Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Goin' to the zoo, zoo, zoo...

It's summer... the time of year when serious scholarship must occasionally make way for things like trips to the Oregon Zoo. Which is exactly where we were with good friend B on Monday, enjoying the birds of prey show, mongoose feeding time and the kiddo's first snow cone:

In celebration of summer, here are a few nice historical images of the Oregon Zoo -- known at various points as the Portland Zoological Gardens and the Washington Park Zoo, and originally the menagerie of a seafarer-turned-pharmacist by the name of Richard Knight, who evidently kept his creatures in the back of his drugstore at 3rd and Morrison. Go figure. (Thanks to B for the heads-up on the zoo's origins.)

Knight gave his collection to the city of Portland in 1887. One might suspect the animals were pleased to be released from the pharmacy and moved to the City Park, present site of the water reservoir at Washington Park... although they did have to put up with visits like this, made by Rose Festival Princesses to the bears in about 1920:


In 1959, Oregon celebrated its statehood centennial. Washington Park celebrated by constructing the Washington Park Zoo Railway, a 30-inch gauge railroad that still runs throughout the zoo and surrounding park:


In 1962, the zoo celebrated the arrival of Packy, the first elephant to be born in the western hemisphere in 44 years:


Packy was quite a big deal:


Packy's first birthday (he turned 49 this spring):


As the zoo Web site puts it, "The late 60s was a time when naturalistic exhibits were not yet a concept. 'Modern' meant bold colors and asymmetric structures, and the zoo reflected this trend":


Here's a great '60s era postcard view of the Penguin Pool:


Friday, June 24, 2011

Muse of the Week: School Choice

The Oregon legislature recently passed a series of education bills that now await the signature (or veto) of the governor. The bills ranged from a proposal for mandatory all-day kindergarten to a unification of the state's educational administrative structure that places all phases of education, Headstart through graduate school, under one board.

One of the most controversial proposals was for greater school choice. If the governor signs this particular bill, which was strongly supported by the Republican Party in our evenly-divided legislature, it will become easier for parents to request a transfer for their children or to take advantage of options like online charter schools.

This was controversial for many reasons, one of which was that one of the chief sponsors is closely affiliated with Oregon Connections Academy, the largest online charter school in the state. Many argue that this will further impoverish districts serving students who are not fortunate enough to have parents actively advocating for them. Others contend that this legislation will allow for better allocation of resources, with students able to transfer into under-populated districts or take advantage of nontraditional learning options.

I recognize that I sit in a position of privilege; the kiddo will attend a well-regarded school in a well-regarded district this fall, simply because we are blessed to live in the catchment area. That said, I do have serious reservations about the capability of this new system to meet the needs of all students, and especially of those who lack advocates.

What I find most interesting, however, is how the question of school choice represents a change in conservative educational philosophy. Until the past few decades, the "neighborhood school" represented the paragon of a properly organized educational system. Proponents argued that local schools, with a student population confined to the surrounding community, would best serve as community centers and locus points for the development of civic pride and involvement. These were the children who played together in the streets; these were the families who passed each other on evening walks. A neighborhood school was the best way to organize a strong, healthy community.

The problem? Communities across the United States tended to be segregated, whether according to the dictates of legalized segregation or via the more subtle (and in many ways more insidious) path of "de facto" segregation. Segregated communities generated segregated schools. Segregated schools tended to receive very different levels of funding and support. As society began to recognize this as an injustice, steps began to ensure that public schools became more integrated. (In the South, of course, legalized segregation meant that in many cases, African American students were actually required to pass white schools en route to their segregated ones; outside the South, de facto segregation meant that color lines tended to more closely follow settlement patterns.)

White southerners' opposition to desegregated schools is well documented. These were the origins of the school choice movement, with academies sprouting across the region geared toward establishing a private option for those unwilling to submit to integration. Outside the South, the story was more complex; citizens across the nation, from Boston to, yes, Portland, protested the bussing of students away from their neighborhood schools in order to ensure a more representative cross section of the population in each institution. School choice? That was the last thing these citizens, many of whom increasingly began to identify as Republican, were interested in. They didn't want their students transferred; they wanted them to attend the schools of their neighborhoods. They felt the central structures of their communities were being torn apart.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for these citizens. They, too, were victims of an institutional order that created these segregated communities, even as they sometimes had benefited from their advantages. (Even more complex, some of these citizens came from white ethnic groups that had themselves suffered discrimination.) One of the results of this struggle was that more and more white Americans moved to the suburbs, where they enrolled their children in entirely different school districts outside the purview of urban bussing networks -- districts that tended to be far more racially uniform. Another result was growing interest in the idea of school choice. Once the battle for the neighborhood school was lost, one way to create some new semblance of a community was to organize institutions based upon religion, educational approach or other affiliations.

