Friday, April 24, 2015

Reforming our History Curriculum - A Global Approach

This year, I decided to undertake a project that I had no idea how I would actually complete: teaching a World History course. As someone who loves history and ancient civilizations, I thought it would be a cinch. And, after all, I knew more about recent history in the far-flung corners of the world than the average Joe, or so I thought.

As I have fought my way through the course, I realized that something was fundamentally off about how we teach history in our public school's system. To give an example, looking through the textbook, I realized that, in a single chapter, we were supposed to cover the highlights of African history, a history that, in recent times, affects almost every aspect of foreign policy in which our nation is engaged. We, through the democratic process, are making decisions about countries like the Congo, Rwanda, Egypt, Israel, etc., without really having a thorough understanding of the motivations of the people who live there. And the reason is that we fundamentally misunderstand their history, mostly because we haven't studied it.

Then we got to the Asia chapter, again, confined to about one twenty-page chapter in the book with four lessons. I have to admit, on Chinese ancient history, I am an absolute ignoramus. I was totally lost on how to explain the differences between Manchurian China and the Qing, or what the effects of the Mongolian invasion were, and correspondingly, how to fundamentally improve my students' knowledge of these subjects. And yet, if we consider current events as the standard by which we evaluate our history curriculum, it is Asia, particularly China, whose history and culture are completely changing the conditions under which we live.

We are in a global society now, and yet our history curriculum seems to assume that an American will never encounter or need to encounter businessmen, politicians, or even ordinary folk from countries that are only a mouse-click away. Currently, as I understand it, the basic framework for the secondary history curriculum is this:
7th grade - Geography and World Cultures
8th grade - Civics
9th grade - World History
10th grade - American History
11th grade - American Government
12th grade - Elective (Usually an AP course)

The problem with this system is that each of the courses, at best, offer a scattershot of particular cultures in which we are supposed to interact. The "World History" course, in particular, offers particular challenges because, at best, students will gain a shallow concept of the overall development of their OWN civilization and its global sources, but more realistically, will be reduced to learning a modicum of trivia about this or that far-eastern country. Also, each of these courses is going to be primarily focused on the ANCIENT history, or the "origins" of each of the topics under which they seem to fall, which means that, in my experience of the public school and in teaching World History myself, an inordinate amount of time is spent at the beginning of the year on the distant past, while the transition from antiquity to modernity gets short shrift.

Also, the breadth of these courses tends to result in ideological attempts to focus on one particular "theme" throughout the text. This is a good pedagogical method for the curriculum, but oftentimes those themes are unduly ethnocentric. For example, in my World History textbook, ONE chapter is spent on Indian history, a nation that currently has around a billion citizens and is the driver of economic development throughout the world, while TWO chapters are spent on Scientific and Industrial Revolutions in Europe, respectively.

Some attempts have been made at reforming this process in experimental or "classical" private schools, which have introduced a chronological method for teaching history. The basic premise here is that, in order for students to gain perspective on history, they need to learn things relative to the events that were happening contemporaneously. Also, students learn best from a good story and, as experience teaches us, a good, memorable story starts from the beginning and proceeds in a logical order.

There are some certainly some merits to this approach. In teaching the Renaissance, for example, I had the rather bothersome task of trying to bring a chapter that kept jumping from date to date in a topical, rather than chronological order. My students were completely confused. The only way around this was to have them create a timeline of all the events in a clear, straightforward presentation. When we finished this, we starting seeing relationships between the events that we hadn't seen before in the chapter, such as the observation that the Northern Renaissance didn't really get in full swing until after the Protestant Reformation, and that this definitely influenced the different direction that Northern humanists took the rediscovery of classical learning. You can't have Milton without Calvin, Knox, and Luther.

On the other hand, part of this depends on the continuity of the story that you are telling. Different civilizations develop at different times along different lines, and to tell a chronological history of the world in a single course necessarily involves underemphasizing some cultures and emphasizing others. In my experience, the usual way that World History texts resolve this is by centering on outside sources for the American experience, an "inside looking out" approach. The problem with this is that the American experience of today is fundamentally different from that of yesteryear precisely because multiple cultures are participating IN it: just consider the role of Latin American politics in the modern United States. What a history curriculum needs to do is change the focus from an "inside looking out" perspective to an "outside looking in" perspective, if it is going to be truly educational.

So, while wishing to keep the best of the chronological approach, I tend to think that we need a radical reorganization of our history curriculum along ethnological lines. If we are to teach students the story of humanity, we need to refocus our efforts on helping them gain perspective in detail of the various cultures that are participating in the global culture of the twenty-first century. We also need to change our philosophy from teaching students starting with the most familiar and quotidian experiences to the least, to starting with the most distant culture to the most familiar, taking the history of the human species as our fundamental guide. We all share a common origin, so we can all start at the same spot.

