Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The U.S. and Us: The Mythology of the Self-Made Man

Just before break we discussed the idea of the U.S. as being a place where any citizen over 35 can really become president. Influence and money seem to be important ingredients in political success -- but not everyone has equal access to these commodities. Here are a few examples:

* Caroline Kennedy appears poised to assume the Senate seat left vacant by Hilary Rodham Clinton. Jeb Bush has expressed interest in running for the Senate seat in Florida, the state he ran as governor.

* When Alaska's two senators take their seats in the new Congress next month, their names will be familiar to most voters in that state.Senator Lisa Murkowski and her soon-to-be colleague, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, are the daughter and son of two Alaskans who squared off in the 1970 race for the state's sole House seat. And just think of the Clintons, the Cuomos -- the Daleys in our fair city!

Adam Bellow (son of the late Noble Prize-winning Saul Bellow!) sees nothing wrong with nepotism. In his recent book In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush argues that "[Capitalism] in essence is a family enterprise. Most businesses were and still are started by family members."

Others, including Brown University economists Pedro and Ernesto Dal Bo, are a little more concerned. They argue that in the U.S. -- as in every other country -- "power begets power." And it's been this way since our country was founded. According to the Dal Bo brothers, "Forty-five percent of the members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives enter Congress after them, compared with a still-high follow rate of about 10 percent now. They say that the rate of children following their forebears into Congress outstrips the rate of those who follow their parents into any other career, from medicine and law to plumbing."

That first Congress (1789-1791) launched the record service of two notable families. The Breckinridge family of Kentucky, whose most notable member was Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser" had 17 family members serve; the most recent, John Breckinridge, left Congress in 1978. And the Muhlenberg family of Pennsylvania had 13 members of Congress between 1789 and 1880, including Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the House. (New York Times)

Regarding money, I was struck by a recent article in Forbes magazine. The article quotes Edward Pessen, author of the book The Log Cabin Myth who writes, "One thing is clear, the popular assumption that most of the presidents were of humble birth is wrong." In fact, at least a third of the presidents he examined were in the top 1% of the wealth and class indexes. Who was the richest president (adjusted for inflation, of course)? George Washington. Here's his top ten:

George Washington 1789 to 1797
Thomas Jefferson 1801 to 1809
Andrew Jackson 1829 to 1837
Zachary Taylor 1849 to 1850
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 to 1909
Herbert Hoover 1929 to 1933
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933 to 1945
John F. Kennedy 1961 to 1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963 to 1969
George W. Bush 2001 to present

The article singles out Abraham Lincoln as being the biggest beneficiary of the self-made man myth. Mary Todd, his wife, was extremely wealthy, and Lincoln represented railroads and major corporations among his clients.

Last point here: Over this break I also read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that successful people work hard and make the most of their opportunities, but that not everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed. Notable celebrities such as Bill Gates and the Beatles seem to grant this point immediately. Jeb Bush, brother of the current president, is one celebrity who refuses to believe this idea, indulging instead in what Gladwell terms "fantasies about being a self-made man." Bush claims that his success is only the result of "his own pluck and work ethic" and that he was actually at a "disadvantage" having a grandfather who was a senator and a father who was president!

Is the self-made man idea uniquely American? Why do we hold on to it so dearly even in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence?

Friday, December 19, 2008

American Heroes/American Values

Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer...Image via WikipediaLooking over the list of this year's Grammy nominees, I was thrilled to see one of my great heroes: Pete Seeger. One reason why this comes as a surprise is that Seeger will turn 90 next spring! On the other hand, Pete has spent his long, rich life pursuing the values that he most cares about -- social justice, racial equality, environmental protection, and world music. Seeger's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshiped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (See the "iPod" on the side of this blog to hear Earle's recent song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome". He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist and blacklisted from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by defiantly singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he sang to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single handedly cleaned up the Hudson River. He's 89 now and he gets my vote for "the American who best exemplifies the values I hold most dear." Who are your heroes?
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

An American Values...?

Today our class revisited the "Wisdom of Crowds" by generating another "word cloud", using the Wordle.net website. Based on what we collectively believe to be the top ten values held by most Americans, see the image below. Just an FYI: I've included the raw text in an effort to be transparent: some of the "values" had to be modified either to create more commonalities, to correct the spelling, or in order to parallel the part of speech. For example, I changed "strong" (adj) to "strength" (n). I also changed "Wal-Mart/Big=better" to "Bigness".

