Tag Archives: world history

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.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

And for the World Cup . . . QATAR???

And, in 2022, the winner is Qatar!

A World Cup to make HISTORY!!

In 2018, the World Cup will not be held in Spain/Portugal, nor England, nor Netherlands/Belgium.  It will be held in Russia–there we will see, no doubt, all sorts of inspiring video-anecdotes about the country and its people–but, maybe not its government.  (Wonder what they’re thinking in Georgia . . .)

In 2022, the World Cup will not be held in Australia, nor Japan, nor Korea, nor the USA.  It will be held in Qatar (pronounced “cutter”).  Qatar is a US ally, sorta.  Troops go on leave there when they are deployed and get laid-over there during their transports to and from theater.  Most of us don’t know much more other than it’s rolling in oil, so it is a wealthy place, but that’s about it.

So, let me provide you with some random fast-facts about the country that beat the US out for a second go at hosting the World Cup.

Location, location, location!

Qatar–Saudi Arabia’s shoe lace

If you are looking for Qatar, first pull up a map of the Middle East.  Find the “boot” of the Arabian peninsula and look for the shoe lace that’s sticking up into the Persian Gulf in the direction of Iran.  Qatar, all 11,586 sq km–so, for those of you who speak miles, slightly smaller than CONNECTICUT–is the first Middle Eastern country to ever host the World Cup.  According to the “Soccerphile” website, FIFA has ranked Qatar the no. 1 soccer country in the Persian Gulf!  Apparently, they are soccer-crazy and have been playing longer than they have had their independence (from Britain, Sept. 3, 1971).  The national team has succeeded in winning both the Gulf Cup and the Asian Games.  The Asian Games were especially interesting–they hosted and beat Iran in the semi-finals and Iraq in the championship match.  Of course, that very fact highlights some of the unique realities that come with holding a major international tournament in a hot region of the globe, both literally and figuratively.  It raises some interesting questions.  Personally, the one I want to see answered the most is what happens if Iran goes fully nuclear by then?  (The U.S. gets the World Cup if Qatar fails to muster . . . now, where is that Magic 8 Ball hiding these days . . .)

Climate Control

The other major issue with Qatar’s location is the climate in that region.  If the World Cup was played in the winter, Qatar would be your go-to destination, but it is not.  When it is not winter, according to the CIA Factbook, Qatar has “very hot, humid summers”.  The Weather Channel website suffered a brain melt-down the moment I submitted Qatar to its search engine, however, according to the Weather Underground website  (wunderground.com), summer highs average over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not to worry, though, because they are crazy rich and have a great plan to beat the summer heat!  Air conditioned stadiums!!!  I have no idea how!!  But, it is an impressive plan to build the stadiums as carbon-free, solar-powered entities–guess we don’t have those in the US.  They are some pretty sweet looking stadiums…

Kill’em with Kindness

One of the really intriguing features of the Qatari bid was that their stadiums will be built in such a way that they can take down portions and use them somewhere else–specifically targeting developing countries.  So, in this one bid we have (1) the first Middle East country ever to host, and (2) a host country that is looking to share its wealth and further expand the game–a longtime commitment of Mr. Sepp Blatter’s otherwise controversial reign as the head ref at FIFA.

Plus, they want to make it a green party!  How this carbon output is effected by the new public transportation and infrastructure that is going to be added for the event, has yet to be assessed.  I do know you cannot deliver all of the world’s soccer hooligans to stadiums by water taxi.  Speaking of hooligans, Qatar assured the world that there will be places to drink alcohol somewhere in the country–the one that’s the size of Connecticut.  Travel, at least, will be reduced from stadium to stadium–unlike, say in Russia!

