Trouble for David Eicher or Sympathy For James McPherson

[Hat-Tip to Fred Ray at ACW Gaming and Reading]

Looks like David Eicher is being accused by William Frassanito of sloppy research and unethical research practices in his 2001 Gettysburg pictorial study.  The Amazon reviews are anything but encouraging.  Frassanito himself has cited numerous examples of photographs that were misidentified or taken from his own well-regarded pictorial before and after studies of Civil War battlefields.  From Frassanito’s lengthy critique:

Although quality-control issues likewise abound in Mr. Eicher’s book, such as
the presence of a surprising number of blurry historical photos and the
reproduction of numerous photos in an almost postage-stamp-sized format, etc.,
etc., it is the manner in which his historical photo presentation was put
together that should be of alarming concern to all serious students of the Civil
War. Certainly the unacknowledged, systematic, and wholesale duplication of
someone else’s original work, and the portrayal of that work as if original to
the duplicator; the clandestine acquisition of photographs from copyrighted
publications; and the deceptive manipulation of photo credits, are all
disreputable practices that should be condemned.

James McPherson, who wrote the Foreward to Eicher’s book has decided to disassociate himself from the project. 

Eicher’s reproduction of photographs from William Frassanito’s books and about the accuracy of some of the maps and captions in Eicher’s book to convince me that my praise of the book in the Foreward is not entirely merited.

McPherson goes on to urge the publisher to remove his name from any additional printings that may be planned for publication in the future.  While I have a great deal of respect for McPherson’s scholarship I do find it difficult to sympathize with him here.  McPherson’s endorsements appear on way too many books to believe that he has actually spent sufficient time reviewing for quality control.  Perhaps this will cause McPherson to be a bit more conservative with the number of projects that he publicly endorses. 

 

Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free: An Analysis

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The National Park Service recently released a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, which focuses on the experiences of both black and white Virginians in the Fredericksburg area during the Civil War.  The production is another example of the NPS’s efforts to broaden their interpretation of Civil War battlefields to acknowledge the importance of the civilian perspective as well as the role of emancipation and race.  I invited historian John Hennessy who is currently employed as the Chief of Interpretation for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the script’s author to share his thoughts about the movie.  Mr. Hennessy was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie for review.  Feedback is of course welcome, especially from those who have seen the movie. 

John Hennessy

Dominantly, we did the civilian film because the story is important.  The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it is, I believe, the single most important thematic link between all Civil War sites.  Every site has something to say and stories to tell about that transformation.  Fredericksburg has more to tell than most.  With four battles spanning 18 months; with a town bombarded and looted; with civilians fleeing as refugees into he countryside; with thousands of slaves refusing to await emancipation, and instead seizing freedom themselves; with a landscape desolated not just by battle, but by the mere presence of armies; with changing Union attitudes toward the concept of a Hard War; with a local economy that suffered wartime damage enough to require nearly a century to recover; with the loss of life that vividly reflects the immense human cost of this war; with leaders struggling to adapt to a changing war, and to reckon with the political implications of every victory or misstep–the story we can tell goes miles beyond pure military science or military history.  There is hardly place in America where a visitor can get a better understanding of this war in all its manifestations, and in all its consequences, as it evolved from relatively simple to profoundly complex and significant.

Our primary purpose in making the film is to do good history–to begin th process of showing that what the armies did reverberated beyond the bound of their camps and colleagues in uniform.   We wanted to show that different people often perceived the same event in entirely different ways (for example, the traditional monolithic interpretation that "Fredericksburg" was horrified by the arrival of the Union army in 1862 is simply not  true; slaves–literally half the population in this region–saw the Union army in VERY different terms than did white residents; for them, the Union army meant not horror, but opportunity).  We wanted to illustrate, by using Fredericksburg as an example, that the Civil War transformed not in abstract, legalistic ways, but in physical, financial, and cultural ways, and that the impact of the war still reverberates (though I think we were not as successful on this last point as we should have been).

