Friday, October 30, 2009

That Eighties Show

Two new books on the Reagan era suggest a lively range of opinion

The following omnibus review was published this week on the History New's Network's books page.

Twenty years after he left office, five years after his death, and a year after what is widely regarded as a watershed election that rejected some of it core tenets, the life and times of Ronald Reagan are poised on the cusp of a transition from memory to history. As with Andrew Jackson, with whom he had much in common, one can speak of an "Age of Reagan" that extended beyond his presidency. As with Jackson too, much perception of Reagan among intellectual elites was strongly negative when in power. Both were viewed as willful, but unintelligent, executives who delegated political operations to fierce partisans. Those partisans in turn reputedly manufactured a faux populism embraced by a gullible public even as they set the nation on a potentially ruinous course.

But for Reagan, like Jackson, a revisionist school has emerged. Two new books illustrate the ongoing range of opinion about Reagan -- and the new consensus, recently articulated by journalist Richard Reeves (Ronald Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, 2005) and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz (The Age of Reagan, 2008) that this was a man to be reckoned with as a statesman and policy maker no less than in the realm of masterful communication.

In a sense, Gil Troy, who writes regularly for the History News Network, seems ill-suited to write a book with the title "The Reagan Revolution." Troy has carved out a space for himself as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in books like Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. And in fact, the argument of his new book belies its title: according to Troy, there was no Reagan revolution. This is not to say Reagan was an inconsequential president: Troy portrays him as a man who changed the nation's political climate even if he never changed its topography. And one can elaborate on this sentenc
e with a half-dozen like it: Reagan cut taxes, though he never quite managed to rein in spending. He was perceived as hostile to Civil Rights, even as he maintained affirmative action and the nation underwent a demographic transformation. He rattled a saber with the Soviets yet ushered in a post-Cold War world. And so on.

Troy's mastery of his material and ability to condense it elegantly reflect both deep immersion in his subject and an ability to see forest through trees. But its underlying logic engenders a little restlessness. Reagan succeeded because he was at heart a centrist. As Troy makes clear in Leading from the Center, so was FDR. And Abraham Lincoln. And George Washington. One begins to suspect that for Troy, a successful, non-moderate Reagan would be a contradiction in terms. Yet he was more of an ideologue than any of these leaders. (One again thinks of Andrew Ja
ckson and suspects Troy would tame him as well.)

The Reagan Revolution is a new entry in Oxford University Press's marvelous "Very Short Introduction" series, now over 200 (pocket-sized) volumes strong. Like other books in the series, it does not try to provide an unbroken narrative line. Instead, Troy segments its 130 pages into eight chapters, each of which are titled with questions -- "Was Reagan a Dummy?"; "Did the Democrats Fiddle as the Reaganauts conquered Washington?"; "Did the Reagan Revolution Succeed or Fail?" -- and sequenced into an overlapping, but loosely chronological, discussion. This intelligent strategy makes the book very useful for the casual reader as well as highly flexible for classroom use. It's hard to imagine another book serving such a function any better than this.

As it happen
s, Gil Troy, who teaches at McGill University, is also the editor, along with Vincent J. Cannato of UMass Boston, of Living in the Eighties, an anthology in another Oxford University Press series, "Viewpoints on American Culture." As one might expect, this is a collection notable for the quality of its scholarship and sturdiness of its prose. But the hallmark of the anthology, perhaps not surprisingly, is balance, not only in terms of opinion, but also generations and even professions. On the Right, former Attorney General Edwin Meese makes a cogent brief for Reagan's presidency as an almost unalloyed triumph, while Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution decisively credits Reagan for ending the Cold War. On the Left, heavyweight historians Sara Evans and Bruce Shulman decry the evisceration of feminism and the decline of public space respectively.

In terms of actually advancing the historiography of the Reagan era, the most important essays are a pair of pieces by Joseph Crespino and Kim Phillips-Fein, both of whom gave papers in a notably lively session at the Organization of American Historians Conference in Seattle earlier this year. In that session and these pieces, Crespino and Phillips-Fein and their generational cohort seek to move beyond the argument, crystallized most succinctly in Thomas and Mary Edsall's 1992 book Chain Reaction, that converging resentments of race, rights and taxes explain the success of the neoconservative movement. Crespino suggests the neocon synthesis in the South is much deeper and broader than such a formulation suggests; Phillips-Fein implicitly challenges Troy (who here zeroes in on Reagan's first hundred days to suggest they were the high-water mark of his "revolution") in emphasizing the scope and depth of Reagan's long-term success in shifting the nation's political discourse.

Perhaps the most satisfying pieces in the collection, however, are those that function as tightly focused case studies. Editor Cannato does a nice job in looking at New York mayoral politics and the ambiguous career of Ed Koch. Mark Brilliant of the University of California at Berkeley uses his own institution as a point of departure for tracing subtle shifts in the evolution of multiculturalism in academic life. Music executive and record producer Steve Greenberg's precise yet resonant analysis of racial -- and racist -- currents in the transition from the seventies to the eighties in popular music is rock criticism of the highest order. David Greenberg performs comparable service in tracing currents within liberalism in the eighties, as does Lauren Winner in her analysis of evangelical religion in the years between the Carter and Reagan administrations.

