Tag Archives: History

THE LEGACY OF LYNDON JOHNSON

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

It was announced over the weekend that Robert Caro has won yet another literary award, this time for the fourth and latest volume in his majestic biography of Lyndon Johnson entitled The Passage of Power. It covers Johnson’s non-campaign in the 1960 Democratic primaries through those first heady months of his presidency. Even though I bought the book the day it came out, I did not start reading it until last week. I have had a fascination with Lyndon Johnson before I started devouring Caro’s volumes. Caro’s work has served to deepen my fascination and understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial presidents.

Being born in the post-Vietnam era, I never inherited the knee-jerk hatred that many Americans from the previous generation seem to have for him. It is a shame that the Vietnam War will follow Johnson’s legacy throughout history, even though it is a shame that Johnson brought upon himself. Scared to death of looking weak in the face of what he perceived as communist aggression, Johnson  was the president most responsible for leading the nation into the war for which the term “quagmire” seemed to be coined.

Looking at Johnson’s pre-presidential career, it seemed unlikely that a war for independence halfway around the globe would be the thing that ended up destroying him. Born in the Texas Hill Country in 1908, Lyndon’s focus had always been local. Whether local meant rural Texas, Capitol Hill or the United States of America, matters of foreign policy rarely ever drew his attention. Maybe this was the problem. He was so domestically focused that he was ill-prepared to deal with Cold War geopolitics when forced to do so as president.

His father was once an important man who had fallen from grace and died penniless. Word got around the Hill Country that Old Man Johnson was a failure.  Lyndon, by all accounts, very much resembled his father physically. For his entire life, he strove to ensure that he did not end up resembling his father in any other way. He was going to be somebody. He was going to be the President of the United States, not a failure. Ambition would be the driving force of his entire life, but it was by no means the only driving force.

The Hill Country was not only cruel to his father. It was a large pocket of rural poverty and backwardness where most people lived as they had since the 19th century. It was one of the last places in the United States to have electricity. Johnson had seen how poverty affected his neighbors. During his brief stint as a teacher of children of Mexican migrant workers, he had seen up close how poverty affected people of other races as well. He would take these experiences with him throughout the rest of his life. If he ever got the chance he was going to do something to help people in need, no matter their race.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he idolized Franklin Roosevelt. He came of age when FDR just started implementing his New Deal, the first real effort by the federal government to help people who had fallen on hard times. When the opportunity to be part of the New Deal presented itself, Johnson jumped at the chance. It was his involvement with the federal programs of the New Deal that helped him cut his political teeth. Few politicians in American History have cut their teeth so well and so successfully.

It was not only the New Deal that drew Johnson to FDR. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. More than any other president, he was able to be all things to all people. Running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, FDR promised a “New Deal for the American people”. History now shows that FDR did not really have much of an idea of what this would mean. However, to a country wracked by the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced, a “New Deal” sounded pretty good. Roosevelt was convincing because he knew what people wanted to hear. Johnson would take these lessons with him too, much like he took with him the lessons of the Texas Hill Country. It was Roosevelt after whom Johnson tried to pattern himself by using his initials LBJ. While tuning up for his abortive presidential campaign in 1960, he would tell his aides “it’s important the people start thinking of me in terms of initials: LBJ, FDR, LBJ, FDR, get it?”

It is little wonder then that FDR took a shine to LBJ. If they were peas in a pod it was because Johnson was making the effort to be so. His relationship with Franklin Roosevelt helped propel him into national elective office. He spent several years in the House of Representatives where he forged an alliance with Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn would be one of the most powerful men in the United States, certainly the most powerful southern politician and the most important ally in Lyndon Johnson’s career.

LBJ spent 12 years in the House of Representatives but it was in the Senate where he forged his reputation as one of the shrewdest politicians in the United States. Shortly after he was elected, LBJ strolled into the Senate chamber after hours to look over his new work place. He muttered the words “it’s the perfect size”. As a Representative, Johnson was one of a crowd. As a Senator, he was part of an elite club. More importantly, the Senate was small enough for him to work his powers of persuasion. He could hit Senators one-on-one with the “Johnson Treatment” until he got the votes he needed.

Johnson was a tall, lanky fellow. He would always be impeccably dressed: tailored suits, hair slicked back, “LBJ” cuff links glistening in the light. That is why when he cornered a Senator, leaned his face into theirs and threatened, promised, flattered or cajoled, the Senator would usually give him what he wanted. This was the “Johnson Treatment”. Thanks in part to this tactic, Johnson would go on to be the most powerful Senator in the United States.

In a very short time he would be the Senate Majority Leader, gathering into that job powers that it had never seen before. LBJ would say “power is where power goes” and he certainly knew which people held the power. To the men of the Beltway who could do him harm (or favors), he was sickeningly obsequious.  To men and women who he did not need or who needed him, he was sickeningly rude. Stories of LBJ treating his staffers, and even his wife, with cruelty have become legendary.

Like when his wife, Lady Bird, would host parties for the Washington elite. Johnson would have no problem ordering his wife around like a maid, yelling out “Biiirrrrddd” in a high-pitched voice very much resembling a “Suey” call on a hog farm. It caused Bird a great deal of embarrassment and indignity to the point where many Washington wives pitied her.

Then there are the times when he would require staffers to take dictation while he was sitting on the toilet. He would open the door to the bathroom, lean his face out so a staffer could see him and then motion the staffer over with a “come here” motion of his index finger. All the while his face would be stone cold, letting the staffer know he was indeed serious. It was a way to test their loyalty, as well as test how far he could push his subordinates before they would push back.

Even around men of power he could be incredibly crude. At state dinners, where foreign dignitaries would dine, he would scarf down his food, let out a loud belch and leave the table all in the course of 10 minutes without saying a word. As majority leader, when his seat was in the front of the Senate chamber so that everyone could see him, he would turn to them and administer his eye drops in the most histrionic fashion possible. Or, with his back to them, he would dig out his wedgies and scratch his butt in the same dramatic way. When swapping tales of womanizing with his fellow Senators (LBJ had several extra-marital affairs), he would often brag about the size of his penis, saying things like “Old Jumbo sure got a workout last night.” He was caricature of himself on the Hill.

It is amazing that a man like this ever became president. Of course, it almost never happened thanks to his ill-conceived run at the Democratic nomination in 1960. He ended up accepting the Vice Presidential nomination when it was offered by John Kennedy, even though he disliked Jack and absolutely hated his brother Robert. However, in LBJ’s calculations, the Vice Presidency was the best road to the White House. Without it, he would have to wait another 8 years and probably run against men who had been in the national spotlight more than him. With it, he would be in the national spotlight himself and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, although nobody expected the young Jack Kennedy to die in office.

His 3 years as Vice President were probably the most miserable of his career. JFK surrounded himself with Harvard-educated men who had no use for the homespun LBJ. They gave him the unflattering nickname of “Rufus Cornpone”, made fun of him behind his back and isolated him from most of the important decisions. For his part, LBJ had no use for them. Before the election, he said that JFK was not a man’s man, which was one of the worst insults LBJ could throw at someone. He saw JFK’s inner circle in general as a bunch of spoiled brats who had everything in life handed to them.

And then the impossible happened. The young president was shot dead in Dallas. All of the sudden, Lyndon had the job he had always wanted, the job that meant he was a somebody. He had beaten the odds by becoming the first truly southern president since Zachary Taylor, and the first from the state of Texas.

