20 January 2009

Obama's Inaugural Address

... a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart--not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. President Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech
The International Herald Tribune (an arm of the New York Times) has the text of President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address as released to the media. Commentary available at CNN, The Oval--USA Today, HollyScoop, New York Daily News, Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, Historiann, Doghouse Riley at Bats Left Throws Right, Reuters, PajamasMedia, Controversial-Affairs and many more. Others with the text include Mahalo, Washington Post, London's The Independent, El Mundo, Susan Polgar's Chess Information Blog, and more increasing by the minute.

Garth Brooks has the crowd jumping as he sang. ...It was a very inspiring environment to be around. Gene Brake, CNN iReporter

10 January 2009

Obama's Healthcare Plan

A new study has located an unexpected source of opposition to President-Elect Obama's plans to extend health care to the more than nine million children without coverage: the children themselves. I found the link at John Fea's excellent The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I was ignorant of the Onion News Network, but it's clear they are getting the scoop on Fox.

Study: Most Children Strongly Opposed To Children's Healthcare

08 January 2009

Flash from the Past

It is with a sense of triumph that I look back on my first year of graduate school and a declaration I made then. I resolved to war against the textbook, and to teach with some other form of writing. This declaration was not a statement against reading. No, I expected and expect students in my history classes to read a lot--too much, they often write in the evaluations. Textbooks are a genre that have no life outside of classrooms. Perhaps that means they should have no life at all.

The alternative to textbooks that I had in mind is described well by Lendol Calder on a syllabus he employs at Augustana College. I'm indebted to Historiann's "Manifesto Against 'Coverage'" and John Fea's comments there, as well as his "Uncoverage" post for bringing Calder's work to my notice. The online version of Calder's 2006 article, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey" in the Journal of American History has links to his syllabus:
What? No Textbook? In fact, we will read not one but two major histories: one by Howard Zinn, the other by Paul Johnson. These are not traditional “textbooks.” In fact, real people have been known to read them, which one can’t say about textbooks.
Calder, HI 132 Syllabus
There we find an alternative, and a definition of sorts: books read by "real people," as distinct from college students and professors. His texts are Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States and Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. Thus, the students read a liberal view, and a conservative one; they read an American writing about America, and they read the words of a foreigner, too.

My Pledge

I cannot produce solid evidence that I pledged to eschew all textbooks during that first year of graduate school. Moreover, in my comments to Historiann's "Manifesto" I named a textbook that I have assigned, so I've failed at least once to uphold that alleged pledge. Nevertheless, I dug through my files and located a book review I wrote twenty years ago. In my seminar in American Historiography, one of the assignments was to write a book review of a US history survey textbook. The professor assigned which one. Mine was Gary B. Nash, et al., The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

While most of my peers were busy grappling with texts that had all sorts of gaps, exclusions, and suppressions of the emphasis on race, class, and gender that was then in vogue, I had the leader of the movement to include all these. Even worse, the text reflected the state of the art in its graphics, sidebars, and supplemental apparatus. I spent the obligatory three pages describing the enormously rich features of this text, and managed to highlight one or two small quibbles.

Midway through page four, I began my criticism:
...apart from the expensive extras, and underneath the colorful embellishments still lurks the traditional form of a textbook. Whether this form has outlived its usefulness needs to be considered.
The authors expend several sentences in their Preface explaining that an intent of the book is to provoke thought on the part of students. It is precisely this goal, however, that is ill served by textbooks. I think that now matter how balanced and innovative a text may be, it is doubtful that such a form will ever prove adequate to this task--indeed, as I sought to illustrate earlier, it is a text's inadequacies that are more likely to stimulate questioning (the first step in creative thought). A coherent narrative that attempts to present the history of a people generally cannot do more than present a string of conclusions to be memorized. Until writers of instructional materials leave the analysis incomplete (or, at least, stop pretending to have completed it) to force students to struggle to produce coherence, learning history will remain largely passive reception of information. A word that aptly describes such a process is brainwashing.
"Review of Nash," February 1988
I don't think I agree with everything written by that young historian in training, and it's looks as though he might benefit from reading Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Still, the kid might have a point.

03 January 2009

Who Reads Books?

We do. Moreover, we plan to read more in 2009 than we did in 2008. I noted in "Twilight of the Books" last January that my wife and I had resolved to log our reading in 2008, at least our reading of those books that we devoured cover-to-cover. We did not count the daily newspaper (her), dozens of news blogs and websites (me), or more than a hundred articles in professional journals (both).

We are continuing this year with the goal of averaging twenty-five pages per day. Last year's average was a tad over twenty if we count the forty-three books we completed and the portions of nine others in which we've made significant progress. For example, I started Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges in January, and read a bit almost every day--often rereading a portion from the previous day because I forget where exactly I'd gotten on the bookmarked page, or failed to recall or comprehend the passage. On December 31, I was mid-way through the essay, "Dante and the Anglo-Saxon Visionaries," that begins on page 287. In the supplemental log, I noted 286 pages in this book. The book begins on page 3, but prefaces are not counted and are numbered separately in most books, so the actual number of pages read differs slightly from the official count.

To the extent that our Reading Challenge was a contest, my wife won. Her twenty-one completed books totaled over 7000 pages, while my twenty-two were significantly under 6500. But, when we add in the unfinished books, we both read more than 7500 pages. I'm about four dozen pages ahead in this count. In other words, I could have won (even though it was a challenge, not a contest).

Twenty-five pages per day works out to 9125 pages each. My first effort will be to finish several excellent books that I set aside for reasons I won't go into. I've mentioned Borges; other good books are:

Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2008)
Plato, The Laws

I also plan to finish two books that are disappointing. One is poorly written; the other superficial.

John McCain, Faith of My Fathers (1999)
John Talbott, Obamanomics (2008)

My wife's unfinished list includes a memoir that I read in April: Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father (1995). She's also reading Building Suburbia (2003) by Delores Hayden, which I started while waiting in her office one afternoon. I might pick it up again. It's one of several in our home library purchased for her work in economic development, but also drawing from and contributing to academic work in my field of American studies.

Modernism and Postmodernism

My wife also read a chunk of Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (1997), while I continue to be tempted to make another effort at getting through Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973). But every time I pull it off the shelf, I remember the value of first laboring through James Joyce, Ulysses, and starting that without first reading all of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey seems senseless.

Among the six novels I read in 2008, Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, translated by Helen Caldwell (1953) was exceptional; also worthy of rereading is Don DeLillo, Falling Man (2007). It horrifies me to report six novels in one year because not many years ago that was a common monthly total. Alas, our world is less and less one of books, and the ramifications could be disastrous. Consider the benefits of reading as Maryanne Wolf expresses it near the end of Proust and the Squid (2007).
Socrates never knew the secret at the heart of reading: the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before. Proust knew this secret, and we do. The mysterious, invisible gift of time to think beyond is the reading brain's greatest achievement; these built-in milliseconds form the basis of our ability to propel knowledge, to ponder virtue, and to articulate what was once inexpressible--which, when expressed, builds the next platform from which we dive below or soar above.
Wolf, Proust and the Squid, 229.
Reading enables the complexity of thought that our challenges require. Books offer the best prospects for extended reading, and hence the richest thoughts. Let us not forget President Theodore Roosevelt who reportedly read a book every night, and who expressed a strong preference for thick texts. It should be no surprise that John McCain chose that Republican leader to praise in his concession speech--one of the brightest moments in 2008.

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