The field of what might be termed "Reagan Studies" is already well established, and there are no doubt graduate students across the country right now struggling to master a large and growing body of work. But these two works together comprise a remarkable sampler of a discourse in motion. It's morning in RR scholarship.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Theodore R. Sizer, 1932-2009

An appreciation of a New England education reformer in the context of American History

Ted Sizer, the internationally recognized education reformer who died last week at 77, was a great many things to a great many people in a career that spanned over half a century. Much has been said about him already (in places like the New York Times), with a good deal likely to come from a variety of perspectives. I myself happened to be Ted's son-in-law, and loved him for reasons that echo countless remarks that are currently pinging around the blogosphere. But I did think it might be helpful to those who knew him personally, and those who did not, to consider him from an angle that he himself considered a little unusual when I offered it to him a few years ago when I was engaged in some study of his life and work. Ted was a quintessentially American figure; it would not take long to make that point, in ways that ranged from his optimistic persona to his commitment to the democratic process. But I'd like to go a little further and suggest more specifically that he was, literally and figuratively, a child of New England.

Not that he was in any sense a provincial. Ted traveled the world to China, Australia, and South Africa and back in a restless spirit of inquiry. As a young man, he served in the
U.S. armed services in Germany, and it was in training soldiers as an artillery officer that he first apprehended that giving people important responsibility was itself a valuable pedagogical tool. But the various homes he inhabited over the course of his life were centered in three states -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts -- and their imprint on him was as decisive as the impact he had in the other 47 and beyond.

New England, of course, is the cradle of American educational civilization. Early colonies such as Hartford and New Ha
ven (which later merged, and between which he was born and buried, in the town of Bethany), mandated free public schools within a decade of their founding in the 1630s, as did Massachusetts. But the region was also the seedbed of private academies such as Phillips Academy Andover, founded in 1778, of which Ted would be headmaster two centuries later. For all their differences, these educational institutions were characterized by a powerful communitarian spirit in their mission, and an avowedly moral orientation that stressed the importance of independent-minded people who would also be civic-minded participants in public life -- a seeming contradiction that Ted finessed with notable grace in forging public-private partnerships at Harvard, Brown, and the Coalition of Essential Schools he founded in 1984. These characteristics remained discernible even in the nineteenth century, when strong-minded reformers like Horace Mann sought to adapt public schools to the needs of an emerging industrial capitalist order. Mann no less than Cotton Mather would have endorsed deceptively simple Coalition precepts such as "The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well," or "The school's goals should apply to all students." (For more on these and other essential principles, see the CES website.)

Ted had the good fortune of coming of age as the American Century crested; a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, he entered university life and became the youngest dean in the history of Harvard at age 31 as much because of the rapid expansion of postwar academia as for his evident talent and social skills. But he was at the helm of Phillips Andover during the rocky 1970s, and was keenly aware of the economic challenges facing public education in the face of receding collective commitment. Yet through it all his egalitarian ethos guided his work, whether in making the co-education a condition of his acceptance of the Andover post, creating a math and science program for underprivileged students while there, or in founding a charter public high school in central Massachusetts (and serving as co-principal with his wife, Nancy, in 1998-99 to plug a personnel hole).

Ted was sometimes characterized as a "progressive" educator, and the label makes sense -- to a point. Certainly, his vision was broadly consonant with Progressive-era pioneers like John Dewey, a clear and important influence on his work. And use of the word "progressive" to describe those like him skeptical of test-driven curricula and information delivery systems is also accurate, if a bit imprecise. But "progressive" is a word that can obscure at least as much as it reveals. Ted's progressivism owed a lot more to, say, Jane Addams than Theodore Roosevelt. It was the bottom-up progressivism of the urban reformer, not the top-down progressivism of the elitist technocrat. His emphasis on the local and the empowerment of the individual made him a compelling figure to President George H.W. Bush no less than President Bill Clinton, both of whom sought his counsel. He could talk -- and laugh -- with anyone, and his curiosity was inexhaustible.

I myself prefer to use a different term in thinking about Ted: pragmatist. The figure most prominent in this regard is yet another New Englander, William James. The Jamesian faith that truth is something that happens to an idea is evident in Ted's famous precept that "unanxious expectation" is the optimal stance in a teacher's relationship with a student, to cite one example. Calling him pragmatic might sound a bit odd to some, given the sense of boyish idealism that animated him to the end of his days. It may sound odd to others, given that much of the criticism of Ted's work centered on a belief that his ideas were impractical, particularly when attempting to leverage them with any sense of scale.

But Ted was never an ideologue, and remained relentlessly focused on what actually works -- and solutions that were the product of close empirical observation at thousands of schools. He was never opposed to standards
per se, but he insisted that the standards for those standards be high, that those doing the evaluating did their homework no less than the students they were evaluating. The often unspoken appeal of standardized tests for those who champion them is often about the ease with which they can be administered rather than the value of what they measure. Authentic assessment is difficult: good work always is. As Ted and Nancy used to say of their charter school when they were principals, "If it were easy, it wouldn't be Parker."

Moreover, Ted understood as a matter of instinct and reflection that search for the truth is never simply a matter of gathering information, one reason he lamented the mindless quality of so much education research and the misplaced priorities of most Ed schools. That's why, when he tried to convey the reality of everyday life in the United States, he did so through a fictional character: Horace Smith, the beloved teacher (and later principal) of the archetypal Franklin High. Horace lives on in the pages of Ted's celebrated trilogy:
Horace's Compromise (1984), Horace's School (1992) and Horace's Hope (1996). In capturing the granular details of the classroom, and the often painful dilemmas that prevent good people from doing their best work, Ted both comforted and inspired hundreds of thousands of students on the road to becoming teachers.

