Order vs. Democracy

You never know how a planned class discussion will go or the direction it will take.  Today my survey courses explored some primary sources which lay out American foreign policy in the late 1940s.  I asked my students to think about the challenges that emerged by the end of WWII and how those challenges sent the United States down a very different path compared with its response to WWI.  I show clips from videos about the Red Scare and HUAC meetings along with images of hydrogen bombs and the classic "Duck and Cover."  In class today we read through Harry Truman’s 1947 address (Truman Doctrine/Containment) to Congress in which he asks for $400,000 400 million dollars to be used to help the nations of Turkey and Greece deal with civil war and the "threat" of communism.  It’s a fairly easy document for students to interpret and it beautifully sets up this country’s foreign policy for the next 50 years.  We talked about this along with the question of what responsibilities the United States was faced with in the aftermath of WWII.  In short, students had to think about what kind of world the United States was attempting to bring about through its actions? 

As we went through the document we came across the following line: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes."  One of my students was struck by the last few words and asked for an explanation.  I asked the class which word stood out and they suggested the word "order."  What is an orderly political process?  A few of the students suggested that it is a democratic system, but than another student suggested that it may not involve democracy.  What a wonderful teaching moment, and one that I did not want to slip away.  With the relationship between order and political systems in mind I asked the class to reflect on the war in Iraq as a case study.  We agreed that one of the goals of the Bush administration was to bring democracy to the country, but that at this point it was unlikely that such a lofty goal is still possible.  I then asked the class to think about what they would be willing to comprise for.  Would they settle for a nation that was without the kinds of political opportunities – the hallmarks of democracy – that we take for granted in exchange for "order" and stability.  Would this be satisfactory narrowly understood in terms of what is best for our foreign policy.  We can imagine a country that is stable without the kinds of violence that have grown all too common, but that maintains "friendly" relations with the United States.  One student asked whether both the Iraqi people and the United States would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power.  Is order along with authoritarian violence rather than a democracy sufficient from this perspective?  I tend not to answer these types of questions for fear that I may influence their thinking, but I was surprised by how many students agreed with this assessment.  I wanted the class to consider the possibility that American security may have to do with external conditions that go beyond concerns for freedom and democracy.  It’s not meant as an indictment, but as a comment on the history of America’s foreign relations. 

American foreign policy is incredibly complex following WWII.  It straddles both a concern for democracy and freedom on the one hand along with very practical decisions that highlight "order" and stability over human rights.  We didn’t come to any firm conclusions in connection with all of this, but it is nice to know that the class will be able to consider different moments of American interventionism during the Cold War within a wide context that considers a range of factors. 

National Council for History Education: A Few Thoughts

I had a pretty good time in Williamsburg this weekend at the annual meeting of the National Council For History Education.   Eight history teachers from the various divisions at my school made the trip.  Originally we decided to use the weekend as an opportunity for the department to bond a bit, but with our department chair and another teacher leaving at the end of the year I was skeptical.  Surprisingly, this was the best part of the trip.  One of the teachers organized a private tour with Ed Chappell who is Director of Architectural Research for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  We spent about 2 hours walking up Duke of Gloucester Street and Ed did a fabulous job of giving us a quick overview of how to interpret the various buildings.  That night we had a great dinner and made sure to spend as much of the school’s money as possible (LOL). 

As for the conference itself I was disappointed.  I listened to Gordon Wood deliver a talk at one of the general sessions, but unfortunately it sounded like something pulled directly out of one of his survey lectures at Brown.  I did get a chance to talk with Wood in a small group of about 5 people for about 30 minutes and I enjoyed that immensely.  The general session also revealed some interesting demographics, including very few blacks and a large number of older women.  As for individual sessions I attended two that involved the use and role of primary sources in the classroom.  While I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, at this point in my career I find it difficult to sit through a session where the first fifteen minutes involve the presenter asking the audience why we use documents in the classroom and what we hope to teach our students through their inclusion in the curriculum.  I’m sorry, but at this point in my career I find it difficult to sit through that.  There were plenty of sessions on pedagogy, but I was also looking for people who were passionate about history.  I did meet James Percoco who teaches up in Northern Virginia and is in my mind one of the most innovative teachers around. 

My experience this past weekend definitely places the steps the OAH and AHA have taken to address the teaching of history in our schools within a broader perspective.  I guess the problem for me is that I tend to approach the teaching of history more from the perspective of someone who practices the historian’s craft rather than from a purely educational perspective – don’t know if that makes any sense.   

No Taxation Without Representation or Black Power: A Double Standard?

I am writing from Williamsburg, Virginia where I am attending the annual meeting of the National Council for History Education.  As I type this post I am listening to the Colonial Williamsburg channel which seems to have only 1 show in its line-up.  It is a movie that depicts the Virginia revolutionaries during the growing conflict with England over taxes.  It is obviously a product of its time (late 1950s early 60s).  The debate with England is purely political and takes place in the taverns of Williamsburg and House of Burgesses.  Much of the movie highlights the rebuilt homes and stores of the downtown area which is perfect for the families who are setting out on their historical adventures.  [To be perfectly honest, when I see these families walk around I immediately think of a kamikaze pilot going straight into a ship.]  The slaves are all perfectly content and the main characters themselves are shown in all their glory and virtue.