Here is the original (unedited) text:
Materialism reduntantism democracy wealth beauty benevolent freedom diversity family education elitist materialism capitalism reduntantism patriotism family Darwinism reduntantism loyalty equality independence freedom justice reduntantism materialism wal-mart/Big=better progression family success/hardworking elitist strong morality patriotism tradition materialism family simplicity freedom safety military individuality progression opportunity tradition materialism diversity optimism competition open-mindedness tradition advancement wealth education family strong-defense materialism safety family economic-surplus entertainment simplicity freedom power food shelter materialism patriotism competitiveness hardwork wholesomeness music promise acceptance courage freedom materialism family hardworking religion tradition democracy freedom healthiness knowledge success unity ethics freedom materialism family religion patriotism upward mobility tradition relationship safety success education materialism family religion freedom tradtion ethics opportunity saftey success happiness

Think now of Robin William's and James Henslin's lists. Now that you have thought critically about what Americans truly value, where do you stand?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

U.S. Constitution Assessment

With Governor Blagojevich's recent arrest, I can't think of a better time for us to watch this video, entitled "Corruption", used with kind permission from Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig. A link to a transcript of this portion of his talk will allow you to utilize the actual text. Note any vocabulary words you struggled to understand and please bring them to class.

We will be discussing and critiquing this provocative argument, along with an excerpt from Gore's book, The Assault on Reason as one way to better understand the US Constitution.

Do you agree with his thesis? In order to answer that question, you will need to bring your textbook to class, or at least bring an unabridged copy of the US Constitution with you every day this week. What parts of the Constitution seem most relevant to this inquiry?

Friday, December 05, 2008


In New York City a billboard emits highly focused sound that resonates within the skulls of passersby. It’s a novel way of advertising, a potentially terrifying intrusion and, according to technology writer Clive Thompson, the leading edge of a new civil rights battleground – the right to privacy in your own mind.

Have you seen Minority Report? Do you remember the scene in the mall when Tom Cruise's character is bombarded with advertising messages inside his own head?

If intrusive ads don't seem that worrisome to you, consider this: there are scientists currently working on a device that shines an infrared beam on your forehead, a sort of remote MRI, that can "read" your mind to determine if you are in "mental anguish". What this means, for example, is that before we tell a lie, a simple brain scan can reveal it. Imagine the antiterrorist uses for this at airports.

What do you think about any/all of these issues? For more information, listen to this excerpt from NPR's On the Media, which is the source of today's post:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"I'm All Ears"

The so-called "warrantless wiretapping" program is one of the most controversial steps taken by the Bush administration in its so-called War on Terror. The Bush White House has said that the wiretaps are necessary in these "perilous times" and that national security and the preservation of state secrets are reason enough to justify the program. Candidate Obama denounced the program and said the program was "illegal", but as a senator Obama also voted to protect phone companies that complied with Bush's requests for phone records and that granted the administration easier access to intercept private phone calls.

Read the attached New York Times story by clicking on the title of this post. Or listen to the On the Media clip below. Ask yourself: Should the government have the right to listen in on private phone calls WITHOUT establishing probable cause? What dangers might result from such a program?

Friday, November 14, 2008

"The Company We Keep"

In Friday's Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg penned a surprisingly poignant column about the supposed shame Guantanamo Bay brings upon the United States. I was particularly struck by the parallels to our own studies, especially regarding civil liberties in our "Perilous Times" unit.

Steinberg's introduction to this topic was the case of Bo Kyi, a dissident from the country of Myanmar, who spoke in Chicago recently about the plight of his friends back home who received 65-year prison sentences for "attending protests [and] distributing leaflets." Sound familiar?

Interestingly, several other speakers at this event mentioned the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, and their hope that the United States would soon shut down this facility, which many citizens believe has become a "blot on America's reputation." 

But Steinberg lamented that too many Americans do not view this detention facility as a problem:
They don’t understand the company we’re keeping, don’t realize just how frequently torture is used around the world. Nor do they grasp that their excuse — national security — is the exact same rationale offered up by every barbarous regime for the confinement and abuse of heroic champions of justice such as Bo Kyi.
Sound familiar?

In the post-September 11 world, why should we even care about what others think of us? Read the entire (very short) article. Do you agree with Steinberg's argument(s)? What has our own history taught us? Think about your own studies grappling with the events of 7 eras of American warfare. And consider these parting words from the author: 
The truth is, in times of peril, our nation’s overreactions — from Lincoln suspending habeas corpus to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II to Guantanamo Bay — never make us safer, never improve the situations they were meant to confront.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Perilous Projects

Please visit the wonderful site set up by the NTHS Librarians.

