Monday, December 29, 2008

Telling It Right

First, of course, let me wish that everyone has had a happy holiday season so far. I enjoy the holidays because I can usually find some time to knock down my reading pile a bit. This is especially true this year with the snow storm we’ve been having in Seattle.

I have a theme that’s been running through my mind the past few days. I’m beginning to realize that there might not be one true version of a historical event. There is a fuzzy area out there that separates what is true and what is not, sometimes depending solely on perspective.

Of course we all know what is true. A known series of events, for example, or some other facts like names, numbers, etc. But how do we know it’s true? Well, we have to trust the source. But keep an open mind. Here’s an example:

I had posted on a history of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. One of the sources I used for this summary history had credited the coining of the Brigade’s nickname of “The Herd” to the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. I was contacted by a veteran who was in the 1st Battalion, who credits Colonel “Rawhide” Boland, his commander at the time, with coming up with the nickname. (Read the quote and history here) There is no choice here. When the only sources you have are an undocumented article on a website and an oral history from someone who was there, go with the in-person witness.

On the other end of the spectrum you have people who make things up. Hopefully, we can catch the untruths before they get absorbed into the historical record. I saw a great example of this in today’s New York Times. The article is worth your time to read. Unfortunately Oprah has been fooled again. It seems that Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust tale of his future wife tossing apples to him over the fence is not true. Fortunately, in this case other survivors and Holocaust researchers outed Mr. Rosenblat. While he is a Holocaust survivor, he felt he needed to spice up his memoir a bit and, like these things are wont to, the story ran away with the Rosenblats in tow. My point is not to judge this case specifically, but to show how some stories just need another source. Somewhere between my two examples is that gray area.

I just finished reading Tony Horwitz’ A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. (4.5 stars on Amazon, and I personally give it two thumbs up.) Part history and part travel narrative, Horwitz travels the country to learn about the founders of America from Columbus through the Plymouth Colony and Jamestown. It’s a fascinating and entertaining read. What struck me was how people around the country would usurp history to fit their political/ethnic agenda or even to simply further the local economy. Read the book and you might be amazed to find out that Ponce de León never looked for a “Fountain of Youth” but if you go to St Augustine (where the Conquistador never went) you’re likely to be offered a paper cup full of water. How many of us are dead certain that many of these types of historical mythology are true?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The State of Education

First let me give a shout out to Doug, who is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm with the 18th Military Police Brigade. He read a unit history that I had posted on the web and informed me that I had been remiss by not mentioning that units from the 18th MP Brigade had participated in the Gulf War. I appreciate the email, and a correction has been made. And I will say that there is not enough information on the subject on the web. So let’s see some writing from you vets who were there. People want to hear your story.

Warning: The following post is a rant that doesn’t have much to do with history.

My friend Paul Kurzawa posted on his blog over at History Delivered about a test put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute with questions on civics, history, and economics. Here are links to the press release explaining the abysmal results and the test itself. Basically the average score of a random sampling of Americans who were given the test was 49%, or an “F.” However, the average score for a person with an undergraduate college degree was 74.4%. See where I’m headed here?

While I agree with Paul that we are pathetic citizens when it comes to knowledge about our own history and government, our bigger problem is the overall decline of education in this country. Currently, almost 30% of our students drop out of high school across the nation. According to an article in USA Today, only 29% of Americans have a bachelor degree. The article goes on to tell us that of the 70% of students who graduate high school, 65% of them go on to college. But if that many students enroll in college why do only 3 in 10 of us have a degree? It is because somewhere along the way, from kindergarten to college graduation, seven of us gave up on formal education. In addition to that, they’ve given up on life-long learning.

Here’s my take on it: Public school started pushing ALL kids to go to college, even if they don’t know what they want to do for a career. So the kids who can go to college go without any clue of what they want to do with their lives. They then burn out on classes that they have no interest in and drop out. Meanwhile, the kids who aren’t able to go to college, for whatever reason, have received the implicit message loud and clear. They are worthless in this society for not going on to college. So they give up and drop out of high school. The kids who stick it out and graduate have no love of, or skills for, learning on their own.

My father went to “Technical High School” where he learned trade skills like welding and cabinetry. But he also was taught math through trigonometry and a love of poetry so strong that he carried a book of Robert Service poems to Korea. I graduated from college, but most of what I’ve learned about history was from outside of the classroom. Mostly through visiting museums, watching documentaries, and that’s right, reading books! And who taught me to read? Right again! My dad. He told me that reading was the most important skill you can have because anything you want to know about is in a book somewhere. Are parents today doing that for their kids?

Of course I’m ranting and of course I’m grossly generalizing. But how do we fix the declining state of education in this country? Let’s work on the weakest link. How about teaching every student in public school to a standard level of skill and competence? For the last several decades it seems like we’ve been putting all of our resources into teaching the most talented and advantaged while leaving the others to struggle. Why do we do this in public education? I’d like to see a public high school education mean something again. Let’s have that basic education be able to stand alone. Let’s get off of the “college is everything” kick for awhile. Because I really don’t worry too much about the upper middle class kid whose parents are involved and can afford to pay for college. I worry about the kids who don’t have those advantages. So should you. Because they both get one equal vote.