Interaction Between Digital and Material Worlds

I am really excited for the Digital Sandbox Workshop at IUPUI on Thursday, August 15. The members of the executive committee, myself included, have been working hard all summer to organize this workshop, and I think the history, liberal arts, and humanities students that plan on attending will be in for an exciting day of learning about digital technology and the digital humanities. In my opinion, there are three central concepts that we are aiming to address with the workshop (as I have written elsewhere), and these concepts should be a part of every digital humanities class:

1. Tools: What digital tools are out there for my use? What do they do? Where can I find them?

2. Theory: Who created these tools? Why did they create them? Does digital technology democratize information to humanities content that was inaccessible through 19th and 20th century methods of information dissemination? (a question I attempted to address here) If we “go digital,” who might we be leaving out of the discussion? What are the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with big data through new methods of historical research such as topic modeling and distant reading?

3. Building: How can I use these tools to enhance my own scholarly work? To steal the quote from our workshop, “Play, Create, Collaborate.”

All three concepts are intertwined. I can’t build unless I have a knowledge of the tools I could use to help me accomplish what I want, and my product won’t be very good unless I understand the promises and perils of my tools that may affect my work. Of all three, I think the Digital Sandbox needs to focus on making IUPUI students aware of what is out there for their use, and I think most of our panels are geared towards meeting this objective. But time also needs to be made for discussion on theory, and an article by Thomas Peace for Active History has me thinking of ways to incorporate theory into the workshop.

As his article boldly asserts, “digital history isn’t for everyone.” Focusing on internet usage in Canada, Peace points out that in 2010 there were roughly 6.8 million Canadians who did not regularly engage with online content. Many of these people believed that they had no need for the internet, while others could not afford to have an internet connection or they believed they didn’t have the skills to use the internet. While those numbers have probably decreased since 2010, it is nevertheless significant that such a large number of people (especially those who are stuck in poverty) are prevented from engaging with the work of historians who are putting their work online. Peace specifically calls out Library and Archives Canada, which has stated that in order to move forward with its “modernization” efforts, they have “moved to a single platform, the Internet,” because “information has been liberated from its physical containers. As a result, there has been a steady decline in a static relationship between particular content and a particular communications medium.” Peace challenges us to ask whether or not some people who want to learn more about history may actually lose out thanks to this increased attention on the digital medium for scholarly work.

How do we address this problem? Peace argues that historians need make their research accessible not only in the digital world, but the material world as well. In sum, historians need to be out in the community as often–if not more often–as they are staring at a computer screen. In another thought-provoking essay, Peace introduces (to me, at least) the concepts of active and passive history. Passive history involves learning about history through television and historic site interpretation, but through a person’s “preexisting understanding of the world.” What I get from this definition is that people absorb historic information passively when they use it to suit their own purposes without engaging with the past or “thinking historically.” As Josh Tosh explains, “Many of our most popular heritage sites encourage a view of the past which is superficial, nostalgic and conformist; they are not so much a means of education as an adjunct to tourism.” Getting audiences to think critically about the past, to see change over time, to link past, present, and future together, to look at both the good and bad moments and events in history, to provide context for those historic events that goes beyond family history… that is all active history.

In concluding the first piece I linked to, Peace states the follow:

As online services and digital history grows in prominence, Active Historians need to critically reflect on their audience and understand who isn’t able to come into contact with our research and ideas. We also need to push back against projects that over-emphasize the potential of online dissemination. Instead we should emphasize ways in which the digital and material worlds can interact, reinforcing and enhancing the public’s access to information and analysis about the past.

I am not sure how many other digital projects out there besides the one Peace mentioned are “over-emphasiz[ing] the potential of online dissemination” and would like further clarification on that point. Nevertheless, I agree that a major part of doing “active history” is providing access to information about the past in as many forms as possible, and the notion of fostering interaction between digital and material worlds is one I will continue to ponder as I learn more about the digital humanities.