Part of what made books like these so vivid to generations of readers, and what made Ted himself so vivid to generations of colleagues and students, is that he was a remarkably sane person. His sunny disposition and eagerness to engage made him a joy to experience in almost any setting. He was a good man who lived a good life who had the good sense to savor simple gifts -- and share them, which he would do with sometimes breathtaking generosity. Ironically, this could be a sobering lesson for those of us who were less well-adjusted than he was. But, finally, a life-affirming one. Here, truly, was a great American: E unum, pluribus.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A struggle for power

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet parry a grade-grubbing parent

The Maria Chronicles, # 18

Maria is startled when the phone at her desk rings at 11:17
on a Tuesday morning, while she's reading her favorite blog on her laptop. She's almost forgotten she has a phone on her desk. And she's definitely forgotten to check her messages for days. Maria remembers a time when answering machines were a novel technology. Now they're fading fast. "Hello?" she asks tentatively.

"May I speak with Maria Bradstreet?" asks a female voice.


"Ms. B
radstreet, this is the office of Doctor Ronald Chiklis, chief of endocrine surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Please hold for Dr. Chiklis."

Who the hell is Ronald Chiklis? Maria wonders. And why is he calling me? Oh yes: Jake's dad. But why doesn't he just pick up the phone himself? Or, better yet, send an email?

A male voice comes on the phone. "Mrs. Bradstreet."

"Yes, I'm Ms. Bradstreet."

"Ron Chiklis here, Jacob's father. How are you."

Maria has decided on a minimalist approach: "Fine."

"You're new at the school, correct?"

"Correct." Asshole. Maria knows what he's doing.

"I'm calling regarding Jacob's recent essay on the American Revolution," he says after a pause.

Maria has absolutely no recollection of Jake's essay, which she graded over the weekend and returned yesterday. That in itself tells her something: it was neither memorably good nor memorably bad. But Dr. Chiklis seems to think Maria will know exactly what he's talking about. She begins clicking around on her computer to the folder where she stores student comments. For the time being, she buys time in a way that always seems stilted and yet always seems to work: by paraphrasing what's just been said. "You'd like to talk about Jake's essay."

"Right. You gave the essay a B. I must say that I read the essay myself and thought it was a good deal better than that."

Maria smiles and resists the urge to say, "Is that so?" She's now found the comments and scans them, remembering the essay. "Yes," she says. "I'm looking at my notes. I said that it was a decent essay, clear structure, strong evidence, but that the thesis could have used a little development."

"Right," Dr. Chiklis says. "Jake's thesis was that the American Revolution was a struggle for power."


"I actually thought that was a pretty good thesis. I'm a bit of an amateur historian myself. Are you familiar with the work of Theodore Draper, Mrs. Bradstreet? I believe his book was actually called A Struggle for Power."

Maria is a bit surprised that the good doctor is citing this magisterial study. "Yes, I am," she replies. "Been a while since I read it, though." Dammit, she scolds herself, don't be defensive!

"Yes, well, I read the book on a long flight to China for an international conference a few years ago. I thought was rather good. Not as good as Gordon Wood's book, that first one, published back in '69, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. But very good. What I don't understand is how you could say that Jacob's essay was undeveloped, which I take to mean simplistic, when it's comparable to what Draper said in his book, which I regard as one of the best on the topic."

It's official: Maria's dander is up. Dad probably wrote the essay; if he didn't, he damn near shoved Jake into plagiarizing Draper. Maria's seen enough to see that he's a fairly passive kid, and here might be an explanation as to why. Probably the child of a second marriage. In any case, it's time to push back. "Yes, Draper's book is a major reinterpretation of the American Revolution," she begins. "But it's impossible to appreciate the force of his argument without putting it into historiographic context. Draper is actually responding to Wood. Wood is one of a number of historians who have emphasized the role of ideological forces in the coming of the Revolution; Draper's book is a self-conscious piece of revisionism borrowing from Marxist analysis that re-emphasizes materialist factors."

"Well that's all fine and good," Chiklis says. "But what does any of that have to do with Jacob? This is not graduate seminar, after all."

"No. It is not. And that's really my point. Jacob's thesis is superficially similar to Draper's, but lacks the rich sense of texture and historiography that makes his book the landmark you rightly view it to be. As matters currently stand, Jake saying that the American Revolution was a struggle for power is a little like saying that diabetes is a serious disease. Accurate enough, but not an especially insightful piece of analysis. That's why he got a B."

There's silence on the other end of the phone. Maria feels like she's landed an almost palpable punch.

"So what could he have done that would have been better?"

"Oh, any number of things," Maria replies. "His classmates made arguments like 'the American Revolution was inevitable,' or that it was the result of British ineptitude, or a blow for freedom, or whatever. Let me be clear: Jake's essay wasn't bad. It just could have been better. And it still can. I'd be happy to talk with him and give him a chance to revise it." (Him, she says silently. Not you.)

"Well, this is one of Jacob's problems. He's not proactive enough. That's why I'm calling. But I will encourage him to come talk to you."

"That would be fine." Him, not you.

"All right then," Chiklis concludes. "Thank you, Mrs. Bradstreet."

"You're welcome, Mr. Chiklis." Maria hangs up the phone. And sticks out her tongue.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The price of book publishing

Some notes on an industry in transition

When the reading group to which I belong provisionally decided recently that our next book would focus on origins of the financial crisis, I suggested we take on William Cohan's House of Cards, which I had heard was a compulsively readable account of the collapse of Bear Sterns. My friend Dan countered the next day with Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, a more general account about the near-collapse of the economy generally in 2008, a book about which I knew nothing. That was not particularly surprising, given that it had been published that very day. What was surprising is that when I looked the book on, the first three reviews were resolutely negative. And negative for the same reason: Readers were outraged the the price of the e-book was higher than that of the hardcover. Instead of charging what has now become a customary $9.99 at Amazon's Kindle store, (the price of House of Cards), Too Big To Fail was listed about about twice as much, though still considerably less than its list price of $32.95 (which is what it would cost if you bought it an an independent bookstore, which is why there probably won't be independent bookstores much longer).

