Jousting The Text — Part II

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Nov 232008

The story I’m telling my students this semester is relatively small.  I’ve left a lot of stuff out.  There wasn’t much, for example, of WWII that pertained to our theme (the rise of law and order).  As such, I skipped most of the Forties.  I figure there’s enough crap out there about the “Greatest Generation” that I don’t need to talk about that much anyway.  We’ve skipped over a good part of the text too.  The chapter on the war detailed much of the military strategy and diplomatic negotiations that took place.  I’m not going over that again.  On the other hand, there’s a couple of brief lines in the text about war-time riots.  I gave a whole lecture on that.  In detail, I covered a little sliver of that decade.  Compared to the master (or monster) narrative in the book, my focus is quite small — and specific.

The difference between the story I tell in class and the book’s lies in our different purposes.  The authors of the text wrote their history by selecting the events they considered most important or noteworthy and compiling them together.  The result is a hodgepodge of issues glued together with subheadings.  This approach is common in the profession.  When telling general histories, this is the traditional method.  Of course, then you wade into the quagmire of selecting your topics.  You must choose whether you think economic developments are more important than religious ones and the like.  Usually, politics, economics, and major social trends win out.  Everything else is either a big loser or a token that gets mentioned with the intent to appease.

And, you must appease then, because you’re vulnerable to criticisms for your selections.  Realistically, did the election of 1920 have a bigger impact on people’s lives than the advent of indoor plumbing?  Did credit cards alter lifestyles more than white flight?  Choices are shaped by inclinations and preferences.  Others with differing intentions can make legitimate critique then.  Thus, historians get caught up in this debate whenever they write traditional histories.  No one’s come up with a good resolution that can survive all accusations of snobbery or elitism.

This is what you get when you try to tell such a big story.  In contrast, I’ve elected to tell a smaller one.  I don’t purport to boil our history down into one narrative.  Anyone who promises they can is delusional.  You can find ways to connect various events together in small stories, and this is the best kind of synthesis you’re going to get.  I prefer it anyway.  So, each semester I pick a different theme and stick to that.  I try to be creative with the things I put together and pick themes that allow for a good bit of innovation.  I omit any happenings that do not relate to my topic, but since I’m not selecting based on the “importance” of those I include, I can avoid accusations of elitism.  At the same time, I am free from the illusion that a master narrative exists.  I leave that fallacy to the textbook.

My students have no idea they’re caught in a philosophical battle between me and the book.  I’m undermining the text (and in that way, the noted historians who wrote it), and all they know is that they don’t have to read all that boring crap.  Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to counter-balance the notions that some events are more important and worthy of study than others and that using politics and a socio-economic focus is the way to tell American history.  I have no illusions that mine is the one history there is to tell.  In fact, I tell a different one every semester because there are so many and each is interesting and worthy of study.  With each, I renew my resistance to the tyranny of a master narrative.


 Posted by at 3:22 pm

Jousting The Text — Part I

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Nov 162008

If a sign of wisdom is knowing how little you know, lately I’ve been positively sage.  My efforts to use my lectures to subvert our textbook feel ineffective.  The book is about nation-building.  In the mundane tradition of textbooks, it focuses on politics and “major” national (read: socio-economic) events.  I am trying my best to do brave battle here.  I am morally and philosophically opposed to using politics to write synthetic history (putting the American experience(s) together using politics as a framework).  And, I damn sure don’t want to focus on happenings in New York and Boston to tell our nation‘s story.  My theme this semester cuts counter to the traditional history, so my lectures must needs diverge from the text.  In writing them, I have been frustrated by all that I don’t know.  I lack substantial detailed knowledge — outside my particular areas of specialization — to build the narrative I want to tell.

Again, I find myself cursing my education.  Why couldn’t my studies have been more broad?  Why was it insufficient to give me detailed knowledge?  What am I supposed to do with the generalizations and grand interpretations I learned?  What good does it do me to talk about the rise of industrialization when I can’t give specific examples from particular times and places?  Damn social science and the profession’s need to discover immutable laws and Truth!  The historiography is so big and so small.  Historians have dedicated themselves to the impossible task of knowing like God and are doing a poor job of knowing like human beings in the meantime.  The whole damn thing’s a tower of Babel.