History is an Act of Creation

So the internet world has blown up today with a shockingly terrible Fox News interview of a professor of religion who wrote a book about Jesus Christ, but happens to be Muslim. Here it is:

Rather than exploring the content of Reza Aslan’s book, the interviewer questions why a Muslim would take an interest in studying Jesus Christ and the history of Christianity.  She also brings in a question from some sort of online chat (around 6:55 in the video) equating Aslan’s study of Jesus to a “biased” Democrat studying the actions of Republican Ronald Reagan. In both instances, apparently, a hidden agenda underlies these scholarly works because of the author’s affiliations outside of the scholarly realm. In sum, they are not “objective.”

There are two points I’d like to make regarding this line of thinking:

1. History is an analysis of the past from the eyes of “Participants” and “Observers”: I’ve had interesting discussions with people regarding who gets to study who in history. For instance, a friend once told me that I couldn’t truly understand the South or the reasons why the Confederacy attempted to secede from the United States because I lived in the Midwest, not the Deep South. Similarly, I’ve heard an argument from a person who shall remain nameless and locationless who recently argued that Whites could never fully understand the plight of Blacks in American History, thus they should not be hired to work at museums and other public history sites that focus on African American history. I also remember taking an undergrad class on Native Americans in America that provided thought provoking arguments about Whites in the 20th Century who attempted to assimilate themselves into Native American culture, but were seen as “frauds” by those who had spent their entire lives enmeshed in that culture.

Such arguments are extremely problematic for many reasons. For one, it suggests, for example, that only Germans can study Adolf Hitler, only Italians can study Christopher Columbus, and only White Southerners can study Jefferson Davis. Secondly, we should remember that history is an ongoing conversation that is constantly up for revision and discussion between all people. We can split everyone into two groups: Participants are people who live in a culture and observe events firsthand. They provide future generations with perspectives, viewpoints, and primary source documents (diaries, journals, newspaper editorials, etc.) that give us unqiue perspectives about a particular time period. Observers are people who do not live in that culture. They live in different cultures and time periods and observe the past from a distanced vantage point. Yet their role in history is equally important. Observers study past cultures and attempt to provide a context for explaining why things happened the way they did. They then use that context to interpret primary sources documents and provide us a sharper perception of the past. Reading a diary from so-and-so in 1850 may help us understand the past to a certain extent, but historians give new us new ideas for understanding that diary and provide us the tools to understand that diary within the larger scope of history. In sum, we need the perspectives of both participants and observers.

I wholeheartedly agree with Eric Foner, who argues that history is owned by “everyone and no one” and that “the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”

2. We are all biased. Get over it: Unfortunately, the term “bias”–much like the popular buzzword “political correctness”–is too often used to shut down the arguments of others without actually engaging with the content of those arguments. By calling Aslan’s work on Jesus Christ “biased” because of his Muslim background, we fail to acknowledge that a Christian writing about Jesus Christ is biased as well.  When we call the now-deceased Howard Zinn “biased” and use that as a justification for keeping his left-leaning books out of the history classroom without engaging in a discussion about the contents of Zinn’s work, we sometimes fail to see how others are writing textbooks for history classes that have their own set of presumptions and biases.

This is not to say that Aslan and Zinn are wholly right or wrong or that their critics are wholly right or wrong. The point is that we need to learn about their own personal beliefs AND address the content of their arguments rather than throwing out meaningless words that are used to silence dissenting opinions. History is an act of creation, and for that reason it is written, studied, analyzed, interpreted, read and contested by people who observe past cultures while being inherently biased by their role as participants in our world today. Participants of today’s world who write about more recent history (the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example) also carry their own set of biases as well. While objectivity is indeed a “noble dream,” it is just that. A dream.

I applaud Reza Aslan for his judicious and patient explanation for why he wrote a book about Jesus Christ. What do you think?


Public History, the Humanities, and the Digital Landscape

Here is an essay I wrote on public history and the humanities for the Digital Sandbox blog. Check it out and see what we’re doing for the workshop at IUPUI on Thursday, August 15.

Digital Sandbox

During the development of this Digital Sandbox workshop, numerous lively discussions ensued amongst the executive committee members about the outcomes and vision of this project. Chief among them pertained to scope: as a committee composed of public history students, how do we compose a workshop which encapsulate the broader humanities? Nick Sacco, a second-year Public History graduate student at IUPUI and member of the executive committee, weighs in on what he feels is the nature of Public History and where it fits into the larger humanities puzzle.

