Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 15

The Ignorance of South Dakota Education Officials

            The other day the South Dakota Board of Education voted to end the requirement in South Dakota of teaching early American History. This means that students in South Dakota will no longer be learning about the American Revolution, the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, the Antebellum period, and the Civil War. Most likely Reconstruction will be tossed as well. South Dakota’s kids will grow up not knowing why the United States was created.  This is an utter travesty and one that is extremely flawed.

            It seems that the people who made this decision were science educators which means they focus on STEM, not liberal arts. Note that no STEM classes were dropped, just early American History. Is it not already bad enough that many Americans have no clue of our nation’s past? If anything, students need more history education. They also need a good education and that means requiring all history teachers to have a BA in History. No more coaches teaching history with no education in the subject. 

            I will say that South Dakota has done a good job in pushing “new standards that are intended to guide the teaching and learning of content, concepts and skills like inquiry, communication, critical thinking and problem solving.” I agree wholeheartedly with that idea. Here’s the thing. History classes are the best classes for meeting those standards. Sam Wineburg has promoted this at Stanford for several years. He is not alone. Other history educators have been saying the same for a long time. Peter Seixas and Bob Bain are long time advocates of history education.

     The problem is when decisions are made that reject historical education in favor of classes that are seen as more desirable for the job market. Let’s face it, STEM is overrated. There are more STEM degree holders than jobs available. The US Census of 2010 showed 74% of STEM degree holders working in different fields. That in itself is not unusual as over half of all undergraduate degree holders work in different fields than the degree they earned. The emphasis on STEM comes from a perceived shortfall between the US and other nations in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Multiple reports from politicians and corporate leaders talk about a STEM shortage, yet the facts do not support that talk. 

            In fact, speaking with human resource agents we find something else entirely. It appears that many of our STEM graduates have problems writing and communicating. HR agents are on the hunt for people who can understand STEM people and communicate between them which while not efficient seems to be the only way companies can get their tech employees to work in teams. Imagine how some courses in history and English might have helped to solve those problems? This is where the core of a liberal arts degree comes into focus. The base of that degree is in K-12. 

            Unfortunately, the incessant mania for STEM is starting to generate the degradation of that base. That is what I think is taking place in South Dakota. I do like their standards and the ways they have set up to go about achieving them. Removing Early American History however is a massive mistake. It is the base foundation of American historical knowledge. It must remain. It should be emphasized. I teach at the community college and I routinely have students who do not know the basic elements of history, let alone American History. 

            When asked why, the number one answer is they didn’t learn much from their instructors. Some did and I think that is great, but the majority did not. Is that the fault of their school or the fault of their instructors?

Friday, August 28, 2015

History According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 15

     Yesterday I learned that a new MOOC would be starting in October. Unlike previous MOOC which I have taken, this one will be offered by Missouri State University. The subject is the Civil War in Missouri and it will be available via the Canvas Network. This course will begin on October 19th, 2015 and last for eight weeks. The cost is zero dollars and there are no textbooks to purchase. 

     While this is not college credit equivalent, the opportunity to learn more about the Civil War in Missouri is one I am not going to pass up. MOOCs are very useful and convenient ways to learn as there are no class times. It is all about the student taking an opportunity to learn from an instructor. In this case, the instructor is Jeremy Neely, who earned his Ph.D at MU-Columbia in 2005. He specialized in Missouri's Civil War history and has published three books on the subject.

     You can learn more about the course here Missouri's Civil War. As many Americans are still in denial over the cause of the Civil War, it is no surprise that many Missourians fail to understand that Missouri did not secede during the war.  The war in the East was felt in the state of Missouri, but in very different ways. The seccessionist minority plunged the state into the horrible guerrilla war which severely depopulated areas of the state and resulted in the murder of many men. For Missourians, the results of the conflict would last far beyond the war years into the 20th century.

