History repeating: Chamberlain, or Churchill?

August 31, 2006

Santayana’s warning to the ill-educated rests, sometimes uneasily, at the opening of this blog — a warning to get history, and get history right.

Presidents in sticky situations have occasionally suggested their domestic critics were less than patriotic.  Some claim the current administration has made this a standard claim against almost all criticism of foreign policy.  In speeches to the American Legion meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George Bush criticized their critics.  (Here’s the transcript of Rumsfeld’s remarks, from Stars & Stripes; here is the transcript of Bush’s remarks from Salt Lake City’s Deseret News.)

Here are Rumsfeld’s words that sent so many to their history books; Rumsfeld said:

It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored. Indeed, in the decades before World War II, a great many argued that the fascist threat was exaggerated or that it was someone else’s problem. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.

There was a strange innocence about the world. Someone recently recalled one U.S. senator’s reaction in September of 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II. He exclaimed:

“Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!”

I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today — another enemy, a different kind of enemy — has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history’s lessons.

(Someone has already wondered whether Rumsfeld got the quote right, and to what senator it might be blamed; Idaho’s Sen. William Borah is the likely candidate, according to The American Prospect.)

Rumsfeld’s example should get your blood heated up, if not boiling.  Problem is, according to Keith Olberman, part of the example should cut against Rumsfeld:  It was Neville Chamberlain’s government who criticized Winston Churchill as being in error.  Had the government only listened to the dissenters, many lives might have been saved, the war shortened, etc., etc.  Olberman’s opinion is worth reading through to the end, and it’s available at Crooks and Liars.

Sometimes it’s necessary to know more than the history; it’s necessary to know literature, too.  “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” wrote Sir Walter Scott.

Tip o’ the old scrub brush to Pharyngula.

School support for culture; nudes in museums

August 31, 2006

One lament I have heard my entire life is that schools “no longer support our culture.”  It’s an interesting complaint, upon analysis.

Most often, in my experience, the complaint comes from rather conservative quarters, often right-wing, and the lament is specific to some part of history that the complainer wants taught differently, or specific to some toleration of music, art, or fashion that the complainer wishes would end.  Around Dallas we have two controversies at the moment.  In one, the Dallas City Council is considering a law banning sagging pants.  In another, a parent has complained that the parent’s child saw a nude at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The two issues may appear unconnected, but they are not, really.  They both revolve around the issue of what culture is, and what culture is valuable enough to pursue, study, and teach in elementary and secondary schools.

The Dallas Morning News sized up the art museum flap, correctly in my view, with an editorial this morning, saying that one should expect to see art when one attends an art museum, and that’s okay. 

It should not surprise anyone that the DMA displays paintings and sculptures that depict the naked human figure. This has been done in Western art since antiquity. This is our cultural heritage. What we have here in this parental complaint is a failure to discriminate between art and pornography.

The distinction is, of course, famously difficult to pin down, but part of a young person’s cultural education is learning to distinguish precisely that difference. For example, the only thing that Michelangelo’s David has in common with a sleazy shot from a porn magazine is that they both depict a naked man. One exalts; the other degrades. Context matters. Artistic intent and execution matter. Using one’s brain and not jerking one’s knee matter.

It is to be expected that some people will not appreciate the distinction. It is also to be expected that educators will firmly and unambiguously defend field trips to art museums, of all places.

It’s not clear where Frisco school officials stand. They should speak up. Over 20,000 Frisco ISD students and their teachers shouldn’t have their artistic and cultural education chilled or constrained by parents who don’t understand the difference between Rodin and raunch – and by a principal too mousy to resist them.

It’s still legal to display the flag of Colorado in a Texas classroom. 

Burying Brown and the Board of Education, too

August 30, 2006

WordPress now alerts bloggers to other blog posts with similar content.  Sometimes it pulls one out of the past, and sometimes the posts pulled up make one shudder.

Reports last April said Nebraska’s unicameral legislature passed a law that will effectively resegregate Omaha’s school system.  Appletree has the story here.  How did it turn out?  I haven’t found much other news on it.

The news and the figures reported are troubling, regardless the final outcome (and I suspect the motion did not proceed exactly as the version reported).  Some of us have long suspected that the anti-education drive, manifested in proposals for charter schools, and especially for vouchers, is simply a masked version of segregation, a way to deprive people of color and people in poverty of a chance for a good education. 

