We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?
I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.
History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.
Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.
Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.
But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them. Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.
Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.
So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.
I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.
Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Good overview of recent disputes over how U.S. history is taught. #1 read.
- Not enough time is devoted to teaching history.
- California just updated the history curriculum to be more inclusive and culturally-diverse. Conservatives hate them. Both recommended.
- AP U.S. history controversy:
- Textbook Wars:
Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?
Today’s “boat people” fleeing the Middle East for Europe are just the latest in a long line of water-borne refugees fleeing wars and chaos. Carl, who has some personal experience in this, wanted us to talk about what most people old enough to remember it think of as the Boat People: The 1.2 million Southeast Asians that fled the aftermath of the wars in Indochina in the 1970s-80s. Most of them that resettled in the United States were Vietnamese, many of Chinese or Hmong descent. But, there were also tens of thousands of Cambodians, Laotians, and others.
I won’t be at Monday’s meeting. Too bad because I remember these events pretty vividly. I remember we faced the same hard questions and anguished choices the Europeans are facing today over their refugee problem. What is our moral responsibility to these people? Which countries should let in how many? Who should screen them and using what criteria? How can we help the host countries near the war zone that are overwhelmed with asylum seekers? Should some refugees be sent back to their home countries against their will (some Vietnamese boat people were)?
And, I recall the fierce political opposition the Boat People inspired, not just here but in other countries – including, BTW, Germany and Great Britain. In 1975 when Saigon fell, everybody was generous. As migrants kept on coming in large numbers year after year, not so much. Yes, a lot of that opposition was racist. But 1975-85 were tough economic times, too. A lot of Americans did not want to compete for jobs and government resources with an unexpected new wave of immigrants from countries that we had already sacrificed 57,000+ of our young men to defend.
As Carl will explain in my absence, many of the Boat People of the 1970s-80s had a kind of happy ending. The international community eventually resettled over 2 million of them, mostly in developed countries, with the United States taking the most. They joined a long historical list of boat people (see links), from Cubans (1980s) to Haitians (1980s) to European Jews (1940s).
You would think we’d have this down by now.
Anyway, on Monday evening Carl will give his take on whatever happened to the Indochinese Boat People and what lessons we perhaps should have learned.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Who were the Boat People of the 1970s?
- A profile of today’s Vietnamese immigrants in the USA.
- Other 20th century boat peoples:
- Right now boat people in Southeast Asia! A Burmese minority is fleeing genocide. Recommended.
- Parallels between ‘70s Boat People and today’s refugee crisis:
Next Week: What does today’s science fiction say about our culture?
Borg on the fourth of July!
April 13 was Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday. I sent a card and signed all your names. On Monday, Jim Zimmerman, our historian, will be our guide as we discuss Jefferson’s life and legacy. In the past few years, Jefferson’s complex legacy has become fodder for a new generation of historians that hate the guy, love the guy, or condemn/claim various pieces of him.
Outside of the academy, both Right and Left have wrestled with Jefferson in recent years. Conservatives sometimes claim him as the founding father most opposed to centralized big government and as much more traditionally Christian than historians generally allow. Liberals struggle with the paradox of the towering polymath that authored the Declaration of Independence and founded the Democratic Party while keeping a plantation full of slaves, some of whom he raped (Sally Hemings) and few of which he even bothered to free in his will.
So, lots to chew on. I’ll be there on Monday. But, I will leave it to Jim to run the meeting and you all to discuss history through any lenses you wish to peer through. I think our discussion should be wide-ranging, like Jefferson’s intellect, his accomplishments, and his dark side.
Here are a few basic readings on Thomas Jefferson and commentaries on aspects of his legacy that have been in the news lately.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Basic info on Jefferson:
- Controversies of late:
- Today’s historians are furiously debating Jefferson. Recommended.
- Why both Right and Left claim a piece of him. Recommended.
Or audio! A 30-minute podcast on same.
- Wiki Sally Hemings entry.