Now, school choice is a significant priority among many Republican politicians and conservative activists. It's worthwhile to note, however, that the progressive bastion we know as Portland might want to peer a bit more deeply into its own ideals and motivations. People have moved into old Portland neighborhoods in droves, pushing up real estate prices and and beginning to push out historically black communities, among others. Are they willing to send their children to neighborhood schools? The enrollment figures at Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools would suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, the high school chosen for closure this spring in Portland Public Schools was Marshall, chief rival of my beloved Madison Senators and the school serving many pushed out of gentrifying regions of the metro area.

Again, as I make these observations I do so from a point of privilege. I would not point the finger of blame too hurriedly in any one direction. (Well, except at the dyed-in-the-wool segregationists, of course.) The question of how best to serve the students of Oregon or of the nation as a whole is astoundingly complex, based upon a multitude of institutional factors. Without a proper understanding of the history behind these struggles, though, the decisions we do make are doomed to failure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Astoria

The town of Astoria, Oregon is proudly celebrating its bicentennial this year as the oldest American settlement in the western United States. Turns out that tomorrow marks the 201st anniversary of the day when a Scottish immigrant to New York by the name of John Jacob Astor organized the Pacific Fur Company, sending Captain Jonathan Thorn and a crew aboard the ship Tonquin and a separate overland party under Wilson Price Hunt to set up a trading post and begin exploiting the rich resources of this region.

Lithograph of Fort Astoria ca. 1813 by Pacific Fur Co. clerk Gabriel Franchère [Credit]

The Tonquin arrived first, on April 4, 1811. Predictable? Well, not exactly, given that the sailors had to round Cape Horn to get there. One of the sailors, a Scotsman named Alexander Ross, recorded in his account of the voyage that the ship traveled 21,852 miles to reach the mouth of the Columbia River, where they were promptly swamped and had to be rescued by the local native leader, Concomly, and his Chinookan-speaking people.

The irony of the expedition is that a short time later, the United States entered the War of 1812 and British traders coming down from the north with the North West Company (remember, the Northwest was contested territory until the late 1840s) forced sale of the newly christened Fort Astoria to Britain in 1813. Darn. The British renamed the outpost Fort George, which it remained through the period of a North West Company merger with the Hudson's Bay Company until regional headquarters were relocated to Fort Vancouver, further up the Columbia, in 1824-25. Abandoned for a few years, it was used as a minor outpost by the HBC in the 1830s and 1840s before border arrangements placed Oregon firmly under the auspices of the United States.

A closing thought from Ross, who clearly was not thrilled at what he found once he washed ashore. Scenic beauty is, I suppose, in the eyes of the beholder, and were I faced with the prospect of constructing a trading post thousands of miles from home I might well agree with Ross:

"The place thus selected for the emporium of the west, might challenge the whole continent to produce a spot of equal extent presenting more difficulties to the settler: studded with gigantic trees of almost incredible size, many of them measuring fifty feet in girth, and close together, and intermingled with huge rocks, as to make it a work of no ordinary labour to level and clear the ground."

Welcome to Oregon, Mr. Ross!

Alexander Ross, "Astoria: the First American Settlement," in Stephen Dow Beckham, ed., Many Faces: An Anthology of Oregon Autobiography (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1993), pp. 3-9.
Oregon History Project of the Oregon Historical Society:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Muse of the Week: Casualties

This will be quick, as I get to go do some archival research this afternoon for the first time in way too long (yay!!!). Last week we happened to turn on the Newshour-formerly-known-as-McNeil-Lehrer just in time for the final minutes of the broadcast. As has been the show's standard practice since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Margaret Warner introduced several moments of silence as the photos of deceased service members -- way too many of them -- were broadcast. It was, as always, a chilling tribute to the ongoing casualties that are a result of these conflicts. As of this morning's newspaper, the Associated Press count is 4,462 service members killed in Iraq and 1,512 in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, when was the last time we heard much in the media about this ongoing carnage? (Which I acknowledge is multiplied many times over among Iraqis and Afghans.) Americans disagree regarding the propriety, the morality and the conduct of these wars. Above all, however, we seem to be becoming numb to the war's continuing effects.

Why is this the case? Historically speaking, this marks the first occasion upon which we have fought a wide-ranging conflict with an entirely volunteer military.

There were always "problems" with the draft insofar as there were generally ways around service, from college enrollment during the Vietnam era to paying for replacements to serve in the Civil War. I would not go so far as to say we need a draft. There have been advantages to having a fully professional military. Longevity of service and the ability to train skilled practitioners using highly technical modern equipment are just two of these attributes.

