March is Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month

In a letter to her husband John Adams in the momentous spring of 1776, as the Continental Congress was drafting its Declaration of Independence from the British crown, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) urged him and his fellow delegates to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She continued, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Women would not gain the right to vote in the United States for nearly 150 years, but the words of Abigail Adams clearly gave voice to the hopes and dreams of half the population. Agitation for women’s rights continued through the growth of the early American republic, culminating in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Declaring that “all men and women are created equal,” Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), and the other organizers proclaimed feminist principles which would resonate through the remainder of the 19th century.

This was a period in which women were routinely denied the rights to vote, run for public office, own businesses or property, testify in court, preach, serve in the armed forces or on juries, study science and mathematics, practice law or medicine, attend university, sue for divorce, or retain custody of their own children. Women were segregated as the “fairer sex” and minimized as fit for little more than marriage and motherhood. Those women who pursued economic independence were criticized as being in “violation of nature.” Even fashion kept women caged. The corset became a metaphor for their social, political, and economic confinement.

The fight for women’s suffrage built on earlier movements for temperance, asylum reform, an end to child labor, and the abolition of slavery. The 18th and 19th Amendments in 1920 were seen as twin victories for American women and inaugurated a decade in which “flappers,” film stars, and writers began to challenge sexist conventions. Hairstyles and dresses shortened. Women began to vote, drive, and work outside the home. Health educator Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) called for free and readily available contraception. “Birth control,” she argued, was a first step in empowering women to take control of their own lives.

World War II provided manufacturing job opportunities for “Rosie the Riveter” and raised expectations for a larger role in postwar society. The fear and conservatism of the early Cold War years, however, relegated many women to “the cult of domesticity” fed by the record pregnancy rates of the “Baby Boom.” Birth control was not readily available, women were discouraged from working outside the home, and even the new credit cards driving consumer spending were issued in the husband’s name only. Women who had built the “Arsenal of Democracy” were now expected to be content with changing diapers and hosting Tupperware parties in pumps and nail polish.

Widespread discontent led to action. The 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1921-2006) gave new impetus to a resurgent movement for full equality. Three years later Friedan helped to organize the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1968 “the pill” and other birth control methods received FDA approval. Four years later pioneering journalist Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine and became one of the most well-recognized voices of the new feminism. Roe v. Wade the following year was seen by many as a major victory in the fight for women’s reproductive rights.

By the late 1970s, local school districts and universities began organizing Women’s History Week programs around International Women’s Day on March 8. President Jimmy Carter gave official approval to the observance in 1980, and within six years, fourteen states had declared March to be Women’s History Month. Congress followed suit in 1987. The following years saw an incremental increase in attention to women’s history. Feminist scholars began publishing more books and articles on the contributions of women to the nation’s development. Many dubbed this new academic emphasis “herstory.”

Change was slow but steady. More women were elected to public office. Changes in family law allowed women to sue for divorce. Child support and domestic violence laws were strengthened. Women’s shelters and birth control clinics proliferated. NOW and other groups called for equal pay and opportunity and an end to chauvinist stereotypes in entertainment and the media. LGBT women began to come out to their friends, families, and employers. The enrollment of women in graduate and professional programs increased. Many religious denominations began ordaining female clergy.

A major issue remained the need for a safe and fair workplace. The testimony of legal scholar Anita Hill before a Senate confirmation hearing in 1991 led to the implementation of sexual harassment laws throughout the country. The #MeToo movement which began on social media in 2006 went viral eleven years later and encouraged the victims of sexual intimidation and violence to speak out. The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 included more than five million participants across the nation and seven million others worldwide, inaugurating an annual tradition which continues to the present day.

Women now run Fortune 500 companies and continue to shape the world economy. Some have reached the ranks of general and admiral in the armed forces. They have served as mayors, governors, county sheriffs, judges, and college presidents. From pioneering Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973) to 2016 Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, women have stepped forward in leadership roles in ever greater numbers. Four have served as justices on the United States Supreme Court. More than 100 women currently serve in Congress, representing nearly a quarter of the total membership.

March is also Irish American Heritage Month, first recognized in 1991 after more than two centuries of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations throughout the country. One in ten Americans have Irish heritage. The first large group of newcomers to settle in the new United States who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants, their trials and triumphs set the tone for the experiences of subsequent immigrants. Nearly five million Irish came to America between 1820 and 1930, including 17-year-old Annie Moore (1874-1924), the first arrival to the new federal immigration station at Ellis Island, New York.

This connection between the Irish and Women’s History Month is significant. Irish women came to the United States in larger numbers and proportions than their counterparts in other immigrant groups. Thousands came alone or unaccompanied by men. Many found work as domestic servants and used their new economic resources to help relatives in Ireland and finance homes, schools, churches, and hospitals across America. Others like Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) became powerful voices for the rights of labor.

Throughout the 19th century, Irish-speaking Catholic immigrants were seen by nativists as members of a separate and inferior “race.” Segregated into slums, they were offered only the most dangerous and menial of jobs. Mainstream politicians and newspapers routinely fanned the flames of prejudice and hatred. Yet the hurtful ethnic stereotypes and signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” failed to stymie their success. By 1900, their descendants were policing America’s cities, managing America’s taverns and hotels, editing America’s newspapers, and building America’s industry.

Many became involved in local politics. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House in 1960 was celebrated in Irish (and non-Irish) Catholic communities across the nation and the world. He was preceded and followed by several other Presidents of Protestant Scots-Irish heritage, including Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Bill Clinton. Irish music and folklore shaped American popular culture and led to the development of bluegrass, country, and rock and roll. The Irish language contributed to the development of American English.