NOTE: Group Leaders are italicized.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

November 4th, 2008

Why We Vote

Texting on a keyboard phoneImage via WikipediaHappy Election Day!
Hopefully, your candidate won, although I wonder what it means to be president during these perilous times ;)

Chances are, your parents voted or will vote today. Perhaps that's simply a result of one's education, income or other "intrinsic" factors. Or is it possible that external forces played a bigger role?

This election season has been saturated with TV ads, direct mail campaigns, political emails and "robo-calls". And let's not forget the rather old-fashioned door-to-door canvasses. Which method would you guess is most successful in motivating people to go to the polls? After listening to this short radio piece (less than 8 minutes total), critically analyze the findings and ask yourself a hard question: should we even strive for higher voter turnout?

The transcript of this show (NPR's On The Media) is available HERE. Just a preview: Yale professor Donald Green, who conducted over 100 studies on the most effective methods of getting out the vote would seem to decisively vindicate certain methods over others.
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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure

If you believed your government was acting unethically -- or contrary to its own principles -- what would you do about it?

Here are a few hypothetical examples: If you were alive in Nazi Germany you would have done anything to stop the awful genocidal machine at the heart of the government, right? If you were alive in, say, 1850, and had the chance to stop slavery or to help the cause of abolitionists, you would do everything in your power to do so, wouldn't you? Or, to take some American examples from the 20th Century, if you knew there were clear injustices -- Jim Crow laws, forced sterilization of women deemed "unstable," policies that discriminate against and deny services to homosexuals -- you would clearly do everything in your power to stop those injustices, right?

In circumstances such as these, I would like to believe I would have taken a courageous stand against injustice, but I can't know for certain.

The hard question: What do you think you would have done?

The really hard question: What injustices do you see around you right now? What are you willing to do in response?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Witch Hunt

Pioneers in the Settlement of AmericaImage via WikipediaOur recent discussions about the Salem witch hunt and the broader notion of Communist witch hunts in The Crucible has put me in mind of the recent charges that Senator Obama has been "pal-ing around with terrorists." This allegation is a thinly veiled attempt to link Obama to the Weather Underground, a radical group from the 1960’s, through the person of William Ayers.

The McCarthy comparison seems apt here since the media used the mere suggestion of an alliance between Mr. Ayers and Senator Obama in one context to imply one in another: That Senator Obama was willing to sit on the same charitable board with Mr. Ayers somehow showed he was in agreement with Mr. Ayers’ politics of 40 years ago. The media felt no need to consider the tenuousness of the connection they hoped to establish.

The alliance between Ayers and Obama is slight and New York Times reporters concede that “since 2002 there is little public evidence of their relationship.” But the fact they ever spoke at all is being used to imply Obama's nefarious intentions. Remember, Obama has already told us he’s willing to talk to any world leader. Imagine the ilk of his speed dial list – Hugo Chavez, Kim-Jong Il …Raul Castro, perhaps? The logic would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high. And, in this case, the matter is personal for me.
I know Bill Ayers. I know him to be an extra-ordinary teacher, a generous mentor, and a deeply principled human being who has worked tirelessly in the pursuit of social justice. The Bill Ayers I know is a far cry from the cartoon the media are currently drawing of him.

For political purposes, or perhaps to sell papers, human beings are rarely seen as three dimensional – complicated and sometimes contradictory.
It’s hard to get a clear picture of who people are beyond the stereotype shorthand. 
This is literally true of Ayers, whose name is often accompanied by decades-old mug shots and provocative quotes presented without context. This, perhaps, most of all recalls the McCarthy Era “Us vs. Them” mentality. It’s all black and white with no room for nuance in the pursuit of complicated truths. And as Oscar Wilde reminded us, “The simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” 

How would your understanding of Ayers be different if you only only saw one of the above pictures?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Our America

On Friday, remember to go straight to the EPI-Center for a special talk by LeAlan Jones. Here is a short bio:

Mr. Jones is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. He began his career in journalism in 1993 at the age of 13 when he collaborated with his friend Lloyd Newman and radio producer David Isay to create Ghetto Life 101. This award-winning radio diary about growing up on Chicago’s South Side aired on National Public Radio. Jones and Newman spent ten days collecting stories on tape about their day-to-day lives; the stories ranged from throwing rocks at cars to a harrowing encounter with Newman’s alcoholic father.

Two years later Jones and Newman produced another radio diary called Remorse, which examined the horrifying murder of Eric Morse, a five-year-old living in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. Again, Jones collected interviews from members of the community to produce this Peabody Award winning radio documentary.