The rest is history. He deftly attached himself to the dead president’s legacy by using his ample parliamentary skills to get JFK’s programs pushed through Congress. Part of this program was enacting the first substantial civil rights law in 100 years, a law that went on to become one of the crowning achievements of the entire Civil Rights movement. The biggest irony of all was that it was done by a southerner, one who never had a good reputation in liberal circles. His actions led to the biggest political realignment of the 20th century. Southerners bolted the Democratic Party for good. Minorities, liberals and other northeasterners would forever hitch their wagon to the star of the Democratic Party. Much of what we take for granted in the political world today is a direct legacy of President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, when running for election in his own right, he trounced Barry Goldwater. Sure, Goldwater was seen as a reactionary and ran one of the worst campaigns of any presidential candidate ever. But Johnson deserves credit for running a great campaign, one that included a television ad that set the standard for all future presidential campaigns:

Johnson went on to win in a landslide, the first elected president from Texas, the first elected president from the south since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

With Johnson reaching the height of his ambition, and with new elections another 4 years away, he was able to give reign to his sense of justice. He declared a War on Poverty and promised America that he would help lead them to a Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid are direct descendants of this promise. LBJ expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (what would be known as “welfare”) through expanding the rights of poor people. He hired a Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, to head up a War on Poverty. Federal funds started flooding the poorest areas of the nation. The idea of community control allowed these areas to spend the money as they saw fit. Not since the New Deal had the federal government gone to such lengths to help the most downtrodden people in America.

If Johnson’s life taught him that the federal government had the ability and the duty to help the poor, it also taught him that he needed to keep the rich and powerful on his side. Johnson was a friend of big business  and big business had been lobbying the government for years to institute meaningful immigration reform. They wanted to rewrite many of the laws that had closed off the borders since the 1920s. Johnson gave them the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened America to an extent not seen since the late 1800s. Unions had been fighting this type of immigration policy for decades out of fear that it would lower wages. Business had been fighting for this policy for the same reason. The law would end up being the Rosetta Stone for the New Democratic Party, one less reliant on labor unions, more compliant with the whims of big business and anxious to brandish its liberal credits by fighting for “diversity”.

All of these things would be overshadowed by Vietnam. Johnson had lived through McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had seen how being “weak” on communism both destroyed political careers and led to international embarrassment for the United States. When the forces of Ho Chi Minh seemed poised to take control of Vietnam, both north and south, LBJ was determined to prevent it from happening. Using his skill at getting Congress to bend to his whim, he got them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) which gave him full control over the U.S. response to the Vietnam conflict. When asked by his advisors if America was able to fight a war on poverty at home on top of a war against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, LBJ responded “we’re America, we can do it all.”

This quote, more than anything else, represents the type of optimism permeating the United States since after World War II. LBJ was expressing the common assumption at the time, one that put stock in both the righteousness and omnipotence of America’s role in the world.

And it is a shame that this quote, more than anything, signaled America’s pride before the fall. Johnson started his presidency like a house of fire, making progress on civil rights, poverty and immigration. He would end his presidency in disgrace with the country mired in Vietnam, riots in every major city and a youth culture thoroughly alienated from authority. Johnson’s presidency is the hinge between America’s golden age and America’s downfall. The quote that “we’re America, we can do it all” would be unrealistic today. Our leaders would never say this now. We are living in an age of limits.

America had been able to interfere in Korea, Berlin, Cuba and a million other places without embarrassment or losing a tremendous amount of face. Vietnam put a black eye on all of this. It made the U.S. afraid of getting involved in any large-scale conflict in the future, lest the government lose credibility and another generation be bled white. Instead, the U.S. would relegate itself to small-scale conflicts with limited aims. Or, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. would expand its aims without giving away too much to the media lest they stir up opposition at home.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Americans were still poor after the War on Poverty. Civil rights leaders were still dissatisfied after LBJ’s laws. Riots broke out in every major city during the 1960s. “Black Power” became the watchword of black leaders. Native Americans at Wounded Knee were gearing up to defend their way of life and battle centuries of mistreatment. The government was doing more than ever to help people and yet people were still unhappy. LBJ, watching the riots on TV in the Oval Office, mouthed the words “what more do these people want?” It was a question that many people would ask. A backlash started brewing which contended that poverty and racism could not be solved by the government. The next generation of leaders, represented by California Governor Ronald Reagan, gained popularity on the idea that people would have to solve their own problems through rugged individualism and the market. The nanny state that took care of its people would be dismantled after the supposed failure of the 1960s.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Before becoming president, Johnson was always sure to keep his distance from the oilmen who ran Texas. He knew that he would never get elected to the White House if voters thought the oilmen had purchased him. Yet, Johnson was a fan and a friend of big business. Moreover, he never had a good relationship with labor. Labor leaders threatened to bolt the Democratic Party when JFK chose LBJ for his ticket. Johnson would slowly lead the party away from labor and towards big business. The Immigration Act was a taste of what the Democratic Party would become in the future, what the Democratic Party is today, which is a pro-business, luke-warm-to-hostile towards labor party.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Finally, Johnson’s personal hatred for Bobby Kennedy would split the Democrats. The two men had hated each other since the day they met in the 1950s and that hatred had grown since that time. When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ from behind the scenes was determined to prevent it from happening. He threw his full support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be seen as the “establishment” candidate (even though he had a track record just as, if not more, liberal than RFK). Kennedy, through his compassion for the poor and opposition to Vietnam, was the choice of the younger generation. The Humphrey(LBJ)/RFK split would tear the Democrats apart in 1968. RFK was killed before he could officially get the party nomination. The candidate who claimed his mantle, Eugene McCarthy, was no RFK . When Humphrey was chosen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it led to a full-scale riot that became the symbol of the excesses of the youth movement and counterculture. Never again would young people be as involved in, or as successful at, shaping the political landscape.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

There is no telling what the world would have been like if Johnson had stayed out of Vietnam. Few presidents have possessed ambition, compassion and effectiveness as completely as LBJ. His ambition was his guide. It would be what led to his undoing, not to mention his party’s and the nation’s undoing. At the same time, if he did not have this ambition, it is doubtful he would have ever become president so he could be in a position to help right some of America’s wrongs. Maybe the U.S. would have still progressed without Johnson, although probably not as fast.

Too much, too fast, too soon, these could be the things that define Johnson’s legacy. For all of his faults, the United States has not seen a president as compassionate as him ever since. Nobody says anymore what America can do, what the government can do. Nobody says anymore “we’re America, we can do it all.” Instead, our leaders tell us what America cannot do, what the government cannot do. The Neoliberal Revolution that defined the post-LBJ era has been all about “can’t”, all about limits. Obama’s and Congress’ solution to our problems has been austerity, which is one large policy of “can’t”.

It is not at all clear that America has been better off by rejecting the policies for which LBJ stood. LBJ is a scary reminder of all that we have lost over the past 50 years.

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CONFESSIONS OF A FUTURE HISTORY TEACHER

history-teacher

Please welcome guest blogger Ms. Ortiz. This is the first of what I hope to be many contributions from her.

Ten years ago, I would have never imagined that I would be in college studying the liberal arts, much less history. I was good at math and believed history was the most boring subject a kid could be forced to take. My years of learning history in middle school felt like review of what I had already learned in elementary school, which was American history and the structure of our government. The only difference was that, in middle school, I had to memorize dates that meant very little to me. It’s tough to get motivated to have dates, people and what seemed to be random events drilled into your brain.