How has it been received?  Very positively, largely.  The most common negative comment is that it focuses too much on slavery.  A few have suggested that we were just being politically correct by addressing slavery.  About one-third of the film addresses the experiences of slaves and the significance of that experience.  Objectively–given that the civilian population in the region was almost exactly 50% slave–spending just one-third of the film addressing slavery is too little, not too much. But, in the context of a society often instructed that slaves and slaver were not and are not an integral part of the Civil War story, it’s not surprising that even the quantitatively inadequate treatment in the film strikes some as too much.

In our visitor center, where we show the film once a day (we show it regularly at Chatham), the staff has noted that visitors just don’t seem to expect or be prepared for something that doesn’t focus on the battles themselves.  Again, that’s not surprising given our long tradition of focusing only on military history.  I think over time and even decades, part of our goal should be to increase visitors’ expectations so that something of this sort doesn’t surprise them…..

There have been a few rumbles that we shouldn’t be doing this sort of interpretation at all–that we should confine ourselves solely to the military story, as we have for decades.  The reasons for that are well-discussed on this board, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on them.  I can only say, again, that our commitment is to doing good history, and to me that means untangling all the impacts and meanings of the events and sites we’re charged with interpreting.  In that context, it seems to me, the civilian story is unarguably an important part of our story, one that’s both important to tell and well worth hearing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the civilian film has brought to the surface some fear that the NPS is going to overawe our traditional, battle-oriented interpretation with abstract forays into social history, cultural meanings, and modern relevance.  That’s silly. The civilian film hasn’t replaced a thing.  It’s an addition to our program, delivered with an eye toward according MORE significance to the battles fought here rather than less. We have not and will not diminish our commitment to telling the story of the battles this park was founded to interpret–that’s our job. But we will, I hope, constantly plow new historical ground that reveals the full impact and importance of those events.  Both good history and historical justice demand it.

Kevin M. Levin

One of the central themes of this blog has been to challenge the way we think about our Civil War.  As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides.  From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years.  According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions.  Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences.  No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided. 

The battle of Fredericksburg is the paradigm example of this tendency.  We tend to see the December 1862 battle as a slug-fest where men on both sides were slaughtered and where Robert E. Lee could utter his famous line about the horrors of war.  Visitors to the battlefield walk the path along the Stone Wall and Maryes Heights, but probably think little about the civilians caught in the middle or the timing of the battle which was situated between the release of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and its execution on January 1, 1863.  The war was changing in profound ways that few could have predicted at the beginning, but given our prejudices for a narrow conception of the battlefield one would never know it.  If we look at the battle at all from the civilian perspective it is as a white Southerner who viewed the occupation of the town as a terrible tragedy.  What is missed, of course, is the slave perspective which interpreted the movements of Union soldiers not as "Yankee hordes", but as liberators. 

This broader perspective on the significance of Fredericksburg is nothing new for professional historians.  Recent social and cultural histories have opened up new areas of research and have enriched the way we think about individual campaigns and battles.  Unfortunately, there is a gulf between the kinds of questions that professional historians analyze and most Civil War enthusiasts who have an insatiable thirst for the minutiae of the battlefield and who – for any number of reasons – have an interest in maintaining a traditional interpretation of the war.  Over the past few years this debate has taken place on the very battlefields of the war and in the offices of the National Park Service.  As many of you know the NPS is now re-interpreting many of its Civil War sites to include references of civilian life as well as the touchy issues of race, slavery, and emancipation.  [My recent trip to Appomattox Court House is but one example.] 

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s contribution to this trend is a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free which looks at the war in the Fredericksburg area from the civilian perspectives of white Southerners and slaves.  What emerges is an incredibly rich account of how the war, and the battle specifically, altered life in the area in ways that few could have predicted.  The movie is rooted in the words of the participants themselves, which challenges the criticism that this "new" approach to doing history is simply a product of liberal or post-modern theory emanating from the academy. 

