So Simple, So Basic

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Social media platforms I’ve read lately insist  public schools no longer teach this particular lesson or that particular subject. And since I was a career history teacher, I want folks to understand that that isn’t necessarily the whole story. If your kids aren’t getting what you believe is important, the problem doesn’t lie in the public classroom. But before I delve into the obstacles, I’d like to describe a slice of my history course.

For sophomores we began the year with the Age of Discovery. As part of this unit students mapped various Native Cultures, placing the Nootka in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seminole in the Florida peninsula. Southwestern natives lived in the desert, while the Onondaga hunted the forests of the Eastern Woodlands. From that beginning we shifted study to Europe, with the end of the Middle Ages. In the new emerging era, Columbus sailed to the Bahamas, and changed the world forever. By the end of the first semester, in December, America had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and a new government waited to take shape until the second semester began in January.

We covered it all. And did the same for the rest of the material, closing the school year with the Confederate defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, and the trials of Reconstruction. And that was only the sophomore course.

The story of America grows longer everyday, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re still here to record the narrative.

The drawbacks this truth presents? Curriculum writers, in the interest of limited time, have had to decide what information stays and what is cut. For example, pre-Columbian America, described above, was jettisoned in order to add events that followed the Civil War. In short, where we once studied Native Americans in depth, we now focus on the post-Civil War Native genocide. What a message this decisions has leveled on our students!

When I was hired in the 1980’s our school district had one high school. Today there are five traditional secondary schools, and also a scattering of smaller alternatives. The district didn’t just grow, it exploded. To cope with this massive influx of students, administrators reworked our teaching schedule into what is called a 4X4 block. Under this more economical system, teachers were assigned 25% more students and lost 25% of instruction time. We became even more restricted in what we could reasonably cover in the history curriculum. (I called it drive-by history.)

On the heels of this massive overcrowding, came the legal mandates established by No Child Left Behind. Students were now required to take benchmark tests measuring what they had learned up to that grade level. Adult proctors would pull random kids out of class, typically in the middle of a lesson, often leaving only one or two students remaining in their desks. These exams ate up two weeks during the first semester, and another two weeks in the Spring.

If that wasn’t enough, politicians, and district leaders began to publicly demonstrate a great deal of favoritism toward the hard sciences, especially in computer technology. So considering the addition of new historic events, overcrowded classrooms, tighter schedules, and mandatory exams, the last thing history education needed was an inherent bias toward the hard sciences.

Public education was born in Colonial New England to promote communal literacy. Later, Thomas Jefferson, insisted education was the vital foundation for the longevity of our Republic. Immigrant children attended public schools to learn how to be Americans, and first generation sons and daughters relished the opportunity to assimilate. In short, enlightened citizenship has been the aim of public education, especially in American history courses. So basic, so simple.

If indeed, history classes provide the metaphoric glue that holds our nation together, we are all in big trouble. And the threats come from many sides. When our public schools are no longer a priority, open to all, we are essentially smothering our shared past.

Teachers cannot manufacture more time, nor meet individual needs in overcrowded classrooms. And both of these factors are essential for a subject that is struggling to teach Americans about America.

As Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he confessed his own power hungry mistakes, when he  whispered, “They expected me to be another (George) Washington.” Bonaparte understood the powerful lessons of America’s story.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two volume memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com

