Tag Archives: American history

War of 1812 Possibilities: Exploring social history through military history

image

On a recent trip to the Niagara region, I came across the publication printed above, Green Coats and Glory, the United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821.  It tells a truly fascinating story about the first American attempt at forming a corp of riflemen.

As the essay by scholar John C. Fredriksen acknowledges, we often think of the independent and resourceful riflemen of the Revolutionary War, but in the War of 1812 this loose and independent compilation of men had been regularized into a formal unit.  They were still deadly and independent and resourceful, but they also were issued uniforms and equipment, following the command of officers.

Unlike English counterparts, Fredericksen explains, the American military history of regiments has been neglected in favor of the political as regards the War of 1812.  While military history often gets snubbed and looked down upon by “serious” scholars (in some cases simply because it is regarded as tedious), it is one of great popularity among history-lovers in the general populace.  And further, while it is can be the work of piecing together troop movements and strategic military chess, it can also be an enlightening foray into social history.

This examination of social history is especially true of military inquiries on this side of the pond where military advancement into the officers’ ranks was not unattainable as it largely was among the British units.  Thus, the study of the men in the units is frequently a study of a real cross-section of the population.

Fredericksen’s decade of research through many archives–especially those of historical societies–is one demonstration of many for the possibilities of rigorous historical research in military history that produced an interesting survey of social American history.  Many storylines were revealed as he accessed a more personal account of the War of 1812, especially, beyond the few usually geo-political analyses of a largely forgotten war.

Hopefully, this type of inquiry will garner both more attention from the public and appeal from researchers in honor of the War of 1812’s anniversary.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Historian's Journal

Word of the Week, 7/25-7/30: ballad

ballad |’bælad| • n. a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas.  Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the folk culture.

• a slow sentimental or romantic song

~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

There is a rich tradition of ballads in American history.  Many, especially those born out of the working experiences of slavery, the Industrial Revolution and the frontier, are homegrown.  But, many are also the musical heritage of our immigrant population.  Regardless of origin, for years, these songs and stories were the principle form of entertainment, as well as a way to capture community history and folk lore.

Early Americans of the colonial era brought ballads with them from the Old Country.  Many of the songs collected in Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, originally published in 1965, by Jean Ritchie, are English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish.  These were preserved in the Appalachian hills by generations of American communities while songs of Native American origin and newer American songs were added to the corpus.

The Library of Congress (LOC) was responsible for the preservation of many old American and immigrant songs before they were lost to history.  (Some of which are available online in digital collections at this web address.)  This is largely thanks to the efforts by the LOC staff and field teams, such as Alan Lomax (who wrote the original forward for the aforementioned Jean Ritchie book) and his brother who worked for the LOC’s Archive of American Folk Song in the early days of sound recordings during the first part of the 20th century.  The LOC has retained personal notes and internal documents, such as this one, which shows some of the methodology used to help preserve this part of American History.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1971), aka the OED, defines ballad more broadly than the smaller Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words does, and shows the many evolutions the meaning of the word took:

*1. A song intended as an accompaniment to a dance; the tune to which the song is sung…

2. A light, simple song of any kind…

*3. A popular song; often spec. one celebrating or scurrilously attacking persons or institutions…

*4. A proverbial saying usually in the form of a couplet; a posy

5. A simple spirited poem in short stanzas, originally a “ballad” in sense 3. [above] in which some popular story is graphically narrated.  (This sense is essentially modern: with Milton, Addison, and even Johnson, the idea of song was present.)…

*Archaic terms no longer used.

(One may also find “ballader” or “balladist” for one who composes ballads, as well as many verbs and descriptives which are derived from the word.)

In its earliest forms, ballad is also written as “ballade” (although this word is also used to describe a particular form of poetry, which is how Geoffrey Chaucer used the word), but was pronounced the same.  The earliest written evidence of the word ballad in the context of a sentimental or romantic song is in 1498 (meaning 2. in the excerpt).

Many of these songs are preserved in the older song books of the Girl Scouts and other camping song books because the music is perfect for a campfire–sans TV, radio, internet or Ipod!–as many are sung in rounds and are often easy to accompany with a guitar or hand motions.