The wide-range of primary sources brings to life such unknown figures as the slave John Washington who eventually escaped as the Union army approached the town, as well as Dabney H. Maury, Fanny White, and Mary C. Knox who struggled through the hardships of occupation and the destruction of their homes; most importantly they struggled to understand and accept the end of slavery.  One of the strongest scenes takes place following the battle and involves a Union soldier escorting a slave family off their owner’s property and to freedom.  The woman of the house rushes to the family and pleads for them not to abandon her and the family.  The scene goes far in suggesting how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom.  As Washington noted, "…life had a new joy awaiting me."    The message underlying the movie is clear: Only by focusing on the slave perspective can the real significance of military operations in 1862 be more clearly understood. 

Southern white woman are also featured prominently in this movie.  The war mobilized the entire Fredericksburg community and its woman are shown meeting to discuss how best to support the soldiers in the ranks.  Woman are also depicted as ardent supporters of the Confederate cause through their bitter hatred of "Yankee" soldiers.  One young woman noted in her diary, "They little no the hatred in our hearts."  Even towards the end of the war the civilians of Fredericksburg remained defiant and convinced that "with God we will be victorious."  Such a stance reinforces recent interpretations that white Southerners remained committed to the Confederacy until the very end and that defeat did not bring about a smooth reconciliation with the North.

The production staff for this movie should be congratulated for creating an entertaining and educational look at those groups and themes that have long been ignored at our Civil War battlefields.  As John Hennessy noted in his commentary, there will always be critics.  What we need to remember is that the Civil War does not belong to any one group.  Our job as historians is to continue to explore the difficult questions and find ways to share those insights with the general public.  I applaud the National Park Service and particularly the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for their efforts.

Click here for a schedule and location

Click here for a review from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

 

Great History Teachers

Every now and then it is necessary to honor those trailblazers who modeled for a mass audience what we as teachers do.  I can think of no better candidate than Mr. Hand who taught back in the mid-1980′s at Ridgemont High School in California.  Mr. Hand combined a passion for his subject with a sincere interest in the welfare of his students.  Of course I am talking about the classic teen movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which is etched in the memories of anyone who came of age in the early 1980′s.  The movie featured the late Ray Walston who played Mr. Hand and his star student Jeff Spicoli played by Sean Penn – along with a host of other up-and-coming talents. 

Who can forget the scene in Mr. Hand’s class where he introduces his subject as well as the ground rules.  This is also his first encounter with Jeff Spicoli:

SCENE 1

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – DAY

Stacy barely slips in the door before the final
attendance bell sounds. She finds a seat just as
the teacher’s cubicle door opens at the back of the
classroom. A tall figure comes barreling down the
aisle. He is Mr. Hand. The man makes a double-speed
step to the door at the front of the class, kicks
the door shut and locks it. The windows rattle in
their frames. Stacy watches, wide-eyed, at her
first high school class.

MR. HAND
Aloha. My name is Mr. Hand.

Mr. Hand writes his name on the green chalkboard
before hisFt
class. Every letter is a small explosion
of chalk.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(almost sweetly)
I have but one question for you on
our first morning ‘together.’
(pause)
Can you attend my class? Pakalo?…
Understand?… History has proven
us one basic fact. Man does not do
anything that is not for his own
good. It is for your own good that
you attend my class. And if you
can’t make it… I can make you.

An impatient knock begins at the front door of the
classroom
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
We have a twenty-question quiz
every Friday. It will cover all the
material we’ve dealt with during
the week. There will be no make-up
exams. It’s important that you all
have your Land of Truth and Liberty
textbooks by Wednesday. At the
latest.

The knock continues.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Your grade is the average of all
your quizzes, plus the midterm and
final, which counts for one-third.
Got it?

The mystery knocker tries a lazy calypso beat on
the front door. No one in Mr. Hand’s U.S. History
class dares mention it, much less answer it.

Stacy grips her desk with the tension of her first
day
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Also. There will be no eating in
this class. You get used to doing
your own business on your own time.
That’s one demand I make. I don’t
like staying after class with you
on detention. That’s my time. I
don’t like wasting it. Just like
you wouldn’t want me to come to
your house some evening and discuss
U.S. History on your time. Pakalo?