My own paternal ancestors participated in this dramatic story. Escaping famine in western Ireland aboard disease-ridden “coffin ships” to Canada in the 1840s, they first made their way to Chicago and later purchased land in western Wisconsin. By the time of his death in 1905, my Irish-born great-great-grandfather left a thriving wheat farm of 400 acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to his American-born son. My grandfather was born there in 1900 and became the first in the family to graduate from college. My father was the first to earn a doctoral degree. I was the first to become an author and share the family history online.

Irish Americans have fought and died in all of America’s wars, from the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. As many as 200,000 served on both sides of the Civil War, most famously Meagher’s Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac. New generations rose above poverty and prejudice to run school districts and universities, lead successful companies, and revolutionize American journalism and literature. The writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), and many others are now considered modern literary classics.

Take advantage of this rich and varied material in your classroom. Activities can include biographical profiles, music and costume, holiday celebrations, and maps tracking the growth of immigrant communities. A focus on female political leaders can highlight important and often overlooked issues from the communities they represent. Both women’s history in general and Irish American history in particular feature a succession of inspiring orators. Reading famous speeches aloud and analyzing their content through group discussions and written assignments can bring alive core themes of the American experience.

The importance of women’s history extends far beyond the classroom. The battle against sexism must begin early, both at home and in school. Conditioning girls and young women to see themselves as powerful and capable is important in a society with a long history of shaming, minimizing, abuse, and discrimination. Despite the many legal gains of recent decades, sexist attitudes still linger in both public and private life. Much remains to be done to achieve equal pay and opportunity. Learning about the heroines of the past helps to strengthen self-esteem and build confidence in the present. Herstory is vital to a full understanding of history.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.


Primary Sources

Many people never look beyond school textbooks, online dictionaries, or feature films and miniseries for what they know about history. Setting aside the small group of academic professionals who live and work in university settings, knowledge of historical events among the general public remains fairly dismal. For those of you still in the classroom as students or teachers, you have the time and opportunity to delve deeper into historical research. There are many helpful tools at your disposal. Among the best of these are primary sources.

First hand accounts are vital to an authentic understanding of historical events. Letters, photographs, military records, census reports, artifacts, diaries, memoirs, family charts, and period maps can open windows into the past in a way that secondary studies cannot. Whether you are writing a research paper for your history class or compiling a genealogical scrapbook, utilizing primary sources properly will help you produce a more engaging and substantiated result. Textbooks and academic publications are important, but the sources upon which they are based are essential to meaningful historical scholarship.

I remember visiting the National Archives in Washington, DC as a teenager in the 1970s and seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution in person. In college and graduate school in the 1980s, I examined World War II artifacts and memoirs, 19th century letters in Harvard’s Houghton Library, and archival material from Princeton University to complete my M.A. thesis at UMass/Boston. When I began my genealogy hobby in the 1990s, I was excited to discover rare family photographs and military records for the first time.

All these sources proved necessary in my efforts to reconstruct the stories of my historical subjects, including my own ancestors and their successive generations in the American story. Seeing and reading the material left behind by those who lived through important past events was unlike any other kind of learning I had experienced. For many years I showed the ABC News 1999 documentary The Century: America’s Time to my U.S. History classes. Hosted by former anchor Peter Jennings (1938-2005), the series featured first hand participants in every successive decade of 20th century American history. Their stories brought to life momentous events that shaped the nation.

Primary sources are invaluable materials in historical research and must be cared for accordingly. Letters and other antique documents require proper storage protected from natural deterioration and decay. Special care is necessary if you have the opportunity to handle original papers. I had to wear gloves when I read through the letters of Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) in my capacity as a research assistant in graduate school. The family medals, photographs, and journals passed down to me by relatives years later were carefully stored in a temperature controlled indoor environment.

Many primary sources are only available today in photocopied form. This is what I had to use while writing my account of the nisei soldiers of World War II and my biography of World War I conscientious objector Ben Salmon (1888-1932). Most documents have now been scanned into digital form and can be accessed by computer or smartphone. Finding the right primary sources can take time. Examine and analyze the bibliography of books and articles you read. Pay attention to the sources cited in lectures you view on television, online, and in person. Search in multiple places. If you don’t find what you are seeking right away, keep looking.

Federal and state government sources are always a good place to start. The Library of Congress and National Archives are excellent depositories of information on important people, places, sites, and events. Many prominent museums maintain extensive online records as well. State historical societies and county clerks collect primary sources that are available for public use. The National Park Service preserves many key historical places and the documents associated with those sites. Make use of all these outstanding resources when pursuing your assignments and interests.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, for example, bring the meaning of the American Civil War alive more than any of the 60,000 books published on the subject since Appomattox. The photographs of Mathew Brady (1822-1896), Jacob Riis (1849-1914), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Walker Evans (1903-1975), Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971), and Gordon Parks (1912-2006) portray the American story in ways more powerful than words can convey. The names on the passenger records from Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San Francisco tell volumes about the story of immigration to America.

Find the people who still remember the events you are interested in. Seek out the stories of older relatives and acquaintances. Ask questions and think critically. Corroborate versions of a story with other perspectives. Visit the places where important things happened. Listen to original recordings of period songs and ballads. Discover the archival sections of your local public library. Travel to the Presidential libraries and museums scattered across the country. Read collections of memoirs, correspondence, and speeches. The more you dig, the greater the treasures you will find.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

Embracing Change

In a 1789 letter to the French physicist and mathematician Jean-Baptiste Le Roy (1720-1800), Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This quote has been resurrected time and again to explain the certainty of change. Cycles of loss and gain, death and birth, growth and decay are inevitable. Everything has a lifespan. This applies to weather, products, services, homes, jobs, relationships, hobbies, physical health, financial fortunes, and even deeply held beliefs.

