Friday, September 28, 2012

"Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen (1995)

A book about history textbooks? Yes please!

This book is a scathing indictment of the way American History is taught (or at least how history textbooks are made) in The United States. It points out how willfully misleading and politicized our education system is when it comes to Social Studies or American History in a way that it is not when it comes to any other subject. The premise of the book is that textbook authors cater to textbook selection panels and their blatant Euro-centric biases. The results are textbooks that distort and omit truth, rather than ones that teach actual history.

Dude, there are so many great facts in this book, facts that are not widely known or admitted, that it would be pretty understandable if this whole post was just a big long list of them. This is kind of why you made this blog, to create a giant list of things that you don't want to forget. But making a blog post that was just one long list would be a bit lame, so here is a short list for you.

- Helen Keller was a raging communist! Once she was able to interact with her world, her (metaphorical) eyes were opened to the plight of the under classes in modern societies. She did speaking tours, not on overcoming disabilities (like you thought she did) but on reforming society. She realized that treating disabilities was just treating symptoms; reforming our social class systems would actually be treating the causes.
- Woodrow Wilson was a raging racist and a major military interventionist. He racially segregated the federal government and he invaded Russia! Wilson's term as President saw the KKK grow and dominate the Democratic Party and lynchings became acceptable public activities. At the behest of big business interests, he ordered the invasion of more central American nations than any other president.
- The gold extracted from the Americas by Europeans really shaped the world we think of when we think of "The West". It collapsed the Saharan trade routes, usurped Muslim primacy, altered the economy of the world, made Africa suddenly attractive to Imperialists only for its slaves not its natural resources, probably ignited the modern concept of capitalism, and surely sparked the Industrial Revolution.
- Native American cultures were EXTREMELY attractive and influential to most European settlers. The democratic and egalitarian  nature of the Iroqouis nation inspired philosophers like More, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau's ideas of liberty and equality. These philosophers had direct influence on America's founding generation. Benjamin Franklin said, "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." Early European settlements had to put up walls and post guards to keep the settlers IN, not to keep the natives OUT. When the Berlin Wall went up we all asked why, if communism was so nice, they had to keep their citizens from leaving. The same question could be applied to early American settlements.
- John Brown was long considered to be a noble hero before he was accused of insanity. Union soldiers marched to battle singing 'John Brown's Body'. They don't do that for insane people, they do that for heroes.
- Abraham Lincoln was much more of an abolitionist than most books make him out to be. A lot of his more moderate quotes were taken out of context. The quote, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," was followed by, "...I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free." See? Much more abolitionist, much less moderate.

This list could go on and on, but it shouldn't. This list of omitted and ignored historical truths (however fascinating to you) is not really what this book was about. The fun and enlightening historical facts were really just an appetizer to the main point of the book. The main point being, Truth and history are complicated things that resist simplicity. Teaching them in simplified, pro-American ways is easy but not often wise, and it does a disservice to the students and to the rest of our society.

History is fraught with controversy and contradictions. Bringing these complications to students honestly, shows them why history happened, and why is a more important question than how or who or what. Learning why history unfolded the way it did is important because it teaches citizens (and that's what students are) how to judge current events, how to regard current laws, and why their votes on current politicians and policies actually do matter. Context is everything. Deleting the context of history (which this book proves is happening in our schools) robs citizens of the real story of American History.

Textbook authors are not interested in explaining why America did the things that it did. Page 229, "Instead, textbooks merely assume that the government (always) tried to do the right thing." But America doesn't always mean well. That doesn't, however, mean that America isn't a major force for good in the world. In fact, ignoring the bad things we've done dilutes how great the good things we've done really are. Electing our first black president is not nearly as significant if it is not placed in the context of a century of slavery followed by a century of racial repression and decades of Civil Rights struggles.

The case could be made that the authors of textbooks and the selection committees that chose them  love America so much that they only want to show their students its best face. But the truth is that if you truly love something, you have to be able to recognize what it really is. you have to be able to recognize and admit its faults and shortcomings. If you gloss over the sins and failures of the United States, you make it harder to make the country better, to make it a "More Perfect Union".

But what struck you the most while reading this book was the knowledge that good teachers can overcome bad textbooks. What it reminded you of was how you learned very little in your high School history classes, but just one great teacher lit a fire under you that ignited a passion to discover more truths about history, and to try and put the world in its proper context. You finished the book with the hope in your heart that there are enough good teachers out there, that the battle against bad textbooks can and will be won.

Maybe someday you should be one of those teachers.

On to the next book!


Monday, September 24, 2012

"Undaunted Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose (1996)

Good old Ambrose.

Man, you miss this guy. You've read lots of Ambrose's books before, "D-Day", "Citizen Soldiers", and "Band of Brothers" to name a few. This is the author who cemented your love of military history, specifically WWII, in your heart. You will probably remember the day he died for the rest of your life. This was the first non-WWII book of his that you'd ever read. You picked it up because your cousin, Eric, said he was reading it and the thought of one of your best friends having read an Ambrose book before you bothered the crap out of you. There is that old "gotta be the first one there" syndrome again. You really need to work on that, man. It's not pretty.

