Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Finding Ourselves in History

To the old aphorism “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” I would like to add: “…and neither does anybody else.” None of our best historians understand all of history. They specialize. They study what happened in a particular time and place. They try to be objective in a Jack Webb-style: “Just the facts, Ma’am,” but that can make for dull reading. So they adopt the writing style of a storyteller. They humanize the main characters, illuminating both virtues and flaws. They make judgements. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t sell many books. If they’re also teachers, and many are, their students would fall asleep.

Like the late star of Dragnet, historians are trying to solve a mystery, but unlike him they’re not going to arrest a perpetrator. They may, however, tarnish a reputation here and burnish one there. Such may be their intent when beginning their research. The best historians try hard to be unbiased, but they know they’re human and will always fall short of perfect impartiality. Others only offer a pretense of impartiality.

Bias or fact?

Another human factor that may work to distort history I will call peer pressure. When historian colleagues all tend to interpret the events of a particular time and place in a particular way, there’s a strong tendency to go along. One might dare to offer a slightly different shade of meaning but to go further would risk being shunned or even attacked.

When I taught history I’d do what many teachers do and parse the word, suggesting it can mean: “his story.” as if there may be other stories offering different perspectives on the same events.  Feminists like to parse the word too, but emphasizing the “his” part as biased in favor of men, and that students might want to think of it as “herstory” as well.

Never was I taught history as a separate subject until fourth grade when Sister Charles Paul passed out the first history books at St. William’s School in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. By the end of September I’d read all of it and longed for more, but no more came along. I don’t remember getting any more history texts until I went to high school and had Western Civilization I and II. Then it was US History in junior year and that was it until college. Never did I sense a love of history in my teachers though. Many high schools gave US History classes to football coaches who had little or no interest in them.

After my risk of getting drafted declined in 1971 I dropped out of college, then went back in ’73 after deciding to become a teacher. For that I needed degrees and took a few more uninspiring history courses, so my interest in history had to be sated by my own research. After being horrified watching the Adolph Eichmann trial with my father in 1961, I learned all I could about the Holocaust. Then the Vietnam War affected everyone in my demographic as my best friend and others I grew up were sent there. Some died and all were profoundly changed, so I learned all I could about that as well. Thus did those two phases of history became my own specialities. 


When students came to me with little or no historical perspective or interest, I devised methods to help them to fix themselves in time. Digital imagery became available in the ’90s, so I encouraged students to bring in pictures of their ancestors to be scanned. Then they digitally constructed  horizontal timelines of the 20th century with pictures of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents across the top above the years corresponding to their lifespans. Across the bottom they put images of major world events occurring during those lifepans. Just as Vietnam had dominated my generation, World War II and the Great Depression affected the lives of their grandparents and/or great-grandparents. World War I affected their great-great-grandparents, and so forth. They could also import pictures of presidents who served during those lifespans. 

Ellis Island

After that exercise, study of relevant historical occurrences became personalized. My hope was they would gain a deeper understanding of how world and national events can have enormous effects on the lives of ordinary people. Many students were thus motivated to question surviving ancestors about those events. Thus they’d fix family members in time and gain a deeper understanding of where they fit in too.

Last week’s column concerned fixing students in space by learning geography. My hope was they would leave my class having merged the two skills. They would be able to visualize where their ancestors came from, know when they came here, and even why. They’d be motivated to research further back in time as well as further away in space, and then realize how they came to be here — living and speaking English in rural Maine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Organizing Knowledge

Most students came to me unable to fix themselves in space or in time. They had little idea of what the world looked like beyond their neighborhood and their school. They could not point to Maine on a world map, or to their town on a map of Maine. Neither did they have much idea of world and national events during the lives of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors which shaped their families and the culture into which they’d been born.

It took me a while to realize what an impediment those deficits were. I had a curriculum to deliver and try as I might, results of my labors were sporadic at best. Information I delivered went in one ear and out the other because there was no context, no net, no web in students’ minds onto which it might attach. Some did have those contexts. They comprehended everything and progressed. Most, however, did not.

My first target was geographic ignorance, so I passed out maps of the world with no labels anywhere. Depicted were continents and the blue water surrounding them. On the continents were tannish mountain ranges and blue rivers. That’s all. Next I passed out a list of names — continents, mountains, rivers, seas, bays, gulfs, straits, channels, deserts, isthmuses — about one hundred fifty of the earth’s most important physical features. Their task was to find them and label them the same way cartographers did on the atlases in the back of their textbooks. They had to find and label each, then print the name on a horizontal plane except when labeling rivers and mountain ranges. Most of them gasped.