The stories that are preserved in the ballads are essential ingredients to our cultural past, ranging from the Early Modern era into our current era.  It is, however, interesting to note that the older songs have often inspired future musicians, many of whom gave the songs new life stilled played, today.

Here are some examples:

The first two are from Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.  Born at the end of the 19th century, he has to be one of the first generation of recorded artists who made a living with his music: his worn southern voice and his 12-string guitar.  He grew up in the deep South and spent some of his time as young man in Texas–including jail time.  Most of the music he did not write himself!  These were already embedded in his regional culture when he was “discovered” by LOC people including Lomax and his brother.

The song below is alternately know as “Black Girl” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

The song will be best known to modern audiences thanks to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s Unplugged concert:

Another famous song from Leadbelly’s repertoire is the “Midnight Special” which was a song from a state pen just south of Houston called Sugarland.  While the song was around before Leadbelly and his stay in Sugarland, he does make the song his own, having sung it many ways before settling on his own version with some of his personal color embellishing the verses.  The title of the song refers to a South Pacific train that left Houston just after eleven’o’clock in the evening, headed for San Antonio and beyond.  Its lights flashed the cells and its whistle taunted the inmates.

I first encountered the song as it was done, rather well, I think, by Creedence Clearwater Revival–a band heavily influenced by traditional American music–that remains one of the best known, today.  They used Leadbelly’s version of the song:

The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, also borrowed liberally from folk tradition, as did Led Zeppelin, and many of the musicians who contributed to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name a few more and round out the selections.

Jean Ritchie includes the song “Hangman” in her book with the following description:

According to the notes on Child ballad number 95, in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the earliest known versions of this song have a girl as the victim, the song having apparently originated as, “The Maid Freed from the Gallows.”  It concerned a young woman who fell into the hands of corsairs, and each member of her family in turn refuses to pay ransom; then her lover comes and pays down the required fee.  In our family variant as in most others from America and England, it is (more properly!) a man who is being hanged, for what reason the song does not say.  Aside from this change and the omission of motive, the story line is the same, the true love showing up on cue “for to take you home so we can married be.”…

Led Zeppelin’s is likely based on an old English version, although they were also highly influenced by American Blues, as were many English artists (the Rolling stones and Eric Clapton leap to mind).  The version, below, has lyrics:

Songs of the Wild West, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, includes a song, “The Cowboy’s Lament,” more popularly know as “The Streets of Laredo,” about a dying cowboy found by the singer.  Here, it’s sung by Cash:

Finally, I’ll finish up with some selections taken from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack.  The music was arguably as popular as the movie, given that a concert series followed the Coen brothers’ movie (a Deep South variation of Homer’s Odyssey with a less noble hero).  While some of the songs are younger than some of these others, there inspiration was in the ballad tradition:

Hope this was fun!

NOTE: In addition to the dictionary sources and the song books already referenced, I used The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell.

1 Comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

Opening Day thoughts about baseball and history

Baseball is one of the oldest games in America.  Whether you follow it or not, it is deeply ingrained in our culture and our history.  In my Sports in America history class, I recently took a large chunk of class time to show The Tenth Inning from Ken Burns’s Baseball PBS series.  Sports are such a huge part of our culture.  They intertwine with our lives socially, economically, morally and sometimes politically.  Sports competition is a metaphor for business, political candidacies, casual relationships and academics.  They also mirror our society in its troubles, successes, pessimism and optimism.

We see globalization in politics and economics expanding in our professional sports.  We see cheating in college sports as much as we see it in college academics.  We see scandals of the familiar variety blown up in the media.  We see uncommon philanthropy quietly pursued on the sidelines, in the off season.  We see winning motivate hard work and greatness, as well as shortcuts and duplicity.

Watching Ken Burns’s wonderful work, a tapestry of contemporary music, sports photography, sports writers and history, one observes the escape from Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals to the juiced home run race of McGuire and Sosa.  Almost no one wanted to talk about steroids then!  Sports reporters recalled the cocaine scandal of the ’80s and shuttered.  One also notes down in Houston a stadium still named after Enron.  And, one recalls with chills and tears the season of 9/11 when everyone who had begun to detest the New York Yankees suddenly rallied behind them . . everyone outside of Arizona, that is.