That Kid in Class

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This piece comes from a former student, Second Lieutenant. Cyrus Cappo, USA, West Point Class of 2017.
It is your right to be outraged, or offended, or annoyed by the anthem protests going on around the country today. And in these days of unprecedented access to the megaphone of social media it is your privilege to voice that outrage to estranged family members and friends from high school and coworkers and anyone else you happen to be Facebook friends with.
“It shows disrespect to the troops!” you might say through gritted teeth while furiously pounding on keys, your heart rate steadily increasing to unsafe levels about men who play sports silently and peacefully protesting their race’s treatment as second-class citizens and a President who reserves more fury for them than actual white supremacists and anti-semites. It would be your right to take such a bold and well-thought out stance, maybe even adding that this “the snowflakes have gone too far, I can’t even be safe from the tyranny of this PC culture watching a football game!”
But maybe, you my hypothetical example, could consider that standing for a flag that means many different things to many people isn’t actually what it takes to support your troops. And shockingly, neither is decorating for the Fourth of July, or sporting neat little patriotic bumper stickers and t-shirts, or even shaking a soldier’s hand to thank him or her for their service.
Bear with me, because I know this is a bit of a stretch, but just maybe supporting the troops means voting for politicians who don’t support never-ending wars without any clear objective, and that actually increase the rate of radicalization and terrorism at the low low cost of over 7000 American lives and the even lower cost of millions of middle eastern civilian lives, while simultaneously destabilizing multiple countries that allow for organizations like ISIS to gain power and a dictator like Assad to gas his own populace. That would be something I could be convinced to be outraged about. Maybe you could donate some of your time and money to organizations that are trying to prevent 22 veterans a day from killing themselves due to PTSD and the complete glut of financial and medical support that veterans receive, or if you own a business, you could even go out of your way to hire a veteran so they don’t become homeless as a thanks for their years of service. Maybe you could write a letter to a soldier who is deployed in the name of protecting, um, something something freedom, or send him or her a care package to make a day that could be their last a little less bleak.
But yikes, that would be hard and inconvenient and require some introspection and research and pure, unadulterated thought, and who has time for that, am I right? Much easier to voice outrage about football players exercising their right to protest, and using their platform of privilege to try and make the country a little bit more equal for all of us. Thank you for your tremendous sacrifice of not watching football this weekend, our country is better for it. Don’t forget to put the flag up and plan your cookout for Veterans Day, I look forward to seeing you the next time you shake my hand to thank me for my service.
Feel free to do any proofreading, this was written in bed and out of total frustration haha, I’m glad you liked it.
Cheers,
Cyrus

A History Teacher on 911

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I cannot recall the words I used to soothe my juniors on that horrible day. However, the soul-deep pain remains remarkably sharp in my emotional memory.

Vaguely I can see my son, a senior at the same high school, enter my classroom to check on his mom, the American History teacher. Seeing his face, I wanted to go to pieces.

It was later, in the local newspaper, that I discovered not only the words I shared with my students but the transforming pain they endured watching their country attacked.

(For the writer’s privacy I’ve deleted their identity)

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Night Flight

Night Flight

 “Night Flight,” an MGM drama premiered October 6, 1933 at New York’s Capitol Theater.

Star Helen Hayes presented Chum his hard-won first place trophy as a part of the evening’s program.

Read River of January.

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Buy River of January by Gail Chumbley, also available on Amazon.

Doesn’t Change Anything

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There are folks out there in America who object to the term bellicose when describing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The Texas State School Board a few years ago objected to the term “capitalism,” deeming it too loaded with negative meaning. Okay, play with terminology, putty up and pretty up the image of the past on state standards and guides, because it really makes no difference in the classroom.

Recently the College Board acquiesced to political pressure on AP US History curriculum objectives. I can understand the thinking behind this move by those who design and correct the yearly three hour exam. Those designers simply don’t need the controversy, nor do they need states to eliminate AP US from American classrooms. But the compromise actually actuates few modifications in day to day lessons, speedily delivered by harried AP teachers. Reality dictates the content of the course, and limited by time and the massive content, most are lucky to reach bellicose Ronald Reagan before the annual May exam.

The painting above depicts General Washington’s Farewell to his Officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York. The work was the creation of artist Alonzo Chappel, and commemorates a party hosted by the victorious, but solemn Washington. This same picture, over a century later, was viewed by teetotalers with dismay. Prohibitionists, concerned by the tavern setting, especially with the wine carafe and goblet resting the table simply scrubbed the image out. Easy enough. Adjust the past to fit today’s present.

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington's farewell to his officers - two scenes from George Washington's Military life

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington’s farewell to his officers – two scenes from George Washington’s Military life

Yet, resurfacing the past, doesn’t actually change anything. Alcohol played a huge role in Colonial America. It just did. In fact, with reference to the 1980’s, all an instructor has to do is produce a couple of line graphs of military spending from 1981 to 1989. Any kid can deduce the trend in military expenditures. Read a couple of speeches in class–Ike’s Farewell Address to the country for example, and students certainly understand the deafness of the Reagan Administration to General Eisenhower’s cautionary words on the perils of the military-industrial complex.

