Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Turbulent Times?

The times we’re living in are fertile ground for what I do, which is teaching US History since 1901. We’re in the end stage of a presidential election that has riveted most people’s attention, no matter what their political orientation. We’re engaged in a war with people who wish to impose their religion on the entire world and are willing to die in the process. Then, in the midst of all this, we’re faced with a financial crisis almost nobody understands, but is being called the worst since the Great Depression. About 125 different students started filing in and out of my classroom in early September and I’ve been trying to help them understand it all.

Few of us learn history chronologically. Rather, it’s a little here, a little there, and gradually we develop a working hypothesis to understand the dynamics, the cause-and-effect, of those events with which we become familiar. Then something comes along that doesn’t fit and we have to adjust that hypothesis to accommodate it. I’m charged with teaching 20th century US History, weaving in economics, geography, civics, and current events. I can’t teach everything that happened since January 1, 1901 when the 20th century began, so I have to leave out some things and emphasize other things. The choices I make, no matter what they are, will please some and annoy others. This year, I’ve largely abandoned chronology and taken things as they come. I’ve been comparing this presidential election with the 1932 election, for instance. There are many parallels and many differences - and both are helpful.

One parallel is panic. Fear that stock prices would collapse in 1929 and the panic-selling which resulted helped cause the collapse. So began the Great Depression. Then, as Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, fear that banks would collapse caused people to withdraw their deposits - and that caused banks to fail. When teaching these events, I’ve found it helpful to call up from students what they already know. I ask them to tell me the “Chicken Little” story most of them have been told about the stupid chicken who gets hit on the head by a falling acorn and goes running to tell the king that the sky is falling. Panic spreads as he’s joined by Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey and the rest. Their birdbrained fear is soon exploited by Foxy Loxy and they come to sad end in his lair. The lesson, of course, is that their fear brought about their demise. Then I tell students that they already know part of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, but they don’t know they know it. When I tell them that, they give me funny looks. Then I say, “There’s nothing to fear but . . .” and gesture for them to finish the sentence, which they do, saying: “fear itself.” Thus they put into context what they already know. Another piece of the incomplete puzzle that represents their understanding of their world goes into place. Their working hypothesis becomes a little clearer.

One difference between the elections of 1932 and 2008 is that things are not nearly as bad today as they were then. The unemployment rate in 1932 was approaching 25% - one out of four people were out of work. Today it’s only around 6%. Also, there were no supports in place for those laid off - no unemployment insurance, no housing or heating assistance, no welfare other than what a municipality or private charity offered. Also, people here in northern New England tended to live on small, subsistence farms, so they were able to provide their own basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, heat, etc. When I’ve sent former students out into the community at the end of each year to interview the elderly, they ask how the Great Depression affected our now-senior citizens. The most common answer goes something like this: “Well, we weren’t poor. We just didn’t have any money.”

That’s not true now. Most of us don’t live on subsistence farms anymore. If there should be another Great Depression as some fear, we’ll have to find other ways to cope.

People sense turbulence ahead and have elected a new president who promises “Change we can believe in.” He’s pretty vague, however, about what that change will be or how he’ll bring it about. His vice president-elect warns us that the new guy will be tested by hostile foreign elements very soon after taking office. He, too, was vague in his remarks, but he indicated that the American people might not be happy about the way the new president responds to this test. Roosevelt had eight years in office before he was tested by hostile foreign elements. It’ll come much sooner for President Obama if we can believe his VP. We know he can give a good speech, but will that be enough to pass the test? We’ll see, I guess.

There’s a Chinese proverb which says: “I’d rather be a dog in peaceful times than live as a man in turbulent times.”


Anonymous said...

Well done; gives me food for thought for teaching my class.

Annie (a.k.a. HannahsMonarchs)

Anonymous said...

You're still a moron.

Joel Stetkis said...

Nice to see proof that there are still teachers with a purpose and not only there for the paycheck and benies.

Anonymous said...

As usual a good column.

One comment however.
Some people believe that our most recent example of the "going it alone" attitude; Iraq; was instrumental in causing or at least exacerbating the current economic crisis.
It is certainly true that the billions spent in waging the war largely by ourselves, has placed us in a very precurious financial position.

I believe that the genius of Obama is that he understands the implications of this and will try to conduct the countries' affairs with it in mind.


Anonymous said...


You wrote: "People sense turbulence ahead and have elected a new president who promises “Change we can believe in.” He’s pretty vague, however, about what that change will be or how he’ll bring it about."

I just watched a half hour interview on CSPAN with Rahm Emanuel from back in April of 2006 (prior to Dems gaining so many seats)... He was explaining his book, "The Plan: Big Ideas for America" ( and in it is the EXACT platform that Obama ran on! Can't believe this wasn't brought up sooner, but with today's announcement of Rahm becoming the Chief of Staff, it's clear that Rahm was coming on board.

I will say this, there are some very interesting ideas - there's a definate goal of letting government take on more of American society's decision making and, thus, controlling our money further. But it does seem to come from an altruistc POV. One other thing I'll say is that Rahm does, at least in this interview, recognize that bipartisanship (Republicans) are crucial to creating the debate that will help his reforms (and those of others in the future) be molded into something successful.

I think it's clear, though, that Obama was a vessel for Rahm's (a former banker) attempt to gain greater power to enact his "Plan," which includes a step towards global health care (his father was a pediatrician). Maybe you can give it a read and let me know your thoughts? I'm going to go out and get it, as it's clear that it's the blueprint for the next four years of my life.

PS: It explains what Obama was talking about with the National Service Plan.

Anonymous said...

Of course, with a little time to research, I can also see that Rahm has a decidedly partisan attitude:

Guess it only makes sense that Obama, who panders to whatever audience he addresses, would choose someone who also purports himself as fair.

Vanessa said...

Tom, The turblent times I see for the USA are going to first come with the Shriah Law instated in our Treasury. The Muslims will control the US's money. Now we will no longer have control. We will have follow their rules.

Tom McLaughlin said...

g deihl:
I checked out the links. Emanuel is definitely a partisan. He'll work with you if you want to go along with him, but he's a true believer and an all-ahead-full kind of guy.

During the Clinton Administration, I remember him being ruthless about protecting his boss from impeachment charges. He wouldn't give an inch.

Looks like he got his hands dirty in the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapse as well.

Nothing we can do about Tuesday except make the best of it for the next four years. Meanwhile we can re-group and go back to conservative roots.

Anonymous said...

Y0ur title, "TURBULENT TIMES?" is right on target Tom, except for the question mark.
The majority rules in America. (Most of the time)
That decision has caused me to search the internet for real estate in Ireland.

Bob Sharkey, Lamoine

Ps. I will second Joel Stetkis's comments.