Monday, April 5, 2010

Melba Sewell Calls Out FDR

The idea that "if we don't learn about our past, we are doomed to repeat it" strikes me as a little too simple. It is a loaded statement, on par with "fighting for freedom," that may have an element of truth, yet is used as video blurb, rallying call, or rhetorical tool far too often. It frustrates me when phrases, words, or insults are tossed around solely for the purpose of polemics, when our pleas intentionally incite emotional response, not thoughtful discussion. Fear, anger, hatred, and passion may be the impetus for short-term change or violent protest, but education seems essential for sustained movements. And this is not an "education" that necessarily involves graduate degrees or memorization of fact. In contrast, this "education" is grounded first and foremost in self-awareness. What exactly do I believe? What do I want to see happen? What is my motivation? Subsequently, it is an "education" that then examines these questions and answers in the context of political, economic, or social reality. Why do/don't others support my cause? What are the historical underpinnings for this support or lack thereof? How can those values that I deem essential improve society?

Several posts ago, a reader commented that they judge religions not based on name or stereotypes, but on the actual effect that religion has on the world. This seems a good practice for the application of both belief and critique in general. Rather than wondering if an idea would look good on a t-shirt or move a crowd to tears (and don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of inspiring supporters), it seems our first task should be an honest discussion centered around hard questions (for ourselves first, then move on to assumed opponents). The flippant, the unfounded, the rhetorical (which inevitably move a public that has not done its homework) are a much greater threat to democratic potential than a universal health care system.

This discussion, however, is not only motivated by the current contentious political environment (BUT, this is definitely part: I am frustrated by politicians, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike, who seem more interested in demonizing opposing parties than on fostering a sound and just political system). I have also been thinking about these questions because of a gift from my grandmother. On Friday, Mama brought me an Easter card (with an impressionist-type painting on the front; it "looked like me"), a lovely potted plant with deep purple blooms, and a book she thought I might enjoy: 199 Things Every American Should Know. This short collection of historical odds and ends, edited by Columbia University history professor, John Garraty, was printed in 1990 by American Heritage Magazine. The reason it is special to Mama and me is because it was my great-grandmother, Melba Sewell's book.

Nanny's editorial notes are my favorite aspect of the book. I am intrigued as to why this woman, who was history buff, outspoken critic, and basically just the perfect personification of "firecracker," underlined certain passages, "X"ed out others - including "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and circled "Nixon's the one." For the same reasons I have discussed in previous posts, it means something to see her handwriting on the back page, notes of what I think might be document collection references and publishing house phone numbers. Beyond this personal sentimentality, however, this book simply raises an interesting question. What's so important about these 199 historical facts?

My knee-jerk reaction to this question is "very little." My teaching style is one of "big picture" concepts. I would much rather my students be able to discuss "power, "or "democracy, "or "justice" than recite the names of generals in the War of 1812. In my attempts to puff myself up every now and then with statements like, "I want to teach students how to think, not memorize," or "I am more concerned with ideas and patterns than with minutia," I overlook the fact that it is those names, and dates, and seemingly trivial odds and ends that give legitimacy to ideology and thematics. It may be a chicken and egg dilemma, but I don't think it can be an either/or. We all need a broad framework AND the specifics to fill it in; philosophical concepts are important and reflection is essential, but tangible examples strengthen our understanding as well. Collectively, these tools have the power to deter rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric.

So, let's go beyond the idea that history is important because it teaches us to avoid recurring mistakes. Most of us know about the Holocaust, but has this prevented genocide in the post-WWII era? No. Most Americans have seen horrific footage from the Civil Rights Movement, but does this mean that discrimination is not rampant? Of course not. Even though there is a distinct difference between communism, democratic socialism, and capitalism, people toss these terms around with little to no historical knowledge or examples of how they have been used. We may have the framework, but not the bits and pieces (or vice versa). Or, perhaps we simply refuse to adapt our knowledge to changing societal conditions.

It seems the cliche thus needs an addendum. History is important because it is a study of human motivation. It gives insight into values, and mindsets, and political inclinations, factors that can have lingering effects decades and even centuries after specific events have occurred. It is a study of conflict and debate and occasionally, compromise. It can be a lesson in rhetoric, and stereotypes, and the meaning and power of propaganda. History is not simply a textbook blurb that gives one perspective of historical "fact." History, as I understand the purpose, should make us ask "why?". It should force us to engage conflicting arguments. In so doing, history potentially necessitates educated debate and strengthening of conviction.

*Just for kicks, here are a few "fun facts" from the book. I'll let you determine for yourself the grander significance or the framework in which each fits."
1) "Good Phrases for Big Issues": THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION - A Southern euphemism for slavery. The term was not intended to be a pejorative; by "peculiar" Southerners meant particular or unique, not odd or queer.
2) "Twenty Wonderful Nicknames": THE KINGFISH - Huey P. Long, because of his total dominance of his native state of Louisiana. Long was a Senator who campaigned during the Great Depression, proposing to confiscate all fortunes of more than five million dollars and all incomes of more than one million dollars, and to use the money to give every American family a house, a car, and an annual income of two thousand dollars or more (Share Our Wealth movement).
3) "What's New?": NEW ERA - The Republican description of the mid-1920s, when wages, profits, and stock prices were on the rise, interest rates were low, and business leaders seemed the embodiment of wisdom and good citizenship. [Uh, right...]; NEW LEFT - A 1950s British term, adopted by American "radicals" in the 1960s, mostly young, who bitterly opposed racism, the Vietnam War, corporate power, and "middle class" morality. The term was used as a pejorative by many people.
4) "Quotations Worth Quoting": "...Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, he belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambitions of our brighter minds...The way for people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away." W.E.B. DuBois (of Booker T. Washington)
5) "Know These Six Great Historians": George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, Allan Nevins
6) "Texts That Changed Our Lives": Common Sense - Thomas Paine, Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History - Alfred Mahan, The School and Society - John Dewey, The Jungle - Upton Sinclair, The Other America - Michael Harrington, Silent Spring - Rachel Carson, The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan
So, this Tarte Tatin...
1) Good idea in theory and I have to admit, it did look pretty cool. And I was proud of myself for inverting a 9", just out of the oven, skillet creation onto a crisp white serving platter.
2) I used low-fat butter. If you're going to spend the time making a dessert for a holiday get-together, though, just go ahead and splurge.
3) Not hard, but tedious. It took me roughly 2 hours start to finish (and only 30 minutes of this included bake time).
4) Serve it hot. Because it has a puff pastry crust, it should be served within an hour of taking it out of the oven. I made the mistake of debuting it at my grandmother Lois' Easter dinner. When she said "we'll eat at 4:00," I should have known that meant 5:45.
5) It's okay, but probably not worth the time it takes to make it. You would be better off just sticking with your favorite apple pie recipe.
6) Tarte Tatin is the equivalent of political rhetoric - sounds and looks good, but the substance is lacking.

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