And all those critics who scorn the notion of teaching higher level thinking haven’t spent a moment working with high school students. You can’t fool these young people, they are a lot smarter than you think. Any examination at primary materials, aside from textbooks, or any other ancillary stuff reveals a truth sans any political spin.

So go ahead and bleach the course objectives. Go ahead and whitewash topics such as the genocide of Native peoples, or the insider manipulation that has torpedoed the stock market over and over. It doesn’t matter really. I always told my students that the greatest thing about American History is that we examine it, warts and all, with eyes bravely open. That’s is the source and the strength of our nation’s greatness.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January

Personal Earthquakes

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My mother worked for the US Postal Service. She went to work in the early sixties, when we were still in grade school and stayed on until her retirement at age sixty five. The woman had four kids and a house, and a yard, and she probably was pretty overwhelmed—something I now understand. To get an extra pair of hands my parents decided to house a student each term who attended a business school in Spokane called Kinman Business School. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these secretaries-in-training after completion, but these girls ended up learning shorthand, typing, and office skills like that.

The first girl who lived with us stayed in the second bedroom off the hall. I think her name was Corrine. I can’t remember exactly because it was around 1965 or 1966, and we were pretty young. Corrine was from Alaska, and I remember she was part Filipino or Native American, which I thought was pretty cool. Her hair was long, thick, dark, and she ratted up a poofy top bubble in a clip while letting the rest fall in black curls. My hair looked a lot like Ramona’s from the Beverly Cleary books, and I admired her thick tresses all the more.

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with noise, messes—people coming and going and generally a hectic backdrop of activity. But walking into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world, a world of order and gravity. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

She told me about the terrible Alaska earthquake a couple of years prior, how her house in Cordova had been damaged; and that Anchorage was split nearly in two by the tremors. Her narrative made a big impact on me because I had just read about the Alaska quake in an issue of National Geographic. Corrine lived through an event memorialized in National Geographic! Corrine was part of a bigger, unpredictable world.

There was also a picture on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me he was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. She explained to me that her boyfriend’s name, Ty, was short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon because he was in the Army and heading to a country called Vietnam. Tyrone wanted to see his girlfriend, and future wife before shipping out to Asia.

Marriage, Ty for Tyrone, Vietnam, Earthquakes . . . Corrine fascinated me.

Now my memories are a little sketchy concerning Ty’s visit to our house. I do remember he was white, an interesting contrast to her dark, exotic appearance, but he had dark hair, too. They sat on the couch in our living room and held hands which struck me as very interesting. I am sure that there were deeper emotions at play with his visit, but whatever happened fell below my 11-year-old radar. He did spend a lot of time with her in her room, with the door closed. But who knows?

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and apparently in a successful manner. Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the agreements or adult discussions, but she did return the next fall. Her room remained a wonderful respite from the cacophony of the rest of the house, and the same picture of Ty’s remained on her dresser. Letters began to arrive in the mail written on onion-skin parchment, imprinted AIR MAIL. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she told me that was the best way she and Ty could exchange letters overseas. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

And then one day Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were scandalized to see this grown man lying across her lap sobbing like his heart had broken. Poor Corrine! She too, was dissolved in tears, red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t stop, he could not compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her either. The whole scene seemed very surreal. I didn’t understand how a grown man could fly apart like that, and in front of everybody.

That episode happened a very long time ago. And it was also only yesterday.

I grew up, went to college, majored in American History and became a teacher. For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I know the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords that split the country at the 17th parallel, the Marines landing at Danang in 1965, the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968, The My Lai Massacre, the Paris Peace Accords, the protests on the home front, the bombing operations (all by name), and finally the controversy over The Wall. But in all my teaching of those facts, of all the stories from Veterans of that war, after all of the analysis by historians regarding the War in Vietnam—nothing about those years affected me as deeply as the change in that boy from Alaska, utterly destroyed by his year-long deployment when I was eleven years old.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

What If?

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My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from Tennessee  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is still  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com