     Missouri State offers more than just this course as well. Through their outreach program they offer another MOOC on Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. More information on their programs can be found here;  Missouri State Outreach

     Several members of the Saber & Scroll Historical Society will be attending the class. I will also pass out the information to the Knox County Historical Society. This is an excellent opportunity to learn more Missouri history. From what I understand, there may be a possibility of future courses offered in this mode of instruction on Missouri history. The MOOC platform is a great way to share information with a large group of people in a way that is very convenient for them. I hope to see many of you in the class on October 19th!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blog of the Week, Vol. 1, No. 15

            For this week’s entry in our Blog of the Week, I look to The Pietist Schoolman, a site ran by Chris Gerhz. I have been keeping an eye on this blog for the last year and it has become one which I find myself coming back to often. Chris’s blog focuses on Christianity, history, and education and how they intersect. He really pays a lot of attention to higher education and Christian colleges which lately has been a major topic. 

            Chris picked up his AB at the College of William and Mary in 1996 and his Ph.D at Yale in 2002. He is the Department Chair at Bethel University and helps to direct the Christianity and Western Culture program. Articles written by him abound in multiple publications and he also is the co-editor of The Pietist Impulse in Christianity. As an instructor he has taught multiple courses on various areas of history. He has edited a book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons.

            I find this blog to be a thinking man’s blog. Chris delves into topics and explores them with a very open mind. I find that to be very refreshing. His posts almost always involve deep thinking. Admittedly, Christianity in the field of higher education is something I am not deeply involved in, but with today’s culture war raging on, I find myself drawn to at least looking at the subject. Chris’s posts are pretty interesting in this regard. They obviously are not doom and gloom posts like some religious fundamentalists seem to put up every other day. Instead, these are often posts that ask questions. 

            I like that because you can see the pedagogy of inquiry in Chris’s posts. They are meant to be considered and thought about. Rarely do I find Chris taking a solid stance on something without first exploring the subject. He usually has questions to ask when he first opens a topic as well. That is definitely the mark of an educator seeking to get people to considering what they’ve learned as opposed to just telling them what he wants them to know. 

            It looks like Chris began his blog on June 20, 2011. The archives show a pretty active blog with steady posting over its lifespan. It is on the Wordpress system and he just recently changed the format of the blog around. I have not decided if I am happy with it or not, but then I’m a Blogger fan myself. Readers can make comments and there are usually a few for most posts. I have not seen any of the trolls make appearances on the blog as of yet, so either they know they can’t deal with Chris or they get blocked. I know there’s one troll I would love to see debate Chris and I do not think that will ever happen as that particular individual does not have the intellectual firepower to go toe-to-toe with Chris. 

            So if you are interested in reading posts about Christianity, history, and education as they intersect together, I suggest this blog to you. John Fea over on The Way of Improvement Leads Home suggests it as well . John is constantly referring to posts by Chris and that speaks pretty highly in my opinion. So head over to The Pietist Schoolman and start learning. Make sure you find the reason Chris named it The Pietist Schoolman. You will discover some interesting and touching information there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 15

Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2000. 973 ppg.

            You have to hand it to George R.R. Martin. He can write extremely well. Almost no one will read a book that is over 900 pages long unless it has a lot of pictures and here Martin has none. Yet, the reader is not only chugging through those pages, they’ve already read the first two books in the series, are now reading this one, and are reaching for the fourth and fifth books next. The only complaint here is that this could easily have been two books in order to cut down on the extremely long writing time in between tomes. Tomes is the correct word to use here for books bordering on a thousand pages.
            How does Martin get people to read these huge tomes? There are no dwarves or elves here, no wizards flinging spells about, or magical beasts abounding. Instead there are humans, next to no magic if any and even then rarely involved and seemingly either an accident, luck, or a remnant from a former age. The dragons in the novel are interesting, but play a minor role at the moment. Instead, it is the conflict between humans that drips from each page as they jockey for power, lust, revenge, and survival in a world where failure is met with death. This is a grisly world where there are no real heroes, just scared men and women struggling to survive.