It also applies to school. While completing student teaching in Bakersfield, California in the summer of 2000, my master teacher advised me to be flexible when it came to educational theory and practice. Don’t get too used to the ways things are. They will change. Keep your eye on the kids and manage your own time and energy. Department curriculum, state testing and content standards, federal school legislation, district and WASC guidelines, and administrative leadership will not remain static. Adaptability is a key element of success as a teacher.

I first learned this lesson as a student. From the time I entered preschool in 1965 until I graduated from high school in 1979, I attended nine different schools in five different states. By the time I finished with my post-secondary education in 1991, I had added three more schools and three more states to the mix. Much of what I learned over those years came as much from living in all these places with all those people as it did from lectures and libraries. Each of those schools operated within its own structure. Each of those communities had its own demographic and geographic character.

Teaching was no different. For my first seven years, I worked with private high school students from well-to-do families as well as economically disadvantaged kids in a public middle school. In the evening I taught adults ages 18 to 80 at the local community college and ran a humanities class for working professionals at a corporate university. Each of these settings required its own pedagogical methodology. Software programs were just beginning to replace paper gradebooks and attendance sheets. Audio-visual equipment consisted of wall posters and maps, overhead projectors, VCRs hooked up to mounted televisions, and boom boxes.

There were many changes over my thirteen years teaching in a public high school in Orange County. These included different instructional schedules, new colleagues and administrators, budget cuts, and technological developments. Small Learning Communities were replaced by Professional Learning Communities in the wake of the Great Recession. Funding for interdisciplinary and other special programs dried up. Digital classrooms and video streaming were introduced. I was moved to a new classroom after my first nine years. My summer school assignments changed to different subjects in new venues.

I learned a lot from all these changes, but it was not always easy. Some of the new programs were more user-friendly than others. Regular field trips and continuing education seminars diminished. Faculty dynamics fluctuated with changes in personnel. Negotiations between the district and the teachers’ union ebbed and flowed. Emergencies like fires and power outages interrupted schedules. National crises such as financial collapse and school shootings shook the stability of academic routine. Political leadership at the state and federal levels had direct effects on our course offerings and our compensation.

Flexibility is not something that comes naturally. Most of us get comfortable with our adult routines and don’t like it when things change. This is understandable, especially if our home environment as children was less than stable. But adaptability is necessary if we are to move forward. The famed British scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) once wrote that “In the long history of humankind – and animalkind, too – those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

In my own experience, this insight holds true in public as well as private life. Retirement, for example, opened up an entirely new schedule and lifestyle for me. The old paradigm had run its course. I gave away most of my books to the public library and my classroom supplies to a local middle school. I knew they would continue to help new people learn in new settings. I became one of them. I took on roles that I never expected I would have, in settings I could not have anticipated during my years in the classroom. After more than five decades in school, I finally graduated.

Not all change is linear. The study of history reveals common patterns and cycles, and personal history is no different. My new community and lifestyle have much in common with earlier periods in my life in the years before I became a teacher. I find myself enjoying live cultural and music events every month, the likes of which I have not attended in decades. The historic homes and neighborhoods through which I move every day bring back fond memories of other places. I can now devote much more time to my own interests and pursuits.

My school days are over, yet learning continues. History is about change, and reading remains the key to succeeding. I once read that we remember around 10% of what we hear, 25% of what we see, 50% of what we do, and 90% of what we teach. Authentic learning draws on all these experiences. Keeping an open mind to new paradigms of living and learning helps us develop new skills, new relationships, and new opportunities for service. Change can be a good thing. Seeing the educational value in all of our personal experiences and daily activities makes for a more rewarding and fulfilling life.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

February is African American History Month

Howard University historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), son of former slaves and the second African American (after NAACP founder and scholar W. E. B. DuBois) to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard, first proposed the observance of “Negro History Week” in 1926. The second week of February was chosen because of the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass on February 14. During the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations in the summer of 1976, Gerald Ford became the first U.S. President to acknowledge February as Black History Month.

Africans first arrived in English-speaking America in 1619 to work as indentured servants at the Jamestown settlement in colonial Virginia. Lucrative cash crops such as tobacco, indigo, rice, and sugar later led to the growth of chattel slavery in all thirteen British colonies. Despite the bravery of black soldiers in the American Revolution, the “peculiar institution” was left intact in the United States Constitution. The international slave trade was permitted until 1808, rights of masters to reclaim their fugitives were preserved, and states were allowed to count three fifths of their slaves for purposes of representation in Congress.

Northern states gradually abandoned slavery and tried to prohibit its spread westward, but the introduction of the “cotton gin” in 1793 increased the demand for slaves in the South. Despite the steady growth of free black communities across the country, four million Americans of African descent remained in bondage by 1860. The movement to abolish slavery grew, led in part by eloquent former slaves such as Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, died 1883), and Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), known as “Moses” by the hundreds of slaves she spirited to freedom along the “Underground Railroad.”

The outbreak of civil war in 1861 accelerated the fight for freedom. 200,000 African Americans answered President Lincoln’s call to arms in the wake of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. 40,000 gave their lives for the Union cause. The 13th Amendment and Confederate defeat in 1865 inaugurated twelve years of federal Reconstruction, in which freedmen achieved some gains in education, economic development, and political representation. White resistance to black civil rights, however, sabotaged efforts to create full equality. The collapse of Reconstruction led to decades of “Jim Crow” segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence and intimidation.