When I started high school I expected my history class to be the same boring, rote rundown of disconnected events and dates. I didn’t anticipate putting more effort than necessary into the class, just enough for a decent grade. My first week in high school completely changed my attitude towards history. The class wasn’t the same drill I had gotten used to. Instead, history was presented in a story-like fashion where seemingly unimportant events had the ability to change the course of humanity. I wondered about what if something else had happened instead, which sparked my interest in the past. I’m sure that I annoyed my teachers with these questions. My interest in these what-if questions motivated me to learn as much as I could.

Apparently, history wasn’t the study of disjointed facts and dates like I learned in grammar through middle school. Instead, I began to see the interconnectedness of historical events. This new way of looking at history enabled me to actually remember the facts that had been previously drilled into me to no avail. Before I knew it, I actually even appreciated the subject. We are all a product of history. Without historical understanding, we would not able to make sense of the world today and how we got to where we are now

Because of this, I decided to major in history in college. As I take more history classes I have been able to make sense of how the past relates to the present and how it fits together like a giant puzzle. Take a look at the early years of Christianity. A seemingly obscure movement in the Middle East grew into a church that ended up dominating society socially, politically, and economically. If the church hadn’t risen to power the way it did, we would be living in a totally different world today.

So now here I am, just a few months away from having the opportunity to teach history myself as a student teacher. I will have the chance to teach children who are the same age I was when I first caught the history bug. It is exciting to think that a student could possibly leave my class loving history. Hopefully, as I grow into a career, I can help students learn to use the past as a way to unlock the rhythm of the present. Hopefully, I can help students see how the past has helped configure the world in which we live today. Hopefully, and most importantly, I can arm students with the tools they need to decode the past so they can imagine a better future.

The road ahead of me is long. There are many things I have yet to learn. But one thing I know is the value of bringing history alive for my future students. This is the possibility that excites me the most.

SALMAN KHAN TRIES HIS HAND AT AMERICAN HISTORY

That's right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

That’s right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

As a glutton for punishment, I sat down to watch a brief Khan Academy video about the end of the Civil War. It is six minutes long and entitled “Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s Assassination.” The video exemplifies many of the major problems with Khan Academy videos that have been echoed by teachers in other fields.

To be fair, Khan and his team seem to be more knowledgeable of, and focused on, math and science. From what I understand, history is one of the more undeveloped parts of the Khan Academy repertoire. Therefore, I will be criticizing Khan in one of his most vulnerable areas.

As a history teacher, I would certainly not encourage my students to use this video as a primer or a refresher on the end of the Civil War. The one thing that jumped out at me about it was how it seemed like a spoken textbook. It is probably not a stretch to think that Khan, who narrates the video, read a few paragraphs from a textbook about the end of the Civil War and summarized it in spoken word. I threw out the textbook years ago for some of the very same deficiencies found in this video.

Appomattox Court House, as you may remember from high school, was the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This is mentioned in the video. The only problem is, Khan assumes that the watcher knows who these men are. He has pictures of them and writes their names next to each of the pictures. What side they represented or what their roles were he never says. Perhaps his previous videos on the war go into a little more depth about these men. It still doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have taken an extra 30 seconds to clarify who they were in this video, especially if he meant it to be something of a primer or review.

One of the major weaknesses of the piece is how he characterizes the events of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. He says that even though Lee surrendered, it wasn’t the “official” end of the war. There were other Confederate armies in other parts of the country that fought on beyond this date. Khan correctly points out that this was due to the slow communication technology of the era. However, it was pretty clear to anyone alive back then that the surrender of Lee meant the surrender of the south. Lee led the main Confederate Army whose role it was to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond by that point in the war. His capitulation to Grant was rightly seen as the end, as “official” an end as anyone was going to get.

It is a shame how mechanical, how stale, how dry the whole surrender was presented. He basically says that Lee (whoever that guy was) surrendered to Grant (whoever that guy was) in the city of Appomattox Court House. To his credit, he explains that Appomattox Court House was an actual town and not a building. What he did not explain was that towns back then with “Court House” in their names usually signified that they were the seat of county government. A minor detail but one he could have taken 10 seconds to explain so things could make just a little more sense.

What’s missing from his Appomattox story? First, the fact that Lee’s men were starving and deserting by that point. Grant had been burning down large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley, a major food source for Lee’s army. Desertions in the Confederate Army were a relative rarity, since Johnny Reb tended to be a motivated soldier with a fervent belief in the cause. There is no explanation of why Lee felt the need to surrender. Second, he doesn’t describe the respect both men had for each other. This is more than just a minor detail. Grant had one eye on the future. He knew he needed to treat Lee with mercy since, once again, they would be countrymen. The last thing Grant wanted to do was treat Lee’s army like a conquered people and engender more animus between North and South that might sabotage any effort to Reconstruct the Union. Indeed, the term “Appomattox Peace” has come to characterize any charitable treatment of a defeated army. Khan mentions none of this. Less importantly, there were the stylistic differences between the two men. Lee, the southern gentlemen in his finely pressed and cleaned uniform, laying his sword at the feet of the dirty and disheveled Grant, the man who was once kicked out of the army for drunkenness. If one did not know any better, it would look like Lee was the victor. Also, in one of the most memorable scenes of the war, the victorious Union soldiers raised their guns in salute of the Confederate boys who were laying down their arms. It was a show of respect between newly reunited countrymen and proof that, contrary to what Khan states, this was in fact the end of the war. These details that Khan left out are the stuff of history. These are the things that make history come alive for students. The lack of these details turns the telling of history into a rote series of events with no wider significance. Khan’s video is just as bad as a textbook in this way.

Probably the biggest deficiency in the video is his retelling of the Lincoln assassination. He claims that the war was not over the day Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, despite the fact that Lee had surrendered 5 days before. If Khan bothered to do serious research, he might have learned that the sheer fact that Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater was proof that the war was pretty much over in his mind. For the previous 4 years, Lincoln had spent all of his waking hours at the War Department or the Oval Office keeping meticulous track of the goings-on at the battlefield. He had neglected himself in the process and certainly had no time for frivolities like plays. Because of his dedication to saving the Union, he and Mary Todd had drifted apart. Going to Ford’s Theater shows that Lincoln believed he finally had some breathing room. It was also a way to spend an evening with the wife he had neglected for 4 years.

Khan then introduces John Wilkes Booth. He correctly points out that Booth was an actor sympathetic to the south who had conspired with some buddies to pretty much decapitate the federal government. On the evening Lincoln was killed, there were plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. What he did not mention, and what he probably does not even know, is that Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. The kidnapping plot was the result of one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War.

Booth had a brother in the Confederate Army who was being held as a prisoner of war in Elmira prison in upstate New York. The reason why his brother and so many soldiers of both sides were languishing in POW camps had to do with Lincoln’s changing views on the status of black people. It was customary in warfare at the time to swap POWs. You release my men, I release yours. However, the south had refused to release black prisoners they had captured from the Union Army. The Confederates considered these men contraband, or captured property, and intended to use them as slaves. Lincoln refused to agree to any POW exchanges unless the south released blacks and whites equally. The south did not budge on this, neither did Lincoln, and POWs on both sides stacked up as the war went on. Lincoln took much heat for this decision from northerners who had relatives in the south’s POW camps. At the Georgia prison in Andersonville, northern POWs were suffering from malnutrition and neglect. Many people blamed Lincoln for consigning these men to horrible fates just so he could “coddle the black man”. It was one of Lincoln’s most controversial, if not courageous, decisions as president.

Therefore, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln so he could exchange him for Confederate POWs, including his brother. However, as the war got progressively hopeless for the south, Booth and his cabal went for a full-fledged assassination conspiracy to throw the north into disarray. Perhaps this was the thing that could turn the war around for the south. Khan doesn’t mention this. He turns one of the most fascinating stories in American history into a dry, semi-factual rundown.