This book is about the Lewis and Clark expedition. It follows Meriwether Lewis (the book's main character) from his youthful beginnings to his death. William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Sacagawea, York (Clark's slave) and George Drouillard (a hunter-trapper, woodsman, and scout of French-Canadian and Shawnee descent) play charming and often pivotal co-starring roles along the way.

Now this book has good maps! Six different ones strategically placed throughout the book as the famous expedition unfolded. You promptly dog-eared every map page so that you could quickly flip to them at the appropriate time to orient your Eagle Scout brain in the map and also on the squiggly lines representing the path the expedition took. You did this a lot while reading the book because you really really like maps. Yeah, your thing with maps is weird too.

This is a big book, over 500 pages with a font size so small that Mom actually refused to read it (one of the few times she has ignored your book recommendations). It is a big book, but it is a long story so that makes sense.

The idea for the expedition was conceived by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself in 1785, even before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. During the late 1700's there were many entities racing to be the first to explore the Pacific Northwest in order to establish trading bases with the natives there. Beaver pelts were in impossibly high demand throughout the world, and this region had more beavers than we can really conceive of today.The Spanish, the French, the British and even the Russians had all begun to jockey for influence in the region but after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (in which Napolean sold the French claims to the massive territory) President Jefferson kicked his plans into high gear. He was determined to create a United States that spanned the continent. Trade moved by water routes back then and finding a water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was the ostensible goal of the expedition.

One quick side note to explain why water ways were so important; when Jefferson took the Oath of Office in 1801, "Two-thirds of the people (of the United States) lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian mountains..." also, "The United States was only eighteen years old, had itself come into existence by an act of rebellion and secession, had changed its form of government just twelve years earlier and... it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent." But, more fascinatingly, "Nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse," and, "Nothing had ever moved any faster and, as far as Jefferson's contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would."

One hundred years later, when Woodrow Wilson took the same Oath, humans flew for the first time. In that intervening century, trains and telegraphs were invented. Human could communicate over vast distances virtually at the speed of light. One hundred years after that, humans had a permanent space station in orbit, had been to the moon a dozen times, had created the internet, and were planning on visiting Mars within the next fifty years. This thought fascinated you for weeks (and probably still does). Ten thousand years of human evolution produce almost no major change in technology until the 17th Century. And since then technology has exploded at a geometric rate! It's just crazy!

Anyway, Back to the book review! One of the things that was really brought to light in the book was how utterly dependent on the natives the expedition was, and I don't just mean dependent on Sacajawea. Everywhere they went (especially when they camped for the winters) they relied on trade and good relations with the tribes around them. The men of the expedition took part in ceremonies with the tribes, ate the food the tribes provided, and had sex with their women (most of the men returned from the trip with raging cases of Syphilis). Not to impugn the impressive skills inherent in the men who embarked on the trip, but without the natives providing the expedition with sustenance and guidance, Lewis and Clark would never have lived to see the Rockies, much less the Pacific.

The two co-captains were phenomenal leaders. They drove their men to feats that were considered near impossible and they accomplished their mission (even though no all-water passageway from one ocean to the other exists). They established a strong American presence in contested territory, confirmed the actual borders of our nation, and discovered hundred of species of plants and animals new to the world of Western science. But, even so, it truly was a team effort. Sacejawea translating and smoothing relations with new tribes, Drouillard hunting and scouting ahead, York (the slave) intriguing and entertaining the fascinated Indians.

The moments where translation was required were particularly funny. With so many different languages involved they often ended up reading something like, "...a native would speak to Sacajawea, she would speak  to Charbonneau (her husband), who would translate to Drouillard, who could then relay the meaning of the original message to Lewis or Clark." It all reminded you of those games of 'telephone' you used to play as kid, and it is a miracle anyone knew what was going on at all!

The book has and adventurous quality, a hum of excitement throughout it that kept you turning pages. Ambrose's enthusiasm is infectious. While reading his breathless descriptions of the trail the expedition took around Yellowstone national park's future northern borders, you remembered being a kid in the park and it made you want to go back there as soon as you can to experience it again, this time through new eyes.

But you will never be able to see the world that they saw. The descriptions of North America before Lewis and Clark is as close to Heaven on Earth as you can get. Herds of buffalo and pronghorn from horizon to horizon, miles of the Missouri river covered by a blanket of floating swan feathers from migrating flocks molting in unison, unexplored wilderness stretching for a thousand miles in every direction; these things are gone. But it feels like the book helped you reclaim some of that inheritance.

The part of the book after the expedition is over begins to drag a bit, understandably, but it is all a build-up to a moment of historical melodrama that shocked you. How could you not have known of such a prominent suicide? How could you have never heard of that? That's what is so great about being a student of history, no matter how much you think you know, there always something more out there to learn!

"Undaunted Courage" brought to life some of America's greatest names, Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, Sacajawea, Merriwether Lewis. But it also brought to life America's ancient past, a past that is often romanticized and whose loss is often lamented. But don't despair. Stephen Ambrose's unyielding sense of wonder and always accessible prose guided you to a place where you were able to revisit a long gone era and walk with men who truly were explorers in their prime on the adventure of a lifetime.