It is serendipity that I happened to show this concurrently with the Barry Bonds perjury trial and Opening Day-week.  In full disclosure, I am not a baseball fan, but I am a romantic for its entanglement in America’s past–I envy baseball fans.  (While I live in Baltimore, I keep an eye on the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, despite their indomitable success at losing, and shake my head at the incompetence and greed of Pirate’s ownership daring to operate in the same city as the Rooney family and Mario Lemieux.)  Otherwise, I am fully on the outside looking in, not fully comprehending the rules and beauties of the sport, but nonetheless appreciating its entrenchment in our culture.

Part of baseball’s magic is that it is played in the summer.  But, the other part comes from its roots, predating the Civil War, and being integrally caught up in American history.

2 Comments

Filed under Historian's Journal

Cultural Illiteracy and the History Vacuum

I recently read a couple of articles that I thought were poignant and related.  (Special thanks, here, to Gleb_Tsipursky for bringing them to my attention via Twitter.)   The articles come from CNN’s “Subject Matters” column, by Sally Holland, and Insider Higher Ed’s guest editorial, “Sorry”, by Stephen Brockmann.

Read the articles by clicking on the links below:

Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history,” Sally Holland, CNN.com

“Sorry,” Stephen Brockman, InsideHigherEd.com

These two articles are both talking about the struggle within our society to engage our young citizenry in history (and the humanities) and the vacuum of cultural illiteracy that has developed in recent years.  The two articles point to different causes, but they are addressing the same effect.

Cultural Iliteracy

Western Civilization has certain traditions and assumptions that inform our society; these influence our legal system, political system, moral and ethical codes and educational approaches.  It differs significantly from other traditions; it has flaws both historically and currently; it often neglects other societies and traditions or looks down upon them.  It is also the culture from which we emerged.  Learning about our civilization’s heritage is also a means for acknowledging its shortcomings and provides a stable platform from which to contrast alternate traditions.

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

~ Stephen Brockmann

Teachers in high school and middle school notice the problems at a young age.  Students do not retain material, nor do they make necessary connections between time and space as they learn.  We have moved away from memorization drills, which seems to lead to a greater enjoyment, but, while it opens the door for greater opportunities in developing thought processes, there clearly are problems with retention and cognition.  On top of this, students seem to have a lower common-denominator of shared knowledge which requires more teaching than the curriculum may assume necessary.

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably bring up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

~ Sally Holland

The field’s potential impact on how we think is itself born out of Western Civilization’s traditions.  This is relevant not only to cultural literacy but cultural fluency and is an important asset for one’s ability to participate in our cultural institutions–not least in our participatory-based political system.  As Brockmann says, we fail to adequately learn even its shortcomings or to understand precisely how this tradition and society contrasts with others.  Without the ability to learn about our own past and its own strangeness and differences we will fail trying to learn about other cultures and traditions.  This also leads to failure in progressive attempts to break from the supposed tyranny of Western Civilization and create a successful inclusive curriculum.  As Sam Wineburg has written in his explanations of historical thinking as a curriculum goal, lacking engagement with our own culture’s foreign attributes will necessarily stunt our ability to deal with the contemporary foreign cultures around us with which we are in ever-increasing contact.

What’s the cause of the current set of circumstances?

Holland’s article focuses on the perspective that is twofold: on the one hand, the amount of content is overwhelming for teachers and, aided by crummy textbooks, often reduced to trivia; on the other hand, history has been deemphasized in schools at an ever-younger level because it is not part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing.  Even in cases where state-mandated tests exist, there is often a large gap between the testing and the period of learning.

World history teacher Troy Hammon of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, said he is constantly weighing how much “trivia” he teaches, like names, dates and places, and when to try to help his students relive history.

For example, Hammon had his students take on the roles of individuals who may have taken part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The students then answered questions based on their knowledge of that time. Hammon believes this helps his students better understand the Middle Ages.

History grows every year, no matter what,” said Jennifer Kravitz, who teaches world history, civics and economics at Rutland High School in Vermont. “So with this ever-expanding content, teachers are trying to balance teaching history content with helping students learn the essential skills they are going to need.”

~ Sally Holland

The resources provided to teachers at the secondary level emphasize “facts” but not thinking.  (I actually open classes by telling my students that we will not be studying facts, but interpretations of sources–hopefully reliable sources.)  Even so, the challenge of retention and engagement remains.