Intrigued by this reaction, and thinking I might like to write about it, I returned to the web page the next day, upon which I saw that two key things had changed. The first, in effect, was a counterattack: not only were there a string of positive reviews for Too Big to Fail, but a number of reviewers chastised earlier reviewers for complaining about the price, which these reviewers regarded as irrelevant to evaluating the value -- I noun I use advisedly here -- of the book. But the other was that the price of the Kindle edition had changed to $9.99. Whether this was a matter of correcting an earlier error or responding to the criticism, Too Big to Fail was now towing the orthodox price line that comported with consumer expectations.

I found this little incident interesting in light of recent press stories that, Wal-Mart and Target were engaged in a price war to offer forthcoming blockbuster titles in hardcover for under $9 to customers willing to pre-order them, a discount on the order of 65%. A number of sources in this story fretted that such tactics would damage the viability of the publishing industry. And yet the next day, a day which featured a Times story on the unveiling of Barnes & Noble's "Nook," an e-reader that will compete with Amazon's Kindle, the Times also ran a story suggesting that e-books could revitalize publishing by encouraging readers to buy books in greater volume by allowing them to do it easily and quickly. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case. (The sheer number of these stories in the paper in these two days alone reflects the ongoing interest in this as a technology, business, and cultural phenomenon.)

What's beyond doubt is that the book business, from textbooks to bestsellers, is on the cusp of a transformation. The fact that only a tiny minority of readers currently use electronic texts is beside the point; such texts are nevertheless exerting an enormous gravitational pull both in terms of perceptions of the future as well as pricing in the present on traditional books no less than electronic ones. Moreover, that tiny minority of e-readers is relative, not absolute: According to the story on the Nook, Kindle sales are closing in on a million units (the Sony E-Reader has sold about half as many). I myself read e-books on my iPod. Critical mass is at hand.

Book discounting is nothing new, of course. Retailers have been doing it for a long time, and the entrance of online bookselling in the 1990s made the list price of a book akin to the sticker price on a car: not something to be accepted at face value. Up until now, however, it's been the retailers who have typically absorbed the cost of such discounts, to the point of considering them loss leaders, which is certainly the case in the Amazon/Wal-Mart/Target price war. That's true of e-books, too. But it won't be forever. Sooner or later -- and stories like the one above suggest it will be sooner rather than later -- publishers will be under terrific pressure to slash production costs, of which paper, glue and shipping are only a part (how much a part is still unclear). Actually, it's conceivable that retailers themselves could become publishers, something that Barnes & Noble has been tinkering with for many years with out-of-print titles. Whether or not this happens, the business is going to be iTuned (if not Napstered), with implications that remain unclear.

Let me be clear: I don't think books won't go away any more than records have. They're too useful a technology to disappear, in part because you never have to charge them, for example. My guess is that cherished books -- by definition, a minority -- will be ones you have in print form the way you have enlarged or extra prints of beloved photographs (or, to shift the analogy, books printed and bound will be like photographs framed and mounted). There may even book bookstores like there are photo stores, or machines in other retailers, like drug stores, that can print a book. But such a model portends vast, if still unknown, changes in what it means to be a writer, editor or publisher in ways that are as likely to be encouraging as dismaying.

The presses will be stopping. And you can be sure the revolution will not be televised. You will, however, be able to download it -- at what one hopes will be a modest price.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet swing the hinge of history

The Maria Chronicles, # 17

Maria is reading the Declaration of Independence. She starts abruptly, standing up after taking attendance and beginning to read without preface or explanation. The text is up on the Smart Board behind her, but Maria is reading from the textbook, purposely making no eye contact.

It all begins familiarly enough. "When in the course of human events. . . ."; "We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . ."; "Life, liberty and the pursuit of of happiness." When she moves on to less familiar territory, Maria tries to animate her recital with gestures. Thus, for example, she holds up a finger when she reads, "Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." But she knows that eventually this will all start to sound like droning.

Which is actually what she wants. Because when she gets to
“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures," she stops suddenly and looks up. The class looks dazed. Perfect.

Pretty horrible, huh?" she says to them. "Inconvenient meetings! No wonder they revolted. I’d say they’re right to be mad. Wouldn’t you?

There's a long pause. Some are waking; others are disoriented. But she can see a couple knit their brows, trying to formulate a response.

"They’re trying to justify their revolution," Tyler says, stating the obvious (as he so often does).

"Yes," she replies. "They’re trying to justify their revolution. Let me ask you something. Who do you think they’re talking to?"

"The British?" It’s Peter. A little sharper than Tyler, but not today.

"The British. Hmmm. Why do you say so?"

Peter doesn’t get a chance to answer before Zoe weighs in. "I think they’re talking to the colonists, trying rev them up, get them excited," she says.

"Yes, I think so. Could you be a little more specific about which colonists?"

"Southern ones?" She asks tentatively.

"Well, yes," Maria acknowledges, though this isn’t really what she means. Gotta be careful about asking them for too particular an answer, she thinks to herself. I always felt like a trained seal when a teacher did that with me.

"Anyone else?"

"You mean like people who were unsure?" Olivia asks.

"Yes! The people on the fence. Estimates vary on the number of Loyalists, who were not spread evenly across the population. That’s why Zoe was right to suggest white Southerners were a target audience. Many of them were skeptical about making a break. This is why, later in the Revolution, the British launched an invasion of the South, so they could build on this base of support. Maria pauses. "But now let me ask again: Is there anyone else you can think of that the Declaration might be speaking to?"