One almost wishes Ronald Reagan were still alive to remind these people that, while a rising tide raises all boats, punching holes in the bottom of the boats sinks them, and in a drought, the entire lake goes dry.  The best ideals of the United States have been expressed in the drive for almost-free, universally-available primary and secondary education, for nearly 200 years.  The U.S. education system remains the model the rest of the world strives to copy.  Getting Americans to commit to keeping that system, and keeping it up to date in a world gone flat (see Tom Friedman) is an important political task for the next quarter-century.

Every kid deserves a chance to achieve as much as she or he can.  We need to focus more on making that happen, for all kids.

The Carnival that was barked in the night

August 30, 2006

The 82nd Carnival of Education is up at Thespis.  Already.  Education is a hot area — this thing runs every week.

There is another link to this blog, to one of my posts on Colorado’s bizarre law banning most flags from being flown — but go see some of the other stuff. 

The post from A History Teacher is quite profound, a wake-up call on teaching kids to be wise consumers of internet information (and I feature that blog in the blogroll — most of what he posts is good stuff).  There is a flag-burning flap in Kentucky I hadn’t been aware of. 

Go see the Carnival, browse the Midway, win a couple of kewpie dolls . . .

Mermelstein: Holocaust remembrance hero

August 28, 2006

In early August 1985, Melvin Mermelstein struck a powerful blow against bogus history and historical hoaxes. Mel won a decision in a California court, in a contract case.

A group of Holocaust deniers had offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Mermelstein had watched his family marched to the gas chambers, and could testify. He offered his evidence. The Holocaust deniers, of course, had no intention of paying up. They dismissed any evidence offered as inadequate, and continued to claim no one could prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

Mermelstein, however, was a businessman. He knew that the offer of the reward was a sweepstakes, a form of contract. He knew it was enforceable in court. And he sued to collect. The issue in court would be, was Mermelstein’s evidence sufficient?

Mermelstein’s lawyer had a brilliant idea. He petitioned the court to take “judicial note” of the fact of the Holocaust. Judicial note means that a fact is so well established that it doesn’t need to be evidenced when it is introduced in court — such as, 2+2=4, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius, etc.

The court ruled that the evidence presented overwhelmingly established that the Holocaust had occurred — the court made judicial note of the Holocaust. That ruling meant that, by operation of law, Mermelstein won the case. The only thing for the judge to do beyond that was award the money, and expenses and damages.

You can read the case and other materials at the Nizkor Holocaust remembrance site.

Appalachian State University takes the Holocaust seriously — there is a program of study on the issue, recently reported by the Mountain Times (the school is in Boone, North Carolina — not sure where the newspaper is).

Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations

Mountain Times, August 17, 2006

As co-directors of Appalachian State University’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies, Rennie Brantz and Zohara Boyd are always eager to expand and improve the center’s methods of education. Seldom, though, does this involve airfare.

Brantz and Boyd recently visited Israel to participate in the Fifth International Conference for Education: Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations. The four-day conference was held in late June at Yad Vashem, an institute and museum in Jerusalem that specializes in the Nazi Holocaust.

“Yad Vashem is an incredible institute,” Brantz said. “It was founded in the ’50s to remember and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust, and has been the premier international research institute dealing with the Holocaust.”

As Santayana advises, we remember the past in order to prevent its recurring. Clearly, this is a past we need to work harder at remembering.

Carnival of Education #81

August 28, 2006

I failed to note earlier that the Carnival of Education 81 is up over at The Education Wonks.

Blog carnivals offer good opportunities to find blogs that provide great value, or to find blog entries which are individual gems.  When I send notices of these carnivals to other teachers, I always get thank-you notes.  It’s a cheap way to get a minor ego boost (is there any way to get those put down on the evaluation forms?).

One of the things I’m passing along to my Texas history-teaching colleagues from Carnival 81 is this post, a letter from a grandmother to a young boy, about what her schooling was like, in Texas in the 1890s.  From huffenglish.com.

Miss Gilbert's Music and Elocution Classes, 1891-92, Whitt, TX.

Students at the Parker Institute, Whitt, Texas, 1891-1892 — courtesy of huffenglish

John Dean on D. James Kennedy

August 27, 2006

John Dean, former counsel to the president, has some stern words for religious dominionists, including Coral Ridge Ministries’ D. James Kennedy, in his column at Findlaw.com.  You may want to check it out.  

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