“Get to it,” I said. “You’ll be tested the end of next week. I’ll pass out the same blank map and a list of fifty places randomly selected from that one hundred fifty that you must label correctly without looking at your atlas.

“Which ones will be on the test?” they asked.

“I’m not telling. You’ll see when I pass it out.” We drilled in class for about ten days and played various map games. Ultimately most did fairly well on the test. Those who didn’t were allowed to take it again until they did. They had begun building a physical context — a net between their ears. To their surprise, they actually enjoyed it.

Then came a respite, after which came another blank world map with another list of one hundred fifty countries and major cities. They had to label each and outline political borders between countries (which were already lightly drawn), and locate cities with a dot. Then came more drill, more games, and another test. Again, most did fairly well.

The goal was for each student to be able to conjure up the world map in their mind’s eye whenever they heard one of the three hundred places mentioned — then see exactly where in the world it was. Standing before a pull-down world map they would need less than five seconds to point to it. For the rest of their lives, whenever they heard something about one of those places, there was a framework in their minds to which it might stick before it went out the other ear. It was a way to begin organizing knowledge.

After that we’d take another break from map drills, but only for a month or so. Then I’d pass out a blank map of the United States and another list of one hundred fifty place names — and they’d do the same drills. Then came another blank USA map and they were tasked with finding all fifty states, all fifty capitals, and dozens of other major cities. After appropriate intervals would come blank maps of Europe and the Middle East. For the last several years of my career, I was determined that no student would leave my class geographically ignorant. Some did anyway, but not many.

Every day we’re bombarded with information from electronic media in our pockets, in our living rooms, in the car. Most of it doesn’t stick in our minds because far too many Americans are like my students were. They cannot fix themselves in space or time. For them there’s only here and now. Ask them when the Civil War was fought and they cannot answer. World War I? Forget it. Even World War II is hazy in America’s collective mind. When they hear of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), can they point to either Iraq or Syria? I doubt it. North Korea? Iran? Probably not. 

All during my thirty-six-year teaching career, America’s access to information increased manyfold while our ability to retain and make sense that information went in the other direction. Worse, it appears that decline is accelerating. Why? There’s no construct, no context in which to arrange global information so it can even be understood, much less acted upon.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tommy The Commie

The principal knocked lightly on my door in the middle of a class. When I looked up, he opened it a crack and said, “The superintendent wants see us in his office right after this period.”

It was 1985. I was teaching US History and current events at the old Snow School in Fryeburg, Maine. The superintendent’s office was a short drive down Portland Street near the traffic lights which weren’t there yet. On the way, he told me it was a parent complaint. As we walked through the door, the secretary pointed to the superintendent’s office saying, “Go right in.” 

“Mr. Smith (not his real name) was in here, angry,” he said after we both sat down in front of his desk. “His daughter is in your class, right?”


“He told me you said President Reagan is either a liar of a fool — and he’s pissed. Did you say that?”

“I did, yes.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Well, Reagan said he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, but his administration traded weapons for hostages with Iran,” I answered. 

“He said he didn’t know anything about it, but it was happening right under his nose. I can come to only two possible conclusions: either he knew about it and he’s lying, or he should have known about it but didn’t — and that would make him a fool.”

“That’s your opinion?”


“Did you say it was your opinion?”

“I did.”

“I told Mr. Smith he should talk to you about it directly, and come back to me if you two can’t resolve it.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Here’s his number. Give him a call and let me know how you make out.”

“Mr. Smith” was a retired Marine and a large person, bigger than me at least. We sat down and I thanked him for coming in. He squared his shoulders and let me know that he didn’t like my criticism of President Reagan and why. I told him same thing I said to the superintendent. After a prolonged stare, he accepted it as he might accept that a bird had crapped on his windshield. 

It wasn’t the first time I had annoyed a conservative parent. Another complaint came from a local attorney who also had a daughter in my class and had been elected to the school board. He objected to how I portrayed President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. After covering what happened down there I had told students I agreed with those whose opinion it was that Reagan was trying to distract America’s attention from his disastrous deployment of American troops at the Beirut Airport. More than 200 US Marines had died in a truck bombing there less than a week before the Grenada invasion. We met and discussed particulars of where we disagreed about what motivated the Grenada invasion. Then he suggested that I needed to offer alternative viewpoints when I presented liberal interpretations to students.

That seemed reasonable, so I invited him into class to offer one, and a week or so later he did. He took most of a day in all four of my history classes explaining why Granada was important to shipping lanes leading into the Panama Canal. If the island were led by a communist government, American shipping could be threatened as well as US control of the canal itself. Then we both answered questions from students.