Booth was one of the nation’s most famous actors who had played Ford Theater many times in his life. He had pretty much unlimited access to come and go as he pleased. After all, who would tell Tom Cruise today that he could not walk into a movie theater when he felt like it? The name of the play that Lincoln was scheduled to see was Our American Cousin, a comedy with which Booth was very familiar. His plan was to pull the trigger at a point in the play where the crowd would be laughing, a line where one of the characters calls another character a “sockdologizing old mantrap”. Khan correctly mentions that Lincoln’s security detail, stationed at the feet of the steps to his balcony, had disappeared. No president had ever been assassinated before, so the lax presidential security during the 1860s was understandable. Booth made his way up the stairs, waited for the line and pulled the trigger to his derringer. Mary Todd screamed. Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln originally invited General Grant), wrestled with Booth, only to be stabbed in the arm. Booth jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle when his boot got caught on the American flag draped over the presidential balcony. He yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus. The South is Avenged!” before hobbling off the stage and making his way outside to his horse, where he immediately pistol whipped the poor peanut vendor who was good enough to be holding it for him. Booth was on the run for two weeks before being shot up in a blaze of glory out in the Maryland woods. Khan doesn’t mention any of these details, details that bring life to the story. He does mention that people thought it might have been part of the play, which accounted for why nobody rushed to tackle Booth. Lincoln was brought to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Khan sort of glosses over the rest of the story. He says the other conspirators were not as successful in killing their targets as was Booth. What he does not mention was that the guy slated to kill Johnson got drunk and chickened out instead. He does mention that Seward got stabbed in the face but never explains why. Seward had been in a carriage accident and was bedridden in a body cast. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, knocked on Seward’s door telling the butler the doctor sent him to drop off some medicine that he needed to show Seward how to administer. The butler let him. Powell then walked up the stairs where he encountered Seward’s son, who was suspicious of the stranger. He was going to tell Powell to take a hike when Seward’s daughter popped her head out of the bedroom saying “Papa will see you now.” This gave away the room in which Seward was staying. He struggled past Seward’s son, ran into the room, jumped on top of Seward in the bed and began stabbing at him. Seward’s cast deflected most of the blows. Powell could only stab Seward in the face, which was the only uncovered part of Seward’s body. Powell was then subdued.

The only real story Khan tells is the one of the man whose house was used as the spot for Lee’s surrender. This man had lived near Bull Run Creek and the first battle of the war was fought on his property. In order to avoid future battles, he moved further into Virginia to Appomattox, where the last battle would also be fought on his property. It is a nice story but it is found in every single history textbook as one of those cute little side columns they put in order to make an otherwise stale retelling of history somewhat interesting. Khan does the same exact thing in this video, which leads me to think he actually did just read out of a textbook.

These are the things that Khan left out. One can argue that mentioning these things would have made the video longer and less accessible. I argue the video is inaccessible as it is now. Not only is it a sterile retelling of incomplete facts that he fails to connect to each other, it is boring as all bloody hell. It is the type of “teaching” a novice does when they are one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook. It is the type of “teaching” to be expected from someone with no knowledge of the subject.

Why not get an historian to tell the story? Why not do more research to make the story alive? Barring these things, why do the video at all? It teaches very little and in the most boring imaginable way. If you wanted to turn someone off to history or have a student write off history as nothing more than disconnected and useless facts or dates, this is the video I would use.

I know Khan fans will chime in with their defenses. You can save your apologies. Neither me nor any other real history teacher needs any help from Khan and his band of non-educators. I never asked for his videos or tools and I see absolutely no value in them. On top of it, I see it as insulting that Khan believes it is sufficient to read a few paragraphs out of a textbook, gather some pictures and draw some dates and names on a screen and pass it off as a history lesson.

You want history? Read a book. You want to teach history? Know your subject. Anything else is merely shortchanging the people you claim to want to help.

UNION MEMBERS: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE GHOSTS OF ’68

What can we learn from the UFT Strike of 1968? How does it point the way to our future? I don't know but I pretend to in this piece.

What can we learn from the UFT Strike of 1968? How does it point the way to our future? I don’t know but I pretend to in this piece.

PART I (BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE ’68 STRIKE)

New York City was undergoing major demographic changes in the 1960s. For the previous 20 years, the manufacturing sector that had formed the bedrock of the city’s economy was being hollowed out. Jobs that employed most of the unskilled white workers of the city were moving to other states, then to other countries. At the same time, blacks from the south and Hispanics from the Caribbean were entering the city in search for those very same factory jobs. The city’s people, both white and minority, would be doing battle in a new type of economy: the service economy.

Unlike the manufacturing economy, making a living in the service sector required having an education. The city’s post-war mayors put programs in place to help people get their educations. A steadily booming economy, combined with federal programs like the GI Bill, allowed the city to invest in such programs. In a sense, this could be seen as a continuation of the old Tammany Hall tradition of providing social welfare services to otherwise underserved people. Tammany helped provide these services to immigrants, provided the immigrants voted Democrat on election day. The post-war mayors, serving in a post-Tammany New York, provided services to the children of immigrants.

These second-generation Americans were divided into different ethnic and religious camps, the two main camps being Jewish and Catholic. The education programs put in place after the war were designed with these groups in mind. They appealed to the values and sensibilities of these groups, requiring good marks on standardized exams and proof of dedication to college work. Looking back now, the city was successful in helping the children of immigrants move up into the middle class in the new service-sector economy.

On the other hand, New York’s newest minority residents were largely left out of these helping hand programs. That is not to say there were no programs in place for them. Red lining, urban “renewal” schemes and bad old fashioned racism helped isolate black and Hispanic residents in ever-expanding ghettos. While the children of European immigrants moved up into the middle class, the city’s minority population was trapped in what seemed like hopeless poverty.

By the 1960s, then, New York City was a place of upwardly mobile whites and oppressed minorities. Nowhere did these two groups converge more directly than in the city’s public schools.

Teaching had become a popular path to the middle class for these whites, especially Jews. Many of them had been educated in the CUNY system that supplied teachers to the public schools. As the years wore on, the students they served were increasingly drawn from the expanding minority population. These students, in need of an education so that they too could hope to find their way in the service sector economy, had high rates of failure, dropping out and illiteracy. Naturally, many observers blamed the teachers.

There was a sense that the teachers did not respect or understand their minority students. A clash of cultures provoked many daily tensions in schools around the city, especially schools located in the most blighted inner city areas. These tensions finally came to a head in 1968.

One of the plans for improving the performance of minority students was called “community control”. It was thought that turning over control of the public schools to local school boards would lead to an education more tailored to the experience and sensibilities of minority students. Community control was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. During the last year of his presidency in 1968, the mostly minority Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried their hand at community control of the public schools.

Right from the start of the community control experiment, the Ocean Hill school district sent letters to a several dozen teachers informing them that their services were no longer needed. The teachers that got these letters were mostly opposed to the idea of community control. They also happened to be very active in the new teachers’ union, the UFT. While Ocean Hill might not have had a need for these teachers, they were told to report to 110 Livingston Street for a new assignment. This shows that the teachers were not fired, just involuntarily transferred. It sort of sounds like a 1960s version of an ATR.