- Party politics of late:
- Conservative POV: A long (20+pp) defense of Jefferson by historian Sean Wilentz. He’s reviewing a 1997 Ken Burns film on Jefferson.
- FYI, for fun: What liberties with history did the new Broadway musical “Hamilton” take?
Next Week: Causes of deteriorating U.S. race relations/politics
A quarter of a century after it ended, the Cold War has turned into a frequently-used metaphor some of our current conflicts. It’s often said that the United States is in a new Cold War with Russia, and Iran, and China, and North Korea. Cyber war is Cold War, apparently.
I suppose labelling every conflict as a new Cold War is better than the metaphor Republican presidential candidates have started using to describe our war with ISIS: World War III. Still, such liberal use of the Cold War label grates on me. Since New Year’s Eve 2015 will mark the 24th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the Cold War ended in 1989 or earlier, arguably), I thought it would be a fine time to discuss the Cold War both as history and metaphor.
Most of us lived these events of course. I followed them pretty closely from my lowly perch as a grad student in international relations (1987-89) and then as a congressional analyst. If you were not around in those days as an adult, it is hard to describe how astonishing the Cold War’s sudden end seemed. The “what-was-the-Cold-War?” descriptions for history students that I find on the Internet don’t just fail to convey the sense of dread in those days. To me, they seem puzzled by the whole thing. What was all of the fuss about?
Since it’s a busy Christmas week, on Monday night I’ll give a very brief opening on theories of the Cold War’s causes and why it resolved so peacefully (for us). Then, I want to hear what you think both about the causes and outcome of the conflict and about the promiscuous (IMO) use of the Cold War metaphor. I think the big payoff this week will not be learning cool new facts about the history we all passed through, but rather will emerge from our comparing the Soviet threat and our responses to it to the threats we currently face and our responses to them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Cold War’s beginning and its causes:
- The Middle:
- The End:
- Today we’re way safer than in the Cold War. Recommended
- We need a new Cold War, so we don’t fight a new hot one. Recommended.
- New Cold War candidates: Syria is one (?). Iran is another; Or, baloney, no it is not.
Next Week: Ho, ho, ho. How is a religion different from a cult?
By my count, Bill Clinton – our 42nd president and possible future First Gentleman – will be the seventh presidency our group has evaluated. We’ve done Jackson, Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Obama’s first term. We also debated the best and worst presidents and the power of the office itself. The topic of George W. Bush’s tenure may have come up a few times, too, but my mind’s a blank.
We already know that Bill Clinton never will be on Mount Rushmore. He fought no major American wars nor battled any terrible economic catastrophes. He had to share power with his Republican tormentors and with some conservative Democrats. So, he spent most of his presidency compromising and triangulating. Conservatives despised him and progressives distrusted him.
Yet, Bill Clinton’s presidency was a consequential one. Moreover, he left office still popular, scholars are ranking him in the top 10 all-time presidents (!) these days, and his wife is running implicitly on a platform to bring back her husband’s era’s widely-shared prosperity. I also think we need to rethink Clinton’s presidency in light of 14 years of post-Bill perspective.
As I indicated last meeting, I will open Monday by listing the major accomplishments, good and bad, of President Bill Clinton. Then, I’ll take a brief stab at providing some context I think might be helpful to us in evaluating his presidency (and, maybe his wife’s?)
- What was Clinton elected to do? What did he promise to do?
- Achievements: What was accomplished during the Clinton years in terms of:
- Domestic policy,
- Foreign policy,
- Politics (building an enduring political movement and coalition)?
- Evaluating him:
- Context: How were the domestic and international contexts within which he operated different from todays?
- Credit: Does Clinton deserve all of the credit/blame for these achievements, or do others share both?
- Standards: By what standards was Clinton judged at the time? How might those standards be different today?
- So, how good or bad a president was Bill Clinton?
- Any lessons for how Hillary would or should govern if elected?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wiki ‘presidency of Bill Clinton” entry.