Dylan weighs in. He can be erratic – with a very annoying habit of engaging Tyler and Peter in ex parte conversation – but he’s got a genuine love of history and a knowledge base that’s helpful at times like these. "The French," he says. "They’re still enemies with Great Britain."

"Good, yes, the French," Maria says. "And, for that matter, the Dutch and the Spanish. They’d all like to see Great Britain get taken down a peg. But now I have to ask you: Does what they say here strike you as a good way to actually attract the kind of support we’re talking about?"

Silence. How should they know?

OK, Maria thinks. Let’s try this another way. She walks over to the Smart Board and highlights an excerpt projected on the screen: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Then she turns around and faces the class. "I mean, what a crock of bull, right? Could these people possibly have been serious?"

Lots of smiles – of recognition. Maria senses many people in the room have actually asked themselves this question.

"I love that line!" Vanessa, ever the contrarian. But she’s been too busy chatting with Janey to be much of a presence today.

"It’s not a matter of whether they believe it," says Denise. "It was propaganda."

Maria masks her surprise. This is the first time she can recall hearing from Denise. She's delighted and wants to kindle the flame without smothering her.

"You think they were lying?"

"I don’t know," Denise replies. "But that’s not really the point."

"You called this propaganda. What do you mean by that?"

"I mean they’re trying to persuade people."

"Can propaganda be true?"

"I guess." She shrugs. Maria can’t tell if it’s in resistance or a desire to be let off the hook.

"I think they did believe it," Zoe says. "I mean, you kind of have to believe it if you’re going to stick your neck out like that." Maria likes the implicit psychological acuity Zoe shows here.

"You say 'they. Do 'they' all think the same way?"

"It was a bunch of rich white guys who wanted other people to help them," Derek blurts out with an edge of impatience in his voice. Wonder of wonders: two silent types in one day.

"I think you’re absolutely right," Maria says, more eager to encourage him than I am to pursue the angle of ideological difference between the revolutionaries. "But here’s what I wonder, Derek: Is this really the best language to use in order to do something like this? If you assume, like you are here, that these guys are essentially a bunch of frauds, is a lot of talk of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really going to convince anybody? I'm reminded of the famous writer Samuel Johnson’s response to the colonists: 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?'”

"I don’t think they really have any choice," Zoe says, continuing to develop her line of thinking. "They’re in a desperate situation, and they’ve got to say whatever they think will help them achieve their objectives. So of course they’re going to talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Willie, who has been silently following this conversation with discernible intensity, chooses this moment to weigh in on what seems like a tangent. "The King simply has to go after them," she says. "I mean, if they’re allowed to get away with this, think of what the rest of the world would do. They have insulted him . . . ."

Maria begin to lose track of what Willie is saying for three reasons. For one thing, it seems like a tangent: what the hell does the King have to do with any of this. And yet Maria marvels at the child's intensity. Suddenly, she realizes she may be able to use what Willie is saying to serve her own purposes.

Maria cuts her off mid-sentence. "I’m not sure we need to shed any tears for George III, Willie. If there’s anyone in the world who can stick up for himself anywhere on the face of the earth, surely it’s him. But I tell you who I am worried about," she says, pausing for effect. "The King of Spain." Maria curls her hand into a fist, places it on her chin, and begins pacing the room in an exaggerated fashion. "He’s a guy who’s going to be losing sleep at night."

"Who is the King of Spain?" Willie asks.

"I dunno," Maria replies, still pacing. "Carlos the twenty-something. They were all called Carlos back then." The class breaks into laughter her freely professed ignorance. Isn't she supposed to know, or pretend to care, about this sort of thing?

"See, here’s the problem. There’s nothing old Carlos would like more that to stick it to Britain. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it. The problem is that if he and his Bourbon cousin Louis XVI enter an American war against Britain on the side of a group of rebels who have issued this revolutionary manifesto, then his own subjects in places like Mexico and Peru might actually begin to take some of the nonsense in that manifesto seriously. And that would be a real mess."

"So what does he do?" Zoe asks.

"Well, ultimately, he takes the plunge – he joins France and declares war on Britain. And his concerns prove justified, because within a generation all hell breaks loose in central and South America. Eventually, the Mexicos and Perus of the world declare their own independence. The King of France, who tended not to worry as much about such subversion, ended up literally losing his head in the name of abstract ideals like freedom. We can’t blame all of this on the Declaration of Independence, of course. But it certainly didn’t help matters if you’re the King of Spain."

"Which," she continues, is another way of saying that you’re right, Denise, and Zoe, and Derek. The Declaration of Independence was a piece of propaganda by a bunch of rich white guys who were desperate enough to say whatever they thought might help them at that particular moment. The problem is that in so doing they let a genie out of a bottle, because some people, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually began to believe what the Declaration said – or, maybe more accurately, they acted as if they believed what the Declaration said. 'Acted' both in the sense that they pretended, and also in the sense that they ended up doing things that they otherwise might not have done had there been no Declaration of Independence. That genie ended up doing a whole lot of mischief all over the world."

"Still does," says Willie with a smile.

"Still does," Maria repeats. "Perhaps more to the point for our purposes, the North American colonies were never quite the same again, either. When John Adams was working on the Declaration with Jefferson, his wife Abigail wrote him a letter in which she told him to 'Remember the ladies.' Adams’s response – and I assure you that I’m quoting him verbatim here – was 'Hey, honey, where will this all end? First you say the ladies, then it will be the negroes and all the savages. One revolution at a time, sweetheart!'" Looks of amusement. "If these guys ever do succeed in gaining their independence, a lot of them are going to find themselves trying to get that genie back into the bottle."