Hand finally turns, as if he has just noticed the
sound at the door and opens the door an inch.
Jeffrey Spicoli stands in the doorway, red eyes
glistening. His long, blond hair is still wet and
streaming down the back of his white peasant shirt.
He grins, oblivious to such trivial matters as
attendance bells. A Student sitting near Stacy
turns to his friends
.

STUDENT
That guy has been stoned since the
third grade.

MR. HAND
Yes?

SPICOLI
Yeah. I’m registered for this
class.

MR. HAND
What class?

SPICOLI
This is U.S. History, right? I saw
the globe in the window.

MR. HAND
(appears enthralled)
Really?

Spicoli holds his red ad card up to the crack in
the door
.

SPICOLI
Can I come in?

MR. HAND
(swinging door open)
Oh, please. I get so lonely when
that third attendance bell rings
and I don’t see all my kids here.

Spicoli laughs. He is the only one.

SPICOLI
Sorry I’m late. This new schedule
is totally confusing.

Mr. Hand takes the red ad Ft1card and reads from it
with utter fascination
.

MR. HAND
Mr. Spicoli?  SPICOLI That’s the name they gave me.

Mr. Hand slowly tears the card into little pieces
and sprinkles the pieces over his wastebasket.
Spicoli watches in disbelief. His hands are frozen
in the process of removing his backpack
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
You just ripped my card in two!  MR. HAND
Yes.  SPICOLI
Hey, bud. What’s your problem?

Mr. Hand moves to within inches of Spicoli’s face.  MR. HAND
No problemFt2 at all. I think you know
where the front office is.

It takes a moment for the words to work their way
out of Jeff Spicoli’s mouth
.  SPICOLI
You… dick.

In the tense moment that follows, no one in the
class is sure what might happen.

Mr. Hand simply turns away from Jeff Spicoli as if
he ceased to exist and coolly continues his
lecture
.

SCENE 2

Here is another scene where Mr. Hand expresses regret over his student’s poor performance on a recent test and goes the extra mile to see that all of his students attend his class.  He also provides us with the moral consequences of ignoring truancy.

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – MORNING

We are now several weeks into the school year. Mr.
Hand is dropping test papers on desks like they are
pieces of manure
.

MR. HAND
C… D… F… F… F… three
weeks we’ve been talking about the
Platt Amendment. What are you
people? On dope? A piece of
legislation was introduced into
Congress by Senator John Platt. It
was passed in 1906. This amendment
to our Constitution has a profound
impact upon all of our daily
liv….

Mr. Hand stops on a dime. He is like a champion
hunting dog that has just picked up the scent. He
scans the room
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Where is Jeff Spicoli?

There is silence in the U.S. history classroom.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
I saw him earlier today near the
200 Building bathrooms. Is he still
on campus?

Silence.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Anyone?

One student sitting next to Stacy raises his hand.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Yes, Desmond?

DESMOND
I saw him by the food machines.

MR. HAND
How long ago?

DESMOND
Just before class, sir…

Mr. Hand snaps his fingers, Hawaii Five-O style.

MR. HAND
Okay. Bring him in.

Desmond hustles out the door.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
What is this fascination with
truancy? What is it that gets
inside your heads?

Mr. Hand begins to pace the aisles as he speaks.
Occasionally, for emphasis, he bends down to
lecture directly into the students’ faces
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
There are other teachers in this
school who look the other way at
truants.
(points to attendance clip
on the doorway)
It’s a little game that you both
play. They pretend they don’t see
you, you pretend you don’t ditch.
Who pays the price later? You.

Desmond returns to the room with a red-eyed Jeff
Spicoli
.

SPICOLI
Hey! Wait a minute! There’s no
birthday party for me here!

MR. HAND
Thank you, Desmond.
(to Spicoli)
What’s the reason for your truancy?

SPICOLI
I couldn’t make it in time.

MR. HAND
(in top form)
You mean, you couldn’t? Or you
wouldn’t?