In 1996 Jones, Newman, and Isay together wrote the book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, which was based on the previous radio programs. Today Jones works as a freelance writer for N’Digo, a weekly paper in Chicago.

Jones’s mission is stated in Our America:

"We live in a second America where the laws of the land don't apply and the laws of the street do. You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that maybe, someday, we can become one."

Here are some questions you might think about in advance of LeAlan's visit:

  • What stories would you collect that best represent your neighborhood?
  • What are some advantages in using radio to communicate ideas as opposed to visual arts?
  • Who gets to tell the story of your life, our lives? Whose voices do not get heard?
  • What might Jones mean when he says, “We live in a second America ...”?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Should Teachers Reveal Their Biases?

After Ellery's wonderful post on teacher bias, I noticed this related article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which references a recently published book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, written by three faculty members from George Mason University. Remember, our class discussion focused on whether teachers should ever reveal who they are voting for, etc. Would that action have an inappropriate effect on their students?

The book's authors state that based on their recent (2007) study, the majority of professors "say they keep their own politics out of the classroom". In fact, only a minority of college faculty (28%) admit that they openly reveal their political bias to their students.

But even if the above statistics are true, does it even matter if teachers conceal their political leanings? Another study, conducted by two professors from Pennsylvania State University may have the answer. In their research-based article, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat", they published two related findings, based on student surveys:
  1. College students agree that most professors do not reveal their political bias (thus corroborating the findings from the book mentioned at the beginning)
  2. But 75% of students were able to guess correctly their professor's political leanings, anyway.
Finally, the biggest question looming behind this discussion: if the great majority of college professors call themselves liberal, does this influence their students to become more left-leaning as well? The same researchers conducted another study which found that students started shifting slightly to the left under both Republican- and Democrat-voting professors -- not just under liberal-leaning teachers.

What do these studies mean for our class discussion? What could be responsible for the shift toward Democrats? Is there a difference between college-level classrooms and high school with regard to these findings?

Monday, October 13, 2008

There is no "I" in "Intellectual";
There are Four.

PRINCETON, NJ - OCTOBER 13:  Princeton Profess...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeThere is an anti-intellectual streak in the United States. It is not new, but it is perhaps most visible during election season. Barack Obama has been called an elitist for having attended Ivy league schools. So, he uses code language, saying he was lucky enough to live the American promise and go to the "best schools." Anything but the "H-word": Harvard.

Portrayal Of Obama As Elitist Hailed As Step Forward For African Americans

George Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry all have Ivy League degrees and all have tried to downplay their connection to these schools because they are afraid of being tarred with the reputation of elitist. The further implication is that well-educated people are utterly disconnected from the "real world" (whatever that is) and that the academic elite should be quarantined inside their ivory towers! Sarah Palin (who attended 5 colleges, culminating in a degree from the University of Idaho) proudly compared herself to Harry Truman, the last president without a college degree.

What's going on here -- especially from candidates who argue for a meritocracy (rule by the best qualified) on issues related to affirmative action?

That's why I was so excited to hear that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics yesterday. It was a sort of Revenge of the Nerds. Krugman is not only a widely admired Princeton scholar, he is also a columnist for the New York Times. In other words, he is a public intellectual. He is not only a world-class thinker, but also a man of enormous common sense. As a small example, click on the title of this post. Krugman is blunt here as always -- and check the date of his piece. He warned of a housing collapse long before it happened.

Do you agree in the existence of what historian Richard Hofstadter has termed the Anti-Intellectualism in American Life? Extra credit if you can explain what the title of this post means!

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Fires in the Mirror WORDLE

"The word, the word above all, is truly magical, not only by its meaning, but by its artful manipulation" (xxiii).

Think of our discussion of author diction and bias in the "Secret Messages" activity/discussion. As we begin reading and viewing Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play, Fires in the Mirror, we asked ourselves to pay close attention to individual words and their connotations. For a visual representation of the words chosen by our class members here is a "Wordle" (word cloud) of the first fifteen pages of the play.

By the way, here is a link to the NY Times "word clouds" we viewed in class before we generated our own. Remember that these represent the actual words used in the two party conventions.
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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Religious Recommendations?

building a churchImage by ratterrell via FlickrPerhaps many of us have forgotten or were not aware of this, but the election has stirred up controversy about a rule enforcing the separation between "church and state". A 1954 tax code provision (law), called the "Johnson Amendment" prohibits religious leaders from explicitly endorsing a political candidate from the pulpit.