During my studies in the public history graduate program at IUPUI, I have been challenged to think about the study of history within a larger context of the entire humanities discipline. For example, I’ve learned about various ways in which historians have utilized methods in anthropology, art history, and library science (just to name a few) in their quest to understand the past…

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The Grand Army of the Republic’s “Sham Battles”

Civil War Battle Reenactment
Civil War Reenactors at a recent reenactment of the Battle of Carthage in Missouri. Photo Credit: KOMU 8 Television,

In my last post, I reflected on the many reasons why people dress up in Civil War clothing and take time out of their busy schedules to engage in battle reenactments. I shared some thoughts on why I don’t really care for battle reenactments, and I questioned whether engaging in a battle reenactment was an appropriate way to “honor” the services of Union and Confederate soldiers.

For this post, I’d like to share some findings I made during my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. Although I still believe that most veterans in America don’t particularly care for battle reenactments, I was surprised to find a few newspaper articles detailing two separate instances in the 1890s in which GAR members and the Sons of Union Veterans participated in what they described as “sham battles.” I find these sham battles to be quite strange, and I do not propose to have definitive answers for why they took place. I’ve spent a good amount of time with these sources but my forthcoming proposals are largely speculative. Take them with a grain of salt and remember that just because some GAR members engaged in reenactments doesn’t mean that they all approved of these events.

On March 28, 1890, the American Tribune–an Indianapolis newspaper run by GAR members that was largely popular with Union veterans who fought in the Western Theater–published an article entitled “Some Rare Fun.” Roughly 200 GAR members and Sons of Union Veterans in Peru, Indiana, descended upon the property of “Captain Blake” (who was most likely Philander Blake, a member of William B. Reyburn Post 56 in Peru). Blake was about 70 years old at the time and lived roughly five miles southeast of the city. The article explains that all participants received muskets and cartridge blanks. “Here the forces were divided and one division composed of [GAR] veterans with the cannon, took a position on the ridge about a quarter of a mile beyond the house and in full view of it, while the attacking division, composed of the Sons of Veterans, were posted in the edge of the woods about half mile away… It was about eleven o’clock when the forces were ready for business. Boom went the cannon. It awoke everybody for miles around.”

The article then takes an absurdly melodramatic tone. It also appears that Blake takes the battle too seriously. The author describes Blake as rushing back into the house, shouting out  “tear up all the sheets we’ve got, for there’ll [sic] be a hundred wounded men here in ten minutes.” He also proclaims, “Maria, if I fall in this engagement name both the twins after me so if anything happens to one, my name will still be preserved to posterity, and remember that I died with my face to the enemy doing my whole duty.” As the “war” concludes, everyone, including many of the neighbors, head over to Captain Blake’s house where “Mrs. B,” the ever-dutiful wife, is making baked beans, bread, and coffee for “the Peruvians.”


On May 23, 1899, the Indianapolis Journal sent a reporter to the State Encampment of the Indiana GAR, an annual event in which veterans from all over Indiana met for several days to fraternize, march in parade, and make speeches about the Civil War and current-day political concerns. The 1899 Encampment was held in Terre Haute, where a “record breaking” attendance of 20,000 came out to see two hours of band music, military exhibition drills, and a sham battle fought by the GAR, the Sons of Union Veterans, and the veterans of the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Since the war had ended less than a year earlier, the participants decided to stage a reenactment of the Battle of El Caney, a battle in which the Americans successfully attacked Spanish fortifications at El Caney, Cuba, but at the expense of 81 dead and 360 wounded. The article gives names for who commanded the “Spanish Garrison” and the “United States Forces,” but does not clarify whether they were GAR or Sons of Union Veterans members. A lengthy description of the reenactment–which included the use of Gatling Guns and trench warfare tactics–ends with “the Spanish colors being replaced by those of the United States.”

Why did these reenacments take place, and why were GAR veterans so excited to participate? Could you imagine veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq (the first one), Afghanistan, and Iraq (the second one) engaging in battle reenactments of those terrible wars? It simply boggles my mind thinking about.

