Archive for January, 2015

History (Again?)

One of the interesting things I have learned from reading history is that the scholarship becomes (can become) more comprehensive the further away in time from the event it is done. Recently I read a new book on the battle of Waterloo (Waterloo: Myth and Reality, by Gareth Glover).

Glover has been at this task for thirty years and has plowed through original documents, uncovering some that provided new information and some that contradicted previous descriptions of the battle. As I read his description, I had the distinct feeling that I was getting the most complete and accurate story yet written.

Tony Ashworth’s Trench Warfare was first published in 1980 and recently released again on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. What he uncovered by going through British regimental reports and histories, diaries and memoirs was the extent to which front line Brits and Germans managed to leave each other alone during the middle years of the war. They sometimes exchanged food and musical serenades and would warn each other when artillery in the rear was going to do a brief bombardment. When front line artillery was ordered to fire on the opposite side, it most often managed to hit unoccupied spaces. In many places, officers simply looked the other way at this behavior when they found they could not stop it.

His scholarship, almost sixty years after the war gives a different picture from that of movement and assault that was characteristic of the early days and war ending mass attacks in the final year. It even resulted in a movie based on one episode.

More recently, Peter Caddick-Adams’ Snow and Steel (2015) about the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 in Belgium is a classic. There have been several previous descriptions that are accurate and readable, but seventy years on this author has produced a readable and accurate description that covers the complete situation. That situation includes the leaders, the ability of each set of armies to attack and defend, the ability to equip each set of armies and aspects of the battle I can’t recall. Combined with good writing, this author left me with probably the most comprehensive description of a single situation I have ever had.

Biographies are another area in which distance in time can provide a more comprehensive examination of people and their times. Biographies written in the latter years of a successful person’s life, or immediately after death, will contain more elegiac passages than one written many years later. Winston Churchill comes to mind. It took many years for authors to make a real effort to present a comprehensive picture of his life. He lived a life that was not only purposeful but self interested. He made brilliant decisions and some dumb ones. He didn’t spend much time with his family and that mostly when he was out of office figuring how to get back in. But, his positive influence on the times in which he lived was enormous.

It takes time to get the “facts” to write a pretty complete story. But, we still live in an age in which the early bird gets the worm ($). People tend to buy books about recent events and people recently with us. So often that dictates what is written.

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My World

In an earlier blog I commented on how much my cultural surroundings have changed over the course of my married life. As previously noted the music that was the basis of standard radio, LP records and then discs has disappeared. SiriusXM radio has a channel that is devoted to what used to be, but that’s about it. In that genre there is nothing new. The same can be said of classical music. Symphony orchestras play from a limited repertoire that ceased expanding around the turn of the last century.

All of the visual arts, painting, sculpting, memorial, building design are in the same category. Painting which was once the means of visual representation has been supplanted by a variety of electronic devices. In Washington, memorials for the Civil War were sculptures, mostly of generals on horse back. Memorials to George Washington are mostly sculptures of him on horseback. One of him standing is on the campus of George Washington University (which is the same one as in the capitol building of Virginia).

The World War II memorial occupies several acres on the Mall with the focus on water as an extension of the tidal basin. The Vietnam Memorial is a marble wall onto which are carved the names of all the dead. The original memorial to Franklin Roosevelt was a simple stone, “In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” on a spot he pointed out driving back to the White House from Union Station once. He said that was the only memorial he wanted. In 1997 a huge memorial was unveiled that had lots of stone, water and, after a major argument among special interests and designers, shows him sitting in his wheel chair. This was a position he went to great lengths to conceal when he was governor of New York and President. Then there is the statue/memorial of Martin Luther King. Like Roosevelt, he would not have wanted and doesn’t need this kind of massive memorial of stone.

For me, music with melody and visual arts which do not overwhelm me have not made it to my present general cultural environment. The same can be said for other things as well, such as dressing for the occasion, but these examples make my point (for now). Change is to be expected, but I wonder if we are the reason for it? Or, were we ever?

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Siting a New Community College

Bygone Days

Sometime in the latter part of the 1960s a friend of mine got the contract to help the state of Virginia work out its community college system.  The final activity was recommending locations for the college within each district, and the final piece of that was making recommendations for the district in the far western part of Virginia.  This was left for last because this section of the state was mountainous, occupied by tough people and was part of an area that had been known as the murder capitol of the U. S.  In addition, the principal economic activity was now coal mining which some thought was not only changing, but coal seams looked to be coming to an end.  Choosing a place and a curriculum was going to be tough.

Eric had a contractor from New Jersey who had traveled the rest of the state making selections,    Knowing that I was familiar with the area, Eric called me and asked if I would go with his assistant to provide cover (though he did not put it that way).  I was delighted.  A free trip “home”, a chance to see my one remaining relative there and an opportunity to talk with people I liked.  Of course, I said yes.  Several days later he called back and said his assistant didn’t think he needed me.  I was really disappointed.  Then, two days before the trip was to occur, Eric called again and said he really thought I should go along with Harold.  So, on the appointed morning I met Harold for an early morning flight.  We stopped at a small airport in the Valley of Virginia, then at Roanoke and finally at Bristol.  The car rental agency had red convertible Mustang which we took and drove off into a sparkling morning along twisting mountain roads.  On the way we passed the thousand acre mountain side that my grandfather had bought when oil was found on the other side.  Unfortunately, there was no oil on his side.