They can talk about political issues, but they can't tell their flock to vote for either McCain or Obama. If they do break the law, it's possible that the entire religious organization (church, mosque, temple, etc.) could lose its tax-exempt status under the law. This is important since these organizations are not-for-profit and therefore might not be viable if taxed.

Today, a group called the Alliance Defense Fund is sponsoring "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" in order to challenge the above law that they consider unjust.
  • Is this truly a case of civil disobedience?
  • Are preachers' 1st amendment rights (speech, etc.) being violated by the government?
  • Assuming you are religious, what would you think if your religious leader endorsed one of the presidential candidates during a service?
Listen to both sides of the issue in this 13-minute excerpt from the radio show, On The Media:

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fact Check THIS.

As the election heats up, so do the negative attack ads. Plus, the increasing number of forwarded emails we receive from family and friends ramps up emotions and starts rifts. How many of us have received an email that claims Barack Obama is a Muslim or that Sarah Palin has a list of banned books?
A new free service from the St. Petersburg Times critically examines many of these wild claims, on a website that is both fun and informative for students and adults. Politifact.com uses a "Truth-O-Meter" to rate the accuracy of the most recent attack ads, and a "Flip-O-Meter" to assess how consistent a candidate has been over time. They even have a version for the iPhone so you can flout your knowledge at parties!

Here's a small sampling from the actual website:


PolitiFact via kwout

UPDATE: Another website, FactCheck.org, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, has just analyzed the 1st Obama-McCain debate regarding the various claims of the candidates.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital Storytelling Presentations

Starting Tuesday, we will be going to the LIBRARY to begin a Digital Storytelling project. And because you are all so tech-savvy, we're using a new web-based technology called "VoiceThread", which allows you to work from any internet-enabled computer either at home or at school.

If you have personal pictures you would like to use for this project, please upload them to a site that is NOT blocked by the school's filter; i.e., don't use Facebook unless you are uploading images from home. A good alternative would be Picasa, which is already associated with your Blogger account, or Flickr, which has a direct connection to VoiceThread. You can also have a little fun editing the photos online with Picnik (thanks to my daughter for recommending this site).

Watch the tutorial below before we go to the lab so you can spend less time learning the tech and more time creating!

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Can We Trust Them?

I remember that during the 2004 presidential election, I became an obsessive poll watcher: there were CNN projections, Zogby predictions, and Fox pronouncements. And for some reason, the polls I paid attention to were all claiming a John Kerry victory! Well, we all know how that turned out...

Now, when the media report that this election contest between John McCain and Barack Obama is going to be very close, I tend to be somewhat dismissive. My own feeling is that the media, which largely functions as a for-profit enterprise, has a vested interest in making us believe, up to the last minute, that we will see a razor-thin victory for one of the candidates. I have my own prediction, which has no basis in any scientific methodology, but as this short report below explains, my prediction might be just as good or better than all of the vaunted polls combined!

David Moore, a former Gallup Poll senior editor, argues in his book, The Opinion Makers, that professional polling data is deeply flawed. For example,
  1. Polls don't reveal opinion differences between those who hold strong opinions and those who are answering off the top of their heads at the moment.
  2. Polls don't include the opinions of people who only use cell phones, rather than a traditional land-line.
What do you think of the criticisms of polls in above radio piece? What are your predictions for the 2008 election? It might be fun for the class to come back to this post in November to see which of our peers predicted correctly!

Friday, September 12, 2008


Book cover of Book cover via Amazon Yesterday in class, a student asked why more wasn't done to stop the plot of 9/11. When I responded that the plot might not have been executed had the CIA shared information with the FBI, Mr. Bolos said he'd "quibble" with that idea and said there was a long history of rivalry between the departments.

While it is true that there has been a long-standing mistrust between these government agencies, relations became outright hostile in the years leading up to the World Trade Center attacks.

According to Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, "the CIA eagerly institutionalized the barrier that separated it from the Bureau" (343). The CIA "blocked the Bureau's investigation into the USS Cole attack [which] allowed the attack to proceed" (342). Further, Wright argues that John O'Neill, the FBI's point man on al-Qaeda could have "taken the morsels of evidence that the CIA was withholdingand marshaled a nationwide dragnet that would have stopped 9/11" (350).

The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission supports Wright's contentions by concluding that the CIA "didn't alert the State Department's 'TIPOFF' list"...nor did the CIA share this explosive informaiton with the FBI, which had primary domestic responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorism, and a team of agents specifically devoted to going after Al Qaeda" (Jane Mayer, The Dark Side, 15).