I think that part of the reason why these veterans engaged in battle reenactments has to do with the popularity of fraternal societies and their associated rituals, a movement that began after the Civil War at the height of the Victorian Era and lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s. W.S. Harwood, a journalist writing for the North American Review in 1897, described the period as the “Golden Age of Fraternity.” Voluntary fraternal societies like the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, Knights of Pythias, and the Grand Army of the Republic all enjoyed national memberships that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The GAR, for instance, hit its peak in 1890 with more than 400,000 members, 25,000 of which came from Indiana, according to Dennis NorthcottJason Kaufman points out that nearly half of all White males in America were a part of some voluntary association during this time (groups like the Elks Lodge kept African Americans away, although it should be noted that the GAR accepted African American Civil War veterans into their ranks).

In 1963, Emile Durkheim argued that this rise in associations was the result of “transformations in the underlying structures of society.” Many industrial middle class white men, according to Durkheim, joined fraternal societies to “escape” from several underlying tensions provoked by the changes brought on by industrialization in America after the Civil War: tensions between labor and capitol, urbanization, and rapidly increasing rates of immigration, just to name a few. Engaging in a mythical battle reenactment may have acted as an “escape” for veterans who wanted to reflect on their younger years, when things were “simpler” (a common theme echoed by many reenactors today, although such notions are clearly false). Even though the battlefield was a terrible place, it was a place many veterans could not escape mentally. With society’s rapid changes in the post war years (and a lack of medical understanding about harmful mental disorders like PTSD), perhaps the battlefield acted as a place of comfort and order for some veterans.

More convincing to me, however, are arguments made by Mark Carnes and Lynn Dumenil, who assert that concerns over gender were a driving force for the popularity of fraternal rituals and voluntary associations. Through these organizations, men distanced themselves from the rest of society and resorted to a place where the bonds of brotherhood and fraternity could be strengthened away from the presence of women. “Manhood” took on “the acquisition of a wide range of roles and statuses” during this period as young men journeyed into manhood during a confusing and complicated time. Although aged 70 at the time, Captain Blake’s assertions to “Maria” of “facing the enemy” upon death suggest that the battle reenactment acted as a mechanism in which to reassert his honor and bravery as a man. In an age before television, video games, and mancaves, reenactments of recent and painful battles may have played a role in establishing GAR Civil War veterans as exemplars of manhood to the rest of society. Promoting American nationalism was also an underlying goal of these reenactments, but the rhetoric of “honoring” those who served in uniform or teaching lessons about the past is nonexistent. These were guys who wanted to have fun and entertain themselves, albeit in a way that is strange to us today.


Why Do We Engage in Battle Reenactments?

Umm... I don't think they had those in the 1860s. Photo Credit: Civil War Librarian:
Umm… I don’t think they had those in the 1860s. Photo Credit: Civil War Librarian:

As the Civil War Sesquicentennial rolls along, we continue to run into articles about Civil War battle reenactors who have returned to battlefields all across the country to “commemorate” the anniversaries of important battles in the history of the Civil War. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg received a lot of press, of course, but reenactments of other battles like Shiloh, Vicksburg, and the Crater have already taken place or will be taking place in the near future. Participants give a wide range of explanations for involving themselves in these activities. Virginia resident Dave Born explained that he participates in battle reenactments because “I enjoy the camaraderie with others who enjoy history and I also enjoy the research in portraying particular people. This is like a busman’s holiday for me on horseback.” Massachusetts resident Elliot M. Levy reflected on his admiration for Civil War soldiers: “Many men fought to the death. They were admirable. I am in awe of them.” Recapturing the heroic qualities of those soldiers and the entire Civil War period seems to be a driving influence for Levy, who also stated that,”this was a different era. Soldiers did not want to do a disservice to their unit, or friends or hometown.” (Is he suggesting that soldiers today don’t think this way?) I also liked this very fine essay from IUPUI Anthropology Professor Paul Mullins, who explains that reenactments have much appeal because they are “an intense emotional experience:  muddy hillside charges, clouds of gunpowder smoke, sweat-soaked period uniforms, and chest-rattling cannon-fire make a distant but hallowed heritage seem ‘real and tangible’.”

One of the more interesting essays I came across was from North Carolina resident Clint Johnson, who seems to believe that battle reenactments are an appropriate way of “honoring” the service of both Union and Confederate soldiers. According to Johnson, reenacting isn’t about discussing the causes of the war, slavery, or even the Union itself:

Reenactors go out in the heat and the cold, and the blazing sun and the chilling rain to honor the men of both sides. It’s as simple as that. These Northern and Southern men left their homes to fight a war in which they had no personal stake. Few of the common soldiers on either side owned slaves and no one particularly liked the wealthy men who did own slaves. Fighting this war did not assure the common soldiers there was money to be made, new lands to conquer or spoils to be split among the winners.

Notwithstanding several problematic assertions from Levy and Johnson (why is it necessary to mention that few soldiers owned slaves if reenactments are not about slavery? How do we know that the common soldiers didn’t like the wealthy slaveholders? Robert E. Lee, anyone?), it is clear that for many participants, reenacting is an act of commemoration. As with all commemorations, the act of remembering the past is a mental creation intended to give us the living a sense of reckoning and understanding about the past as much as it’s about remembering specific events and people in history. Whether battle reenactments represent an appropriate way to “honor” Civil War soldiers is impossible to determine, but it is nonetheless significant that so many Americans today believe that Civil War soldiers would approve these activities as appropriate demonstrations for honoring their service.

I don’t particularly care for battle reenactments, although living history performances in other settings can serve useful, even educational purposes. My maternal grandfather fought in World War II, spending most of his time in Africa. I’m told that when he came back home, discussions about the war were rare and actively discouraged. You just didn’t talk about the war at dinner or other family functions. Re-creating such a miserable experience–the overwhelming noises, the physical pain, even the act of someone dying–is simply unappealing to me, and I would assume that many veterans like my grandfather had no appetite for such activities. In my opinion, battle reenactments function as venues for entertainment, not history, even if newspapers in Chicago think they do. That said, maybe there is room for constructive dialogue to be established between academic historians and battle reenactors so that they can create engaging programs together, ones that may or may not take place on a battlefield. This is not to say that battle reenactors need the help of academic historians. But when you take the perspective of Clint Johnson and try to make reenactments exclusively about the soldiers without mentioning the causes, context, or consequences of the terrible war they fought, you’ll run into serious problems, especially when you consider that an appropriate way to “honor” those in the military is by honoring the causes for which they fought. Right?

Even though I’m skeptical of battle reenactments, I question whether or not they act as an appropriate way of “honoring” Civil War soldiers, and I tend to think that most veterans in all of America’s wars don’t care for reenactments, my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana yielded some surprising discoveries. It turns out that some Civil War veterans had no problems engaging in “sham battles” of their own. My next blog post will explore two “sham battles” that occurred in Indiana in the 1890s. I’ll attempt to provide some insights as to why some Civil War veterans engaged in these battles and provide context to place these events within Victorian Era American society. In the meantime, what do you think about battle reenactments?


Introducing Digital Sandbox

Digital SandboxToday has been an extremely lazy day for me. Not much of anything got done. Amidst the laziness, however, I completed a rough draft of an essay on public history and the digital humanities that will be up soon. I wrote this essay in preparation for Digital Sandbox, an exciting workshop that will be taking place at IUPUI next month on Thursday, August 15. The idea for this event was originated by Nancy Brown, a recent graduate of IUPUI who is now pursuing her PhD at Purdue University, but the process of planning and arranging the event’s logistics was left to three classmates and myself. Many of us took a course on digital history in the spring, and all of us have a strong desire to continue the discussion on the intersections between history, digital technology, and the digital humanities. We felt that a student-created, student-run workshop on these topics would be a creative and exciting way to not only inform and educate our fellow public history/liberal arts/humanities classmates, but to also demonstrate to IUPUI faculty our desire to make the implementation of digital technology a core element of the humanities curriculum.

I believe that digital technology should be utilized in humanities classrooms in two important and interconnected ways:

  • Rigorous and critical analysis of the theories behind digital technology. Does digital technology really lead to a democratization of humanities content that is accessible to a nonacademic audience, or does digital technology perpetuate old gender, racial, and class divisions that plagued humanistic studies in the twentieth century? Who are the power interests behind the creation of the digital tools we use in our research? How much technical training should humanities students receive? Should they receive training in code (HTML, XML, etc.), or should the emphasis be on other technical aspects? How much time should be spent “hacking” digital technology and how much time should be spent “yacking” about digital technology? What is the digital humanities, anyway?
  • Building things. Using tools to conduct digital research, create websites, preserve archival resources, present digital exhibits, and engage in text mining of large bodies of text. Experimenting and playing with digital tools. Collaborating in scholarly digital projects, some of which will be interdisciplinary in nature. Creating projects that provide unique insights, ask new questions of the past, and present our work to a diverse audience not exclusively composed of academics. The latter qualification is important, as the digital humanities shouldn’t be an exclusively academic endeavor.

By building things and understanding the promises and perils of digital technology, I believe humanities graduate students will put themselves in a much stronger position to find gainful employment upon completion of their respective degree programs. I am very privileged to work with such great classmates and faculty at IUPUI and I am hopeful that my training will lead to great results for my career next year.

You can see what we’re doing with the Digital Sandbox by visiting our website here.

What Does Classroom Testing Accomplish?

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to classroom testing. I am not a fan of it, and I think it is particularly harmful in the history classroom when the tests focus almost exclusively on rote memorization of multiple-choice questions. There may be a place for some classroom testing and perhaps even a limited number of multiple choice questions on such tests. When I was teaching, however, I was forced to work with pre-written assessments that were dominated by multiple choice questions. By giving students these sorts of tests, the concept of rote memorization was valued over the ability to critically think and make an argument about a given topic. The argument for tests being written in this manner was that A) they were easy to grade and B) the state test (the End of Course Exam in Missouri) was going to look just like it.

Over the past few days I’ve taken some time to read Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education by Clark Aldrich. The book is very short and easy to read, taking me no more than two hours to go through the whole thing. Some of Aldrich’s “unschooling rules” are tough to put into practice, especially for teachers in poor districts. Rule 12 stipulates that “Internships, Apprenticeships, and Interesting Jobs Beat Term Papers, Textbooks, and Tests.” That is certainly true and should be encouraged by parents and teachers alike, but asking teachers to find volunteer opportunities and internships for their students throughout their local area is tough to ask of them when they are already being asked to sponsor school clubs, coach, and teach upwards of 150 or more students.

That said, I think Aldrich nails it when it comes to the fallacy of classroom testing. Testing does accomplish something for our students, but it may not be what we want to actually teach them. The following is from pages 115-116:

Rule 45: Tests Don’t Work. Get Over It. Move On.

During the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the number of doctors rose dramatically. This despite the fact that doctors did not help their patients, and in many cases, they made things worse. There was a desperate need for doctors that overwhelmed the reality.

That brings us to today’s school-based technique of testing. The vision is to have concentrated moments of pure evaluation, where students are asked to demonstrate what they know. And we want tests to work so badly. We love the idea of a simple-to-deploy, objective mechanism that can sort, motivate, and diagnose–the equivalent of quality control at a car manufacturing plant looking for defects.

The only problem is that tests do everything wrong.

Tests only test the test taker’s ability to prepare for and take tests. For example, there is no skill worth having that can be measured through a multiple-choice exam. Worse, tests emphasize exactly the wrong skills. They emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of facts that neurologically have a half-life of about 12 hours. They focus on short-term rewards through cramming to compensate for a failure in long-term development of value. It is no wonder we have financial meltdowns caused by successful students [Ouch!]

We have to swallow a hard pill. The issue is not how do make tests better? Or how can we have more or different types of tests? Or how do we arrange for more parts of a school program (such as a teacher’s worth) to be based on tests? The reality is, tests don’t work except as a blunt control-and-motivation mechanism for the classroom, the academic equivalent of MSG or sugar in processed food. In place of schools as testing centers, we need to begin imagining and setting up learning environments that involve no tests at all, that rely on real assessment and the creation of genuine value instead. [Unfortunately, Aldrich fails to clarify what constitutes a “real assessment.”]

So, what constitutes a real assessment?


School Choice, But Only for Some

Photo Credit: Stephanie Cordle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo Credit: Stephanie Cordle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There have been some interesting discussions regarding k-12 education in Missouri as of late, and I’ve been following the proceedings with much interest here in Indiana. I grew up in St. Louis, so I’m well acquainted with the schools involved with this recent controversy, and I’m also curious to hear if similar controversies have popped up in other cities with struggling, unaccredited schools.

In 1993, a Missouri state law was passed that created a simple provision for students and parents stuck in bad schools: If your local school district lost its accreditation from the state, students would have the ability to transfer to a nearby accredited school. In 2007, the St. Louis Public School District lost its accreditation (it has since regained it), and some parents began to look for other schools to send their children. One parent began paying tuition to the Clayton School District (an excellent public school district just outside downtown St. Louis), but eventually asked Clayton to send the bill to the St. Louis Public School District. Clayton refused, and she sued to have SLPSD cover the tuition tab for her children. Just last month, the Missouri Supreme Court issued on opinion on the case essentially arguing that yes, unaccredited school districts must foot the tuition bill (and transportation costs) to send students to accredited school districts within the same county or an adjoining county. That last qualification is extremely important because it offers the opportunity for students in impoverished urban areas (who are mostly black) to go to schools in suburban counties (where most of the students are white).

Sadly, the Normandy school district in St. Louis county has recently lost its accreditation. For many of us, this does not come as much of a surprise. The district is located in North St. Louis, which is arguably the worst area of the city (not including East St. Louis, which is actually in Illinois), and a May article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named Normandy High School the most dangerous school in all of St. Louis. Many people, however, were surprised to hear that the Francis Howell school district in suburban St. Charles county is gladly welcoming students from Normandy to attend school in their district. While many parents in Normandy who are tired of the district’s poor performance are making plans to have their students leave the district, Francis Howell’s decision has sparked much controversy in St. Charles county, where concerns have ranged from overcrowded class to problems of funding and security.

This past Thursday, the school board for Francis Howell had their first public meeting since the Normandy decision, with roughly 2,500 residents attending the meeting. There was some support for the district’s move, especially from teachers and students (which is telling). However, I get the impression that many parents voiced opposition to the move. Some of these concerns are legitimate. Francis Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan announced that Normandy students who transfer to the district will have their state test scores included in Francis Howell’s reports, not Normandy’s. To have Francis Howell’s scores possibly drop–and subsequently have funding for district schools, teachers, and classroom resources drop–because another school district failed to properly educate a portion of their students is completely unfair to me. It also reinforces my belief that having so many crucial elements of public education based on one silly test is wrong for our students and educators, perhaps even immoral, a term I don’t use lightly.

To see what was being discussed at the meeting, I followed the Twitter feed of 1120AM KMOX Reporter Michael Calhoun, who was live-tweeting the meeting and providing some interesting info that did not make the pages of the Post-Dispatch. What were people saying?

You can make your own conclusions about these comments, but I think it’s also important to remember that parents in Normandy aren’t excited about the failure of their school district either. Having their kids go to a new district 40 minutes away from home to an area that seems to be fairly hostile to their arrival is unappealing. Ultimately, parents and students from both districts are in a tough situation with no easy answers.

That said, the root of this problem (if you want to view it as such) lies with the Missouri General Assembly. I am not interested in playing party politics, but I am interested in the hypocrisy of individuals who talk one way and act another. As has been recently pointed out, many members of the General Assembly supported passage of the original 1993 law and subsequent acts to promote the idea of “school choice,” especially for students in bad schools. By providing parents with tax funds to give students a range of education options–public schools not in their area, charter schools, and private schools–students will have more power to receive a high quality education at a school that better meets their needs, so the argument goes.

Faced with the possibility of Normandy students attending school in his local district, this state Representative stated the following at the school board meeting:

Yes, Representative Mark Parkinson now wants Governor Jay Nixon to hold a special session of the legislature so that action can be taken to prevent Normandy students (or at least too many of them) from attending Francis Howell. First we liked school choice, and when black kids are transferred to other black schools under the guise of “school choice,” we’re okay with that, but now we don’t like school choice. Now we’re dedicated to help fund struggling public schools, apparently.

It appears that Representative Parkinson has contracted a bad case of the NIMBY (Not in my backyard) virus. School choice is good, unless the poor kids pick my backyard. To be sure, it’s not so much that I have a strong view one way or the other towards school choice (I’m not really sure at this point). I just can’t stand the hypocrisy and indecisiveness of some of Missouri’s elected leaders. People in Missouri deserve better than that, and their school districts deserve legislative leaders who will value the input of ALL public schools and their teachers. If we’re going to allow school choice in Missouri, that means enforcing the laws already on the books and giving poor parents the ability to send their kids to accredited schools. School choice just for middle and upper class parents who want to “choose” between their local public and private schools is unfair.

Those are my thoughts on the matter. What do you think?

News and Notes: July 8, 2013

  • I found this power point presentation on the “artificial extension of childhood” to be pretty compelling.  Those who advocate for longer school days and school  years would do well to consider the points made here.
  • Technology can’t solve all of our problems, especially when we don’t fully understand the limits and capabilities of the tools we use. Check out this really interesting interview with Evgeny Morozov.
  • “Looking For a Job in Public History: An Outsider’s Perspective” Not a particularly encouraging essay for people in my position, but an important discussion we should be having about the “walled fortress” of experience requirements in public history jobs (and, by extension, many other jobs). There are many thoughtful comments as well that add much value to the essay.

Back to thesis writing…

Until next time

A New Birth of Freedom… For Who?

I am in the throes of a major writing session for my thesis, so I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible…

Last Sunday, June 30, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made the keynote speech at a commemorative event at Gettysburg entitled “Gettysburg: A New Birth of Freedom.” Al Mackey has the full scoop on the speech at Student of the American Civil War if you want to read more about it. Most of the commentary has not been positive.

Lately, I’ve been mulling over the term “New Birth of Freedom” and how we’ve been using it during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It is clear that the narrative of Emancipation–and, by extension, the story of “[1860s]Civil War to [1960s]Civil Rights”–has been a dominant focus of the sesquicentennial and the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War. I applaud this effort and think that an interpretation of slavery’s legacy in connection with the Civil War is an absolute necessity. You cannot separate the political and social issues of the war from the military ones, in my opinion. Although Goodwin’s speech was poorly structured, too self-centered, and generally terrible all around, the basic idea that she attempts to convey–that the “New Birth of Freedom” presented by Civil War emancipation has led to other freedoms in recent history–is sound.

However, I cannot help but think that the term “New Birth of Freedom” is being used in relation to emancipation at the sacrifice of other important discussions that could be taking place during the Sesquicentennial. For one, we should remember that Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term in the Gettysburg Address–while perhaps relating to emancipation indirectly–was in relation to the rebirth of the American political nation. To wit:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

While discussions on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights are important, we also need to make time to ask questions about the the Constitution, the nature of Union, why white men in 1860 couldn’t come to agreement to keep the nation together without war, and even questions about secession (By the way, Don Doyle has edited a fantastic book on secession in a global context that I really like, although I don’t agree with every essay in it). With all the bruha over the secession petitions to the White House earlier this year, the Sesquicentennial offers an opportunity to address questions audiences may have about the nature of Union today. Do we live in a perpetual union? Can a state leave on its own accord? If so, how? If not, why? How do we best solve our political problems without compromising our values? How do we ensure minority groups are treated with respect by the majority?

I also think it’s important that the NPS makes sure that the “New Birth of Freedom” and “Civil War to Civil Rights” narratives are intended to reach as broad an audience as possible. I love this post from Bob Pollock in which he argues that “civil rights is a term that should have meaning for all Americans, not just African-Americans.” That is an important distinction to make, as the civil rights of women, immigrants, American Indians, and many other groups also hung in the balance following the Civil War, and they continue to be discussed today. While the emancipation narrative is an important narrative that did not receive proper attention from historians or the broader public in the 20th century, it is merely one narrative in a much larger collection of important stories that the Civil War presents to us today. Many of those stories–like those about the challenges faced by American Indians during the Civil War–go largely ignored today. When looking at the term “New Birth of Freedom” with regards to American Indians, things get a lot more complicated. Many tribes had to decide whether the U.S. or the Confederacy would best protect their people and their lands, and those that joined the Confederacy were punished by the federal government after the war. When the 14th amendment was passed granting African Americans the right to citizenship and the equal protection of laws, American Indians were effectively ignored legally, as the amendment and the rights of American citizenship did not apply to them. Following the Civil War, did American Indians enjoy a “New Birth of Freedom”?