Watching this movie reminded me of a post that I’ve wanted to write for some time.  My classes are moving into the Civil Rights Movement.  One of the things I try to explain through lecture and documents is the distinction between the philosophy of Martin L. King and the approach of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.  Among other things we read King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and we watch video of Malcolm discuss black nationalism.  [From the television I hear a narrator’s voice calling for the confiscation of the gunpowder in the town’s magazine.  Gun shots can be heard along with angry voices.]  We read about the steps taken by the Black Panthers to ensure that the police follow the law in their communities.  Students also get an opportunity to think about the "uniform" and other images of the Black Panthers which included berets, leather jackets, and guns.  My students – and I suspect white Americans in general – are much more comfortable with King as opposed to Malcolm or the ideas of "Black Power."  I am not suggesting that they are mistaken, but I do find it curious that my students have such little patience for "revolutionary" language as black Americans sought to bring about the most basic of civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s.  [From the television I hear patriotic music as the colonists have declared their independence from England.  The narrator: "If one wants to be free, one must choose."] 

In all my years of teaching I fail to remember one moment where my students questioned the violence that preceded the American Revolution.  When I teach the Revolution I make sure that we look at it on a number of levels, from the actions of the Sons of Liberty to the philosophical arguments being offered by the likes of John Adams, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, etc.  My students read and discuss the very violent actions of the Sons of Liberty in Boston along with the burning of Thomas Hutchison’s home.  We read accounts of tarring and feathering and countless other examples of the destruction of private property.  Never has a student questioned whether any of this was justified.  I try to play devil’s advocate and suggest that the colonists were over reacting.  My students find it easy to counter my argument as if the Revolution must happen. 

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that the Revolution was or was not justified or that young black Americans would have been justified in violent revolution in the 1960s.  It is important to remember that very few black leaders were actually advocating violence against whites; that’s more about our perceptions of so-called black militancy in the 1960s.  [Check out Curtis Austin’s Up Against the Wall: The Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party.]  What I am curious about is the apparent rub between our responses to these two cases that involve injustice.  On the one hand we fail to question at all the justification of the colonists as they engaged in violent revolution against the British government, while on the other hand we seem to have difficulty with even the hint of aggressive language within the Civil Rights Movement.

More on this apparent double-standard later.

Teaching Lincoln

With the end of the school year not too far off it’s time to think about electives for next year.  I’ve already decided to offer my Women’s History class next spring; that should give you an idea of just how much I am enjoying this class.  For the fall term I’ve decided to offer a class specifically on Abraham Lincoln.  I have yet to write up a detailed course description and I don’t even know what to call the class.  Perhaps “Lincoln’s America” or Lincoln’s Civil War” will work.  I foresee a fairly straightforward class that explores both Lincoln’s personal life as well as the war years, and if there is time I will introduce the class to issues related to Lincoln and memory.

As far as books are concerned I’ve decided to use the late William Gienapp’s short biography, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America (Oxford University Press, 2002) along with the companion volume of primary sources.  The biography is right around 200 pages which will make it easy to bridge off from to examine other sources and work on various projects.  The companion volume of letter, speeches, etc. is compiled from Roy Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  I also wanted to order one book of essays on Lincoln, but am having some difficulty narrowing it down.  Right now Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces Of An American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2001) is the front runner.  The essays cover a wide swath.  The essays include Douglas Wilson on Lincoln’s early life, David H. Donald on Lincoln and Davis as commander in chief as well as Allen Guelzo on Lincoln and the Constitution.  Finally, there is a wonderful collection of artistic interpretations of Lincoln by Boritt and Harold Holzer.  Feel free to offer any other suggestions that you think might work well.

I plan to write up something fairly substantial about the course in light of the upcoming Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations.  I am already working on a lesson plan that looks at how the Ken Burns documentary interprets Lincoln’s life.  Who knows, maybe I will take the class on a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois.

Wyoming 6th Graders Learn About the Civil War

I’ve commented on this before, but I do find it curious that there is such excitement whenever a history class visits with reenactors.  There are no doubt reenactors who study their craft and who have given thought to educational outreach.  More often than not, however, I’ve read story after story of entertainment as a substitute for serious learning.  In this case we have a class of sixth graders who are quite capable of struggling with some of the core issues of the war.  Instead here is what we get:

"It got pretty loud," said Levi Kretch, 12, who, like everyone else, plugged his ears when the cannon fired.

Bob Mullen, in Yankee navy blue, showed the students a cannon round that fired much like a shotgun shell. "One of these hit you, I don’t think there’s much hope for you," he said.

Outside, another cannon volley sounded and again the children were thrilled. "Whoa . . . cool," one exclaimed from the group.

"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?"