Those African Americans who were able to exercise their right to vote remained loyal to Lincoln’s Republican Party until 1932, when many saw a new champion in Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thousands served their country with honor in World War II, urged on by patriotic programs like the “Double V Campaign,” civil rights groups such as the NAACP and CORE, and prominent black writers like Langston Hughes (1902-1967). In spite of ongoing prejudice and segregation in the armed forces, black units like the “Tuskegee Airmen” helped to achieve final victory over the Axis in 1945.

Inspired by the courage and sacrifice of black veterans as well as those from other minority groups, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which finally desegregated the military. The modern Civil Rights Movement which began with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott the following year produced bold new leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), Rosa Parks (1913-2005), and Malcolm X (1925-1965). King’s moving address before a crowd of 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 inspired the nation to move toward greater equality and justice for all.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 were seen as major victories, but much remained to be done to address lingering issues of racial intolerance. The final decades of the 20th century saw a steady increase in black political representation. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Four years later she was the first to run for President. Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008 was seen by many as the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of generations.

In every chapter of United States history, African Americans have played a major role. Black farmers and workers developed national agriculture and infrastructure. Black orators and journalists decried racism and inspired moves toward self-determination. Black cowboys, lawmen, and pioneers helped to settle the West. Black explorers filled in blanks on the map. Black scientists and inventors made bold new discoveries. Black writers, musicians, and artists shaped popular culture. Black entrepreneurs contributed to economic development. Black soldiers and sailors risked their lives in America’s wars. Black astronauts traveled through space.

Activities for African American History Month can include a focus on prominent personalities in all these areas of endeavor. From mathematician Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) and poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) in the colonial period to journalist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) and author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) at the turn of the 20th century, African American scientists, artists, and leaders have helped to shape the nation. Educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was the first African American woman appointed to a Presidential Cabinet, and entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was the first black woman millionaire.

Out of the struggles and triumphs of the black experience in America came new forms of artistic expression. The “Harlem Renaissance” of 1920s New York gathered a wide spectrum of talent which attracted the attention of the entire country. Jazz greats such as Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), and Bessie Smith (1894-1937) were followed in the 1950s by Miles Davis (1926-1991), John Coltrane (1926-1967), and many others. Pride in black identity took on new forms. “The New Negro” of the 1920s gave way to Black Power in the 1960s, the Million Man March in the 1990s, and Black Lives Matter in the 2010s.

The 20th century produced many classics in African American literature. The writing of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Richard Wright (1908-1960), and James Baldwin (1924-1987) paved the way for other powerful voices in later decades. Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Award and was later adapted into an award-winning 1985 film and 2005 musical.  Toni Morrison (1931-2019) won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature five years later. Poet Maya Angelou (1928-2005) spoke at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

Rock and roll was born of the fusion of blues and folk traditions that came out of the Mississippi Delta and other largely black communities in the South. Soon its appeal had crossed cultural and national boundaries. From these electrifying sounds, new forms of popular music emerged. Soul, Motown, Afro-Latin, funk, reggae, rhythm and blues, disco, hip hop, and rap transformed the nature of popular culture, as did trends in African American language, fashion, and cuisine. By the dawn of the new millennium, black artists had transformed the entertainment industry. African American athletes became household names across the world.

During my four years teaching 7th grade world history, I developed a Black History Month unit that included map activities, cultural and art projects, and biographical assignments on personalities such as Mansa Musa of Mali (c. 1280-1337). When I taught 11th grade American history, my month-long unit on the Civil Rights Movement featured films and recordings of famous speeches and marches, lecture and discussion on prominent campaigns, and a DBQ essay assignment on Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The contributions of African Americans were also highlighted throughout my other units.

Profiles of the many historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) created during Reconstruction, such as Shaw, Fisk, Morehouse, and Howard, likewise make for interesting classroom activities. Black political leadership across the nation has grown dramatically in the last fifty years; there are currently 55 members of the Black Congressional Caucus, and many African Americans have served as state legislators and mayors of major American cities. Several have served as state governors, most recently David Paterson of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

Whatever educational activities you decide to select for your class, remember to emphasize the importance of the African American community in shaping the character of contemporary life and culture in the United States. Call attention to African history and the 20th century movement to end European colonialism there. Remind your students that the iconic 19th century government buildings in Washington, D. C. were built by slaves. Take a new look at black immigrant communities in America and how they have contributed to the growth of U.S. industries and communities. Introduce your students to new music, film, art, and literature.

But do not limit yourself to the month of February. Black history, like the history of Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, and other historically marginalized groups, must be recognized as an integral part of our national narrative as well as state social science curriculum standards. The American story is one of incredible diversity, bringing together people from around the world to achieve great things. The more we celebrate that diversity, the greater our achievements will be.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

Why Study History?

Over the course of my two decades as a history teacher, I regularly heard the same question from a handful of new students at the beginning of each school year: “Mr. Finney, why do we have to take this class?” Inevitably, one or more of their classmates would answer for me with the famous quote attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Usually this seemed to satisfy the confused or subdue the skeptical. Yet whether it was asked out of curiosity, confusion, apathy, or impertinence, the question remains a good one. Why study history?

It is a question with which many have struggled in the last fifty years, and not just in the college preparatory secondary classroom. A starting point for many was the assumption that history had long been the purvey of the dominant power structure. The modern Civil Rights Movement which arose with the return of veterans of all backgrounds from the Second World War began to question not only the status quo in hiring, housing, voting, and the use of public facilities, but also the very definition of what it meant to be American. Liberty and equal opportunity could not flourish, it was argued, in an environment tainted by racism, sexism, militarism, homophobia, and religious intolerance.