- A better recap of his foreign policy achievements
- Why was he so despised by conservatives? A cultural explanation. (NYT)
- Liberal POVs:
- Conservative POVs (relatively positive ones!):
Next Week: Cry, Robot. Will technology revolutionize the nature of work?
This one was Bruce’s idea. I love it, but I would add a second part to it: Why should the Founders’ vision of the appropriate powers of government still matter to us? The latter is a very important question, IMO, not because I think their views no longer should matter but because I think they do. Conservatives often say we that (1) the Constitution strictly limits government to a size and scope far smaller than it is currently and that many of the federal government’s functions should be returned to the states as the Constitution “intended; and (2) we are bound to follow their recipe for government’s power and reach in perpetuity. IMO, it’s a No or at best a highly-qualified Yes-but to both. First, the Founders clearly believed that future generations of Americans could and should be allowed to think for themselves. That’s why they created a republic in the first place. Therefore, as some of the Founders said explicitly, the Constitution allows us to adapt governmental powers as long as doing so remains faithful to fulfilling the document’s purposes. Second, 225 years of applying the Constitution provides us knowledge and perspectives the Founders just did not have. So, of course we need to, for example, regulate commerce and protect privacy in ways they did not foresee.
But, conservatives have an important point. The Founders created the Constitution to be above and a priori to law and politics. Under it, the people are sovereign and governments’ powers are limited. The Constitution also separates powers between different branches and levels of government in some cases. The document does bound government’s functions and reach and the Constitution cannot mean whatever today’s exigencies and show of hands say it means.
So, what are we to discuss, exactly, in this fascinating but broad topic? I don’t know about Bruce, but I think we should start by asking ourselves why the Founders wanted to limit government’s power and whether those reasons still make sense in the modern world. That does not give us our topic’s answer, but it’s a good start.
- Why did the Founders create the Constitution? What problems were they most worried about?
- How did the Constitution expand and limit government’s powers? How revolutionary and democratic was it, really?
- Did they intend these limits on the size and scope of government to be permanent?
- To what extent should we in 2015 be bound by the Founders’ understanding of governments’ proper powers and organization?
- What rules should guide us on judging what is permitted change and what is not? Is there a way to interpret the Constitution’s meaning that takes both original intent and the needs of a modern United States into account?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Yes, the Founders’ opinions still are relevant today. Recommended.
- But, they did not mean that governments’ powers should never change to adapt to changing circumstances:
- The Founders wanted and expected us to think for ourselves. Recommended.
- The Constitution is impossible to interpret mechanically, anyway.
- A conservative explains that the Founders created the Constitution to be flexible, to let future generations adjust to changing times. Recommended.
- Or, maybe they did mean to permanently limit what government can do (Conservative POV) :
- The Constitution’s federalism sharply limits the federal govt’s powers, and we have to live with it. (Our 11/14 mtg on federalism had good links related to this)
- But, must we? Two conservatives debate whether we are obliged to dismantle Federal safety net because it’s not an enumerated power. Recommended.
- Right-wing POV: “28 fundamental principles of the founding fathers.” Just wow. But recommended.
- Mistakes: Was the Constitution just wrong about some things (beyond the stuff corrected by amendments)? Is it…
- Schools of Constitutional interpretation: A short primer on a very complex topic.
Next Week: The Sermon On the Mount.
This topic idea of mine was spurred by a recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, but the basic idea has been building in my mind for a long-time, based on what I’ve been seeing for years in American politics and culture. At the Atlantic, the highly-respected journalist James Fallows argues that Americans have taken their natural and merited respect for the troops to a dangerous place for both our fighting men and women and our country. He says our admiration for the military has warped into a lazy and uncritical acceptance of everything the military does and support for every use of military force by our politicians.