I was trained as a professional:  to generalize about national events.  I want to be able to connect Tulsa with Toledo, Tacoma, and Tupelo, but I lack the information specific to these places to tie them together.  I really couldn’t tell you how commercial culture was the same and different for each.  I know the 1910’s were fraught with race riots;  I can’t tell you ten places where they occurred and what happened at each.  I know the Great Depression was a catastrophic national economic event;  I can’t tell you if it felt the same or different in Arizona and Arkansas.  I was taught generalizations and I learned so few details.

So, now I am teaching myself the things I wanted to learn — I am giving myself the education I ought to have had.  I am trying to break the cycle.  I don’t want my students to be in the same boat as I am.  But, there is so much I don’t know.  How can I teach them?  I have a full-time job.  Where can I find enough time for research and how do you study history without reading the generalized monographs of professional historians (that got me where I am in the first place)?  I can only do so much work in primary sources with my temporal and logistical constraints.  This is why you specialize.  It’s a life’s work to have depth of knowledge in one field.  I want to know it all.

Our text largely ignores religion.  It overlooks medical developments and architecture.  It hardly mentions the police.  There’s so much left out and I want to find a way to put it back in.  My education was wholly inadequate for the task.  I feel like an educated ignoramus.  I am adrift in all that I don’t know, and it’s entirely the fault of the multitude of dunces that taught me.


 Posted by at 2:39 pm

Election, Oklahoma Style

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Nov 092008

I’m not even going to pretend to stick to history this week.  The election was too big — the moment too important.

Obama’s victory in the electoral college was overwhelming.  Of course, Oklahoma went for McCain.  The fact that the national popular vote favored Obama will not convince conservative Oklahomans that they were wrong or sway them to heed popular wisdom.  They will entrench in their self-righteousness and bigotry.  They will take solace in their Bibles.  Like George Bush, they do not question their interpretations — everyone else be damned.

Not a single county in the state went for Obama, but the numbers were interesting just the same.  We don’t hear much about the Native American vote, but that segment of the population here must have been very eager for change.  The county with the highest percentage for Obama (44%) was Cherokee County, seat of government for the Cherokee Nation.  The county with the second highest number was Muskogee County (42%) — right next door to Cherokee County and covering parts of both the Cherokee and Muskogee (Creek) Nations.  Neighboring counties Okmulgee (capitol of the Muskogee Nation since 1867) and McIntosh returned forty-one and forty percent for Obama respectively.  They also have large populations of Native Americans and blacks.  These are rural counties — but racially diverse.

At the other end of the spectrum, Beaver County had the lowest vote for Obama:  eleven percent.  Cimarron County was next at twelve percent.  Interestingly, both of these counties are in the Panhandle.  They have low population densities generally, are extremely rural, and have mostly white residents.  In the 2000 census (the last official one), there were seventeen blacks and seventy-three American Indians in Beaver County — compared to 5,430 whites.  There were eighteen blacks and thirty-two American Indians in Cimarron County, and 2, 700 whites.  I believe a lack of familiarity with persons of other races and prejudice contributed to the votes in these counties.

In general, the eastern half of Oklahoma had higher support for Obama — in the thirties and forties percentage-wise.  The western half of the state polled in the teens and twenties.  The exception to this was Comanche County in the southwest.  Comanche is home to Fort Sill — an army base with a varied racial and ethnic population and site of a scandal this past summer when wounded veterans were relocated there from Walter Reed Hospital and stuck in quarters filled with mold.  (The soldiers’ civilian advocate was fired when he blew the whistle to the newspapers.)  I believe those factors influenced the vote in Comanche.

Recently, a transplant from California was lamenting to me about how conservative Oklahoma City is.  While that’s true compared to other state capitols, the voting percentages show a more liberal bent there (42% for Obama) than in Tulsa (38%), the other major city in the state (which interestingly voted less favorably for Obama than rural McIntosh County to the southeast).  You cannot claim that the capitol is a seat of conservatism for the state then.