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War period (1961-1975) made its way from the streets to the courts and the halls of academia. Many liberal Americans, particularly among the young and the marginalized, began to associate school curricula with conservative conditioning. Women, people of color, the disabled, the LGBT community, and the elderly all began making their voices heard. New histories highlighting the contributions of all these groups were published. Leaders from underrepresented communities were elected to public office. Civil disobedience actions, public protest marches, and self-defense groups were organized. The nation had not been as divided since the Civil War a century earlier.

When I was a student during this period, social studies classes were designed to foster responsible citizenship. Yet this posited a certain view of American identity. History and Civics classes were intended as honing grounds for patriotic participation in American political, social, and economic life. Critical thinking was not a focus. Diversity was not evident in either required reading or the faculty of the schools I attended. Textbooks usually portrayed the United States as the defender of freedom around the world. America welcomed everyone, never lost wars, and gave everybody an equal chance to succeed.

When I got to college, I suddenly found myself around many who questioned this view. I read new books and listened to new perspectives on history, politics, popular culture, and economics. When I became a teacher years later, I tried to implement a social science curriculum that incorporated this emphasis on diversity within the context of state content standards. I built upon the traditional roots of my own education and worked to construct a narrative that was relevant to all my students, regardless of cultural background and political views.

By the time I retired from the classroom in 2018, however, public mood about the meaning of American history had begun to change. The bitterness of the 2016 Presidential election led to a cultural and political divide worse than anything I had seen in the 1960s. Many on the left began to see the right as hopelessly mired in xenophobic nationalism and isolationism. The right saw mainstream media coverage as biased and the trade and immigration policies of the left as threats to national security. Public discourse deteriorated. Horrific hate crimes, violence against women, civil unrest, and police brutality added to the division and defensiveness. It seemed as though no one was listening.

In the midst of this turmoil, the nature of history instruction also changed. Controversial topics began disappearing from the curriculum. “Humanities” courses combined English with Social Studies, much like STEM programs did with math, science, and technology. History was no longer a separate core subject in many schools. As in the 1960s, the younger generation of the 2010s began questioning the usefulness of history in a world plagued by ethnic tensions, terrorism, scarcity, financial crises, corruption, underemployment, college debt, and climate change. Why study the past when the present is so bleak? I didn’t make the world like this, so why should I learn about those who did?

In this context, the potency of Santayana’s aphorism actually holds new relevance. Understanding why things are the way they are is now more important than ever. To do so, one must look for patterns in the past. Current events do not exist in a vacuum. For example, debates about immigration, nationalism, and isolationism are nothing new. The election of 2016 resurrected many themes from Presidential races throughout the 20th century. The pollution which has led to global warming began ruining the environment long before today’s politicians began arguing about it. The painful consequences of prejudice have been plaguing our society for generations.

This is why it is important to study history. To protect and preserve our democracy, we must work ever more diligently both to understand its limitations and to extend its reach. To save the planet, we must look critically at our own lifestyle and decide how each of us can live more harmoniously with the earth. To combat racism and sexism, we must believe in ourselves, listen to others, and reject any messages we have been taught that reinforce notions of inferiority. To achieve our educational and professional goals, we must be resourceful and persistent if traditional paths to success seem to elude us.

Learning about those who have done all these things in past generations can provide both inspiration and strength for our own struggles. We cannot expect a dysfunctional society or economy to change and improve if we are not willing to do the work to change and improve ourselves. This means looking critically at where we come from and listening to those who differ from us as well as those who agree. There are many stories, each with many sides. We must find our own truth and understanding in the complexity of multiple perspectives.

We cannot change the past or control the thoughts and behavior of others. Yet President John Quincy Adams was right when he said “In the end, we must come to understand that who we are is fundamentally about who we were.” Our efforts must be focused on the three things we can control: our ideas, our words, and our actions. Studying history is about self-discovery. If we are to enjoy the full blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must have the courage to face what we discover and make the most of it.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.


Mindful Teaching

Teaching is a stressful profession. Managing successive groups of thirty or more people over a six hour period can be taxing in any line of work. When those people are teenagers who are required to sit in your class and focus, the situation can often feel overwhelming, especially when you are asking them to learn about a subject which many of them see as irrelevant.

Add to this the interruptions of irregular schedules, inclement weather, budget cuts, illness and exhaustion, faculty meetings, administrative changes, and mandatory drills, and you have a perfect maelstrom of distraction and demand. For many novice teachers, the burden of the job proves insurmountable. As many as half of them do not make it to the five year mark.

To rise above these grim statistics, it is essential for the new educator to combine an attitude of perseverance with a discipline of mindfulness. The word “mindfulness” has become trendy in popular culture in recent years, and to invoke it here runs the risk of trivializing something which is actually very significant. This is particularly true in educational settings.

The idea of mindfulness has been around a long time. Many of the world’s major religious traditions have long identified the importance of developing a sense of peace and balance within in order to achieve personal and professional success in human society. Whether it is called meditation, centering prayer, detachment, or simply letting go, mindfulness is vital to success in many of life’s pursuits.