What happened next would rock the school system, the union and the city for decades to come. UFT President Albert Shanker called for a strike. In his mind, or at least his rhetoric, Ocean Hill had violated the contract. He essentially was willing to shut down the entire school system to protest a violation of the contract in one small part of the city. Shanker believed that allowing Ocean Hill to hand out involuntary transfers would set a bad precedent. The community control experiment came to an abrupt and ignominious end. Jews and blacks, groups that had been allies throughout the Civil Rights Movement, had a wedge driven in between them in NYC. According to Jerald Podair’s brilliant book about the strike, Jews would increasingly cast in their lot with the Catholics of the city, identifying themselves as “white”. Racial polarity in NYC was complete.

Shanker had flexed his muscle. The strike alienated the UFT from many of the communities they served. Instead of relying on legitimacy from community partnerships, the UFT would from now on rely on the city, the Board of Education or, quite simply, “the “establishment”. Over the course of the next few years, Shanker would win many rights for his rank-and-file. The destinies of the UFT and “the establishment” became linked as never before. In return for “the establishment’s” largesse, Shanker would have to keep quiet about many economic and social justice issues for which he had fought early in his career as a socialist.

In the years following the strike, the city was brought to the brink of financial ruin. All of the programs put into place after WWII had cost the city money that they just did not have anymore. A shrinking tax base and the unwillingness of banks to continue lending to New York City unless it paid its debts would lead to an era of budgetary belt-tightening. Indeed, New York City would practice austerity a few years before the rest of the nation. What would become a fundamental part of the Neoliberal coup of the late 1970s-early 1980s got its start in NYC.

And while everyone’s belts were tightening, Shanker’s UFT reached its zenith. Teachers would get better protections, pay and benefits while most of the rest of the city was left to fight it out in the Neoliberal world that lived by survival of the fittest. The group hurt most by this would be the city’s poor minorities. During a time when they were most in need of a helping hand, the same type of helping hand that previous groups had received, they got little more than the cold shoulder. Neighborhoods like Ocean Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx would become national symbols for urban blight, reinforcing in the nation’s mind the belief that the people who lived in these places were beyond hope and undeserving of any type of government help.

There is certainly much more to this story. However, from this we can start to pull out the lessons of the 1968 strike and its implications for the current education system in NYC.

PART II (RECKONING WITH THE GHOSTS OF ’68)

Shanker’s willingness to ally his union with management served him well in the short term. In return for being a good Neoliberal soldier, he was able to win for his union many of the benefits NYC teachers continue to enjoy. Indeed, part of the vitriol directed against teachers by the public today is the result of jealousy. You can hear it in many of the comments that are made, erroneously, about teachers: “Why do teachers get to have tenure?”,”Why are teachers not held accountable?” “Why are they entitled to a pension?” These are the words of a labor force ground down by a ruthless Neoliberal work environment, one hostile to unions and the public sector in general. Instead of asking themselves “how can I get that at my own job?” or “what’s wrong with the non-unionized workplace?”, they gain more delight in seeing others suffer just as much as they are. This is proof of victory for Neoliberal propaganda that seeks to get working people to believe that what is good for the billionaire is good for themselves or, more frequently, the billionaire’s suffering is the suffering of all of us. Americans today have been trained to “Pity the Billionaire”, in the words of Thomas Frank.

Unfortunately, the long-term implications of Shanker’s decisions have been disastrous. What the establishment giveth the establishment can also taketh away. NYC teachers would enjoy their protections as long as mayors and governors adopted a sufficiently friendly posture to the UFT, a posture born out of the union’s ability to make substantial campaign contributions. However, as time has gone on, union contributions have increasingly been drowned out by corporate contributions. Since Shanker, political leaders have seen less and less of a reason to fear upsetting the UFT. This becomes much worse if, within this environment, we get a mayor who is independently wealthy enough to not need anyone’s contribution. We have had this in NYC with Michael Bloomberg. He has shown us how easy it is for the establishment to cut off its life support for public school teachers. The uneasy alliance that nurtured the rise of the protected, decently-paid teacher has broken down.

One would think that the UFT or, more specifically, the Unity Caucus that controls it, would adapt their strategy to this changing environment. Instead, they have blindly carried on in the path that Shanker delineated 45 years ago. They continue to hitch their wagon (as well as ours) to the establishment’s star. Their justification is “well, if we don’t bend then we will be broken.” It is why the UFT supports mayoral control, charter schools, testing and other hallmark programs of Neoliberal education reform. The only problem with this is, whereas before the Neoliberals had a use for the UFT as a campaign contributor and even legitimizer of Neoliberal policies, the establishment now has absolutely no use for the UFT. That is why charters and online learning have gotten such a push. The goal is our complete destruction. The fact that our leadership continues to ally themselves with the establishment boggles the mind. They are helping guide the knife towards their own throat.

Therefore, the only other alternative is one that also might have been available to Shanker 45 years ago. The UFT has to unhitch the wagon from the establishment and start hitching it to the communities we serve. Unlike in Shanker’s day, the communities we serve today are almost entirely poor minority. Unity, not to mention every other teachers’ union with the exception of Chicago’s, have allowed the Neoliberals to beat them to the punch in dressing up their aims in the language of civil rights. The privatizers want to close the “achievement gap”, provide better “outcomes” and ensure that teachers “add value” to their students. As we know, this is merely doublespeak to mask an ongoing quest to destroy public education for good. It is the same type of doublespeak that has gotten the American worker to Pity the Billionaire.

However, the million-dollar question is how to hitch our wagons to the communities we serve. In 1968, the answer could have been to accept community control of school districts. Indeed, this seems to form part of the MORE platform. Giving parents and community members autonomy over, or at least a say in, the education of their children is a sensible approach to truly improving “outcomes” for our neediest students. At least, that is what it seems like on the surface.

Upon further reflection, community control may not be the answer. It may be part of an answer or it might not be part of it at all. Community control failed for more reasons than the UFT Strike of ’68. It failed because its justification rested on a group-oriented, tribalistic outlook about race that alienated many of its white supporters. This is the part of MORE’s platform that will cause them the most trouble. We have already seen it with the criticisms of UFTers like Chaz who fear that their social justice causes are eclipsing their teacher protection causes. Despite the righteousness of many of MORE’s stances, they will not get off of square one without the support of the UFT rank-and-file first, a rank-and-file that is still overwhelmingly white.

Furthermore, race in the 1960s is not the same as race in 2013. It is not just poor blacks and Hispanics who have been hurt by the Neoliberal school agenda. NYC schools have seen an increasing influx of Asian, Eastern European and African students, all of whom stand to lose out if public education disappears. To a large extent, these “new immigrant” groups also face tremendous poverty. With the exception of maybe Eastern Europeans, their skin colors do not allow them to benefit from the white supremacist assumptions that still undergird many of our institutions. On issues that relate directly to these students, students who represent groups that do not fit into the neat black/white dichotomy that we like to take for granted in the United States, both Unity and MORE are silent.

Community control in 2013 just might mean allowing each ethnic enclave in the city to control its own public education destiny. There can be schools for African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Filipinos, West Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Indian and so on until we are atomized into numerous cultural groups. The question is, however, do we really want to do this? This leads to another, more important question: should our union advocate for African-American causes, causes that might nobly seek to right many of the wrongs of a past with which we still live, to the exclusion of every other ethnic group?

Of course, most people would answer “no” to this question. This, then, brings up the next important question: should our union, no matter which caucus is in control, combine the interests of all of these groups into a vague “minority” platform, or do we advocate for the interests of each of these groups as their own groups? The former will cause resentment by subsuming everyone’s unique ethnic identity under an amorphous “minority” idea that might have no legs to begin with. If it is the latter, how do you balance these claims without making any one of these groups feel marginalized?