SPICOLI
I don’t know, mon. The food lines
took forever.

MR. HAND
Food will be eaten on your time!
(pause)
Why are you continuously late for
this class, Mr. Spicoli? Why do you
shamelessly waste my time like
this?

SPICOLI
I don’t know.

Mr. Hand appears mesmerized. He then turns and
heads for the board. He writes in long, large
letters as he slams the chalk into the green board.
He writes: "I DON’T KNOW"
.

MR. HAND
I like that.

He stands back and admires it. He turns randomly to
Stacy
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Don’t you like that, Miss Hamilton?

STACY
Yes, sir.

MR. HAND
I really like that too. ‘I don’t
know’… that’s nice. ‘Mr. Hand,
will I pass this class?’ ‘Gee, Mr.
Spicoli, I don’t know’. I like
that.
I think I’m going to leave your
words on this board for all my
classes to enjoy. Giving you full
credit, of course, Mr. Spicoli.

We hear the blare of the dismissal bell. Stacy and
the other students get up to leave. Spicoli stays
in place. He has just figured out a truly bitchin’
comeback… and his mouth is forming the first
word, when Mr. Hand cuts him off
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
You can go now.

Hand turns back to his desk. The rest of the
students have already left. Spicoli’s audience is
gone. He shrugs and lopes out the door
.

SCENE 3

Who can forget the scene where Mr. Hand is attempting to explain the background of the Spanish-American War only to be interrupted by a pizza delivery for Spicoli.  This may be one of the great classroom scenes of all time.

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – DAY

The third attendance bell rings, and Mr. Hand
strides to the front of the class. He locks the
door. Then he takes the front of the class and
notices something very different.

ANGLE ON JEFF SPICOLI

bright and clear-eyed, sitting in the front row.
His hands are clasped in front of him on the desk.
His textbook is open to the proper page.

Mr. Hand is suspicious, but continues with class.

MR. HAND
Now in 1898, Spain owned Cuba.
Outright. Think about it. Cuba,
owned by a disorganized parliament
4,000 miles away. Cubans were in a
constant state of revolt.

Mr. Hand begins pacing the aisles as he talks.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
In 1904, the United States decided
to throw a little weight around,
and…

There is a brief, sharp knock at the door. Mr. Hand
whips his head around, like McGarrett. He
approaches the door like a cat
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(sweet voice)
Who is it?

VOICE
Mr. Pizza.

MR. HAND
Again?

VOICE
Mr. Pizza, sir!

Hand swings the door open, out of curiosity. In
walks a young Man in a Mr. Pizza delivery shirt
.

PIZZA MAN
Okay, who had the double cheese
sausage and bologna?

Jeff Spicoli speaks up.

SPICOLI
That’s me.

The Delivery Man takes the pizza, sets it on the
desk, as Spicoli whips out some crumpled dollars.
Then he produces yet another crumpled dollar, and
presses it into the Delivery Man’s hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
For you, my man.

The Delivery Man Ft4thanks him warmly, just as Mr.
Hand rages into the picture
.

MR. HAND
Am I hallucinating here? Just what
in the hell do you think you’re
doing?

SPICOLI
Learning about Cuba. Having some
food.

MR. HAND
Mr. Spicoli, you’re on dangerous
ground here. You’re causing a major
disturbance in my class and on my
time.

SPICOLI
(cool and urbane)
I’ve been thinking about this, Mr.
Hand. If I’m here… and you’re
here… doesn’t that make it our
time?

Mr. Hand is so furious he’s almost shaking.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
So I thought I’d order us a pizza.
Just leave me a lot of bologna…

Mr. Hand snatches up the pizza, and starts to throw
it in the wastebasket. Then he thinks better, and
heads for the door. He opens it just as a gang of
young Stoners walk past
.

STONER #1
There’s the pizza.

STONER #2
Totally!

Mr. Hand pushes the pizza into their hands and
slams the door
.

SPICOLI
You better save some for me, you
swine!

MR. HAND
And you, my friend. I’ll see you
for a two-hour detention every
afternoon this week.