Roiling Controversy



So, the next question on the minds of many for this World Cup bid-showdown is simple: did money exchange hands?  Does this stink of a gas for football scandal?  The world is shocked!  Russia beat England–with David Beckham!!  Ask yourself this: Are you drawn by Beckham or Putin?  Stable democracy and economy or mob-run state?  Just a few things I wonder about.  As far as selecting Qatar over the US (or Australia, for that matter–a country that has hosted several international sporting events, not least the Olympics, has an enviable climate, great infrastructure and was represented by Nicole Kidman!), the climate, the region and the unbuilt infrastructure–although, again, it’s not like their Russian-size–are all major questions that the US did not have to worry about in its bid.  (Oh, and we had Morgan Freeman representing us!)

The Week took a quick look at the controversy, providing a glance at three opinions–two crying foul, one concluding that there was no offsides on the play.  Below, are a couple more opinionated reports or blogs regarding FIFA’s 2012 decision.

While the FIFA bids are on the long side–and, not always in English–they also have shorter ads and summaries of each bid’s main points.  If you would like to see them follow this link: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/bidders/live/index.html.



Filed under Historian's Journal

Teachinghistory.org had my great idea first!!

And, here I was thinking I was so original and creative!!


Click on the image to get a closer look at all the brilliant stuff in this poster--a great breakdown!


I was visiting a great site and resource called Teaching History and came across this poster that they offer for free.  This has a lot of stuff that is straight out of my introductory classes each semester.  I thought I was pretty clever, but apparently I am not that original after all!!

Check out the poster and then check out my earlier blog on introducing the subject and the field each semester: “A Metaphor to Explain What Historian Do.”

Clearly, I am on to the right track!  I just received the free poster in the mail yesterday and it is fantastic.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Soccer and World History?


Ancient Athenian playing a soccer-like game. (National Museum of Archaeology, Athens, Greece)


In preparation for my sports history class next semester at the Community College of Baltimore County, I have been preparing a unit on soccer–the game the world plays . . . even if the U.S. does not.  It is also the sport over which the most ink has been spent.  Because of its penetration into the societies that really play it, it is something that has garnered the attention of political scientists, economists and sociologists, but not so much by historians.


The Ball is Round, A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt


It is with that in mind that I have started to develop the reading list, both my preparatory list and my students’, and have started reading David Goldblatt’s 974-page tome, The Ball is Round, A global history of Soccer.  Goldblatt’s argument is simply that soccer must be part of modern historical writing, “Whether the historians like it or not, football [soccer] cannot be taken out of the history of the modern world and the history of the modern world is unevenly, erratically but indisputably etched into the history of football,” (xvii, Goldblatt).  I have argued that sports and other hobbies and interests open windows onto exquisite views of our human past, but I cannot think of a single modern history that has included soccer.  In my mind, sports potentially provides a spark of interest for people who may not know why they should care about history.  Goldblatt argues that it should be considered not as a gimmick to get attention, but as a genuine contributor to history.  I have thought its value is the connection to the culture.  Goldblatt agrees, but thinks it is still more than that, contributing to the culture’s history.


A recent tribute to Kurt Landauer, club president of FC Bayern Munchen until the Nazi regime forced the club to expel its Jewish members--the only club not to do so voluntarily before such laws.


I wonder if Goldblatt is to be taken seriously.  Certainly, his latter point about history etching itself on the sport has to be accurate, but on considering whether it is the case that soccer can be included versus must be included . . . I am not yet sure.  I will say this: the Cold War should not be covered without a look at the international competitions as a way to demonstrate the apparent success of two conflicting ways of life–regardless of how accurate that presentation actually was.


The Miracle on Ice: The US is victorious over the USSR at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games in New York--incredible win considering the state of the nation and the Cold War


Come to think of it,  is it is not easy to think of the Nazi regime’s insistence on the physical prowess of the mythical Aryan race without thinking about the Olympics preceding World War II.  For that matter, I can seldom think of baseball without thinking of Cuban refugees and a certain Venezuelan dictator’s failed attempt to make the Big Leagues (poor Hugo Chavez).  Perhaps Goldblatt really has it right and I have undersold my own attempt to bridge sports and history.  Maybe we as historians do ourselves and our scholarship a real injustice by ignoring sports in the final analysis of [modern] world history.