My late friend and colleague RJ often spoke of maintaining what he called a “calm presence” both in and out of the classroom. He worked for many years in a school district very like those in which I served over the course of my career. Both of us struggled with similar issues, including student apathy and underachievement, dysfunctional faculty dynamics, and how to most effectively structure our daily lesson plans. Over the course of our five years of weekly meetings, we came up with a list of effective “mindfulness strategies” to use in the classroom:

Get to school early and create a mindful space for yourself. Have everything ready for your students when they arrive. Get all your lesson materials in order ahead of time. Give yourself quiet time in your room to tidy up and arrange your desks the way you want them. Take time to meditate and relax with breathing exercises. Make sure you have enough food and water to get you through the day. Review your email inbox and decide what needs attention now and what can wait. Prioritize.

Set up a welcoming and organized environment for your students. Send out positive energy to the kids when they arrive in class. Show them that you are happy to see them and excited about teaching the lesson. Maintain attractive artwork and visual aids around the room. Review your board in front and make sure their assignments and deadlines are posted clearly. The same holds true for the state content standards and lesson objectives for the day. Listen to what the kids need and answer their questions to the best of your ability.

Pace yourself through the lesson. Allow yourself and your students enough time to process the daily content material effectively. Mix up your pedagogical methods. Allow for activities that incorporate different learning styles. Respond to constructive questions and comments. Avoid reacting to provocative or disruptive remarks. Tie in today’s content with the larger themes of the unit. Include audio-visual aids to give the subject multidimensional appeal. Allow for bathroom breaks (within reason). Monitor cell phone usage. Keep the kids on task.

Be proactive. Follow up with substitutes, parents, and absences. Help kids catch up with the material. Take care of problems before you leave school. Notify parents early about disruptive behavior or underachievement. Keep your administrators in the loop. Anticipate possible snares in your curriculum. Separate distracted students into special seating areas. Ask for help from department colleagues or tech support when you need it. Be professional and assertive. Make sure your classroom equipment is in working order.

Keep up on grading. This can be the bane of a teacher’s existence. Avoid rising piles of paperwork. Have the students grade each other’s work when appropriate. Use teacher’s aides when you can. Assign credit/no credit work for homework and classwork when possible. Post current grades daily or weekly. Print out or email progress reports upon request. Organize student work into files and trays and have student aides pass back graded work. Create sensible grading rubrics. Weight your assignments accordingly.

Leave work at school. Return parent phone calls right away. Take care of administrative inquiries and tasks in the office right after your last period. Try to get your daily grading done before you leave campus. On those days when this is impossible, set aside specific times and places at home to complete it. Keep your spouse, partner, or housemate(s) informed and work with them to avoid conflation. Continue your mindfulness regimen at home. Meditate and maintain a peaceful environment where you live.

Take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise, and get enough rest. Avoid excessive sugar, salt, alcohol, fat, tobacco, caffeine, and medication. Make regular visits to your dentist, doctor, chiropractor, massage therapist, counselor, acupuncturist, or spa. Pursue fulfilling hobbies. Spend time with your loved ones. Take care of your home and garden. Play with your pets. Read for pleasure. Participate in community events such as music and craft festivals. Maintain an attractive wardrobe and other aspects of personal appearance that build self-confidence. Feel your feelings and communicate. Nurture your spirituality. Pause and listen.

These are some of the strategies that worked for RJ and me over the years. As the saying goes, take what you like and leave the rest. Whatever you decide to do, remember that daily structures and disciplines lead to long term success. Keep mindfulness in mind as you arrange your room and create your lesson plans. A mindful teacher fosters meaningful learning.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.


A New Decade

Here’s to a new decade filled with exciting learning opportunities! Photo Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney.

The 2010s have given way to the 2020s, and the new decade promises exciting technological advances and learning opportunities as well as economic and environmental challenges for the global community. 5G wireless networks, robotics, self-driving cars, drone deliveries, green energy development, enhanced digital classrooms, and innovative interdisciplinary academic programs are some of the many bold new frontiers opening up for today’s students and teachers.

May this new year and decade offer you engaging opportunities for academic growth and professional achievement. Take advantage of new ideas and ways of learning as you make your mark in the world. Welcome to the “Roaring 2020s.” Happy New Year!

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

Historiography

Historiography is the study of how history is recorded, written, and presented. The intentions, beliefs, perspectives, and background of historians are examined in critical detail, as well as the style and structure of their writing and the context in which their historical accounts were written. The storyteller becomes as important as the story. Changing patterns in politics, society, and the economy can affect how history is understood. The serious student of history must consider all these factors in pursuing a deeper understanding of an historical subject.

I took a course in historiography while a graduate student at UMass/Boston in the spring of 1984. For my final I wrote a term paper on heroic archetypes in the books of American historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893). I combed through Parkman classics such as The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life (1847), The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada (1851), and Montcalm and Wolfe (1884) and made a detailed analysis of how the key protagonists of these stories were described. My central thesis identified patterns in the author’s portrayals of successful leadership.

This kind of study is why history is included in the social sciences as well as the humanities. Historiography is as much a scientific discipline as statistics, economics, sociology, geography, or even chemistry and anatomy. Evidence is gathered to support a central hypothesis. Revision accompanies research. New conclusions are reached as new evidence is introduced. The intentions and perspectives of past historians are examined and subjected to critical scrutiny. The portrayal and actions of key characters, the structure of chapters and sections, and the conclusions drawn in the end all say something about the story being told.

Historiography includes the selection and analysis of both primary and secondary sources in constructing historical narrative as well as the development of thematic studies of a particular period. Economic, social, cultural, military, and religious history are studied separately as well as in conjunction with one another. Interdisciplinary studies integrate history with literature, political philosophy, economic theory, sociology, and the arts. Biographies and the histories of specific political and social movements are sub-categories of academic pursuit which offer additional perspectives on crucial events.