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Thursday, September 11, 2008


Today is the 7th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Since the members of our class were relatively young at the time of the event, we are curious about your questions regarding 9/11.

To some, it might seem like a waste of time just to ask questions, but I am reminded of this quote by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner from Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

Once you have learned how to ask questions — relevant and appropriate and substantial questions — you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

What are YOUR questions about September 11th? Click on the comments link to contribute to the discussion.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Did He Get What He Deserved?

While watching Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, we noted the words of one man interviewed who claimed that Timothy Treadwell, someone who studied and lived with grizzly bears, "got what he deserved".

What do you think of this statement?

In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he quotes the director, Herzog, as saying, "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder."

Ebert goes on to reveal his own opinion of Timothy Treadwell:
I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Presidential Resume

Book cover of Book cover via Amazon Of all the talk from the recent political conventions, two themes really struck me: the battle over who is the biggest "outsider" and the question of presidential qualifications.

Candidates seem to take it for granted that being a political outsider is a good thing. Since the public has an incredibly low opinion of Congress, the idea is to boast that you have nothing to do with Washington. (Neither ticket can honestly make this claim, by the way. McCain and Biden have each been in the Senate for decades). But why is a lack of association with Washington a bad thing?

I just finished reading a book called The Dark Side by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. It chronicles a record of shocking Constitutional abuses by people who did not know the law. President Bush bragged that he, too, was a Washington-outsider. He called Washington a "culture of lawyers." He mistrusted lawyers -- even about legal issues so much so that in his administration, Mayer writes, "neither the President, the Vice president, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, not the National Security Adviser was a lawyer" (54).

Since no one knew the law, the author argues, no one felt restrained from ordering torture or expanding presidential powers. On nearly every important matter the President deferred to his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, (a real Washington INSIDER, who was President Ford's chief of staff) who knew how the system worked and how to enforce his ideology. Nothing -- good or bad -- can get done in Washington without a knowledge of how Washington works.

Whether or not you favor an insider or an outsider, what exactly are the minimum qualifications of being President of the United States? Here's what the US Constitution says. Is it enough? After all, plumbers, teachers, doctors, secretaries must all meet minimum standards in order to be hired. What do you think a president's resume should look like?

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Into the Wild (short essay prompt)

In the book we read over summer, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer admits that Chris McCandless was rash, but he insists he "wasn't a nutcase, he wasn't a sociopath, he wasn't an outcast. McCandless was something else -- although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps" (85).

Your question:

What precisely was McCandless? Use one of Krakauer's terms or invent your own term. Choose your term carefully, and note passages as you read. Your answer to the question is your central claim. Support this claim with evidence from the text and explain how the language of the quote -- the connotations of individual words in the quotes you cite -- prove your claim to be valid.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why "An American Studies"?

To what extent do participants in joint activi...Image via Wikipedia We decided on this name because the name can be read three different ways:
  1. AN American Studies (as opposed to American Studies or THE American Studies) suggests that this just one attempt at making sense of a vast topic. Anyone who thinks they are covering everything essential to this enormous enterprise in a year long course — or perhaps in over the course of their lives — is just kidding him or herself.
  2. This blog will reflect the "studies" — gathering, questioning, and trading information with a community of scholars — of one American. Millions of people are approaching the topic of "America", but we don't presume to speak for them.
  3. An American [is a person who] studies. While this does not happen always (maybe it is an impossibility), it is necessary for our country to achieve its highest ideal — that all of its citizens can achieve self-fulfillment. Studies — in the broadest possible sense of that word — must be part of this achievement.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Long Time Coming...

Perhaps you recall Doc OC's provocative post last March, "(Re-) Considering Slavery...". Think of the final question he posed: "[W]hat has the country done to address the past wrongs of slavery?"

Now we may have a kind of response to that from the House of Representatives. According to CNN, for the first time ever, a branch of the federal government has made a formal apology for slavery. Specifically, the House addressed the "injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery..."

Furthermore, the non-binding resolution argues,
African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow -- long after both systems were formally abolished -- through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity.
The resolution says nothing about reparations and it's not the first time the federal government has made this kind of apology toward an American minority group. But one might ask many other questions regarding this action by the government:
  1. Is there even a need for such a resolution after so many years have passed since slavery?
  2. If this resolution is needed, what are your thoughts on the "non-binding" nature of it?
  3. Is this or should this be the first step toward reparations?