Brockmann opens his discussion much earlier than NCLB with the cultural wars in the 1980s.  He argues that these were not only counter-productive to either group’s goals, they also gutted the humanities of its respectability and dignity in the minds of the general public.  It created the image of the liberal arts as a bastard child in the academic arena, subordinate to more vocational majors such as business, which is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of education and its roots in Western Civilization.

A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

~ Stephen Brockmann

What is lost?   Perhaps it is irrelevant to you that America’s children are limited in their thinking about Easter to a basket full of candy and gifts delivered by the Easter bunny, but it is a tragedy regardless of whether those children are raised as Christians.  This reflects an unfortunate reordering of our values and mores–and I am not insisting on a Christian society, here.  The questions are broader than religion or life viewed through a religion’s perspective.  How do business courses prepare students for the cultural interactions of the modern world?  How do they replace philosophy courses that ask us how to think about how best we should live?  By what means do they teach the next generation to communicate, argue and understand rhetoric?  In fact, business schools must add such tangential courses to their programs because they recognize that their students are not getting a well-rounded education beyond the major.

How is it solved?

Indeed, how?  It requires a re-commitment to our society’s roots, even if we dispute the value of it’s ideals and practices.  It is not necessary to glorify it, but it is necessary to learn it.  We cannot possibly expect students to understand the conflicts that exist today or the necessity for self-education and participation in the community and civics without some grounding in what got us here–and I understand this to extend beyond our Founding Fathers, just as they looked beyond their British heritage in the founding of a new American civilization.  The value of testing-based education has been questioned long before NCLB and the idea that a multiple choice test can adequately evaluate a student’s ability to think historically is, naturally, absurd.

Brockmann believes that we have truly lost something, which is why he entitles his op-ed, “Sorry”.  Holland’s teachers appear to have few answers as well, though their myopic  concern about NCLB and state testing requirements smells like a scapegoat.  Naturally, students‘ lives have changed from the 1980s–not just their habits and activities, but also the way their brains develop as a result.  Will instructors be able adapt as necessary within the systems that exist–those systems born out of Western Civilization?  Probably.  When and what will be lost (and need to be recovered by later generations)?  Good question.  Students of the breadth and depth of Western Civilization will recall that the Romans looked back to the Greeks.  In succession, the Carolingians, 12th Century scholars, Renaissance Europeans and Enlightened thinkers all looked back to the Greeks and Romans following a decline in such interest and remembrance.  Enlightened thinkers looked back to the Renaissance, as well.  So, perhaps we are due for another flourishing in the long history of ideas from our extensive heritage.

2 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

1 Comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Lectures

Local History in our Cities’ Museums

In the U.S., our cities have certain stories of their past to tell:

  1. Life before the European–the story, told mostly through archaeology and treaties, of the American Indian in a particular region
  2. Settlement–a story that often includes conflict, with the previous inhabitants, the landscape or both; sometimes this is a story of innovations, sometimes a story conquest and often it includes stories of tremendous will and perseverance; this is also told through archaeology and occasionally federal and legal documents–under more fortunate circumstances, it includes first person accounts
  3. Growth–a story that explains how a settlement of a few pioneers became a town and then a city; this is usually a story that builds through multiple phases: first as infrastructure improves and again as local industry develops; occasionally these stories include periods of economic and population regression–sometimes it is how they culminate
  4. Local industry–this story features the prominent (usually) men about town that created jobs and economic growth through commercial means and typically effected politics and society, such as Heinz in Pittsburgh, the race track in Saratoga or the ship yards in Baltimore
  5. Local events/catastrophes/individuals–these are uniques stories and major events unique to the region, from cataclysmic natural disasters to military battles to political show-downs or epic instances of courage; they provide much of the local color and show up in any phase along the way
  6. Prejudice and civil rights–these are stories that recognize the local region’s particular participation in our country’s greater history of having failed to live up to our own ideals, tempered with the stories of courage and risk in which those shortcomings were overcome–most of these stories appear in the past tense, often around slavery, Jim Crow or urban renewal, and with the sense that we have overcome those periods and issues
  7. Sports–these stories can also encompass a wide range of periods and are part of the local lore, trial and triumph; these often include a discussion of prejudice at some point, usually looking at the Negro Leagues or desegregation in sports and the impact on society