In my ideal world, the history curriculum would focus on specific areas of the areas of the world, and then proceed along a chronological basis. Here is a sample curriculum (very roughly drawn):
7th Grade - Ancient Civilizations (Beginnings to the Fall of Rome)
8th Grade - Middle Eastern and African History
9th Grade - Asian History
10th Grade - European History
11th Grade - American History
12th Grade - Pacific History

Students would cover, in a more integrated manner, all of the topics that are the focus of current social studies curriculum. For example, the development of Christianity and the rise of Islam would cover religious studies and be developed in 8th grade. Students would learn about the development of democracy and the philosophies behind it in 10th grade, while they would then learn about our governmental system in particular in American History, which would also include the history of Latin America considered as an integral part of our own story. They would learn geography more effectively, because they would spend more time on individual regions than they have time for in 7th grade Geography.

The arrangement above is not perfect, I am perfectly willing to admit, and the complexity of these individual topics would require a great deal of care in designing texts. The other challenge would be finding teachers who are qualified to actually teach the particular courses, but in our interconnected world, the possibility of finding experts on particular topics of history, such as Asian or African history and bringing their instruction to the United States is greatly aided through the use of e-learning technology and the ease of transferring money over long distances. A global educational network would, in fact, serve to improve the lives of academics and instructors (and thereby, the people with whom they do business on a daily basis) in developing nations. Imagine a cohort of enthusiastic graduate students from South Africa who are being paid American wages to spread knowledge about their culture in a foreign country. The possibilities are rather mind-boggling.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Worship Aid for the Traditional Latin Mass

This is a "worship aid" for a Traditional Latin Mass on the 3rd Sunday after Easter. It's meant to be a template for possible adoption at a diocesan parish which normally celebrates the Novus Ordo. I would appreciate any comments or suggestions.


(Link below.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

To a Friend (A Sonnet)

Were love so rough to me or as unkind
As you are to yourself, or felt disdain
Like you for sycophants, I'd never pined
For you in company, nor felt the pain
Of her attention, but though cruel scars
Mark Cupid's chiding lash, and terrible
Is nature's law, which all indifference bars,
In you she is still kind and merciful.
For by the work of life's vicissitude,
With you, my Bacchus, love has sternly taught
Me to beware of lenient solitude,
Which lasting joy, as friends, has never brought;

But were you free of love's encumbering bands,
Still wound in yours would be my longing hands.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ambrosial Flower (A Sonnet)

O sweet ambrosial flower, whom the dew
Of morning crowns with Vesta's diadem,
How brightly does your fire shine when few
Have seen its dancing flames! How bright to them
Who shut out noisy day from claustral silence!

My rose of chastity, how dear you've kept
Your garden's purest earth, and wrecked with violence
The creep of tares, and never fondly slept
The night with fantasies of vain indulgence!

Now, if it will not hinder your ascent
To angels' ecstasy, nor shade effulgence
Of such a lofty star, I ask consent

Merely to warm my hands, bitten with sin,
At your enduring hearth, hidden within.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Longest Ride (2015): Movie Reviews from the Sidelines

The Longest Ride (2015) is a cheesy romance movie. You already know this because of the promotional poster saying "from the writer of The Notebook", so that is not going to be a big news story. Now, for those who know anything about me, you know that I HATE writing negative reviews for cheesy romance movies, because, in general, I think that they usually have greater depths than their genre gets credit for. What is revolutionary about a mid-South male giving a negative assessment of a chick flick? Nothing. And that's why I generally won't do it.

So, in order to avoid the cliché, I am going to attempt to make this still a teachable moment. This film has all the makings of a successful and, indeed, radical film subject. The plot may not immediately give this away. A sophisticated, intellectual art student (who can, apparently, make a career out of that because--movies) by the name of Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) falls head over heels for a hunky cowboy (Scott Eastwood) who also happens to be damaged. In the meanwhile, she forms an acquaintance with a World War II veteran, Ira (Alan Alda), with a romantic story to tell, which she uncovers by reading correspondence between himself and his wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin). What makes this story, which seems trite and disposable, into something potentially countercultural is that what is being objectified here is the cowboy, the male figure. This story is about powerful and overwhelming female desire: WOOHOO! Go girl. Get your man.

Except, this is where the movie fails to live up to those expectations. From the very beginning of the movie, the idea of this being a film about feminine desire and female perspective on men is betrayed by the fact that the central male character is the only one who is, truly, allowed to have any depth. He is the one that surprises her, not the other way around. And despite the fact that there are only two male characters with any real screen time, the hordes of admiring women are visually classified into "costly" and "cheap" women, like they were the cattle being judged on their difficulty levels.