Another of the justifications for community control was that schools controlled by poor minorities would reward student behavior that the wider community valued. The values of hard-work and factual knowledge served the middle class whites of the 1960s well because society rewarded them for those traits. On the other hand, values in the minority community like peer loyalty and collaboration are not rewarded in the wider (and whiter) society. Community control would allow minority students be rewarded for the “currencies” they already brought to the table, rather than trying to force them to adopt middle class values.

Quite simply, whatever answer the UFT comes up with on how best to engage the communities we serve will have to be a “post-racial” strategy that breaks out of the simplistic black/white paradigm. This is not because racism no longer exists, since it obviously does and in even more insidious forms. This is because our understanding of race is undergoing a major shift. With the continued increase of interracial families, the lines between all of the groups mentioned above will continue to blur. Unity does not speak on race at all and MORE’s racial speech is caught in the quaint 20th century. Tribalism is and should be much less prominent now than it was in the 60s.

How to achieve a post-racial strategy without submerging all of these unique groups under amorphous rhetoric is difficult. Trying to retain that streak of ethnic tribalism without atomizing and alienating each other is also difficult.

For now, I would be happy to see my union leadership engage their communities using the language of class until a true post-racial strategy can be conceived. We live in an era when the Great Recession seems to be on a permanent low hum in the background. Poverty will continue to worsen as the economy stagnates under the weight of the low-wage jobs that the media tells us herald our “recovery”.  Failing to address issues of class continues the Albert Shanker path of acquiescence in the Neoliberal agenda.

One thing is for certain: we are still wrestling with the Ghosts of ’68. Many of the chickens from that time are now coming home to roost. Our union and our school system are unprepared for what will follow, since what will follow will be new and different. The quaint handles we use now, handles that were devised in the days of Albert Shanker, are just not going to cut it anymore.

Examining the ’68 strike shows us why so much has gone wrong over the past 20-30 years. Learning its lessons will show us what strategies and handles are useless for us now in 2013. Although it will not give us solid answers as to what needs to be done, it will perhaps point the way towards where an answer might start to be built.

STUPID QUESTIONS ON THE JANUARY 2013 GLOBAL HISTORY REGENTS (PART I)

The history of all humankind in 50 questions. What could possibly go wrong?

The history of all humankind in 50 questions. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s time for another round of stupid questions from the brain trust that is the New York State Board of Regents. Last time, we examined multiple choice questions from the most recent U.S. History Regents. This time we will do the same for the Global History Regents. The only difference is that the sheer volume of stupid questions on this exam defies logic so, out of mercy for the reader, the dissection of these questions will have to be divided into two or three smaller postings.

The Global History Regents is one of the killer exams that all NY State public school students have to pass in order to graduate. It almost always has much lower pass rates than the U.S. History exam. This is probably due to many factors: the fact that it tests a two-year curriculum, unlike the one-year curriculum of U.S. History; the fact that it hopscotches time periods and continents with the abandon of a drunken time traveler; and the fact that more students overall tend to take the exam in the first place.

The State of New York has been giving these Regents Exams for the better part of a century. One would think they would have gotten it right by now. Unfortunately, as we will see below, this is not the case.

They really waste little time in getting to the stupid questions, as the second one is pretty sub-par:

Which body of water is located between Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia?

(1) Pacific Ocean     (3) Indian Ocean
(2) Caribbean Sea   (4) Black Sea

The answer they want is (3). Why they want answer (3) is sort of a mystery. Here is a map of the Indian Ocean. Maybe you can see what the problem is with saying the Indian Ocean is between Southwest and Southeast Asia:

indianoceanarea

As you can see, the Indian Ocean borders no other continent outside of Asia.

Let’s take Saudi Arabia on the left side of the map as Southwest Asia and Indonesia on the right side of the map as Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean might be described as being in between these two points. But describing it in this way leaves out that very westward sliver of the Indian Ocean, the sliver that borders Africa. Why the Regents decided to circumscribe the Indian Ocean between two opposite points of Asia is a little bizarre. They could have easily asked what body of water is between Africa and Southeast Asia and been a sliver more accurate.

The other problem with this question has to do with what one means by “Asia”. Asia has always been a problematic term. Taking a long view of the map, Europe is merely a peninsula of the Asian land mass. The border between Asia and Europe is a cultural one more than a geographic one. Just ask historians specializing in Russia who still debate the question of exactly what continent the country is on. Just ask Turkey who has been lobbying hard to be part of the European Union. Part of the reason they have yet to be accepted has to do with Europeans’ age-old view of Turks as outsiders, Orientals or, in other words, Asians. In that case, the answer to the question could also be (4), which is the Black Sea.

Is Turkey not Southwest Asia too? Why do they get shunned by both Europeans and the Board of Regents?

Is Turkey not Southwest Asia too? Why do they get shunned by both Europeans and the Board of Regents?

Now granted, even if we accept the premise that Turkey is part of Southwest Asia the Black Sea is still nowhere near Southeast Asia.  This comes down to what one means by the word between. The Black Sea borders Southwest Asia and somewhere far, far to the east, well beyond the borders of the Black Sea, is Southeast Asia. In that case, the Black Sea can be loosely described as being “between” those two points.

It may not be the greatest example of “between”, but neither is the answer for which the Regents is looking.

Speaking of not the best answer, question 7 fits that description to a tee:

Base your answer to question 7 on the photograph below and on your knowledge of social studies.

Cathedral of St. Sophia (1017-1037)st-sophia-cathedral-kiev-1 Which civilization most influenced the style of Russian architecture shown in this photograph?

(1) Umayyad  (3) French

(2) Byzantine (4) Persian

The first thing I thought when I read this question was “Hello, maybe Russia, duh”. But assuming that a civilization cannot influence itself, which might be an interesting historical question in its own right, the answer they want is (2) Byzantine.

This is a common Global Regents question. Every year they are sure to ask about how the Byzantine Empire influenced Russia. Those types of questions are usually straightforward enough, usually relegated to references to the Orthodox Church. But, this year, the Board of Regents took a bold step when asking this question, especially considering what pops up on a Google image search of Umayyad architecture:

There is absolutely no resemblance between this Umayyad mosque in Damascus and St. Sophia.

There is absolutely no resemblance between this Umayyad mosque in Damascus and St. Sophia.

To be sure, there are some key differences between this mosque and St. Sophia. The columns and archways adorning this Umayyad mosque speak to a Grecco-Roman influence. The lack thereof in St. Sophia gives it a much more Medieval feel. However, you can’t tell me there is no resemblance between the domes in both of these houses of worship.

In this case, where there is resemblance there is also influence. The Umayyads were among the earliest of the Muslim caliphates. They helped lay the foundation for what would become the Golden Age of Islam. One of the most recognizable features of the Muslim Golden Age is the dome, both an aesthetic and acoustic innovation. Islamic innovations like the dome in the centuries after Muhammad’s death would have a great influence over the Byzantines. During this time period, the Byzantines became increasingly isolated from their Christian brethren in Europe. Their fate would become much more entwined with that of the Muslims. The Muslims were the envy of the world throughout much of the Middle Ages so it was only natural for civilizations like the Byzantines to adopt from them, especially in matters of architecture.

In short, the Umayyads influenced the Byzantines who in turn influenced the Russians. The answer to the question could easily be (1) Umayyad. The question really turns on what “most influenced” means. If it means direct influence, then the answer must surely be the Byzantines. But if the originators of an idea can be said to hold the most influence, then an argument could be made for the Umayyads to be the answer.

The Board of Regents could have made this question just a wee bit stronger by inserting the word “directly” in between “most” and “influenced”.