Spicoli eases back in his chair, shrugs. It was a
good idea at the time
.

SCENE 4

In this final scene Spicoli is preparing for the prom or as he puts it the last major "fiesta" of the school year when he hears a knock on his bedroom door.  In walks Mr. Hand to make-up all of the time Spicoli wasted in his class, and more importantly to make sure that he has understood the content of the course.  Now that’s a dedicated teacher.  Haven’t we all imagined something along these lines?

Curtis slams the door and leaves. A moment later
there is a knock
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
That’s better. Come in.

The door swings open and Jeff Spicoli sits in
stoned shock at the sight before him. There,
standing in the doorway of his room is Mr. Hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
Mr… Mr. Hand.

MR. HAND
That’s right, Jeff. Mind if I come
in?

Spicoli can only nod.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(calling downstairs)
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Spicoli.

Hand walks into Spicoli’s room, takes off his suit
jacket and lays it on the chair back. He stops a
moment and catches the stare of Miss January
Penthouse on the wall, then turns to Spicoli
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Were you going somewhere tonight,
Jeff?

SPICOLI
Yeah. The Graduation Dance Mr.
Hand. It’s the last school event of
the year.

MR. HAND
I’m afraid we’ve got some things to
discuss here, Jeff.

SPICOLI
Did I do something wrong, Mr. Hand?

Hand removes several copies of Oui Magazine from
another chair and sits down. He sets his briefcase
on Spicoli’s dresser, next to a bag of pot, and
opens it up for easy access
.

MR. HAND
Do you want to sit there, Jeff?

SPICOLI
I don’t know. I guess so.

MR. HAND
Fine. You sit right here on your
bed. I’ll use the chair here.
(pause)
As I explained to your parents just
a moment ago, and to you many times
since the very beginning of the
school year — I don’t like to
spend my time waiting for late
students, or detention cases. I’d
rather be preparing the lesson.

Mr. Hand takes a sheet from his briefcase and looks
at it
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
According to my calculations, Mr.
Spicoli, you wasted a total of
eight hours of my time this year.
And rest assured that is a kind
estimate.

He returns the sheet to his case and looks into
Spicoli’s weed-ravaged eyes
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Now, Mr. Spicoli, comes a rare
moment for me. Now I have the
unique pleasure of squaring our
account. Tonight, you and I are
going to talk in great detail about
the Davis Agreement, all the
associated treaties, and the
American Revolution in particular.
Now if you can just turn to Chapter
47 of Lord of Truth And Liberty.

SPICOLI
Hey, it’s in my locker, Mr. Hand.

MR. HAND
Well, then, I’m glad I remembered
to bring an extra copy just for
you.

Hand reaches in his case and produces the book. He
hands it to Spicoli
.

  DISSOLVE
  TO:

INT. SPICOLI’S ROOM – HOURS LATER

Wearily, Spicoli is trying to grasp the material.

SPICOLI
… so, like, when Jefferson went
before the people what he was
saying was ‘Hey, we left this place
in England because it was bogus,
and if we don’t come up with some
cool rules ourself, we’ll be bogus,
too!’ Right?

ANGLE ON MR. HAND

who nods his head.

MR. HAND
Very close, Jeff.

Hand reaches over and gets his case.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
I think I’ve made my point with you
tonight.

SPICOLI
Hey, Mr. Hand, can I ask you a
question?

MR. HAND
What’s that?

SPICOLI
Do you have a guy like me every
year? A guy to… I don’t know,
make a show of. Teach other kids
lessons and stuff?

MR. HAND
Well, you’ll find out next year.

SPICOLI
(smiling)
No way, mon. When I graduate U.S.
history I ain’t even coming over to
your side of the building.

MR. HAND
If you graduate.

SPICOLI
(panicked)
You’re gonna flunk me?!

Mr. Hand pauses a moment, then breaks into the
nearest approximation of a grin we have seen all
year. It isn’t much, but it’s noticeable. His lips
crinkle at the ends
.