We see this in the very first rodeo scene. Sophia is brought out, rather against her inclinations, by a group of ditsy sorority sisters, for the primary purpose of looking at attractive cowboys. So far, so good. Women are allowed to gawk at men as much as men are allowed to lurk at women. After she receives a little bit of attention from Luke, our main lead, the camera then pans over to a group of more conventionally-attractive, but poorly made-up, girls in cowgirl outfits who were clearly angling at the same catch. These are the grasping 'easy' girls that Luke could master in a second, just like the bull that he rides that day.  The effect is that, while the men are allowed to express their undying love for women and to explore their feelings undividedly, the women are put into separate categories. They are objectified, even in the very act of objectifying men, except that the women are the focus of the camera, while the men are the focus of the women on the camera.

Another basic test to run is called the Bechdel test, a tool for critiquing films on their female representation. Basically, the test asks whether two female characters interact with one another in a meaningful way during the film about something other than a man. The answer, in this movie, is no. Basically, men compete with one another, congratulate one another, comment on one another, while the women in this movie are reduced to the subservient role of talking about men or interacting with men. It's shocking for a movie like this, one which targets women, to basically turn women into the cheering section for men, and not in a Magic Mike sort of way.

And then, on a more basic level, we have to ask, if this movie is targeted towards straight women, why is it the female lead who is always stripping her clothes off first? Sure, there are a few muscles for the ladies here and there, but let's be honest, the most erotic moment in this movie, and also one where the female lead becomes most assertive, is basically her giving into the man's peeping at her in the shower while she, knowingly, continues to remove her clothes for him. If this is a female fantasy, it is also conveniently a large number of men's fantasy as well. Later in the movie, when the two make a run for a nearby swimming hole, it is Sophia who runs first into the water, a bold move, but she also who starts to throw off clothes as soon as she can.

Finally, on this theme, while I am not the type of person to argue that chivalry is essentially misogynist in any way, or that it doesn't have a place in the modern world, I would argue that there are certain realities that ought to be taken into account when looking at how male and female relationships work today. It's not ridiculous for a woman to buy a man a drink after he's won a rodeo. It also isn't ridiculous for the man to be called by a busy woman, who may or may not have time to answer a call during a school-week. Yet these two things are soundly rejected by Luke as "not how we do things" where he's from, whatever that means. The fact is that there is nothing chivalric or traditional about a modern dating relationship, when you consider that less than one hundred years ago all of a couple's meetings would have needed to be chaperoned and rules of chastity strictly maintained. Only recently is the expectation of women's independence and the less-formal social structures represented by dating catching up with prevailing social norms for dating relationships.  It seems ridiculously anachronistic for this movie to try to create expectations that simply should not and no longer can exist.

Now, to turn this review around, I will say that there is one female character who is written much more strongly and assertively than might be expected, and that is Ruth (Oona Chaplin), who is the love interest of Alan Alda's avuncular character, Ira, depicted entirely through flashback and narration. She asserts her desire for Ira in a way that seems very radical for her time, and although their love seems to proceed pretty conventionally for the 1940s, she is nonetheless shown to be a woman of independent means in a time when women were only beginning to take steps outside of the home. It's also worth saying that the portrayal of the young Ruth and Ira by Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston is probably the most effective part of this film, as well as the writing for the flashback sequences, even if the cinematography comes off with more of a made-for-TV movie finish than a mainstream release.

Likewise, credit must be given to Britt Robertson for pulling off a script that only a mother could love. She brings depth and emotion to a character who is basically starving for real lines, and she is absolutely in command of any scene that she's in. She's a better actor than this movie's script allows, but she still makes the ridiculous drip with forced verisimilitude. Good for her.

My strong recommendation is that you skip this Nicholas Sparks movie and rent The Lucky One instead, or better yet, go and see the new Cinderella, both movies that accomplish the goal of enchanted romance without falling into the pitfalls of this throwaway flick. If, however, you do go and see it, you will probably be entertained for 50% of the film while squirming at its awkward dialogue for the remainder.

My Grade: D+ (For DON'T)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Good Friday (A Sonnet)

I cannot touch the wood, the rusted nails,
Which held my Love until He lived no more
For me, and seeking them in penance fails
To bring me near His side, or to restore
My eyes with cleansing tears; some piety
May make the holy weep their weaknesses,
But I am hoarse from my iniquity
And calloused by the scourge of penances
I've never paid, and I no longer groan
To see those bloody stains; but hide me there
Beside You, Virgin Mother, for Your own
Tears I still comprehend, for none can bear
Your grief unmerited, be he so lost,
Or stand unmoved at your unbloody cost.