But then I suppose that brings us back to the Regents’ vague notion of what the word “between” means. Why does this feel like Bill Clinton’s deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case?

The next stupid question also has to do with the Muslims, and question 10 truly is a bad question:

Which statement accurately describes the actions of Muslims during the Crusades

(1) Most Muslims converted to Christianity.

(2) Muslims attacked and conquered Constantinople.

(3) Muslims defended Jerusalem because it was sacred to them.

(4) Many Muslims visited Europe for the first time to obtain luxury goods.

They want answer (3). The Regents is resting their answer on the premise that the phenomenon known as “the Crusades” was strictly a war between Christians and Muslims over the Holy Land.

However, that very limited notion of the Crusades is continually being challenged by historians. There is an entire school of thought that contends the Crusades were basically a series of clashes between Christians and Muslims that took place over the course of hundreds of years. At stake in these clashes was not merely the Holy Land but control of the Levant, access to the Dardanelles and defense of Eastern Europe. Indeed, in all of these battles, Christians tended to bring a Crusading spirit to the fight. It can be argued that the Battle of Lepanto (1571), which crippled Ottoman control of the Mediterranean and helped inspire Cervantes to pen the classic novel Don Quixote,  was the final chapter of the Crusades. After this point, Europeans began to focus their Crusading efforts on “civilizing” the “savage” Americas.

Therefore, the Crusades can be interpreted well beyond the very limited bounds implied by the Regents. Their interpretation of what the Crusades were is a medieval conflict over the Holy Land. However, with the more expansive view favored by some historians, the answer could also be (2) the Muslims attacked and conquered Constantinople. Conquering Constantinople was a long-time goal of the Ottoman Turks that they finally accomplished in 1453. Indeed, the Byzantine Empire (which is where Constantinople was located) had always played a prominent role in the Crusades. It was the Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnenus’ letter asking Pope Urban II to help him fight off the Muslims that initiated the call for a Crusade in the first place. How is the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 not part of the saga known as the Crusades?

The fall of Constantinople (1453). The Crusading spirit obviously played no role in the conflict.

The fall of Constantinople (1453). The Crusading spirit obviously played no role in the conflict.

God forbid a teacher passes along the long view of what the Crusades were to their students. They might bubble in choice (2) and end up failing the exam.

Bear in mind that we are just a 5th of the way through the multiple choice portion of the exam. If they butcher ancient history and geography this badly, I can’t wait to see what they do to more modern subjects.

Yes history teachers, these are the exams by which our students and ourselves will be judged. Are you angry yet?

ONE STUPID HISTORY TEACHER

duh

About one minute ago this comment was left on my most recent post about this past week’s U.S. History Regents:

denton | January 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm | ReplyEdit

The answer for 14 is 3 slaveholders.

Denton is absolutely correct. The question has to do with the Dred Scott decision:

Which group benefited most directly from the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford?

(1) abolitionists    (3) slave owners

(2) immigrants     (4) enslaved persons

To which I began my response:

They want answer (4) because Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slavery was legally permitted in all of the territories. He also ruled that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” How can it not be choice (4)?

If you read the rest of my response to the question you can see that I clearly meant to say choice (3), not (4). This was a simple matter of me getting the numbers mixed up.

I will admit, Denton’s simple comment mildly devastated me. Despite the fact that I know the answer to the question and have a strong opinion about why this question is stupid, I myself felt very stupid once Denton made me realize my folly. I am sure that many, if not most, people who read the post picked up on my mistake but did not say anything out of politeness.

The fact that, according to my stats, this is the most-read of my recent posts makes me feel even dumber. Hundreds of people have already read my mistake.

If someone like me who is confident in his understanding of U.S. History to the point of insufferable arrogance can be made to feel stupid for a simple mistake, imagine how a teenager must feel when something similar happens?

How many times have students simply transposed numbers and ended up bubbling in the wrong choice because of it? How many times has a student bubbled in an answer in which they had confidence only to have a machine spit it back at them as “wrong”?

My mistake and Denton’s comment I believe strengthens my point about the folly of standardized testing. As the post clearly demonstrates, even students with a strong understanding of a subject can be screwed over by simple errors, putting their graduation and the careers of their teachers in jeopardy.

For now at least, I am one dumb history teacher.

STUPID QUESTIONS ON LAST WEEK’S U.S. HISTORY REGENTS EXAM

Better fill in the right bubbles  or your teacher gets the axe.

Better fill in the right bubbles or your teacher gets the axe.

EDIT 1/28/13: SEE IF YOU CAN FIND THE STUPID MISTAKE I MADE ON ONE OF THE QUESTIONS DISCUSSED BELOW. TRY NOT TO READ THE COMMENTS UNTIL YOU CATCH MY MISTAKE. CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT THE MISTAKE WAS.

Students across New York State sat down to take Regents exams all last week. The January Regents, for most schools, are make-ups for students who did not pass an exam the first time. For many students, last week’s U.S. History Regents could have been the difference between graduating or not.

Which is why it is upsetting to open up a Regents exam for the first time and come across patently ridiculous questions. Last week’s Global History exam was actually worse in this regard but I don’t have a copy of it on hand. The U.S. History exam was bad enough.

There are many types of bad questions on these history exams. In total they make a great case for why the testing craze sweeping this country is destructive, not to mention why judging students and teachers by the results of these exams are just plain lunacy.

Take Question # 11 from the U.S. History exam:

One result of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory (1803) was that the United States

(1) acquired California from Spain

(2) gained control of the port of New Orleans

(3) ended border conflicts with British Canada

(4) annexed Florida

The answer they are looking for is (2). Of course, as I mentioned in my recent Thomas Jefferson post, the United States had been focused on getting New Orleans for a long time. Merchants and farmers out west were constantly frustrated at not having access to New Orleans which is at the mouth of the Mississippi River and, therefore, a major port of trade. Jefferson was fulfilling a long-time American dream by purchasing it and the rest of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.

But there were other “results” of the Louisiana Purchase. The acquisition of so much western land focused Americans on westward settlement. It continued an entire western momentum that started with the French and Indian War (1754-1761), which is when American colonists started to penetrate beyond the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley. With the Louisiana Territory in their possession Americans began to believe that it was their “destiny”, their God-given “Manifest Destiny”, to take control of the entire continent to the Pacific Ocean. 44 years after the Purchase, President James Polk instigated a war with Mexico to fulfill this destiny, gaining California in the process. Therefore, it could be argued that one of the “results” of the Louisiana Purchase was that the U.S. “(1) acquired California from Spain”. While the U.S. never acquired California directly from Spain (as we’ve seen, they got it from Mexico), both California and Mexico were colonies of Spain during the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

What if a teacher had taught this to their students to give them a more complete picture of the Louisiana Purchase in the context of American History? A student could have filled in choice (1), been at least partially correct and received no credit for it. What if a teacher explained to their students that the Louisiana Purchase put the United States on a collision course with Florida  (which was owned by Spain ), necessitating a series of arguments between the two countries over the borders of East and West Florida (which included the Gulf Coast regions of modern-day Mississippi and Alabama)? What if a teacher taught their students that, after the Purchase, several American generals (including Andrew Jackson) raided Florida in attempts to conquer it? Spain was a decaying empire who did not have the stomach for a trans-Atlantic fight with an aggressive and young United States. This led to the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819 – and negotiated by my favorite American ever, John Quincy Adams) where the United States annexed Florida, which is choice (4).

It is best for a teacher not to teach these things to their students so they will not be confused and fill in the “wrong” bubble on the exam. Of course, the only cost of this is a limited, stunted, incomplete curriculum of United States history, leading to a limited, stunted and incomplete understanding of U.S. history by our students.