These cases are often the focus and model for local museums.  As with historical textbook authors and documentary directors, curators are often knowledgeable about either one particular facet of the museum’s exhibits or are specifically gifted in their field and happen to be at a history museum (as opposed to art, for example).  Thus, it is frequently the case that museums, as with textbooks and documentaries, do not always deal with the method behind the displayed knowledge, nor thus the disagreement that often exists regarding historical interpretations.  So, in the same sense there is often the perception of the provided information as being HISTORICAL FACT as opposed to an interpretation of evidence–often the result of hard research, I am sure–but not reflective of historical method, which is itself an end in one’s historical education.

So, the question arises: how do we use this as curious human beings and as educators?

For the curious:

Whenever we visit these museums, we have two options in our approach: we can simply take in and enjoy–a passive edutainment approach–or we can consider what is missing, what evidence is provided for the assertions, what implications arise, what other interpretations exist or other questions–an active thinking approach.  This is all really dependent on one’s own interests.  While visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh I was really intrigued by a small exhibit that acknowledged the various religious women orders that had been active in Pittsburgh despite a prevalent suspicion for foreign-born Catholics.  The exhibit explained that the nuns earned respect by providing health services for orphans and poor factory workers in the growing steel industry.  An example of each habit was provided and a brief blurb about the order, but little other information or evidence about their accomplishments and relationships in the city.  I was particularly interested because few of the orders had an education–mission which is the stereotypical role, today.

In the sense that the exhibit brought the subject to my awareness it was positive, but that I left with more questions than answers is an outcome for which the merits must be judged by each individual.

For the educator:

These same challenges can be turned into opportunities by educators.  In fact, tapping into the local industry or sports lore may be a really useful way to engage students in challenging concepts surrounding both historical method and content.  Relationships can be fostered between local institutions encouraging students to engage and research the content in the exhibits and learn more about how historians know what they claim to know.  There are, thus, many opportunities not only to engage students with the physical objects of the past, but to engage their attention to the construction of the content.  Local histories are often exhibited in a predominantly positive way, with the darker points of history usually (but not always) relegated to the more distant past, and this also creates opportunities to prompt thought about other perspectives and more balanced understandings of human past and human nature.  (Incidentally, I think it is often the threat of the darker side of history that makes the accompanying sports history that much more appealing and triumphant!  That is unless, of course, there is something inherently unavoidable about the loss, such as the Baltimore Colts packing up and leaving town, or the utter racism that left the Washington Redskins as the last team to desegregate.)

In short, there is opportunity in our local field trip availability that can trigger really useful active thinking–historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg would call it–that we can tap into as educators at all levels.

1 Comment

Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Korea–a really brief look at how we got here

Korea has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as China and Japan.  If it was not under the thumb of its neighbors in modern times, it was under the influence of imperialist European nations.  We might as well begin at the conclusion of World War II, when Korea had been forcibly liberated from Japan–a period of brutal treatment that has not been forgotten (as is evident from the Japanese textbook scandal a few years back which riled China, North Korea and South Korea with its glossed over account of Japan’s war crimes committed against the occupied people of these two countries).  Not unlike World War II Germany, Korea was divided by the Soviets and the Americans in the Allied attempt to defeat the Japanese.  The Soviets established the Korean Workers’ Party and installed their man, Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung, founding the People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, accompanied by Soviet withdrawal.  When the South declared its independence the Korean War began with North Korea’s invasion.  Thus, it was one of the few hot spots during the Cold War.

Kim Il-Sung, the "Eternal Leader", with his son, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader".

When folks refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war they are in part referring to the preference to look at the Second World War and Vietnam, while neglecting this brief but brutal conflict.  Over two million people died between 1950-1953.  Only twenty thousand fewer Americans died in that span than died in seventeen years of the Vietnam War.  In the end, with the involvement of U.S.-led coalition forces, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, two Koreas were forged in brutal warfare, separating families and isolating the people of North Korea.