Later in the 1980s sometime I found myself sitting at a lunch counter next to a local heating contractor and oil dealer who also had a daughter in my class. After listening to her describe some of our classroom discussions at their dinner table, he concluded that I taught with a liberal bias. “People call you ‘Tommy the Commie,’” he said with a chuckle. “I’d appreciate it if you could offer the other side once in a while.” I thanked him for his feedback and promised I would try to do so.

Reactions from other conservatives in the community were similar. When they didn’t like the way I was teaching, they confronted me face-to-face with specific objections. We’d discuss issues rationally and with civility. If other conservatives complained about me behind my back, I never heard about it. By the early nineties, after I’d become conservative myself and my column was appearing regularly in local newspapers, many, many more complaints came from parents and other members of the community on the left.

I lost count of those, but I can recall only two that had names attached, and only one liberal parent ever sat down to talk with me. Typically I would hear from the principal that parents objected to a column or a lesson. When I asked who I’d be told they wanted to remain anonymous.

So do most of the leftists who comment on my blog. Come to think of it, so do the leftist thugs in Antifa.

There’s a definite pattern here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

White Supremacists Under The Bed

“That’s so bourg,” said one of the Saul Alinsky community organizers I was working with forty-five years ago in Massachusetts. Though I didn’t know what "bourg" meant, I got that it was a pejorative. “Bourg” meant “bad.” Only later did I ask the full meaning. It was short for “bourgeois,” she said, as if that explained everything. I still didn’t understand but the word sounded familiar and I knew its spelling so I looked it up. Bourgeois meant “middle class,” but I was still perplexed. I saw myself as middle class and still do. What was so bad about middle class? 
Amy Wax University of Pennsylvania Law School

Well, just about everything, I guess. At the ultra-progressive, ivy-league University of Pennsylvania, a law professor named Amy Wax is being vilified as “racist” and “bigoted” by students, faculty, and alumni for daring to write that bourgeois values exemplified in 1950s America are superior to those prized in today’s progressive America. She asserted in a Philadelphia Inquirer  op-ed that in the 1950s people believed you should:

“Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

The last straw came when Wax dared criticize mores in sacrosanct sub-cultures:

“the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; [and] the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.” Wax asserted those were, “destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans.”

UPenn took all that as a declaration of war and several scorching columns appeared in UPenn’s daily newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. One, signed by fifty-four faculty and doctoral students declared that Wax’s bourgeois culture:

“stem[s] from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today,” and “These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice, and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities, and immigrants in particular.”

Forty-five years ago bourgeois culture was still acceptable but today it’s anathema to the progressive left which rules media and academia. Above her original op-ed, Wax included a picture of actor John Wayne from Director John Ford’s 1956 film: The Searchers, the film was depicted as reinforcing bourgeois culture and further enflaming the UPenn establishment.

Other symbols of the bourgeois 1950s like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” are often derided by progressives. Must we now regard Jim Anderson and Ward Cleaver as hetero-patriarchal white-supremacists? Were baby boomer minds corrupted by their propaganda? Do we need reeducation and sensitivity training? To remedy this, perhaps there could be another remake of “Leave It To Beaver” in which Lumpy Rutherford marries Eddie Haskell. Maybe Whitey Whitney can renounce his white male privilege and transition into a woman. Maybe June Cleaver can organize a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood.

NBC’s Chuck Todd invited Dartmouth’s Chris Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook onto the August 20th “Meet The Press.” Bray argued for Antifa's use of violence in opposition to fascist white-supremacists. Arguing against was Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Then Dartmouth President Phil Scanlon denounced Bray’s remarks, only to be himself condemned by 100 active Dartmouth faculty. Sounds a lot like UPenn's antics.

Thus is political polarization exacerbated. Antifa uses violence not only against real white supremacists, but imagined ones as well. The Marxist left, which seems now to control of the Democrat Party, sees anyone who opposes it as white supremacist. So when Antifa beats up Trump supporters, capitalists, readers of Ann Coulter’s columns, and anyone it considers conservative, leftist Democrats either cheer them or keep silent, recent remarks by Nancy Pelosi notwithstanding.

Perhaps observing how Maine’s rural 2nd District where I live went for Trump in 2016, former Trump campaigner staffer Mark Braynard is bringing his “Look Ahead America” organization to New Hampshire. Interviewed on WMUR-TV, Braynard said he identified 15,000 to 100,000 disaffected rural voters he’ll try to register. In response, NH Democrat Party Chairman Ray Buckley called these disaffected citizens “white supremacists.

Who knew there were so many white supremacists in NH? Might these disaffected citizens also consider themselves middle class? Bourgeois? Whereas the late Senator Joseph McCarthy saw communists under his bed and everywhere else in the 1950s, it appears today’s Democrats are seeing white supremacists everywhere now.