However: when we remove any risk of intensely personal connection to the military from a segment of the population, we create a stratification that makes it all too easy to set aside the traumatic effects of war. If there is no chance I will be personally affected, will I care as deeply? While I would hope the answer would be yes, the mounting evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

How do we counteract this tendency? I do not have an easy answer, but I feel it is a question we should be devoting more time to as a nation. Four decades after the creation of an all-volunteer military, we have some serious issues to resolve. Recognition of one of the roots of these issues is an important step.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Thematic Turn...

I could use a fresh approach toward history blogging (to be honest, I could use a fresh approach toward life in general, so I might as well start somewhere). Therefore, I am now prepared to unveil the updated plans I have for this blog.

Webfoot Wednesdays: A Glimpse into Oregon History
Friday's Muse of the Week: A Reflection on Current Events in Historical Context

Retaining, as always, the prerogative to comment/pontificate upon news and historical views as the mood strikes me. I am hoping that making a commitment to writing within a more specific framework will provide the necessary motivation to continue doing something productive, as well as giving you, much-appreciated reader, something to anticipate.

Meanwhile, I would be derelict were I to withhold comment upon the widely disseminated news that American students' least proficient subject is... history. (You can begin to remedy this by imposing mandatory "Uncle Sam's Attic" reading sessions upon all individuals of your acquaintance aged 18 or younger.) We moan and bemoan, and rightly so. It is deeply troubling. Is it all that new? Well, perhaps not.

The dominant ideology of the United States has almost always favored the new and the innovative. With the exception of certain well-worn historical tropes (the "Lost Cause" of the Confederate South, for example), we have prided ourselves upon a mythology of exceptionalism and promise. Neither of these things are necessarily bad when practiced appropriately, but they open the doors to wide-ranging historical myopia. If we are something new and different, striding forth confidently into the future, why do we need the past?

The Founding Fathers were creating a new and 'perfect' form of government, modeled upon the Enlightenment notion that all of nature was subject to rational laws; the wagon trains moving west were leaving the tired and corrupted cities forever behind; the future, as Dustin Hoffman was told so many years ago on the silver screen, was in plastics.

The problem? Not everything is as simple as the Enlightenment predicted, and besides, in reality the Founders were creating a government not purely of principle but of flawed reality--see, for example, the three-fifths clause. The western migrants created a new world... of cities and towns with many different, but also many of the same, problems as those they hoped to leave behind. And plastics, while nifty in many applications, will be with us a loooooooong time, creating unforeseen complications in the realms of pollution and waste disposal.

The shortcomings of the new and innovative needn't blind us to their possibilities. There is nothing inherently wrong with optimism and progress. Recognition that past experience has important truths to teach us, however, will help us craft a future founded upon educated guesses rather than blind ambition. Many of those banking regulations that the brave new minds of economic policy recently dismantled were crafted in the wake of a previous terrible recession. Much of the bloodshed of the Cold War years resulted from insufficient understanding of the motivational force of nationalism. The past informs the present.

Adequate history education will begin to create these connections for young people. Reading The Grapes of Wrath in 11th grade? Students should see archival photographs of those dust storms; they should hear the story of early agricultural subsidies and Soil Conservation Service; they also should learn that a majority of western migrants headed not for the Central Valley but for destinations like Los Angeles, creating distinctive regional cultures melding southern and western influences.... driving religious, cultural and voting patterns... working in federally-funded defense industries... and in turn, growing to influence much of the rest of the nation. The past informs the present and underpins the future -- and it's many, many times more interesting than memorizing the New Deal's Alphabet Soup.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Interesting obituary of Lawrence Eagleburger, the only person ever to rise through the Foreign Service to become Secretary of State: link. The fact that he is the only one to have done this is a strong indication of just how influential patronage has been over the course of our history... although there are certainly many things that qualify one for the position, it seems like actually working for State over a number of decades would be high among them. The thing about foreign service officials, however, is that they often serve through many administrations--of both parties. They may develop remarkable expertise, but they also become less identifiably partisan. The obituary, for example, details how Eagleburger regaled a recent State Department audience with tales of his time at State during the Kennedy administration--and Eagleburger was a moderate Republican, with a father he memorably described as being "just to the right of Genghis Khan."

[Photo credit Ron Edmonds/AP/from linked NPR story]

While my foreign policy beliefs may not run parallel to Eagleburger's, I appreciate several of his positions and the perspective he brought to some very complicated situations. More to the point, I love his one-liners, and the linked article includes several.

I am stepping away for a few days; upon my return, I hope to begin a regular "series" or two on this blog as a way of giving it some more specific focus.