We arrived at the town of Appalachia and found our contact, who turned out to be an acquaintance of my Grandfather’s in an earlier day.  We had a grand time catching up, and then Harold began asking questions.  Our contact never looked at Harold and provided all of his answers to me.  Once Harold was satisfied, we drove off to Norton.  I must admit that the road from Appalachia to Norton is the most crooked I have ever driven, which is why I found it so much fun.  In Norton, we stopped briefly to see my aunt who, as office manager, basically ran the UMW in that area.  Upon finding who we were meeting, she sent him a message by me.  We met our contact and he and I spent time exchanging family information.  We then got down to business and were taken to three locations.  Harold had questions about each one and we went through the same experience as in Appalachia; Harold asked and I was given the reply.  Toward the end, I was asking all the questions.  I had another wonderful time.

When we started back to Bristol, Harold finally worked up enough courage to say my driving was frightening him to death.  So, reluctantly, we traded places and went from 55 MPH to 30-35.  I finally told Harold that we were not going to make our plane at that speed, he agreed and we changed places.  As we were changing, he remarked that driving was worse than just riding.  We made our plane and arrived home late, but in one piece.

The next day I told Eric what a wonderful day I had had and how much information we had gathered.  Harold’s first comment was that he thought my driving was going to kill him and then when we met with our informants who never acknowledged him, he wondered if he wasn’t dead.

Several years ago my wife and I with two daughters drove through that area on straightened out roads and found there was nothing from my childhood.   The coal mines were closed, the coke ovens closed and the areas they had fouled so badly had been restored to the extent that I was not sure where they had been.  Appalachia and Norton to all practical purposes were gone.  And, we saw almost no people.

Oh, about the community college.  Mountain Empire Community College was established in Big Stone Gap, about three miles through the cut in the mountain to the south of Appalachia.

Powell Valley, VA

Powell Valley, VA

Coal Mine in Stonega, VA

Coal Mine in Stonega, VA

Company Houses in Stonega, VA

Company Houses in Stonega, VA

Coke Ovens in Norton, VA

Coke Ovens in Norton, VA

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Once Again, Down The Same Old Road

This blog is a rant about schools and education. It isn’t organized to come to a series of brilliant conclusions and recommendations. It is prompted by the current hand ringing about the core curriculum by people who have little idea about education. In the first place, schooling nation wide is our biggest single provider of jobs. First, we think of teachers. They are the largest single professional group employed in the country – over 5 million as of 2007 in public and private schools. Then, there are the school bus drivers, the ‘lunch ladies” (today, anyone involved in preparing food for school both in school and as private providers), in school administrators and those in central offices. The central office crowd has been expanded by federal and state laws requiring services for special (mostly handicapped) students.

Outside of schools there are the companies that build school buses, print and sell text books as well as general books for libraries and, more recently, those that make computers and other physical equipment used in instruction and administration of schools. This is not the end, but this is enough to provide a picture of what an enormous fiscal presence schooling is in the American economy.

One final (maybe) story. In the 1980’s, a superintendent in the State Department of Education in Virginia managed to get approved a new program that got teachers certified after three years of being observed in the classroom, rather than on application to the State Department of Education immediately after graduation. One of my daughters went through this process and found that being able to talk about personal concerns with professionals who were not responsible for hiring and firing was a plus. This process removed university schools and departments of education from basically certifying students who graduated from their programs. They did not like this, of course, and when this superintendent retired, they got the program revoked. Once again, anyone they graduated could be certified with no process of examination.

This brings me to the current bruhaha about the core program. The title Core Program began to be used in the late 1930s and programs called Core were instituted in the 1950s. Most of these were local. When I went to GWU in the early 1960s to work with student teachers, Montgomery County MD schools would not accept our students because they did not come from an acceptable education program. By the middle 60s they had abandoned their program and were asking for our student teachers. When the Feds increased their participation in public education in the late 70s and early 80s, many school systems got federal money for special programs, some of which I visited and was positively impressed. As seems to always be the case, federal money stopped, reports about the programs disappeared and conditions reverted to what had been. Since that time local school systems around growing cities have struggled to keep up with growing numbers of students while rural areas in the south and midwest are struggling to keep schools open with declining numbers of students. Meanwhile, states continue to control who teaches and what is taught and how. The Feds are back in the business of participating by passing laws and using the Department of Education to support programs developed in states such as the current core curriculum. (www.ballotpedia.org/common_core‎) offers a comprehensive description and assessment of the program) The common core has gotten schools involved not only in a common core curriculum, but also a struggle over how to teach it and testing to determine how successful it is. At the same time, the early 1900s hands on programs in agriculture and industrial arts through which millions of students passed have disappeared because the market for these skills is gone.

Some school systems met their problems by allowing individuals and groups to form private schools to which the government would pay what they considered each student’s yearly cost. Much to its surprise, the D C public schools recently found that these schools had attracted almost half of the student population in the city even though there was no evidence that as a group they produced better education for youngsters.

And, the story goes on: old buildings absorb more money to stay open and in a variety of ways society drags school attention and investment in different directions; for example, constant changes in electronic tools bring more pressure to spend money to make them part of teaching tools.

Education involves learning and teaching. Learning, an individual process, requires an interest in some topic and the ability to gather information and integrate it into mental processes. Topics can be as different as how Abraham Lincoln maintained his control of the national government during the Civil War to how does one put together an external speaker to use with an electronic phone. Teaching, then, involves helping individual learners go about gathering appropriate information and integrating it into their previous stock.

The current Core program, as did past ones, attempts to put the focus on learning. One of the standards statements from the math core is “The new math standards focus on comprehensive learning, which means that learned skills will build upon one another as a child advances onto the next grade.” This calls for a more individual approach and how this is done in class of 25 I have tried to figure out all of my professional life.

As stated above, the new core curriculum is an attempt to involve more education than schooling, but, based on my long experience, to expect it to be accomplished within the present system is ridiculous (whether I have proved it in this brief effort or not!).

The real question is can we do anything to improve education of all youngsters in our diverse, mass school system.

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