Maria pauses. "Which brings me to my final point today – actually, one of the big points of the course. You’re going to forget 99% percent of what I tell you in this class, but there is one thing I hope that will get lodged in your brain." Pens, pencils, fingers on keyboards quiver at attention. "Here it is: the Declaration of Independence is the hinge of American history. Before the Declaration, the American Revolution was all about the past: It was about the colonists trying to keep the freedom they had. They acted as they did because they feared Britain was taking away their freedom. After the Declaration, the American Revolution became about the future: about how the revolutionary legacy would be extended, and to whom. Note that I use the word “legacy,” a word redolent of the past. There was still a conservative quality to this sense of extension, because any expansion that did happen would always have to be justified and affirmed in terms of the Declaration. Still, the Declaration made Americans an essentially forward looking people. Which, I seem to be told whenever I talk with a foreign acquaintance, is still what Americans are today." Maria sees Willie smile in affirmation

"Of course," she says, moving to open the classroom door, "that may not be true for much longer. But listen to silly old me -- talking about the future when Americans won't be a people of the future." She winks. "See you tomorrow, kids."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Taxing propositions

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet seek advice on how to deal with intractable charges

The Maria Chronicles, #16

"So, Ms. Bradstreet, are we gonna have that pop quiz you talked about yesterday?"

"No, not today, Ali."

"Damn! I did all the reading and am ready to go."

"Not today," Zoe observes. "So maybe tomorrow?"

"Yes, maybe tomorrow."

"And maybe not," says Derek, looking out the window as he does so. "Maybe not next week, either."

"So when, then?" asks Ali.

"Guess you'll just have to stay in suspense," Maria says with a smile. "Tune in tomorrow for another episode of American History Now."

"What's American History Now?" Peter asks.

"Just a joke," Maria says, walking over to her computer. She clicks to open up an excerpt from the Stamp Act Resolves of 1765 and looks at the class expectantly until it's quiet enough for her to proceed. Then, without explanation, she begins reading:

The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted with warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His majesty’s person and Government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession . . . esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations of our humble opinion . . . .

I. That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great Britain that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body the Parliament of Great Britain.

Maria in increasingly firm, aggressive, and hostile voice:

II. That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies are instilled to all the inherent rights and Liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.

III. That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes are imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives.

IV. (snarl) That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain . . . .

She reverts back to a sweet, imploring tone:

Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavor by a loyal and dutiful address to His Majesty, humble applications to repeal the [Stamp] Act . . . .

"So kids," Maria says, back to a normal voice, "what's going on here?"

"They're trying to ask nicely for what they want," Mia says.

"No, they're demanding what they want," Kenny says.

"Well, actually," says Willie, "they're doing both."

"You think that's a good strategy, Willie?"

"I don't know," she says. "I'm not sure what a good strategy really is in this situation. I guess if you're trying to assert your rights you should probably also claim to be loyal."

"Just so," Maria responds. "But let me ask you this: from the British government's point of view, what's the whole issue between England and the colonies really about?"

A brief pause. "Money," she hears someone say.

"Right," she says, locking eyes on Kenny and nodding, because she thinks he was the one. "Money. That's what the Stamp Act was about. Raising revenue to pay for the long and expensive world war that was finally won in America. As we know -- because we've all done the reading, right? -- the Stamp Act didn't end up making any because all the colonists hemmed and hawed about all their rights and liberties and yada yada yada. So Parliament repeals the Stamp Act. But when it does so, it also issues the Declaratory Act." Maria taps the Smart Board and it comes up on the screen. She begins reading again:

WHEREAS several of the houses of representatives in his Majesty’s colonies and plantations; and have of late, against Law . . . passed certain votes, resolutions, and orders, derogatory to the legislative authority of parliament, and inconsistent with the dependency of the said colonies and plantations upon the crown of Great Britain…be it declared…that the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain . . .

Again she breaks off abruptly. "OK: So what's happening here?"

"They're telling the Americans who's boss," Mia says.

"Well they're saying who's boss, Mia. But what are they doing?"

"They repealed the law."

"Right. Make sense to you?"

"I dunno."


Maria purses her lips and thinks for a moment. Then she walks over to Jose. He's been quiet, but she thinks he's up for what she has in mind.

"Look at you," she says to him in disgust, half the class alarmed and the other half amused. "You come home at three in the morning, never return my calls to your cell, and I can smell the beer on your breath. Well now, you've really done it, son. I'm throwing the book at you. Next time I'm gonna . . . well . . . never do that again!"

She turns to the rest of the class. "What's your reaction?"

"You need to do more than that," Peter says.


"Because that's not going to solve the problem."

"Really?" Maria turns to Jose. "So Jose, are you terrified?"

"Yeah," he says, laughing, a little uneasy but willing to play along.

"And what's going to happen next Saturday night?"

"I do it again?" Maria is amused that he's trying to guess the right answer.

"You see?" Peter says. "You haven't solved the problem."

"Well, maybe not, Peter. But here I have to ask you: What is the problem?"

Peter looks confused. No one is coming to his aid.

Then: "Money."

It's Derek. He's still looking out that damn window, refusing to engage directly. Still, Maria considers it a good sign that he's volunteered a comment.

"Right. Money. The Brits could try to assert themselves and demand that the colonists behave, but the fact is that imperial coffers are empty and they need to be filled. So what should they do?"

"Try again?" Mia asks.

