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Students make connections and make history
Worcester, MA— History comes alive for high schoolers participating in a national competition and college students in a high flying survey course find important connections between personal history and the events that shaped the nation.
These two approaches to making American history meaningful are described in the January 2008 issue of Common-place, the online history journal.
Jim Cullen's article, "Exhibiting Excellence," is an account of National History Day, when over half a million secondary school students in thousands of schools across the country write essays, edit documentaries, perform skits, launch websites, and mount table-top exhibitions in "an academic program that favors interpretation over repetition."
Unlike the skill-and-drill mentality that has only intensified in the age of No Child Left Behind, Cullen writes, National History Day is not a 'bee' type of competition in which students memorize information that they regurgitate in response to questions. Rather, it requires that they thoroughly and deliberately examine the world of the past through direct contact with original materials including documents, photographs, films, historical buildings, newspapers, and oral history interviews with those who experienced history firsthand.
Cullen concedes that National History Day "is unlikely to displace standard history curricula. . . Still, those of us who participate in NHD know: this works. His article is in the Common School section.
In Ask the Author, Peter H. Wood, co-author of the U.S. history text, "Created Equal" tells how his unique American history survey course, a "wide overview (mixed with lively discussions in a class of limited size) allowed lots of students to get beyond the strange barrier that often separates personal and family history from broader events and patterns."
This kind of rapid overview provided an excellent space for finding and exploring such meaningful links, Wood writes.
"In our discussion on any given day, we could pause to explore the generations of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents in the most recent century and how they might have viewed the subject we were discussing," he says.
Describing the class as "a rapid airplane ride at a rather high altitude," Wood concludes at journey's end, "most of the passengers, and the pilot too, had a refreshed sense of the terrain of American history and also of the changing ways in which historians and citizens have viewed this varied and continuous landscape."
Nancy Shoemaker's article, "Oil and Bone" examines a particular area of the early American landscape, the beginnings of the whaling industry.
As the first permanent English settlement in New England, the Plymouth colonists garnered a privileged place in American history as the Pilgrims. Shoemaker notes that, to historians of the American whaling industry, they are important for being the first among the English to advertise the bounty of whales off the coast of southern New England.
Shoemaker notes speculation that the Mayflower was used in early whaling expeditions to Spitsbergen, or Greenland between 1616 and 1619.
"The Pilgrims' readiness to see living, swimming whales as cash, as four thousand pounds worth of oil and baleen, tells us that they were already familiar with the existing whaling industry in Europe and that they knew exactly which parts of whales European consumers desired and were most likely to purchase," Shoemaker writes.
Elizabeth Reis' "Perfect or Perverted?" examines hermaphroditism and homosexuality in nineteenth-century America
In Colonial America, early interpreters saw unusual genitals as evidence of nature gone awry, she writes and ministers and medical practitioners saw providence or the diabolical in "monstrous births."
In the last decades of the nineteenth century the controversy over the definition of hermaphroditism intensified.
"Whereas in earlier years it was connected with monstrosity and duplicity, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hermaphroditism became virtually synonymous with immorality and perversion," Reis notes.
In "Presbyterians in Love," John Fea examines the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian, "the uptight young Presbyterian," best known for his journal that described Virginia plantation life on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
Fithian, says Fea, " came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. He was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved."
In Talk of the Past, Joseph Bonica finds roots of "the persistence of the secret as the Bush administration's central organizational strategy,
in secret societies that erupted after the Revolution."
Bonica notes that "in the closed doors of the 1787 Constitutional Convention; and in the contractual agreements between men, which constituted the only positive right of citizenship until the twentieth century—the partisans of men's confidence unfolded a vision of the patriotic republic in the intimate spaces between men."
Secret societies flourished, such as the Society of the Cincinnati, a "closed band of Revolutionary officers, who took their name from the Roman general famous for beating his sword into a ploughshare," and the Free and Accepted Order of Masons.
Keeping women out was key. For the Masonic secret was not effeminate at all, Bonica writes. "It was, the fictive brothers told themselves and their critics, manly and patriotic, embodying the highest possibilities of the fraternal republic in the tight spaces that opened up between secretive men."
Bonica notes, "Yet where earlier generations of fearful men may have burned insolent witches as the symbol of secret and unknowable terrors, the patriotically retiring displaced women entirely from the heart of the secret."
In Tales from the Vault, Michael Winship's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change?" describes his research into the impact of the introduction of the printing press to Thailand in the nineteenth century.
Winship discovered an early collaboration between American Protestant missionaries and Thai royalty that resulted in the use of missionary printing presses to produce the Thai government's first official printed document, a broadside of King Rama III's proclamation against the sale and use of opium.
Winship later found one of the original broadsides at Harvard's Widener Library and personally delivered high quality photographs of it to the national librarian of Thailand—resulting in a high speed ride in an armed convoy through the streets of Bangkok—to receive thanks from the government's minister of culture.
In Object Lessons, Ann Fabian's "One Man's Skull" is the skull of a Fijian chief, taken prisoner in 1842 and accused of masterminding the deaths of Americans involved in the sea-slug trade of the 1830s.
Fabian highlights the history of American involvement in the South Pacific by tracing the life story of the Fijian, whose skull was displayed at the United States Army Medical Museum in 1880.
The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Michael A. McDonnell's The Politics of War by Thomas J. Humphrey; Joshua M. Smith's Borderland Smuggling by J. I. Little; Joshua R. Greenberg's Advocating the Man by Sharon Ann Murphy; Caroline Winterer's The Mirror of Antiquity by Carl J. Richard; Peter C. Mancall's Hakluyt's Promise by Carla Gardina Pestana and David Brion Davis' Inhuman Bondage by Manisha Sinha.
Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.
About the American Antiquarian Society
The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.
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