But that’s alright. We need to show that we “add value” as teachers which, in this case, means debasing the value of the curriculum.

Three questions later, at question 14, we have another such question:

Which group benefited most directly from the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford?

(1) abolitionists    (3) slave owners

(2) immigrants     (4) enslaved persons

They want answer (4) because Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slavery was legally permitted in all of the territories. He also ruled that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” How can it not be choice (4)?

Well, it could be any of these choices. It can also be none of these choices. It is hard to say that anyone directly benefited from Taney’s decision. Even though he ruled that slave owners could bring their human chattel anywhere in the American territories, there is little evidence to suggest they did so. The country was so divided over the slavery issue in 1857 that it would be unlikely that slave owners would dare to bring slaves to any territory whose population was against slavery, lest the slave owners get a visit from John Brown and his family or similar types of crusaders.  Essentially, slave owners could only bring slaves to those territories whose people and climates were conducive to slavery, which is to say the territories in which slavery was already legal. The net direct benefit to slave owners in reality was negligible.

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

On the other hand, Taney’s decision strengthened the perception in the north that the “Slave Power”, as many abolitionists called it, dominated the federal government. It steeled their resolve to oppose slavery which became one of the big factors that pushed the nation into the Civil War. It would be the war that ended up abolishing slavery, in which case choice (1) makes sense. By extension, it also means choice (4) makes sense.

Or if you accept the premise that the Dred Scott case strengthened the institution of slavery, then choice (2) makes sense. Northern immigrants were some of the biggest supporters of slavery and the Democratic Party that defended it (indeed, immigrant support is one of the few things that have remained constant about the Democrats since the Age of Jackson). In their minds, slavery kept potential competition for their jobs chained in bondage far away in the south. One of the worst nightmares of many immigrants was an influx of freed slaves to the north undercutting their wages.

Again, heaven forbid a student has a wide-ranging mind that can take in all of these possibilities or had a teacher that taught this to them. They might fill in the wrong bubble and “prove” that their teacher did not “add value” to their understanding of Dred Scott.

Then, a mere eight questions later, we find this question:

In the early 1900s, the United States proposed the Open Door Policy to

(1) gain new colonies in the Pacific

(2) win support for building the Panama Canal

(3) improve relations with Europe

(4) secure access to markets in China

They obviously want choice (4) here. The United States’ economy exploded after the Civil War, ushering in an era of rapid expansion. The 1890 census showed that the “frontier” out on the western part of the continent was “full”, so Americans cast a covetous glance beyond towards the Pacific. Unfortunately, most of Europe had beaten them to the punch when it came to imperialism. The United States was oftentimes treated as a junior partner by the great powers in the game of geopolitical expansion. In Hawaii, Samoa and many other Pacific Islands, the U.S. asserted its growing influence in an attempt to both gain new markets and gain the respect of the great powers. Therefore, if the U.S. wanted to gain markets in China as choice (4) says, could that not also mean that they wished to “improve relations with Europe”, which is choice (3)?

C'mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won't have to respect us or treat us well at all.

C’mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won’t have to respect us or treat us well at all.

This, of course, all depends on what you mean by “improve”. As the U.S. expanded its influence the great powers took the growing nation more seriously, causing them to seek alliances, trade agreements and peace with the U.S. Would this not be an “improvement” by most definitions of the word? If the U.S. did not aggressively push its interests like it it did in China and other places, it would have remained a non-entity to the great powers and a country whose shipping was ripe for plunder on the high seas. In the world of geopolitics, might makes right.

An open-minded student could make a good case for choosing (3). Unfortunately, scantron machines do not care about making good cases and critical thought. No value added here Mr./Ms. Open-Minded Student. It is obvious that your teacher did not add any value to you.

A similar thing happens a mere six questions later in question 28:

After World War I, one way in which the Red Scare, the passing of the Quota Acts, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan were similar is that they all

(1) exploited fears about people who were considered un-American

(2) encourages the assimilation of new immigrants into American society

(3) supported goals of the suffrage movement

(4) exhibited prejudice against African Americans

Granted, the answer that makes the most sense is (1). The question refers to the climate of “nativism” that swept the country after World War I. However, if the country was turning against everything foreign then would it not cause many immigrants to want to assimilate? No immigrant wanted to a visit from the KKK or to be raided by A. Mitchell Palmer in his quest to find communists. One of the best ways to avoid this was to act American, which would be choice (2). Indeed, one of the byproducts of the nativist climate was the drive to assimilate. It was in the 1920s when most children in the United States had been enrolled in public school for the first time. One of the original reasons to have public schools in the first place was to Americanize the children of immigrants. All of the things mentioned in this question certainly helped make up the minds of immigrant parents as to whether or not they wanted to send their children to public schools. Assimilate or suffer could have been a mantra of the Roaring 20s.

What better time to act all "immigranty" than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

What better time to act all “immigranty” than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

Too bad for the student who might see things in this way and for the teacher who taught this. There is just no value to be had in an idea that leads to the wrong bubble-in answer.

A mere two questions later it happens again with a very strange question:

As part of the New Deal, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) were created to

(1) allow for a quick recovery of stock prices

(2) provide direct loans to businesses

(3) protect individual investors from stock fraud and bank failure

(4) allow banks and companies to invest in the stock market

Choice (3) makes sense. The SEC attempted to make the stock market transparent so investors would not get fleeced. The FDIC allowed the government to insure bank deposits so that bank runs would not wipe out people’s savings. This is the answer they want.

On the other hand, the transparency that the SEC was designed to bring to the market was also designed to bring back investor confidence, in which case choice (4) makes sense. Now, yes, the FDIC did not affect the stock market but the Glass-Stegall Act, which was the law that created the FDIC, did. Not only did Glass-Stegall create the FDIC, it erected a “firewall” between consumer and investor banks. The former type of bank would only deal with savings and small loans. The latter type of bank would deal with venture capital and stocks. While choice (4) is not technically “correct” it is sort of a gotcha question. A student could read FDIC and think Glass-Stegall and bubble in the wrong choice.

So I suppose it is better for a teacher to avoid mentioning Glass-Stegall altogether. Instead, they should merely focus on the FDIC part of the law and teach it as an isolated event. Clouding a student’s mind with an unnecessarily full view of history will only lead to the wrong bubble getting filled in and a negative “value added” score. I guess the banks should be happy about this. Students would never learn that Glass-Steagall reined in some of the worst abuses of big banks, including using the money of their customers to gamble in the stock market and other risky ventures. Thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Blily Act (1999), the part of Glass-Stegall that prevented banks from doing these things was repealed. Now students will never learn that banks were once regulated in this way and instead assume that the giant casinos the banks have become is the banks’ natural, default way of doing things.

bankers

The banks themselves could not have designed a question better suited to preempt the future generations from understanding how they continue to abuse the economy and put all of us at risk, again.

These are not all of the stupid, vague, incomplete or just plain inane questions that can be found on the January 2013 U.S. History regents. However, this post is already longer than common internet decency will allow.

What these questions show us is that teachers are encouraged to teach a narrow American History curriculum. Any teacher who attempts otherwise runs the risk of “confusing” their students, leading to wrong answers, negative value added and, eventually, a pink slip.

This is the New York State’s version of newspeak. A small curriculum leads to large “value added” for the teacher. A vast curriculum leads to negative “value added”. The freedom students and teachers receive, freedom from being left back or freedom from being fired, is actually slavery in the form of a shallow, ignorant understanding of history.