MR. HAND
Don’t worry, Spicoli. You’ll
probably squeak by.

SPICOLI
All right! Oh, yeah!

Mr. Hand has now gathered all his material, and he
stands to approach Spicoli’s door. Jeff jumps up,
extends his hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
Aloha, Mr. Hand!

MR. HAND
Aloha, Spicoli.

Mr. Hand exits the room, and descends the staircase
of the Spicoli household. Spicoli kicks the door
shut, grins, and continues struggling with his tie
.

Who are your favorite teachers from the big screen?

 

The Self As Historical Object: An Assessment

My students seemed to really enjoy the act of writing their own obituaries.  As I mentioned the other day I like to begin the year with a lesson that forces students to challenge the way they think about the idea or concept of history.  We tend to see history as a subject to be studied in books rather than as a biological necessity rooted in the cognitive and physical architecture of the brain.  To put it in Daniel Dennett’s terms, we are programmed to string words together into complex narratives that are based in large part on our ability to recall our individual and collective pasts.  To make the point I shared a story that can be found in Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist On Mars.  I don’t remember all of the details, but one of the chapters is about a man who after 1972 was unable to integrate his short and long-term memory.  Even as late as the 1990′s when he was being treated by Sacks he still believed that it was 1972.  This man’s long-term memory remained intact up to the year 1972, but was unable to add on following the trauma.  At one point in the story Sacks took this man to a Grateful Dead concert.  Following the concert Sacks asked him how he liked it.  His response conveys the tragedy behind his personal affliction: he suggested that the music sounded as if it was ahead of its time.  If you have some sense of how the music of the Grateful Dead evolved between the early 1970′s and 1990′s you can appreciate the reference.  It took a few minutes for my students to grasp what all of this meant for the patient; imagine that every new experience would be washed away within a matter of hours.  The following day Sacks approached his patient and asked how he liked the Grateful Dead concert.  He responded by indicating that he had seen the Dead last year in 1971 out in California.

I asked my students to think about what would be lost if we were unable to remember.  They talked about not being able to build friendships or learn from past mistakes.  Their answers tended to revolve around the ways our individual identities would be threatened or permanently lost.  One of the students commented that she felt very fragile after realizing how quickly our sense of self can be damaged or lost.

I was able to transition to the obituary exercise by drawing a connection between our deep need to remember our own pasts with that of others.  Why do we feel such a need to remember the lives of others?  Studying the individual obituaries gave us a chance to think about this question along with the more specific issue of how we remember.  Students explained why they preferred specific entries over others.  Finally, I asked them to share their own obituaries with the class.  It’s a great way to break the ice during those first few days and for me to learn a bit about each student.  Some of them imagined their own deaths in the present while others imagined a rich life well into their 90′s.  At the end I asked the class to think about the one common thread that coursed throughout each obituary.  It took some time for them to focus in on it, but they eventually nailed it:

Each of us has a deep need to remember and/or to be remembered.

 

Destroying History or George Bush Just Made My Job Much Harder

Somebody please tell me how I am supposed to teach my students to think critically about the past and understand it in all of its complexity when our president’s view of the world is so unsophisticated.

The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive
ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in
the values of freedom and moderation — the right of all people to speak, and
worship, and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the
values of tyranny and extremism — the right of a self-appointed few to impose
their fanatical views on all the rest. As veterans, you have seen this kind of
enemy before. They’re successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other
totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be:
This war will be difficult; this war will be long; and this war will end in the
defeat of the terrorists and totalitarians, and a victory for the cause of
freedom and liberty.

I understand that he is playing to his political base here and that most reasonable people will give it little thought.  Still, it is extremely frustrating that this man seems unable to move beyond an overly simplistic reductionism that fails to draw even the most basic distinctions between very distinct historical movements.  Isn’t it standard practice in our classrooms to steer students away from the Nazi/Hitler analogies?  They are bad rhetorical devices and nothing more.   Why don’t we just throw out the curriculum if all my students need to know is that they were all bad.

And this man spent part of his summer reading Albert Camus?


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