Monthly Archives: August 2012

Alternate Histories: Where politics and history collide

crossings,men,migrating,migrations,moving,North America,persons,pioneering,pioneers,trails,transportation,valleys,wagon trains,West

What if Jefferson hadn’t purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon?

Mental Floss recently blogged about alternate histories that have been written and suggested.  They selected seven (plus a few) examples.  I have always been intrigued by alternate histories, but ultimately repelled.  As an intellectual exploration it is a pretty fascinating idea, and I think it could be a useful exercise for the classroom, but when these are published on the bookstore shelves and the politi-rags, they are always emotionally-charged, political tirades.

They are also, in my opinion, very seldom probable.  It is as though the authors are unhappy about X in their current world and Y in the past and it is just easiest to link them together (or so I simplify, in this case).  Curiously, I’ve never been a big fan of time-travel story-lines, either.  I think it is a related affront to the way my brain works.  The factors, the details, the extenuating circumstances inevitably spoil any attempted plots for me, because of all the loose ends.

Naturally, I do think the occasional alternate history considerations in my classes and conversations, but even so I seldom suggest actual alternatives so much as  I question whether certain events would have transpired at all given fundamental changes.  In the end, I find that the political motivations obscure intelligent historical thought.  The bias certainly leaves a thick stench over the content, at least that’s the odor prompting me to turn up my nose.  It was a bitter realization when I first encountered alternate histories in the book store in high school: I was immediately excited but after reading the back and perusing the table of contents immediate disappointment followed.  The political agendas override the potential of the intellectual exercise.

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Hey Erika! Remember that blog you write?!?

Why, yes, I remember I my beloved blog.  I haven’t really forgotten, despite appearances.  I’ve just been a bit busy.

Busy with what, you ask?  Well, there was the PBS gig I worked on–I wrote a couple of lesson plans and contributed to a game about the election process; keep your eyes open, because it will be up and running soon.  Then there is this awesome digital magazine, called Rohous, for which I am writing some pieces–hopefully, it will be a monthly gig.  Finally, I have decided to adjunct again this semester teaching History 101 at the Community College of Baltimore Campus–a position I took a mere week before my first class.

Then there is all the usual stuff I do…

BWI Rotary (I’m the secretary and everything-tech-person, as well as being the PR Committee Chair, and schedule all the speakers for our meetings) is in the midst of a major project to provide iPads to our area elementary schools that struggle with rising poverty rates (I’m talking kids who go to school to eat, never mind learn!) and increasing numbers of ESL students in the hopes of combating illiteracy so students don’t fall behind.  And, that’s in addition to the normal service projects and good works we do in our community.

Plus, there’s the homeschooling-mom-thing, which at minimum means I’m driving around, but since I also write a larger part of the kid’s curriculum, I do a lot of that kind of writing and compiling (while relying heavily on various resources–especially credible internet ones).  And, the driving, did I mention the driving?  Driving to archaeology, to the Walter’s Teen Arts Council, to the ice rink, to choir, to soccer, to 4-H (if I can’t get out of it), etc.

Finally, there’s the book… oh wait.  I haven’t touched the book I was supposed to finish (at least, the first draft) at all this summer.  *Sigh.*  …Not to mention all those other writing things I wanted to do.  Well, I’ll try to get back on that wagon.  I have a number of blog posts-in-waiting, that I hope to have up here just as soon as I can get them written.

Stay with me, folks!  Stay with me!

It will be ok… I’m just sure of it.


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Lies the Debunkers Told Me: Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens Explain the Allure

Lies the Debunkers Told Me: How Bad History Books Win Us Over – Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens – The Atlantic.

Please, read the above article if you haven’t, yet, written by Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens in The Atlantic.  It discusses the inherent problem in history books of (at best) marginal quality becoming political fodder–as their authors intended them to be–and seem to stir and shake their supporters with rage and “pugnacious” vim and vigor.  In the article, the historians focus on two subjects: Howard Zinn (on the left) and David Barton (on the right).  There are consequences when bad history becomes the source of ideological fervor–we cannot underestimate the strength of such weaponry!  (If you feel inclined to ignore it,  the easiest  way I can think to bring you back to reality would be ask you to make a study of the militant repurposing of the academic world in Germany during the 1930s and 40s.)

The title of the article comes from the critically (politically) acclaimed Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, itself receiving front-cover praise from one of the subjects (Howard Zinn) that academic historians Beneke and Stephens discuss in the above linked-article.  While Loewen makes some valid criticisms of history education, he is similarly guilty of Zinn-like bias.  Beneke and Stephens make the point quite clearly: politically adopted debunkers are too frequently telling lies.  The two wrap up their argument by suggesting that their is a similarity in the psychological buttons authors Howard Zinn and David Barton push to those of the conspiracy theorists.