            One of the best parts of this novel is Martin’s willingness to kill off any character. Beloved figures mean nothing to Martin. Their inky blood can be found anywhere in the book. Death lurks behind each page waiting to be turned. Readers can be scared to read a point of view section from their favorite characters because they sometimes end with the death of that character. Yet, they still turn the page and wince as their hero breathes his or her last. A happy ending for a character in these novels is dying in their sleep before someone cuts their throat.

            The plot in this novel, third in the series is interesting. Having watched every episode of the Game of Thrones HBO series, I had no illusions as to what was going to take place in the book. With that prior knowledge, I still eagerly devoured each page as if I did not know what was to take place. In no way was I disappointed. The Red Wedding still occurred, Jamie Lannister was still maimed, and Tywin Lannister still failed to support his youngest son. I was still spellbound by the book and enjoyed it immensely.

            In fact, I’m debating whether to wait for the next season of GoT before reading A Feast for Crows. You have to love the way Martin moves from point of view to point of view in the books. That helps keep the action fresh and prevents long winding chapters from bogging down the reading. He is aided in that a great deal by his script writing ability. Instead of letting minor points compose a long chapter, he tends to break things up in short viewpoints almost like scenes from a television show do. With conflict dominating the tempo of the book the reader ends up burning their fingertips turning pages to see what will happen next. Few authors are able to pull this off, but Martin has built an audience that enjoys the style.

            All in all, the Game of Thrones world is an exciting action setting that never lacks for excitement. Martin’s world is captured in fine detail in a way that the reader finds enjoyable and entertaining. Again, the only problem with these books in the interminable delay between their releases. Even the Potter books didn’t have these huge time gaps in them. But, if something is worth waiting for, it is that much more enjoyable. Martin does not disappoint his fans.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Well, I wasn't on a real vacation, but with an institution workshop, doctoral prospectus work, and classes kicking off on Wednesday I got behind on posting for the week. The normal chaos will resume on Tuesday with the 15th book from the Historian's Athenaeum.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 14

The Ignorance of Texans First, Americans Second and Texas Exceptionalism

            Last week in this column I focused on ethnocentrism and how it is a mental disorder. This week I am going to shift from that aspect to the way people form identities. Most of this is in the psychological world and that is not my field, but I want to specifically focus on the way that some people identify with states more than nations. I was engaged in an argument last week with someone who made the claim that more Texans consider themselves Texans first and Americans second. Now on the surface this claim is about identity and in some ways can be seen as possible. However, upon closer examination the claim does not stand. Instead, we find it to be an identity issue.

            Let’s look into this. Do more Texans consider themselves Texans first and Americans second? Since I do not live in Texas I can’t answer that with firsthand knowledge. Therefore I went with primary sources in doing some investigating. What primary sources you might say? The ones that live in Texas! I have quite a few friends in Texas so I asked them. The answer was a resounding, “No, but that depends on who you ask.” They explained that most people in Texas do not see themselves as Texans first. However, a certain group does and the individual I was arguing with is part of that group.

            As we can see by looking at a map, Texas is a pretty big state. There are a lot of people there too, but with Texas having such a strong Hispanic culture and history, the dominant white culture and identity is changing. More births were Hispanic than white since 2007 and it is estimated that the population change will shift to more non-white identities by 2030. This is a trend also seen nationally and I think it is contributing to the Texas first identity situation.

            At the current moment there are two groups of people in Texas who identify themselves as Texans first. The main group is made up of white conservatives. This group tends to hold views that are fact resistant. Their embrace of Texas first is due to their need to have a self-identity separate from others because the majority of America does not hold the factually challenged concepts that these folks have. My friends confirmed this by pointing out that this group not only believes in the Texas first concept, they also are Texas Exceptionalists. 