On to the next book!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"In The Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson (2011)

Yeah... This one was awesome.

Larson also wrote "Devil in the White City" which you really want to read... it's the one about the serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair that your artsy friends got way too excited about, but not this one. This one is about the years leading up to WWII. So, naturally, you read this one first.

So, the FIVE PAGES of glowing blurb reviews at the front of the book were a little obnoxious, to be honest, and they didn't really make you want to read the book any more than you already did. In fact they were a bit of a turn off since you, like most other male humans, have a need to feel like you got there first and you are the only one who knows about how awesome something is, which is juvenile and foolish. You should really get over that. It's not helpful. But you forged on to the main body of the book anyway, and boy were you glad that you did (even though the maps were terrible! I mean, how are you going to write a good WWII story with crappy maps?).

This book reads like a novel even though it's a non-fiction history book (one of those that everyone makes fun of you for reading). But, Oh My God, it was good! It was fast paced and personable, told from the point of view of FDR's Ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933 and '34... and the ambassador's daughter, Martha. Oh... Martha....

The ambassador (William E. Dodd) arrives in Germany with Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor, but not yet the all-powerful Fuhrer. Hindenberg is still President and barely keeps Hitler's ambitions in check, but the Nazi party is consolidating their new positions of power and the Dodd family is (and, by extension, you are) granted a first hand view of the de-evolution of a modern Western society, the death of civility and liberty, and the rise of a monstrous state hell-bent on domination and racial purity. But the Nazis' penchant for pageantry and style proves intoxicating for the ambassador's daughter who has affairs with many of them, thereby allowing you to finally view the Nazis through the eyes of a star struck, hedonistic, worldly woman eager to drink in life as deeply as she can. And she certainly does.

Martha falls for several men while living in Germany (even though she has a husband back in the states). Among these several men are, noteably, Rudolf Diels, the head of the gestapo, and Boris Winogradav, first secretary of the the Soviet embassy (and member of the NKVD {read as KGB}). Her experience takes you through both wild unofficial parties and spectacular official Party functions of the State, and her heartbreaks, and heartbreaking, lends the book a personal, feminine quality that you don't often experience in WWII books.

Although Ambassador Dodd is ostensibly the main character in this book, Martha contends for the title. Later in life she became a published author and her gift with writing shows clearly in her journals, which Larson uses as source materials for the book. His writing combined with hers makes some passages read more like well crafted fiction, not historical non-fiction (check out pages 182 & 183).

There is hope throughout the book, even as tragedy after atrocity pile up. Enemies of the Nazis quietly dissapear, Americans are beaten for not giving the Hitler salute, Jews are rounded up and "Jew-lovers" are dragged through streets as examples for the rest of the citizenry to "Stay pure". Some prominent members of Berlin society even commit suicide after it is revealed to the public (and in some cases to themselves) that they have Jewish blood in their veins. And the SA storm troopers are always marching and rallying and burning books.

But there is always hope.

Even as he sends warnings back to America, the ever humble and likeable ambassador Dodd is convinced that Hitler and his thugs will be brought down by the stalwart and reliable voices of their more sane contemporaries in the government. To help them out, Dodd even commits an incredibly brave act and gives a speech to a room full of German government officials in which he condemns totalitarianism and extreme nationalism. Using his credentials as a history professor and published author in the US as his cover, Dodd carefully couches the speech in terms of the Roman Empire's downfall, not Nazi Germany's rise, but everyone knows what he is really talking about. The speech elicits praise and cheers from the moderate members of Berlin society, and howls of outrage and vitriol from the Nazis.

In this moment you were able to see the years leading up to the war, not as an inevitable march to ruin, but as a series of events which were preventable, but whose occurrences piled up on top of one another to culminate in the greatest event in human history (WW II, dummy).  It is often easy to get lost in all the foregone conclusions of history books (Of course the US will win the Revolution, and of course America will declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor), but books like "In the Garden of Beasts" help you remember that nothing is a foregone conclusion. History is not inevitable. As historic events unfold we have to choose to fight them or embrace them, but we must choose. History IS us, WE make it.

Studying how and, more importantly why, things happened is the education you have been trying to give yourself for twenty years now. This book took you a long way down that road.

Also, "In the Garden of Beasts" helped you with a problem you've always had. It helped you get the Nazis hierarchy straight in your head. You remember how you were always confusing Goering and Goebbles? Well not after this book. The two men are given such memorable presence that you'll never again confuse the scrawny, mouse-like propaganda minister (Goebbles) with the rotund gregarious head of the Luftwaffe (Goering).

The book climaxes with the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler and his pals kill or imprison the members of the SA that brought them to power in the first place. It's kind of like that scene in Star Wars when the Emperor orders all the clones to kill the Jedi, except this really happened. It is a cataclysm of violence that Germany hadn't seen before and it sets the stage for Hitler to seize all control throughout Germany a few weeks later when President Hindenburg dies. What a perfect place to leave you on the verge of the greatest war in the history of mankind.

This was one you couldn't put down, man. Seriously. you were vacuuming while reading it a few times.

On to the next book!