"Exactly. Try again. So they impose a new round of taxes on lead, glass, paper, and tea, laws that become known collectively as the Townshend Acts. Do they work?"

"Nope," says Peter.

"No they do not. Why not?"

"Because the colonists, led by Samuel Adams, lead a boycott," Willie says.

"I didn't get that," Max says. "How did that work?"

Maria takes a moment to describe the work of Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty in Boston, and techniques they used that were widely adopted elsewhere. She explains that the boycotts once again deprived the British of revenue. And so Parliament repealed most of those taxes, too. Except the one on tea. By the time she gets through with this, class is almost over.

"Well, kids, we're really in a fix now. We make a reasonable request of these people, and when we do they scream all about their rights in the empire. We say fine, you have a problem with that, we'll come up with something else. And when we do, they scream all over again. Sure, we could punish them, but how are we going to solve our money problem?"

"Let's invade France," A.J.says, half serious. "They've got money."

"Well, not really, A.J. They're broke, too, and their failure to deal with their problems is soon going to cost the French government big time. Besides, wars cost a lot of money. That's how we got into this mess in the first place. Trying to save those damned ungrateful colonists."

"Wait," Willie says. "In the French and Indian War, were the British fighting to protect the colonists, or were the colonists fighting for the British?"

"Exactly," Willie.


"Exactly," Maria says. "But enough of your irrelevant questions," she says to Willie, with a wink. Maria gazes up at the rest of the class. Your homework for tomorrow is to come up with a workable colonial policy that allows Britain to maintain political control over the colonies while coming up with necessary revenue to pay for the war. Answer in no more than 100 words; I'll be calling on you at random tomorrow."

"Are you serious?" Ali asks, alarmed.

"Of course," Maria says. "You're bright kids. How hard could it be to maintain an empire?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Realizing dreams

New York Times Columnist Gail Collins re-enters the realm of history with When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

The following review was published this week at the Books page of the History News Network website.

This is a book that begins and ends with a pair of pants. In the summer of 1960, a 28-
year-old secretary named Lois Rabinowitz was fined $10 for showing up in court in slacks to pay her boss's parking ticket. Forty-seven years later, a 33-year-old woman named Tahita Jenkins was fired from her job as a New York City bus driver because she refused to wear them, citing her Pentecostal religious beliefs. One could plausibly bookend a narrative history of women this way to show how, when it comes to gender relations, some (female) people just can't win. But for Gail Collins, these incidents dramatize the success of a revolution so decisive that it's easy to forget just how much has changed.

Collins, one of two regular women columnists for the New York Times (I view her as a
milder chronicler of human folly than the somewhat more venomous Maureen Dowd -- not that I mind a little venom with my breakfast in the morning) has a sharp eye for telling detail that really keeps her story moving. When Everything Changed is a sequel to America's Women, her 2003 book that traced the directory of women's lives from the colonial period to the 1960s. Over the course of 400 pages, Collins covers topics that include the growing presence of women in the workforce in the decades following the Second World War, the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the gathering Women's Movement, the rise of the sex revolution, and the full flowering of what came to be known as "Women's Lib." She also describes the backlash in the decades that followed, hostility most evident in the successful fight to halt the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the ongoing strength of the antiabortion movement. Chapters on the last three decades suggest a kind of stasis marked by sometimes surprising counter-currents and contradictions.

This is, of course, a very familiar story to even casual students of women's history. Collins is a classic liberal feminist who sees events like the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the fight over the ERA as central events in the struggle for female emancipation. Such a sensibility has room for more edgy figures such as Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, and Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who are all treated respectfully here (as is Sarah Palin). But it's mainstream feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and legislators like Jeannette Rankin and Bella Abzug, who seem closest to Collins's heart as well as her head.

But what really makes the book work, and likely to last, is the skill and empathy with which Collins weaves in the stories of ordinary women, who navigate dilemmas ranging from what shoes to wear to whether or not to keep a baby. It's the journalist in her who makes sure we hear the voices of mothers, daughters, lesbian lovers, and employees, and the way those voices are often those of the same people. Collins is also attentive to the broader social forces that are shaping the possibilities and limits of modern feminism, most notably an economy in which women's skills became increasingly attractive, and whose contraction made two- income couples increasingly indispensable.

But perhaps the most important message in this book is generational. Whatever their ongoing challenges, young women today take for granted that they should have the same educational and occupational opportunities as men, be paid equally as men, have at least some participation in housekeeping and child raising with men, experience about as much sexual satisfaction as men; and so on. This sense of equality was not only missing a half-century ago, but widely regarded as laughable, if not insane. When Everything Changed is not only a reminder that some things did change, but also that things can. As such, it can be read as a warning. But also, more decisively, as a gift of hope. It's one we should relish.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stamp of disapproval

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet confront post-weekend torpor in the pre-Revolutionary era

The Maria Chronicles, #15

As Maria heads to her classroom on Monday morning, she passes by fragments of blue and orange streamers dangling off lockers. She sees a sign outside the nurse's office: BEAT POLY! Now she remembers: Last weekend was Homecoming. She slipped out of school before the pep rally on Friday afternoon. Maria used to go to Homecoming at Derry High in her last years there, initially out of a sense of duty that became more of social occasion (she still has a blue and white sweatshirt she bought years ago). But she's new here, and barely knows any students, much less alums. She figured she could skip it this year without anyone really noticing. She spent Saturday afternoon at with at Starbucks, grading papers. Satisfaction with her productivity edged out a sense of loneliness.

