how does one go about choosing from the dizzying array of possibilities?

Monday, July 16, 2012

TV as first draft of history

I've been watching The Newsroom during its first three weeks of life and, much as many felt The West Wing was Aaron Sorkin's tonic during the George W. Bush years, The Newsroom is his tonic for today's news-as-rating's-driven-entertainment culture.  Why report on important things like the economy when stories about Snooki's most recent nip slip sell better?  I feel like the American public, me included, is like the dog in the Pixar movie Up!, constantly sidetracked by a non-existent squirrel.

For historians, one interesting decision Sorkin made when he wrote the show was to back-date it by two years.  Thus, whenever there is a moment of high tension between characters, all of a sudden Gabrielle Giffords gets shot in the head and the characters return to business--and learn to like and respect one another again.  Or the Deep Water Horizon blows up.  Or something from the recent American past invades the narrative and we end up with a history lesson about the recent American past.

It's an interesting technique, and a bit jarring.  It's also in true Sorkin-style a bit much.  On the one hand, why do all these important events happen at the exact moment one character is about to reveal why she cheated on him?  Come on!  What timing!  On the other hand, Sorkin tries in his typically didactic way to show us how the news media should have reported on these signal events, and therefore how we should view them today.

In a way, Sorkin's news in The Newsroom really is a first draft of history.  Not only reporting the events as they happen, but also showing a bit of perspective that only emerges with time.  When CNN misreported that Giffords had died in the shooting, for example, the team at The Newsroom decides to wait for a second source, and turns out--tada!--to not have misreported the tragedy.  When the anchorman, a crusty bachelor and registered Republican played a bit meanly by Jeff Daniels, goes after the Tea Party for losing its grassroots anchor to the Koch Brothers agenda (and money), he's making an argument about how we should interpret the development of the organization.

From a teacher's perspective, this is what we try to do.  We try to explain an event from the past, not only by telling the details of the event, but by understanding motives and outcomes, both expected and unexpected.  Then we try to fit that event in the larger narrative of the past.  If only we were as slick (and rich) as Aaron Sorkin.

What do you think?  Sorkin's a lefty, no doubt.  But he's making an argument that being a lefty today has become siding with the truth.  A bit much?  How much will he color our understanding of the recent past?  Is TV the first draft of history?  If so, how can we compete?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Empires by Comparison - New "Widget"

Since we're famous here at TUSH.0 ... we get contacted all the time. Some want to sell their products online; others hope we'll mention their book. And then sometimes we get neat new resource information that could perhaps help us teach better. Here is one from They collect, collate, and display various information about ... well, just about anything. Here is one example on the comparative sizes of empires. If you know of any other resources that can help us organize and show data, please let us know.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More Reasons to Hate Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

The Whitewashing of Civil War America

There are so many more reasons to feel sick about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter - both the film and the novel. The take home message to me (and again, I have yet to see the movie) is that it presents American history in such a way that whites have character and characters; whites are the movers and shakers for and against freedom; whites initiate historical change and blacks react to it. And, this overview view isn't just in the novels and the movies. Take a closer look at Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering or George Rable's God's Almost Chosen People (two books and authors I admire significantly). But both of them build their analysis upon the sandy ground that 19th-century whites rule the roost and should dominate historical interpretations.

But back to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Here are some more comments in the forms of questions.

  • Why do we care about historical authenticity about what Jesus looks like (Mel Gibson had 300 images digitally changed in The Passion of the Christ to alter Jim Caviezel's eyes), but not about Harriet Tubman? (and we know what she looked like!)
  • Why do people care more about Rue's race (in Hunger Games) than Tubman's appearance?
  • How can a novel use an image taken from Nat Turner's rebellion (1831) and present it as happening AFTER the emancipation proclamation (claiming that African Americans rose up following Lincoln's degree... rather than African American resistance making the Emancipation Proclamation necessary)?  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why I'm Mad at Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter failed at the box office. I haven't seen the movie (I'll rent it for $1.31, unless redbox's prices jump again), but I did read the novel. In part, I grabbed it because a group of junior high and high school teachers told me their students were reading it. I enjoyed Wicked, The Hunger Games, and the Dan Brown novels so I thought - why not. ALVH is not an awful read; it takes one through the first sixty years of the 19th century ok. And we meet many of the main characters from the age.

So why, as a historian, did I feel mad at the end of it? Because it could have been better fiction if Seth Grahame-Smith had spent less time googling and wikipedia-ing (two sources  he thanks in his acknowledgments) and more time talking to an actual historian. If he did, he would have had more to add to his fun. Such as:

  1. Jefferson Davis attended Transylvania University in Kentucky. Why not have him meet vampires there???
  2. Political cartoons from the era had vampiric characters (so SGS would not have had to use the ridiculously photo-shopped images he used).
  3. He might have found a way to include an African American character (maybe Harriet Tubman) as a vampire hunter too. This would have offered at least one black character with an actual ... character.
Harper's Weekly, 1862
[for those who don't know, feel free to follow me on twitter: @edwardjblum

Sunday, July 8, 2012

We're Number 47!!!

Today we celebrate. TUSH.0 has been named the 47th best blog ever created. Hooray for us!!! (and by ever created, I mean on US history and by some online college blog we don't know much about)

Monday, July 2, 2012

My day at the Newberry

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Newberry Library last week.

It was part of their NEH-sponsored program "Out of Many" program, which brought to the Newberry a collection of really fantastic community college teachers from across the nation who were looking to incorporate religion into their American survey or their curriculum more broadly.  They got a great lecture and symposium by Martin Marty (with bow tie), a seminar with Tisa Wenger, and one with Aziz Huq.  Then they got me.  It helps to have friends at the Newberry.

In my 3 hours, we discussed the history of the idea that America was/is a Christian nation, from the "city upon a hill" to the latest data from Robert Putnam an David Campbell's American Grace.  Throughout the endeavor we kept coming back to one idea: that many of those who advocated on behalf of the idea of a Christian nation were not simply bigots trying to put other people down (although there has been a good bit of that, as David Sehat taught us in his award-winning The Myth of American Religious Freedom).  But there was also the important notion that these people in the past were putting forward ideas that they thought would save America, and that still today we hold in high reverence.  Those people who hated Catholics in the 19th century?  They almost always hated slavery too.  Those Puritans who castigated Anne Hutchinson?  They brought things like education and literacy with them.  No one, thankfully, dropped the H-bomb (Harvard).

I'm prompted to wonder what, if anything, today's Christian nation folks are bringing that will be looked back upon and widely applauded.  But more on the topic of teaching the survey, it reminded me that it is our duty as explicators of the past to be fair to all actors, to try to understand their motives as well as their actions.

Indeed, I was giving a lecture today on the Progressives and it occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned the hierarchy of races that they believed in, the development of segregation of Washington, D.C. that Wilson ushered in during his "progressive" presidency, or the widespread belief in and practice of eugenics--and all in the name of Progressivism!

As these great teachers at the Newberry reminded me, to be good historians and teachers we've got to be fair to our subjects, and I'm not talking about our students.  We've got to understand that all their motives have a source that was usually rational to them, and done in the name of some form of goodness.  If we fail to explain that, we're doing a disservice to our students, and to the past.