A Map of the Korean Peninsula (1993, CIA)

Roughly along the 38th Parallel is a no-man’s land, legendary for its absurdly large collection of land mines, which is guarded around the clock by North Koreans on the north wall and South Koreans and Americans on the south wall.  American forces have remained in South Korea since the Armistice that ended the Korean conflict.  (They have mostly been welcomed, but more recently their presence is controversial to a younger generation, especially given a level of inappropriate behavior by some soldiers.)  Whereas South Korea has achieved some economic stability, the North has been in a dire situation for decades with extremely poor health, short life expectancy and widespread hunger and starvation.  Conditions for aid have often been dependent on a more humane government, but it has sacrificed its people for weapons and a desire to establish a nuclear armament.

The physical darkness of North Korea and metaphor for the internal conditions.

Throughout the last decade and a half, the West and North Korea’s neighbors have been concerned about its attempt to negotiate for nuclear energy to solve some its internal problems.  The potential to turn energy into arsenal has always been a concern, though many agree that clean and abundant energy would be an asset to a nation that is significantly behind in medicine, food production, manufacturing, everything but military arsenals.  The so-called Six Party talks, named after the six countries at the table: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been orchestrated on numerous occasions to discuss the nuclear situation.  In the last decade North Korea even agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA of the United Nations to conduct investigations and inspections intended to insure that all nuclear-interests were peaceful, but ultimately failed to make good on such promises.  Traditionally, China has insisted on protecting the North, and as with a small sibling, scolding and cajoling them into cooperation, but many question China’s influence, particularly in light of its recent economic changes.  Current events, including two attacks, may sorely test China’s right to keep little brother from straying into international conflict.

Kim Jong-il's family

In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died after amassing a substantial military regime, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese aircraft, artillery and guns, and was replaced by Kim Jong-il.  It is believed that the next succession is under way from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, but given its closed society it is difficult to say for sure what it is intended.  If Kim Jong-il is about to end his career as North Korea’s supreme leader, it is worth remembering the brief thaw in North-South relations which many Koreans, separated since the conflict in the early 50s, were reunited.  It came during a brief period of hope that has since evaporated.  In contrast to this touching scene, we may also recall the presentation of his father as Eternal Leader ten years after his death and the fact that the country resembles nothing so much as a giant concentration camp.

The Kims. Kim Il-Sung holds the sickle of the USSR to emphasize his background.

In the last few months, North Korea has become increasingly provocative.  The most recent missile attack on Seoul has certainly ignited the South and led many to question whether war can be avoided–an unpleasant thought under the “best” circumstances but more disturbing now, given the confirmation of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities on par with Iran.  It becomes more difficult to predict what the next course of action will be and whether a non-violent solution is possible.

North Korea ups the ante...

This has been every bit as brief as advertised and as such is likely to be vulnerable to the inaccuracies or misguiding points that are often the product of brevity.  For this reason I wanted to provide some fast but more thorough resources recommended for further investigation.

For a quick analysis on economics, history and current political situation, such as it is known, the first place to start is the CIA World Factbook for North Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html and for South Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html.  I would also suggest the US State Department to see what it is providing and saying about current events.

For a summary on Korean history in an easy to access package, try the BBC’s website: http://search.bbc.co.uk/search?go=toolbar&uri=/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml&q=korea.  From that page you can link to country profiles on both North and South as well as recent headlines and news.  While you are there you may want to make use of the timeline: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1132268.stm and the summary of the Korean War http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml–it is succinct, but more in depth than what I provided.  There are better and more academic sources out there, not least because they are written by political scientists, economists and historians, but they are not so brief.

The Economist also provides a brief commentary on the current situation and what should be done: http://www.economist.com/node/17577117?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mc/solvekorea

For a report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities visit Foreign Policyhttp://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/23/hecker_north_korea_now_has_same_nuclear_defense_as_iran

Foreign Affairs also provides analysis on North Korea’s political situation in general with two articles from August 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66581/sung-yoon-lee/the-pyongyang-playbook and October 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66870/by-jennifer-lind/the-once-and-future-kim.  Note: both of these articles predate the most recent round of hostilities and the most escalating to date.

Finally, I recommend The Week, with its broad summary coverage of what the media is reporting and how it is commenting: http://theweek.com/article/briefing_blog/141/conflict-in-the-koreas–Bonus!: the site includes cartoon commentary!

Raising the next generation of Kims.

2 Comments

Filed under Historian's Journal