    “In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

    Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, theNew York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents.  They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

    The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not.”

~ Beneke & Stephens

I’ve written about this before.  These ideas find their way into public school curricula mandated by states, private school curricula of different stripes, and homeschool curricula.  I think it likely explains why a recent study concluded that Americans do not mind if their political side lies to meet its ends (according to an NPR Radio News segment).  It is the fallacy of confirmation bias and no shortage of people are guilty of it–as in, quite likely everybody, though not everyone is always ruled by it.  This is why it is worth teaching history in such a way that we support honest inquiry and quality research.  We should discourage our students from cherry-picking their findings and sources to validate their own predetermined conclusions.  We should teach them to question what they read if the evidence seems lacking or inconclusive, and to follow that questioning with intelligent inquiry.

This very concern is also why historians open with introductions that are intended to be honest disclaimers about their goals and intentions.  Then these works are further subjected to other professionals, who have read widely about the subject and are familiar with the cited sources, and then provide both the public and the academy with professional reviews.  A process that I think is ideally modeled in the classroom, though (unless you are going to do a thorough study of their claims) you can leave Burton and Zinn out of it.

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Not Everyone Lived in Castles in the Middle Ages: A problem of chronology, or high-jacking an era

Not Everyone Lived in Castles During the Middle Ages | EDSITEment.

EDSITEment! The Best of the Humanities on the Web

As a home schooling mom who is writing our curriculum, just as I did when I was teaching, I nonetheless highly value quality lesson plans with useful resources to enhance what I am doing.  I love, LOVE, EDSITEment! as a hub of humanities lessons–particularly for its English literature lesson plans.

It has some great history and social studies plans–especially if you are looking for American history.  We are not this year, but will begin to explore the Early Modern era and American history next year.  In so doing, we will cover both history and review this year’s civics coursework–very excited, indeed!

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities

Having said all of that, I hit a wall with some of the medieval European lesson plans.  Now, admittedly, I need the least aid in this era because I have an M.A. in it and have taught it for some time.  Most textbooks botch the era–and every other era.  My enthusiasm rose when I saw the website’s lesson plan, “Not Everyone Lived in Castles During the Middle Ages,” but it was short-lived.

The ill-named “Middle Ages” span from roughly 500-700 (A.D.) to  roughly 1400-1600 (A.D.), depending on who’s counting.  The amount of change that takes place in the millennium is considerable!  For most of that period, Europeans do not even really have castles as we typically think of them, making the very title an unwitting challenge to medieval scholarship.

The historical era known as the Middle Ages covers nearly a thousand years, stretching from the fall of Rome in the 5th century CE through the Renaissance in the 15th century CE. During much of this time fighting and warfare were rampant, and the castle, defended by armies of fearless knights, stood as a bastion of security. Medieval society was organized into a pyramid of feudal relationships, with the king and his nobles at the top and the hard-working peasants comprising the bulk of the population. Those among the peasants who were particularly talented became specialists, such as blacksmiths, fletchers, and coopers. The Middle Ages is also known as the Age of Faith, since the Catholic Church dominated the lives of rich and poor.

~ “Preparation Instructions” for the lesson plan.

American textbooks, lesson plans and other resources often lump characteristics of this millennium together without distinguishing the changes or paying attention to chronology.  The above statement is not a particularly helpful description of one thousand years of history–and, one can’t really expect it to be successful, anyway.  Yes, there was quite a bit of warfare, but it is actually far more rampant in the Early Modern era thanks to advances in weaponry which empowered the soldier over the knight, in infrastructure for the movement of troops, and in urbanization in a more densely populated Europe.  Try comparing the medieval Hundred Years War with the Napoleonic conquests and its quickly apparent that the medieval era gets the rep that the Early Modern era deserves.

The above excerpt, furthermore, is proof that quite likely no other “era” is more constrained by outdated scholarship.  Consider some examples:

  • [Specifically in reference to the above statement:] The Church was able to maintain a greater amount of continuity in Europe than any secular group until the emergence of proto-nations, but its secular, centralized authority is pretty limited until the Late Middle Ages, beginning in the 11th century, but slowly.
  • Recent scholarship (and by “recent scholarship” I mean that which began about 5 decades ago–if the debate interests you here is an introduction) has challenged the extremely simplistic “feudal pyramid” that was likely invented by Early Modern lawyers, well after the supposed system would have existed.
  • Related to the above point, while at times in the medieval millennium there was an attempt to simplify humans into easy categories, no society is so simply described as the above blurb attempts to do with medieval society.  Despite this, there is a prevalent attitude, one step beyond the notion that everyone lived in castles, that medieval society from the last Roman emperor until Leonardo Da Vinci is just that simple.