A stamp for the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany--an affair that violated virtually all of the idealistic purposes of the Olympic Games, but also frustrated Hitler with the success of American Jesse Owens.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Music, Sports, Games, Food — The things people like . . .

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There are several popular things that I really enjoy: music, food, sports, games.

These also happen to be things that most students really enjoy.  And, they are things that are often particularly unique to the cultures that create or adopt them.  Looking at any one of these features opens a window into another culture and, thus, into what makes it strange or familiar.  Later this winter I would like to run I a week devoted to each of these fine and wonderful contributions to society.  For now, however, I would like to make a case for making greater use of these cultural institutions in teaching.


Arguably something we don’t do enough these days, feasting has had an important function in pretty much every culture.  It is also something that can be duplicated with a certain amount of ease.  A feast is a fantastic way to bring together students, families and the greater school community at large.  What’s more, it is also applicable for virtually any unit in your social studies and history classes.

It doesn’t have to be an exhibition on the glamor of exotic or foreign culinary delights, though.  Sometimes what is most powerful is the sense of deprivation.  Thanksgiving on the western frontier is a very different experience from Thanksgiving in Boston.  The food culture of a region depends on resources, climate, environment and access.  Within that culture there are often variations that exist based on wealth.  All of these are teaching points and all of these are often accessible in primary sources.  Food traditions also often represent points of fusion and connection with other cultures and regions, making a certain emphasis on food a great way to experience cultural change through contact.


Spectator and participatory sporting activities have a long history in our human story.  On the one hand, this is something that is easily recognizable and offers a familiar face to a foreign culture.  On the other hand, the purpose these served for ancient cultures is often rather alien.  Most students would be able to grasp the technical similarities that exist between the ball game of Central America with soccer, but most students will not immediately take hold of the idea that losers will be sacrificed on an altar and have their hearts removed.  By starting with the ball game, you lead to other avenues, such as religion, ritual and beliefs.

Even with more recent sports, social issues, such as eminent domain and segregation, are put into a particularly accessible format for students.  Certain international realities are also made plain when looking at international competitions such as World Cup and the Olympics.  ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series is based to an extant on this notion.


There are a combination of factors that contribute to the relevance of games.  Chess, backgammon, cards, dice . . these are games with a lot of history and there is the opportunity to put a student in the same shoes as a child, soldier, king from centuries beforehand and tell him this is the same way they past their time.

Some games are ones of strategy and others are of chance.  Strategy itself has a history as chess enthusiasts will tell you.  But, apart from that, there is also the appearance of games that are adapted to new cultures, such as with chess and its introduction of feudal symbols into the game.  This can quite frankly be brought into the present when you consider modern video games and their increasing ability to create online communities around the games.


Music is often difficult to reproduce the further back you go and yet musical historians have made hypothetical reproductions of ancient music and instruments.  The study of particular pieces and styles of music is extremely telling about a culture.  Monks chanting the daily antiphon to each other morning, day and night speaks of the round the clock prayer that accompanied monastic life.  Listening to the Blues speaks of the economic hardship in Jim Crow America.  The triumphant tonal qualities of western national anthems speaks to the nationalistic fervor of the 19th century.  The melding and blending of musical qualities in today’s modern music speaks to increasing contact and interaction through the internet, travel and trade.

Music is also something that can be [re-]produced by students who may be more in their element with singing and their instruments than with history–a point that is valid for all of the above categories as well, though maybe music and sports most.

Below is Stile Antico performing a 16th century piece.  The piece is in Latin, religious and written to be sung by many voices.

Below is Benny More; largely considered to be one of the greatest Cuban singers, he fronted Cuba’s leading big band and was known to be gifted at both the fast rhythms and the slower ones.

Finally, Dylan.  Well, ok, not Dylan–it’s a Dylan cover, because that’s what people do with Dylan songs.  This is gratuitous, perhaps, but as such I need provide little introduction.  In this case, I will only say that the cover is by Ani DiFranco, who is someone akin to Dylan in a post-sixties way.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning