Category Archives: History

Teaching History

Here’s an idea that would revolutionize the teaching of history. Schools should adopt it right away.

First, list nine random human characteristics, like so:

  1. red-headed
  2. left-handed
  3. taller than average
  4. full-blooded Cherokee
  5. diabetic
  6. mentally ill
  7. deaf
  8. tatooed
  9. egotistical

Second, list nine random human activities, like so:

  1. architecture
  2. chess
  3. weaving
  4. oceanography
  5. baton twirling
  6. debate
  7. violin playing
  8. hockey
  9.  inventing

Now randomly match the two lists, and assign each combination to a different month, like so:

  1. September–Cherokee Hockey Players Month
  2. October–Mentally Ill Weavers Month
  3. November–Deaf Oceanographers Month
  4. December–Red-headed Inventors Month
  5. January–Diabetic Baton Twirlers Month
  6. February–Egotistical Violinists Month
  7. March–Tatooed Debaters Month
  8. April–Left-Handed Chess Players Month
  9. May–Tall Architects Month

Each grade would get their own unique list of months, and every year new lists would be generated, so that by the time a kid graduated, he or she would know the history of 108 different groups of people.

You might be thinking that this is not a very good way to teach history. I agree, and I think that we should stop. We already have Black History Month, and California is about to require “Gay History” in its public school curriculum. Isn’t history just history? It includes black people and gay people and gay black people, and it also includes left-handed Cherokees who play the violin. History should be the study of the events of the past, whoever happened to be involved in them.

A better way to organize the teaching of history seems to me to be chronologically.  Depending on the scope of the history course, it could be done century by century or decade by decade.  It should also have a geographic component, based on the scope of the course.  So, for example, a world history course might have a unit on the 19th Century and be organized around the following questions:

1.  What were the noteworth events of that period worldwide?

2.  Who were the people that had a significant impact on the rest of the world?

3.  What was happening on each of the seven continents, and who were the most significant people on each of them?

4.  What major changes were occurring in human thought and human behavior during that century?

That to me, is good history.

Sarah Palin and Paul Revere

I am neither a fan of nor an apologist for Sarah Palin.  I do not think that she is the world’s greatest genius, but neither is she a total idiot.  She has been a mayor and a governor, after all.  I would not vote for her for president, though, unless for some reason she became the Libertarian Party nominee.

My interest in the Paul Revere controversy is purely amusement.  I think it is funny that she got a bit mixed up on her facts, and I think it is funny that people have vociferously condemned her and vociferously defended her.  I am glad that people care that much about history.  As if!

Experts are chiming in.  Some are saying that she was partly right and partly wrong.  Some are still saying that she was completely wrong.

In terms of precision, Palin was wrong in saying that Paul Revere’s ride was meant to warn the British forces that the colonists would not allow themselves to be disarmed.  The purpose of his ride on April 18, 1775, was clearly to alert the Minutemen in and around Boston to be up and ready to resist the British as they marched to Lexington and to Concord.  He also wanted to keep the British from capturing John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were hiding in Lexington.

However, she was right in essence.  The British did intend to disarm the colonists in Massachusetts.  On April 14, General Gage was ordered to disarm them and to arrest the ringleaders–Hancock and Adams.  As a staunch advocate of the right to bear arms, Palin, I would imagine, is very familiar with the plan by the British to deny that right in the American colonies.  What better way to warn the British that they would not succeed in disarming the colonists than to summon a bunch of men to resist them?  So, it was ultimately Revere’s goal to send a message to the British that the colonists were not going to passively accept their occupation or their disarmament.  During his ride Revere was captured, and he did indeed warn his captors that the British had better not march to Lexington and Concord, because members of the militia were already prepared to meet them there.  So, Palin is partly right.

So what if she failed terribly when it came to precision and accurate details?  There was some truth in what she said.  Hey, it’s no worse than President Obama’s referring to 57 states that he had visited or thinking that we are currently in the year 2008 or saying that ten thousand people died in a Kansas tornado that actually killed twelve.  Everyone makes mistakes.  If making mistakes disqualified one from public office, we would have no public officials.

About the Pilgrims

     There are several popular misconceptions about the Pilgrims and about the so-called First Thanksgiving.  Most of the misconceptions are harmless, but it is fun to know the truth.

     Probably the most common misconception is that the Pilgrims were the same as the Puritans.  The Pilgrims came on the Mayflower and founded the Plymouth Colony.  The Puritans came later and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered in Boston.  The Pilgrims were more welcoming to outsiders than the Puritans.  They were much friendlier toward the neighboring Native tribes. 

     Another misconception is that the Pilgrims wore only black and white clothing.  The truth is that they only wore duller colors to dress up, as many of us do today.  Their ordinary clothes came in a wide variety of colors.  The Pilgrims did not put buckles on their hats or their shoes either.  That is an artist’s invention meant to make them look quaint.

     The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock is another misconception, but I am not sure it needs to be corrected.  Only a serious historian needs to know the truth.  For most of us, this pseudo-fact is part of our national mythos.  I saw Plymouth Rock as a kid and I was filled with a bit of awe when I saw it, even if no Pilgrim ever touched it.  The truth is that the Pilgims didn’t even make landfall at the current site of Plymouth.  They landed at what is now Provincetown first and then scouted out a better place to settle.

     The First Thanksgiving, it seems, was not really the first in what is now the United States.  Spanish colonists held a Thanksgiving celebration near El Pason in 1598.  Another Thanksgiving festival was held in the Virginia colony in 1619, two years before the one held by the Pilgrims.  Nevertheless, the Pilgims set a good example for us, even if they were not the first ones to do it.  I think there are great reasons to re-enact and to otherwise commemorate their feast.

The Masterful Maya

     I saw a film today about the Maya people.  It was fascinating.  The Maya had a fully developed writing system, an astonishingly accurate calendar, beautiful arts and crafts, amazing architecture, and a well-organized and stratified society.

     One thing that struck me was the similarities between their civilization and that of the Egyptians.  They were obivously not identical, but there were striking similarities.  One notable example is the burial of a king within a pyramid. 

     It really shouldn’t be odd that the Maya had features similar to other people.  They were, after all, human–with the same kind of human brain that people had in ancient Egypt, ancient China, ancient Africa, and elsewhere.  Of course people living in all parts of the world developed some of the same technologies and had similar sensibilities!  Why wouldn’t they?

     Another thing that struck me is how advanced they were.  I think it is wrong to think of ancient peoples as primitive.  When we realize that they had less advanced technology and fewer resources than we have, we ought to marvel at what the Maya did.  We have the benefit of thousands of years of prior knowledge and of lots of nifty inventions that they could not even dream of.

     I think it is a mistake in general, based on the preconceived notion of evolution, that people grew from being savages to being civilized.  People are people and always were.  They had amazing potential then that was held back by factors in their environment, their need to work hard for survival, their geographic distances from other people, and their limited knowledge base.  That’s all. 

     Europeans in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries  knew that they were more civilized than the native peoples of the Americas, as well as the natives of Africa and Asia.  They felt it was their duty to civilize those savages.  We now know better.  Highly advanced civilizations, for their times, flourished during the time that Europeans were living as “savages.”  I think it is important for those of us who have European heritage to acknowledge it.  Otherwise, we are tacit (if not overt) racists.  The evolutionary idea that white people are more highly evolved must be nailed in the coffin and buried once and for all.  History has proven it wrong.

     No group of people is more highly evolved than any other.  People are people.  They are now, and they always were.   It seems to me that some of the Maya were smarter than the average American.  Good for them!

Best and Worst Presidents

     Ben Quayle, sone of the former Vice President, Dan Quayle, has called President Obama the worst U. S. president ever. 

     I have noticed that when most laymen rank the presidents of the United States, they tend to use two criteria:

  1. Did the given president do anything notable that I can recall from my history class or my personal memory?
  2. Was the given president a member of the party I support, or did he hold views that I agree with?

     Thus, presidents such as Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren rank very low in the minds of most people, since they ar not as famous as Lincoln, Washington, and the Roosevelts.  (Cleveland and Van Buren are somewhere in the middle of most expert rankings.)  And, thus, most popular polls or surveys include mostly presidents of the last 50 years.

     The most recent presidents are most likely ranked according to party in most people’s minds.  Friends of mine who don’t know much about history bear this out.  Some of my most liberal friends used to regard Ronald Reagan as the worst, and now they put George W. Bush in that rank.  Some of my most conservative friends used to say that Jimmy Carter was the worst, and then it was Bill Clinton, and now they would say, I am guessing, that it is Barack Obama.  (Is it really likely that each successive president of the opposite party is “the worst”?)

     One thing that ordinary laymen, as opposed to expert historians and political scientists, usually forget, is that it is the legislative branch that enacts legislation and approves fiscal measures.  The president sets the tone and proposes legislation, but to a large extent it is wrong to hold a president exclusively responsible for what happens during his time in office.  Then again, one measure of effectiveness, and therefore success, is how well the president can work with or against the Congress.

     When I evaluate the presidents, I try to be fair.  If I were going to formally rank all the presidents, I would need to first brush up on some of them.  I would want to evaluate them based on how successful they were in implementing their agendas and how well or how badly they contributed to the well-being of the country.  Anything else would be a list of favorites rather than a list of the best and worst.

     Among my favorites, and I think that they are some of the best, are George Washington, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, James Madison, and Dwight Eisenhower.

     Among presidents who I think were effective as presidents but whose views I do not generally agree with are Theodore Roosevelt, James Polk, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and–big surprise coming–Bill Clinton.

     I did not include Abraham Lincoln, because my view of him is mixed.  I admire him as a man, and he certainly was successful in implementing his agenda.  I am happy that slavery ended under his administration.  However, I hate the way that states’ rights eroded so radically under his presidency.  That is the extremely unfortunate side of the outcome of the Civil War.  It was during his presidency that the first income tax was imposed upon Americans, too.

     Notice that I did not include either Bush.  I would put George H. W. Bush somewhere in the top half, but not in the top ten.  I would put George W. Bush in the bottom half, but not too far down.  He really blew it regarding fiscal policy.  He rubber-stamped almost every bill that came from Congress, especially in his first term.  I regard the invasion of Iraq as a mistake, and have since before it happened.  (Once it was a fait accompli, I saw no reason to bash the president about it.  I certainly was glad to see Saddam Hussein dealt with.  Oh, and I notice that one-and-one-half years into the Obama presidency, the U. S. is still actively involved in Iraq.)

     I think it is too soon to evaluate Barack Obama.  I certainly disagree with him almost entirely.  However, I also think that he has been at least a moderately effective leader, so far.  He has instituted major changes, most of which I think are disastrous or will lead to disaster.  However, he has not gone as far as he would probably like and certainly not as far as some of his supporters would like.  That’s why I would not call him the worst president ever, or even one of the worst.  He has courageously stood up to his political opponents without going to the extreme of catering to his most radical supporters.

Twenty Things You Should Know (#11-20)

     Please see the post below this one to understand the point of this list.

11.  The Sabbath

The concept of a day to rest is one of the greatest legacies of the Abrahamic religions.  Other religions have something similar.  Human beings need relaxation and refreshment.  In fact, we now know that people work more efficiently and effectively when they are well rested.  In addition, the Sabbath is a time to ackowledge that everything we produce comes from something or someone greater than us.  In the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition, that means God.  For others it might be the spirits or nature or Mother Earth or the cosmos.  Even non-religious people should ackowledge their debt to forces and powers preceding them and more powerful than they are.

12.  Racism

Most people know of the existence of racism, but it is important to understand it for what it is and to eschew it.  Racism is borne of fear and ignorance.  It is completely contrary to the rational scientific method; in fact, the very concept of race is scientifically suspect.  It is contrary to individualism, and, therefore, natural law.  The most admired and respected people repudiate it as conflicting with the “Tao”or whatever they happen to call the Ideal.  It certainly opposes the virtue of Love.  Nobody would want to be a victim of racism, which proves that somewhere in each person’s mind, he or she knows that it is wrong.

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Greatest Americans

     Who are or were the greatest Americans?  To receive such a title, a person should have accomplished something tangible or had a significant influence over other people.  I cannot call a person great simply because that person has some talent or is considered interesting or entertaining.

     Here’s my top-10 list:

1.  Benjamin Franklin

This renaissance man invented, discovered, wrote, printed, and did so many things it could give us normal people an inferiority complex.  He was instrumental in the founding of our country.

2 and 3.  Orville and Wilbur Wright

They got aviation off the ground, and thus got us all off the ground.  Had it not been for them, we would lack huge amounts of the technology that we use and enjoy so much.

4.  Rosa Parks

Her simple act of defiance helped propel the Civil Rights movement.  Not intending to do anything great, she helped transform a nation morally.

5.  Thomas Edison

We still use his ingenious inventions as well as other handy devices on which his inventions are based.

6.  Lucy Stone

She campaigned for equal rights for women and for black Americans.  Influenced others to join or support those causes with her passionate speeches.

7.  Daniel Boone

Tales of his adventures inspired Americans to be rugged and brave.  He became the archtype of American individualism and enterprise.

8.  Roger Williams

Founded a colony based on freedom of religion and inspired, among other people, the First Amendment to the Constitution.  His dealings with Native Americans were far more humane and just than many of his contemporaries’.

9.  Clara Barton

From nursing patients during the Civil War to organizing the American Red Cross, this woman was the quintessential humanitarian.

10.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who knows how things would have turned out had such a man not risen at the time that he did?  I believe that he helped America avoid violence at a time when we were ripe for it.  His use of nonviolent resistance helped the cause of Civil Rights immensely.

Nobel Peace Prize Winners

     Among all the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, the five that I admire most are. . .

1.  The International League of the Red Cross

Who can dismiss or belittle the great work that they do in the wake of disasters.  Of all the people or groups who have won the prize, they deserve it the most, because they are politically neutral and truly helpful to the people of the world.

2.  John Raleigh Mott, founder of the YMCA

Mott combined a desire to spread the Christian faith with a desire to encourage and inspire the youth of the United States and of the world.  At a time when the Social Gospel was replacing the Gospel, Mott was true to both. 

3.  Ralph Bunche

Accomplishing things that few black people in his day could, Bunche deserves the award for his mediation in several conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

4.  Anwar Al-Sadat

It took a lot of courage for Sadat to stand for peace, and it cost him his life.  I will never forget his signing of the agreement with Menachem Begin.

5.  Mother Teresa

Like the International Red Cross, Mother Teresa deserves the award for her tireless efforts to help the poor people of Calcutta. 


Who are your favorites?

How do you think President Obama stacks up against them?

Cross Memorials

There is a World War I memorial in the shape of a cross in Bladensburg, Maryland. Don’t tell anyone. It could end up in a case before the Supreme Court.

If you go to this gallery, you will see several cross-shaped memorials in the United Kingdom.  Of course, they will not become cases in the United States Supreme Court.  Some disgruntled person in the U. K. will have to complain and get them removed.

There are cross-shaped memorials in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which are also pictured in the gallery.  My, oh, my!  So many memorials to get rid of!  And they are not all in the evil United States.

Kennedy’s Guilt

     A memoir by Edward Kennedy will be published soon.  In it, he reportedly wrote that the guilt of the incident with Mary Jo Kopechne stayed with him throughout the rest of his life.  I am glad to hear that he felt that way.  I wish I had known that he felt that way while he was still alive.  It would have given me much warmer feelings for him than I generally felt for him.

     I am surprised and sad that Senator Kennedy never ackowledged his feelings of guilt publicly.  I believe that it would have done him a world of good and that it would have done others a world of good, too.  I wonder if the Kopechne family knew.  I hope so.

     Had the Senator come clean in public and acknowledged his guilt in the matter, perhaps he could have relieved himself of the heavy burden that he carried.  I’m sure he knew what people said and thought about him, and it seems strange that he would not have wanted to set the record striaight for the public.  I do not say this to slight him or judge him.  I take it, rather, as a cautionary tale for myself, and perhpas others can do so, as well.

     I have done some bad things in my life that very few people know about and that I never talk about.  If the knowledge of those things were to become more widespread, I hope that I could be open about my regret of those actions and the guilt and shame that I felt and still somewhat feel.

     I hope that Kennedy died with a clear conscience despite his saying that he felt guilt for over four decades about what happened on Chappaquiddick.  If not, then I hope he has found peace now.  I really do.

     Note that I have not expressed any opinion about what exactly happened that terrible night.  I have no way of knowing more than what the official reports said.  I assume that Kennedy was referring in his memoir to leaving the scene of the accident and not reporting it sooner.  He had already admitted to those things, and as far as I know that is all that he was guilty of.