Monday, June 16, 2008

CEO vs Worker Pay

As we discussed in class, this New York Times graphic is illuminating. We are able to see how the salary of the American CEO has outpaced the pay of the average worker over the past 60+ years.

Think of the questions that many of us asked. What's fair? What multiplier of CEO pay seems right to you? Does it really make a difference whether the CEO started with or founded the company?

Please make sure you click on the image and then, once you are taken to a new page, click on it again in order to see all of its detail.

UPDATE (October 10, 2011): The Washington Post, in a series of articles called "Breakaway Wealth", has created another "CEO vs Worker Pay" graphic that utilizes more recent statistics, including what happened during the recession, and the actual dollar amounts earned by CEOs at specific companies. Be sure to explore the other examples of income inequality on the site.

UPDATE (January, 2014): Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich recently released a film entitled, Inequality for All, which features, among other things, illustrative animations of the issues discussed above. Watch this clip regarding the growing gap between the average male worker and the 400 wealthiest Americans (you'll need to click through to the original site):

INEQUALITY FOR ALL - The Wealth of America from OAKES on Vimeo.

Monday, June 09, 2008


The embarrassing coverage of Hillary Clinton's exit from the presidential race made me recall the notion of pseudo-events, first coined by the historian Daniel Boorstin in the 1960's. Boorstin used the phrase "pseudo-event" to describe what he saw as a disturbing trend in journalism — not "fake news" such as the Colbert Report or the Daily Show, but the manufacturing of stories whose only point of reference is not found in the real world but in the media itself.

In his book The Image he says: "A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
  2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance "for future release" and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, "Is it real?" is less important than, "Is it newsworthy?"
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one."

Network media spent more time covering Clinton's decision to remain in the race and her subsequent exit from the race than they did covering the war, the mortgage crisis, and the price of oil combined. 

Why was this? According to Boorstin — and I think he's right — the media invested so much time making predictions (when will she leave and what will the consequences be?) that the news became a discussion of why the prophecies were or were not fulfilled. All this at the expense of a public that faces some of the most dire economic and moral challenges seen in our lifetimes.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Thank you!

Hey, I know it's summertime, but I wanted to say a big "THANK YOU" to the AiS Class of 2008. Remember how we would tell you that your blogs were making a difference? Well, thanks to you and the OC, I was one of 50 teachers worldwide to be selected to attend the Google Teacher Academy, located in the "Googleplex" in Mountain View, California (Google's world headquarters). I created this 1-minute video (see below) about your efforts and they must have really liked what you did this school year!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Old Kentucky Home

Bobbie Ann Mason, a wonderful short story writer from Kentucky is probably the most famous literary personality in her state. (If you're looking for a great summer read, try In Country, a beautiful novel about a 17 year old girl trying to understand her father who fought in the Vietnam War). Because of her celebrity, she was asked to write a series of pieces in the New York Times on the current state of Kentucky. Read her short opinion piece -- by clicking on the blog title above -- and see if you find any connections with the play we're reading, with other current issues in the news, or with anything we've studied this year.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Forgotten King

The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Of course, today, we are away from school because Dr. Martin Luther King is commemorated by name with his own national holiday. And just about everyone alive is familiar with his "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we look forward to tomorrow's historic inauguration, we invite you to compare and contrast what you have learned as a school child about this man, to this particular speech (about the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967) Why? Because:
...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer, Truthdig.com).
Although it is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you IM your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post called, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why was this speech so controversial?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?
A full text version of this speech is available HERE.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

AIS over Spring Break

Hey everyone,

My family and I just came back from the east coast (Washington D.C. and Gettysburg, PA), but I feel as though all of you came along for the ride, too. Good thing I took the van. Our destinations were full of historical import, but more: I saw everything through the critical lenses and themes we've talked about all year long.

We start in Gettysburg where the official story of the battle (the voice-over narrator) is one that emphasizes union: "Both sides fought bravely and their heroic deeds are commemorated here." And we were repeatedly told that General Lee was "always a gentleman." Maybe, but he was also a traitor who fought for his "country's" right to perpetuate slavery in the western territories.

"Confederate heroes?" I thought. Talk about your forgiving attitudes and the Fables of Reconstruction! This was, of course, Lincoln's triumph -- what James McPherson (a famous Civil War historian, whose book I was reading) called the brother fighting against brother mythology.
We saw the house where Thaddeus Stevens (and why is he always scowling in official photos?) practiced law. Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans -- the vindictive folks who thought Lincoln and his buddies were way too kind to the Rebels. Stevens was a life-long abolitionist who refused to be buried in a cemetery that was not integrated. In contrast to the fancy memorials at Gettysburg Cemetery, Stevens was buried on an unmarked site.