Thorough analysis of historical writing is especially necessary when dealing with the treatment of controversial subjects such as the westward expansion of the United States, Cold War politics, and suspension of civil liberties in time of war. Popular understanding of historical events can be shaped by changes in political climate and social custom. The emergence of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th century, for example, led to increased interest in the history of previously marginalized groups and a greater representation of historians from those groups in the ranks of academia.

Scholars like Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) and Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuna began to criticize mainstream accounts of American history and offer their own contributions to historical scholarship. Women’s Studies, LGBT Studies, Asian American Studies, and other multidimensional academic programs began to appear in the 1960s in an effort to deepen and broaden the scope of historical research and expression. African American scholar John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), for example, brought to light long neglected subjects from black history in the United States. Wesleyan University Professor Richard Slotkin took a new look at the oft romanticized American West.

The same process applies to the study of other academic subjects in the humanities and social sciences. While earning a Master of Divinity degree at the GTU in Berkeley in the 1980s, I took several courses in exegesis, the critical study of the Bible, as well as the systematic theology derived from biblical content. To this end, we read the works of modern theologians such as Karl Barth (1886-1968), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Reinhold Neibuhr (1892-1971), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965) in an effort to understand more deeply the intentions of the various biblical writers and the structure and contemporary meaning of sacred text. Textual, redaction, literary, and historical criticism of biblical material remain essential elements of theological scholarship.

Historiography began as a discipline in the classical era and was absorbed into the cathedral schools of medieval Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries expanded the field of critical theological study, and secular Enlightenment authors such as David Hume (1711-1776), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) applied classical methods of scholarship to the study of history as an independent academic discipline. The advent of Marxism in the 19th century led to yet another perspective on world history which later shaped 20th century writers.

In recent decades, worldwide scholarship has paid more attention to centuries-old historical accounts from China, India, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, as well as oral traditions from Africa, Latin America, and the indigenous cultures of North America, southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The Native American shaman, West African griot, and other traditional storytellers have gained new respect in academic circles and their histories have been integrated into more mainstream treatments of cultural profiles.

From the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) to the modern American immigration scholar Oscar Handlin (1915-2011) and Reconstruction historian Eric Foner, historical writers have been combining analysis with narrative to make meaningful connections between past and present. As students of history, our goal must be an ever more detailed and diverse understanding of our subject. This entails reading as many different accounts of the same era as possible. The more we listen to the full panoply of voices, the better we can discover our own voice and make it heard.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

Historical Fiction

Map of the British Empire in 1886. From 2011 to 2013 I began writing a novel which followed the travels, travails, and transformations of an Anglo-Irish soldier and missionary in the age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

With winter break here at last, you may find some time amidst all the family events and holiday festivities to sit down in a quiet place and do some leisurely reading and writing. If so, I highly recommend the genre of historical fiction. There are many choices of authors, works, and eras. What you select will depend on your interests and the extent of your free time. The activities of reading and writing historical fiction offer exciting and engaging avenues into a deeper understanding of historical periods and what it was like to live in them.

In my case, I decided to “travel” to the period of the American Civil War (1861-1865) by creating and portraying several fictional characters at reenactment events across the country, including five years as an Irish Union soldier and ten as a Harper’s Weekly artist correspondent, James Allen Davis. When I “retired” Mr. Davis from living history events at the end of 2008, I wrote a 700-page “memoir” of my experiences, set in the context of actual historical events. Included also were more than 70 pencil and charcoal sketches of battle and camp scenes I drew over my decade “on campaign.”

I finished the James Allen Davis memoir in 2009 and moved on to writing other novels, including the story of a young man born into an Anglican family in Ireland who serves as a British officer in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Indian Mutiny (1857-1858) and later becomes a missionary in Fiji, Hong Kong, Sarawak, Ceylon, Natal, Egypt, Nigeria, Trinidad, and British Guiana. This was but the latest in a long series of similar projects. In high school, I wrote a tale of a young boy on the Appalachian frontier during the French and Indian War, and the first draft of my college senior thesis was a novel about a Japanese American soldier in World War II.

While my childhood interest in historical fiction did not lead to a career in creative writing, it did develop valuable research skills and nurture my love of history, both as a student and a teacher. I was a big Fenimore Cooper fan as a kid and also read many novels by John Jakes and James Michener, especially while convalescing from an athletic injury in the summer after my freshman year of high school. When I got to college, I took a yearlong course on the American Novel and read classic works by Irving, Hemingway, Melville, Wharton, Steinbeck, Hawthorne, Dreiser, Cather, and John Dos Passos. I always enjoyed reading stories set in the context of momentous historical events.

This is a good way to get involved in the study of history. While recent fantasy and science fiction series have commanded larger audiences, both on the written page and the silver screen, novels and films set in actual historical periods can still foster an appreciation of the past and an active engagement with current events. Whether the setting is Tudor England, the Scottish Highlands, the antebellum South, medieval Japan, colonial Africa, Cold War Berlin, World War I, Napoleonic Europe, the American West, or the Age of Exploration, imaginative treatments of bygone eras can inspire as well as educate the reader.

As with watching historical feature films, however, the viewer must be both discerning and selective (see my blog entry on “History vs. Hollywood”). Not all novels are created equal. Pulp fiction and lurid romances may be entertaining, but do not offer the same instructional value as well-researched series or literary classics. The best historical novels are based on the lives of real men and women from transformative epochs of the past. Much of the quality of the writing is determined by intention as well as talent. Crafting the most engaging sentence must be matched by authenticity of dialogue and detail.

Some of my personal favorites are Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas, A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), and Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell. The short stories of Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison are likewise both absorbing and enlightening. Each of these authors displayed the uncanny ability to capture universal truths of the human experience set in plausible historical settings.

