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.

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