Yet, there is something so moving about the Gettysburg Address and it was great to stand on the spot where Lincoln delivered his "brief address that changed the world." McPherson says Lincoln did nothing short of re-writing the Constitution on the spot. Another eminent historian, Garry Wills, put it this way: "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the best example in history of the fact that nothing is more practical than idealism, that ideas matter, that words are more important than weapons."

Speaking of public memorials, Gettysburg made me think of our field trip first semester in which we examined public art. One striking feature is the fancy statuary -- Greek mostly, perhaps an attempt by a young nation to make it clear that our heroes are as noble as any of those in classical literature. In Washington D.C., we saw a statue of a woman that looked like a piece you'd find in a temple in Athens, but it was called "America." Why, I wondered, was the country portrayed as a woman in that piece?

The National Portrait Gallery also had a fantastic exhibit on hip-hop, and I remembered our discussions of the democratizing impulses of art. I thought about who is usually represented in museums and who is left out, and I thought about all the talent on display by the best taggers. That, too, is public art.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Blogger of His Own

As you enjoy the fine weather during Spring Break, please check this out: our very own Eli Greenspan was recently mentioned in an article for the Chicago Sun-Times, entitled "Fans getting more news from nontraditional sources". Eli's MLB Rumors blog can be read HERE.

The article, by Neil Hayes, not only features an interview with Eli, but also makes mention of accolades from Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane. Plus, (perhaps) in tribute to our theme, Eli even mentions his own idealism!

Congrats, E. You have shown us the power of blogging, as it continues to democratize the concept of media in the 21st century!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A More Perfect Union?

Though we have shifted our focus to the sadly overhyped Junior Theme, please take a moment to remember our theme of Idealism and Realism. Today, as class members deftly presented wildly varying plans for Reconstruction, none of us could deny how these issues, over 140 years old, still resonate today. These short speeches represented both our greatest hopes for unity after tragedy and our frank assessment of the limits faced by a society that struggled to leave a bitter past behind.

Barack Obama, in a speech made partly to defend himself against criticism levied against his former pastor, "had to address race and religion, the two most toxic subjects in politics" (New York Times Editorial).
But he did not stop there. He put Mr. Wright, his beliefs and the reaction to them into the larger context of race relations with an honesty seldom heard in public life.
As he spoke in Philadelphia, he reached all the way back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and wove a narrative of racial struggle through our entire history up to and including the present day.

Whether or not you support Obama for president, consider reading his speech, a document some are comparing to the oratory of a Lincoln, FDR, or Kennedy. Read it for its thematic elements, for how it addresses the other side, and for how it expresses empathy for all citizens. Does it not demonstrate what we all strive for as students of American Studies?

For an interactive video/text version, please click HERE.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

(Re-) Considering Slavery in the U.S.

In light of our discussion on Reconstruction Plans last week, consider a controversial new plan by Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France. In order to pay tribute to the French victims of the Holocaust, Sarkozy has called for a new national curriculum in which each student in French schools is "entrusted with the memory of a child-victim of the Holocaust." Each student would learn the life story of a victim, which advocates say would guarantee that the memories would not be lost and that the nation could better understand its past.

What if the U.S. passed a new law requiring all students to learn the life story of a slave? To what extent would this help our nation heal the wounds of slavery? How feasible would such a plan be? Can you suggest another way in which our country can address its past? What is your view on reparations? Or, do you believe the nation has already comes to terms with its past? (If you hold this last view, what has the country done to address the past-wrongs of slavery?)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Do the Media Have a Crush on Obama?

Although Valentine's Day has passed, some might argue that the press still pines for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. For example, the New York Times just published an op-ed entitled, "A Card-Carrying Civil Libertarian" in which the Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor, argues: "If Barack Obama wins in November, we could have not only our first president who is an African-American, but also our first president who is a civil libertarian." How very relevant to our visit from Geoff Stone and our unit on civil liberties!

In addition, as heard on National Public Radio's On the Media,
National Journal columnist William Powers thinks [the media have a crush on Obama]. Powers says that while Hillary Clinton has to work to recast herself against a pre-written narrative, Barack Obama is virtually a media blank slate.
Think about what we have discussed in class throughout the year: human beings attach so much power and importance to narratives. You can listen to the 7-minute interview of Powers by clicking the play button below:

Based on what you've seen and heard in the past few weeks, what do YOU think? Are the media truly in love with Obama or will they change their feelings once they need a new narrative?