Now, in fairness, the above lesson plan is categorized in the age group for grades 3-5.  So, one might argue that this is precisely the age group who might think of everyone being a knight or a princess and living in a castle, but the concepts–even the accurate ones–which they are attempting to share are pretty narrowly confined to a small portion at the end of that millennium.  No chronology is provided.

The resources provided to the teachers include a quality link to Paul Halsall’s, “Introduction to Medieval History,” though it is only one half of a dialogue as this site was developed for a class he taught.  The elementary teacher will not have access to his lectures, nor likely all of his texts without going to a university library.  Power to the 3rd-5th grade teacher who actually does that, because it will only take scanning his course breakdown to realize something does not add up with the lesson plan’s design.  My personal experience with 3rd-5th grade teachers as a student and parent–and, I had a couple of great ones–is that they won’t “take” Halsall’s course.

Alas.  The medieval era seems doomed to be misunderstood.  It is fascinating, but few take the time to get beyond Enlightenment-era conceptions of the past between ancient Rome and the self-titled Renaissance era that is itself far more medieval than its patrons, artists and authors appreciated.

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A Review of SimpleK12 Resources for Educators, Integrating tech

(All images from the site.)

SimpleK12, located at, is a professional development site for educators specifically designed to integrate technology into the curriculum.  The website provides two services: one is the Teacher Learning Community and the other is a guide for integrating technology into specific student curricula.

Teacher Learning Community

The Teacher Learning Community is a membership available for teachers just like you who know integrating the latest educational tips and techniques in the classroom will engage their students and increase academic achievement. When you join, you’ll get immediate access to a global network of educators with whom you can share and collaborate, live and recorded webinars with education leaders, a resource center for sharing classroom documents, as well as a collection of over 500 hours of classroom technology how-to videos available anytime anywhere. It’s all the help and support you’ll ever need from your very own personal learning network (PLN)!

~ From the SimpleK12 website

The Teacher Learning Community is a membership program for interacting with other educators regarding personal experiments and experiences in teaching and utilizing technology in the classroom.  The idea is to stimulate discussion with the website’s resources and augment it with on-the-ground experiences from other teachers.  In the webinars available on the site, you are introduced to the concepts and the intent is to facilitate making yours a competent edtech classroom, successfully integrating tech into your classroom regardless of your own technical prowess–or lack thereof!

homepage 20110328

They bill themselves as relevant, in-touch, professional development.  As you teach history or social studies you can make use of these tools to help facilitate training your students the skills that will be of increasing value in the 21st century.  There is a difference from simply augmenting your instruction with technical tools and building useful skills for your students.  With these tools, aim for both.

Shared Resources search

Add to this the Student Curriculum, and you have some considerable aids to incorporate, including edtech built-in to lesson plans and modules for assessments and grading.

But, there is a catch.  The full membership requires a paid subscription fee of over $200.  That may be prohibitive for some teachers/schools.  This does not mean that the service is completely inaccessible, however, as there is an active blog, toolkits for specific technology, webinars, collaborative online forums and a series of free e-books for a free membership good for many professional development assets–you just can’t do everything.  Even at this level, you can still develop a professional development profile and print out the completion of hours earned through the site.  Despite the price of full membership, the freebies are copious and valuable even without spending the dough.

I encourage educators who are interested in edtech and integrating tech-skill development for their students into their regular classroom activity to pursue the options and see if it is right for you.  Not just classroom teachers, but homeschool teachers can also make use of these tools in home education utilizing the technology they own.  To feel it out, start with the blog:

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History and the Case of Joe Paterno

The Historical Society: Rewriting History? The Case of Joe Paterno

While I am swamped, I came upon this blog post about Joe Paterno and the NCAA punishments leveled at his legacy. Has history been rewritten now that the NCAA retroactively rewrote their record books? Well, the historical record certainly can’t be rewritten! (Seriously, go to the Sports Illustrated online archive, none of the articles about Penn State’s victories have been redacted.)

Alan Bliss points out the dichotomy between the past (what happened) and history (how we interpret the past).  It is an important distinction.  Revisionist history is the constant state of the field.  New data, information, and interpretations are always coming to the fore.  Bliss makes an interesting comparison with Ballard’s discovery of the HMS Titanic.

Click the link above and read the brief, well-written post on history and its relationship with the past via the Joe Paterno scandal.

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