It’s a subtle and multi-faceted argument that’s easily misunderstand or distorted. I’ll summarize it to begin our meeting, but I urge you to read it for yourselves. To me, what Fallows is saying is very different from more left-leaning people like Noam Chomsky or Chalmers Johnson have been arguing for decades. They say America is an inherently imperial and warlike nation. That is not Fallows’ view, or mine. But, honestly, I have been following foreign and national security policy for 35 years, and I have never seen our policy and national conversation so militarized. Maybe it’s just because we were attacked so brutally on 9/11 and our enemy is so vile and undetterable by non-military means.
Or, maybe Fallows – and Andrew Bacevich, who I’ve linked to below since he has made similar arguments – has a point. Maybe lazy, robotic valorization of “the troops” has become a substitute for actually caring about them and the impossible jobs we demand they do. Aaron has been arguing this in the group for years and I’m close to being persuaded.
So, please try to read James Fallow’s article, and the Bacevich one, too, if you’re not familiar with his opinions. I also include some partial rebuttals to Fallows and Bacevich, although I’m having trouble so far finding conservative rebuttals that don’t just illustrate the mentality Fallows is describing. But, I’ll find some by Sunday.
I’ll see you Monday night. And, remember, we call ourselves the “Civilized” conversation club!
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Why does Fallows argue we are a “chicken hawk nation?” What about Andrew Bacevich? Is he saying anything different?
- How different are their arguments from those of older, more left-wing critiques, like Chomsky or Johnson?
- Are you persuaded? Do these guys provide the evidence necessary to prove their points, or is that missing? What evidence rebuts them?
- If Fallows/Bacevich/et. al., are…
- Correct, then how did this happen? Having an all-volunteer military in which 99% of us never serve? The deep fear caused by 9/11? Cynical politicians (and journalists “journalists”) hiding behind the troops’ reputation?)
- Wrong, then why? Do they underestimate the threat we face? Overstate the “military-industrial complex “thing? Other?
- What to do going forward?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military.” The Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2015. Your must-read
- A reader rebuts Fallows, and he and other readers rebut back. Important.
- Shorter: America has been permanently militarized. (Different author, similar POV, shorter article.)
- Andrew Bacevich’s even grimmer POV. Read if you’ve never heard of him. Also by Bacevich:
- Conservative POVs:
Next Week: What is Wahhabism and how does it affect Islam??
This idea from Gale sounds like a fun conversation. It’s basically an exercise in “what if” history, also known as counterfactual history. Counterfactual history is a thing. There are books and blogs and discussion groups on-line devoted to imagining how history might have unfolded if, say, some battle or election or catastrophe had turned out differently.
I thought I’d skip the usual opening presentation. (Pause for cheering.) Instead, I’ll just ask who has ideas on what they might change and why, and then I’ll moderate as the group discusses the possible ramifications of the counterfactual.
This stuff isn’t as easy as it seems. Asking what if is basically asking another question: What are history’s “hinges,” the moments when our future really did, or could have but did not, take off in a whole new direction? If Napoleon had not sold us the Louisiana purchase, we probably would have acquired it eventually, anyway. But, what if Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan had missed their targets, or if the Supreme Court had not awarded the presidency to George W. Bush? Or, if Hamilton had killed Burr in their duel and not the other way around? When does history turn on the acts of individuals and when does it turn on impersonal social and cultural and economic forces?
Not many links this week.
Mistakes were made –
- 2011 public survey: The worst mistakes in U.S. history. Recommended
- Top 10 worst decisions by American presidents
- Our 10 big economic mistakes.
- Our 5 worst foreign policy failures and 10 worst intelligence agency failures.
- 17 events in U.S. history liberals would want to have changed.
Alternate and counterfactual history –
- What is “counterfactual history?” (Wiki)
- Can history be studied with hypotheticals? Recommended.
- The 17 scenarios from that book, “What Ifs of American History.”
- What if JFK or Jimmy Carter were never president, or if RFK had lived?
Next Week: Is more federalism the answer to our political divide?