Writing historical fiction can be as rewarding as reading it. Researching the way people lived, spoke, dressed, worked, loved, and struggled in days gone by is a way to better understand the patterns of our lives today. Of course, historical fiction requires a different set of writing skills than that of a professional historian. Creating believable and sympathetic characters and a compelling story in which to place them is as much an art form as painting, dancing, acting, singing, or sculpting. Seeking the guidance of a writing mentor both in and out of school can help you develop your voice as a budding novelist.

The best way to become a better writer, though, remains your ongoing commitment to be an avid reader. The more you read, the better you write. This is an axiom proven by generations of novelists and poets down through the ages. As in composing and songwriting, fiction writing must draw on the influences of others in order to hone a unique perspective that can be communicated effectively to readers.

Good writing is also necessarily a work in progress. Perfecting a story through multiple drafts and the feedback of reliable editors can shape a rough outline into a memorable masterpiece. Many of the most famous authors of all time were either ignored during their lifetimes or achieved success only after episodes of continual rejection from publishers. It is vital to success that the writer keep writing. Stick with it and do your homework. Talent and good business acumen are not the same thing. Diligence and teamwork must accompany creativity and enthusiasm.

Read as much as you can in the subjects that interest you. This is particularly sound advice in the field of history. For history is, after all, the story of people: their successes and failures, their struggles and joys, their friendships and jobs, their loves and separations, their beliefs and betrayals. Regardless of the historical period, the most gripping elements of the human story remain unchanged. When you arrive at the study of a new unit in history class, look up the most famous novels set in that period. Download them onto your digital reading device. Check them out from your school or local public library. You will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

In the meantime, enjoy the holiday season!

Enjoy some rest and reading time over your winter break!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.

The Gift of Teamwork

With my friend RJ (left) at a cafe in Irvine, California, enjoying some of Jill’s homemade holiday treats at Halloween in 2016. We met weekly for five years to discuss our respective teaching careers and issues of work-life balance. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I just received news that my longtime friend and colleague RJ lost his battle with cancer this week at the age of 62. He was a veteran mathematics teacher who served for nearly 20 years in a high school district adjacent to mine in Orange County, California. For five of those years, we met weekly to discuss curriculum ideas, classroom management, discipline, working with families and other teachers, and dealing with the challenges of bringing work home. I feel a great loss now that he is gone and wanted to express a measure of gratitude for my time with this remarkable educator and friend.

Like me, RJ entered teaching as a second career. After graduating from UC Berkeley, he pursued work as a financier and investment advisor for many years before becoming a math teacher in his forties. He was a promising athlete as a young man and competed in tennis at the university level during the 1970s. He brought this diverse background into his work in the classroom and was able to help thousands of students develop their skills of calculation, analysis, and critical thinking. His spiritual strength and deep commitment to public service were evident to all who knew him.

We first met in a group setting in January of 2013 and decided to meet together individually on a weekly basis beginning in the spring of 2014. Although a math teacher, he had been a social science major at Cal and shared my interests in history, political philosophy, psychology, spirituality, and economics. We would meet at a cafe on Saturday or Sunday mornings and discuss books on leadership and work-life balance, including workbooks that followed a question and answer format.

Over the course of the next four years, we managed to get through several of these books together, and by the time I retired and moved to San Diego in the summer of 2018, both of us noticed marked improvement and growth in our teaching ability and classroom management skills. RJ’s openness in discussing teaching issues was refreshing. I especially appreciated the objectivity he offered me as someone from outside my district and subject area. He was an exemplary listener with a big heart.

We often focused on the impact of the teaching profession on our physical and emotional health. The stress of dealing with budget cuts, apathetic or disruptive students, jealous or indifferent colleagues, administrative changes, irregular schedules, and hostile or absentee parents were among the many topics that we worked through in our weekly meetings. I was able to enjoy some of the benefits I had during my four years as part of an unusual interdisciplinary 7th grade teaching team in Kern County. I also applied some of RJ’s insights to my eight years on a Digital Arts and Humanities team at the high school level.

We bolstered each other’s confidence in hard times and gave each other new curriculum ideas. One of RJ’s suggestions on how to structure my Socratic seminars in history and economics led to a much more successful outcome than I had experienced the previous year. I helped him integrate into his 9th and 10th grade math classes some of the discipline ideas I had used with positive results in 7th and 8th grade social studies. I was consistently amazed at how similar our issues and struggles were, despite our different backgrounds and the dissimilarities of our districts and departments.

I was sad to leave RJ when I decided to retire to San Diego. I knew we would not see each other very much with 80 miles between us and conflicting schedules that kept us both busy. We continued to correspond by phone, however, and managed to get together in person one more time before his illness began to take its final toll. I knew he had been sick for some time and witnessed his bravery and fortitude in facing such a physical and mental ordeal. He returned to the classroom as much as he could, and was undoubtedly heartbroken to accept that his days there were coming to an untimely end. I imagine many of his students and colleagues felt the same way.

My relationship with RJ was nothing short of a blessing, even a miracle, in providing me with the support I needed to achieve greater success both in and out of the classroom. Our weekly meetings gave us both strength and resolve to move forward in learning and inspire our students to do the same. If you are fortunate enough to have colleagues like this in your school, appreciate the expertise and support they offer. None of us know how long we will be privileged to enjoy such an enriching professional relationship. The gift of true teamwork is priceless and rare. If such an opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it.

RJ visited me in San Diego last summer to catch up on news and wish me well in retirement. We met at historic Rudford’s Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.


To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.