"Morning," she says to the class, which murmurs in reply as she takes a seat at her desk. Three students enter as she's taking attendance; she imagines a couple more will drift in in the next few minutes. She makes a mental note to do a final accounting after class is over, as she sometimes forgets, and the High School office secretaries have enough trouble as it is keeping track of everyone.

"All right then," she says briskly, bringing her hands together to convey a sense of purpose. "As I mentioned to you last week, today we're going to start to discuss the sequence of events leading up to the American Revolution. I asked you to have a look at the table of Parliamentary Acts from 1763 to 1776 in your textbook, and to bring it along. So let's have a look."

Some listless rustling of pages. Willie was already cued up, of course, as was Vanessa and, a little surprisingly, Karina. Peter is looking around awkwardly: he forgot. Janey did too, but has an almost jauntily defiant air. "Can I go get my book?"

No way, Maria thinks. She'll be gone a half-hour at least. "Just share with Karina, Janey."

"All right then." she continues without giving Janey a chance to react. "So who's going to tell me about the Stamp Act?"

Willie raises her hand, of course.

"OK, Willie, take it away."

"The Stamp Act was imposed in 1765 by the British Parliament to help pay the costs of the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War. The war cost a lot of money and the British were looking for ways to get the colonists to help pay for it."

"And how did the Stamp Act work, Willie?"

"Well, you had to pay a tax on things like newspapers. When you paid, you got a stamp as, like, whaddyacallit . . . a receipt. It showed you paid. The stamp, I mean."

"Excellent. And what did the colonists do in response to the Stamp Act?"

Stony silence. Willie waits, then raises her hand, a little sheepishly. Maria nods to her.

"Well, they protested. Actually, in Massachusetts, they rioted. They tore up the house of Anne Hutchinson -- sorry, I mean Thomas Hutchinson, who was the governor."

"Actually, he was the lieutenant governor. And he was a descendant of Anne Hutchinson, who I know you all remember was one of the Puritans, so you're not that far off. What else did the colonists do? Can someone other than Willie tell me?"

Apparently not. "The Stamp Act Congress? Can anyone tell me about that?"

Lots of downward gazes. Janey's looking at the window. Derek is tapping his pencil on his desk. Willie looks like she's going to burst; Maria can't tell whether she's embarrassed for her classmates or desperate to start talking about the Stamp Act Resolves.

The door opens; Mia enters. She almost cringes from the tension that compounds her awkwardness. "Sorry," she whispers. "My dad got caught in a traffic jam." She takes her seat.

"Stamp Act Congress? No takers beside Willie?" Mia is looking determinedly busy and avoiding eye contact.

Shit. Maria is mad at these kids, but she's also mad at herself. She's broken a rule she formulated long ago: Always leave yourself an out. She knew she was pushing her luck in relying on the kids to actually do the reading, but she was lazy. She went into the weekend a bit behind on planning, spent Saturday grading the papers, Saturday night watching a Mad Men boxed set she got out of the library, and Sunday at the Met with her college friend Nancy. She spent most of Sunday night on the phone. And she didn't think through that Homecoming weekend probably meant a lot of homework would go undone. The plan was to move quickly to really analyzing the Stamp Act Resolves and Declaratory Act. Now what? Lecture? Can she remember enough of this stuff? Barely, but she will wing it if she has to. In any case, this will push off the discussion until tomorrow, and compress her time for the Declaration of Independence.

Maria is aware even the most sheepish of the students are now looking at her expectantly. What's going to happen?

"Well, kids, here we are, Monday morning, start of a new week, and it appears we're really not ready to work. I could act all angry at you, but that would imply that your decision about whether or not to do your homework is about pleasing or angering me. It isn't. As long as I do my job, I get paid, whether or not you do yours." (This isn't strictly true, Maria knows, but she also knows no one is going to contest the point now.)

"Here's the deal," she continues, walking up the front row of the class and placing her fingers, extended, on Kenny's desk, leaning forward but looking past him. "You may or may not have a quiz on this material tomorrow, and since I'm new here you have no real way of knowing what I will or won't do. In any case, I recommend you come to class prepared for whatever may come. That may include interrogating you point blank" -- she forms her index finger and thumb into a pistol that she "fires" at Derek, who looks back without expression -- "on the reading."

Maria turns around and walks back to the front of the room. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and turns back around to face the students. "Seventeen sixty-three," she says. "A turning point in the history of the western hemisphere. Britain has defeated France, and as a result of the Treaty of Paris, is now supreme in North America. But, as Willie has suggested, the Empire is saddled with gargantuan bills. Parliament, believing it has come to the rescue of the colonists and now seeking to recoup its expenses, decides to impose a series of taxes . . . ."

Wouldn't you know, Maria thinks. Some of them look as if they're really interested.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jim is observing Columbus Day. He's currently in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he will give talks on F. Scott Fitzgerald for the National Endowment of the Arts-sponsored "Big Read" program at a local Barnes & Noble and on Bruce Springsteen at Western Kentucky University.

His weekend reading has included C. E. Morgan's remarkable debut novel All the Living, published earlier this year. Set on a Kentucky tobacco farm in the 1980s, it tells the story of an orphaned pianist and her lover, who has just inherited the hardscrabble family estate after a tragic family accident. In her literal and figurative isolation, the young woman is drawn into the orbit of a preacher who hires her to play at his church. This is not really a novel you read for its plot, however. Instead, it is the stunningly assured musicality of the prose -- can this really be a first novel? -- and a spiritual depth one doesn't often find in contemporary fiction. Redolent of the romantic yearning of Carson McCullers, the almost remorseless psychological depths of Flannery O'Connor, and the evangelical spirit of Marilynne Robinson, this is artistry of the highest order in a writer whose career could prove to be fascinating.