Interestingly, four counties voted Democratic in the race for U.S. senator.  The Republican incumbent handily won re-election with the support of the other counties, but it is significant that four counties bucked the Republican trend.  Those counties again were Okmulgee, McIntosh, Muskogee, and Cherokee — those that polled highest for Obama.  It is interesting that Obama did not take the majority in those counties when the Democratic challenger for the U.S. Senate did.

The fact that most of the eastern half of the state (which is more populous than the western half) voted for Obama 30-40 percent when his campaign wrote off Oklahoma says something.  I believe it was possible for him to take Oklahoma had there been a better presence here.  The local campaign was woefully unorganized and actually turned away volunteers.  A more substantially run grass-roots campaign here could have led to a striking shift in the heart of conservative country.  Better leadership could’ve made the eleven to twenty-one percentage point difference in the vote to squeak out a win, and cooperation with energized Native American voters may have been the missing ingredient.  Failure to tap into a disaffected Hispanic vote was also a grave error.  It still would’ve been a tough campaign — even with these supporters — and, apparently, the local Democrats weren’t up to the fight.  I don’t blame the national for reserving financial resources for states with more electoral votes, but such a shameful showing from home-grown Democrats is inexcusable.  Next time, Obama should recruit Native American organizers to manage the state campaign and forget the white yellow-dogs.


 Posted by at 5:28 pm

On Conformity

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on On Conformity
Nov 022008

I have been in a state of apoplexy for months now.  Every time I hear someone going on about how so-and-so is anti-American or un-American because s/he criticizes our government, our system, and/or the status quo, my blood boils and my heart starts hammering away.  By this logic, being American means being a conformist.  I don’t even know how you can reconcile that thought with the facts of our founding and the continued reverence we hold for the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.  I know, I know, we revolted and made things right and you don’t need to change anything anymore.  Still, the only way you can hold that position is to be completely ignorant of American history prior to WWII.  Thereafter, the conformist onslaught began.  You had to pledge allegiance to a flag “under God,” you could be investigated for “un-American activities,” and you were inundated with mass national culture that socialized you to believe in “the American way.”  (Yes, I know, the push for conformity began long before this but this was when it really became an “onslaught.”)

I don’t think it’s coincidental, either, that high school graduation rates have steadily climbed since that time.  More and more of us have been socialized “educated” properly.  I am not opposed to education, but only a fool is oblivious to the way education in our country reinforces conformity.  Studying American history or civics in school is part and parcel of this phenomenon.  The history taught is carefully designed to encourage you to believe in the greatness of our country, its destiny, and the free market (literally).  When you were occasionally taught about domestic critics (because they were so significant they couldn’t be ignored), you learned about the most conservative and palatable of these:  W.E.B. DuBois or Martin Luther King, Jr.  You would get the impression form public history in the U.S. that we are generally a conservative law-abiding lot.  Non-conformist voices have been suppressed in order for you to believe.  Now, it is hard for citizens to imagine how you can love our country and denounce the system.  The indoctrination has been thorough.

And, really, how can you bad-mouth a system that has given you Ipods and computers, one of the highest standards of living in the world, a vote, and freedom from fear of oppression?  Attacking the American system is like assaulting the virgin.  Please don’t sully the purity and virtue, thank you.  All we ask is your unquestioning faithfulness.  Give us this and we’ll give you the American dream — not the actuality, mind you, just the dream of achieving.

It’s another regret of my training that I didn’t get introduced to how history is taught in other countries.  In the U.S., we are capitalism and republicanism.  We haven’t really known much else.  We are too young yet.  That is not the case elsewhere.  The French know they are not socialism;  the Russians are not dictatorship.  They have known both, and others.  Being from their country, then, is something more than allegiance to a political or economic system.  I wonder how they teach that then.  We could use such wisdom.  Even the experts here don’t learn it, so how can we pass it on?  It is no wonder that the public can’t conceive differently.

We may not know how to teach tolerance, but the innate sense of this rises up from the human soul:  I saw a political cartoon this week that indicated this delightfully.  A man at a pharmacy purchasing a home test kit gets instructions from the woman at the counter.  You pee on the test strip, she says, and if it gets wet, you’re a real American.


 Posted by at 7:53 pm