            What I found surprising was that as the result of a study into this phenomena, another group exists which identifies as Texas first. However, they definitely have little in common with the white conservatives. The concept is branded as Texas Exceptionalism. In many ways it resembles American Exceptionalism, but on a smaller and more xenophobic way. Those that believe in Texas Exceptionalism believe in American Exceptionalism as well. This is no surprise to me because I run into the adherents of the false American history all the time. Their grasp of history is almost always weak and reflects political ideology more than anything else. 

            Texas Exceptionalism is rooted in the idea that the state of Texas is a national leader and that the state can go it alone independent of the United States. I do have to say that Texas might be able to do so if secession were constitutional without the consent of the federal government. However, Texas would lose a lot of benefits and income from the federal government were this to happen. It would also incur a great deal of expenses, number one being the border which would now include a huge stretch along the US. Immigrants going to Texas via the US would not find any hindrance on the US side of the border in New Mexico or Oklahoma. 

            Texas would also find themselves missing about 20% of its income just from military and defense spending. All federal military bases would close and not one cent of US defense spending would be in Texas. While this would be small in the short term, the long term effects would be devastating to Texas. It is the leading state for defense contracts which means a lot of the high tech industry in Texas serves the defense industry. If that industry leaves, the high tech companies will follow because the US will be spending its money within its borders, not that of Texas. Veterans who like to retire in Texas would no longer do so as they would not received healthcare from local federal installations or get jobs in the defense industry. That would result in a net population loss as well as additional federal monies.

            Also, all those Texas exports which are not currently taxed would be subject to taxation as they cross into the US as imports. That’s a little Constitutional information for the exceptionalists who overlook that fact. While Texas does have the 12th largest economy in the world were it to be a nation, much of that would slowly evaporate. In addition, the volatility of oil prices would be magnified greatly. Texas would have to pay for its own defense forces which would jack up costs. Currently Texas has no state tax, but definitely would have to have an income tax were it to be an independent state. How far would Texas slide were it to be independent is unknown, but it would definitely lost well over half of its state revenue at the very least plus suffer a brain drain as the US extricates itself from Texas entirely. 

            I don’t think the exceptionalists bother to think of things like that. Their ideology is long on conservative ideas and short on reality. Since it is linked to American Execeptionalism, the failure to look at things in the long term and even then only with rose-colored glasses is natural for them. Some of this is borne out by the ludicrous Texas educational standards. Evolution is ignored in favor of creationism in their textbooks while the historical texts ignore the importance of race in the shaping of the US. This would have major repercussions because even if Texas left the US, it would still be more Hispanic than White within a generation. The demographics would change resulting in a political change as well. 

            It is possible for Texas to negate that via discrimination. Its history is loaded with discrimination. The Texas Revolution had its roots in slavery (another historical fact the exceptionalists ignore) as well as the slavery caused Civil War (yet another historical fact exceptionalists reject in favor of fiction). However, before too long the imbalance would shatter Texas and they would possibly end up in a Civil War of their own thus going three for three in rebellions with racism involved in their causes.  Of course Texas Exceptionalists disagree, but then these people think their views on this issue are the dominant ones. This is incorrect.

            Only about 27% of Texans think Texas first, America second. This was borne out in a study last year: Of the group, a sizeable number is Hispanic and younger whites. Those two groups have their own reasons for identifying as Texans first and it does not appear to involve Texas Exceptionalism. So basically as my friends pointed out to me, the main group that see themselves as Texans first is a minority within the state. My friends pointed out that these people include Jade Helm opponents, right wing extremists, and Teabaggers who are often out of touch with the people of Texas themselves. This group has views that most conservative Texans reject. 

            So there is your Texas First, America Second concept. It turns out to be a lot less than some people want it to be. How much of it is bound up in identity politics? I’d say a great deal, but the reasons for doing so different within the group. One thing is pretty sure. Texas is not going to go independent, and the person who said all Texans see themselves as Texans first was wrong as usual. Looking at the group she identifies with, I am not surprised. The United States of America comes first. Let's get that straight.