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April 2006 Archives

April 12, 2006

A Working Definition of Tradition

Elder son, 3 1/2 years old, came up with the best working definition of tradition that I have seen in a long time.

"Why do we eat only Matzah on this night?"

"Because we do."

I really like the notion that tradition is the things that we do because, well, because we do.

Posted by
Red Ted
at 08:46 PM | TrackBack
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April 08, 2006

Highly successful heresy

Via Kevin Drum, I see that Professor Bainbridge has a blog post up wondering why National Geographic is dusting off the Gnostic heresy and presenting it as alternative Gospel. Might it be greed related to the forthcoming movie about the Da Vinci code? It might.

But in his whole-hearted condemnation of the gnostic heresy, Bainbridge appears to forget the Christianity itself is nothing but a very successful Jewish heresy. Heretic means new or different, not wrong.

I wonder if the Gnostics might not be a compelling variation for our current tendency to emphasize spirituality over doctrine?

Posted by
Red Ted
at 12:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack
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Multiculturalism and Idealism

Blog it to get it out of my head.

I was reading Diane Ravitch's book The Language Police, well skimming it really, and I was struck by something she said about history and history standards.

As she presents them, the history standards that Gary Nash and the crew at UCLA put together for the National Council on History in the Schools are built around cultural equivalence. They open with the paradigm of "three worlds meet" and explain how Native American, African, and European people and beliefs all became part of the new nation. This, sez Ravitch, is a very good way to approach the history of the various people who lived and live in North America, and if that is what we mean by the History of the United States then it will do.

But, she argues, what if the history we want to teach is the history of the ideas that formed the nation. Those ideas did not grow directly out of North America or Africa, but instead grew out of the European Enlightenment and English common law. If we are teaching the history of the nation-state, then shouldn't we give primary focus on the history of the ideas that formed the nation state?

I am writing a high school history course - part of why the blogging has slowed down is that I feel restrained when talking about collaborative work while I will write endlessly about my own personal work. But, I think I can break the academical wall of silence on this one because I am blogging away at a background issue.

I decided to follow the NCHS standards and to start my class with the three worlds meet paradigm. And yet, I have as one of the stated goals of the course, that we will be teaching critical citizenship - the goal is that students will understand the ideals of the American nation so well that they will use those ideals to judge past, present and future people and leaders against those American ideals. An ambitious goal, I admit, but you gotta aim for something.

What Ravitch misses in her op-ed style dichotomy between cultural equivalency and the history of the nation state is that these ideals never existed in a vacuum. They were accepted and articulated by particular people in particular places and then used to help them solve particular problems. And, as these ideas were used and phrased, they had consequences. People from other backgrounds encountered these ideas, adopted them, and used them themselves.

Furthermore, accepting that there the people who form the United States came from three continents and many nations and languages in each continent, does not mean that all have had exactly the same and equal impact on the nature and future of the nation. Far from it. Ideals are tied into power, and power is never equally distributed. When we examine the spread of ideas and ideals, we are examining the actions of particular people, and the consequences of those actions across power boundaries. George Washington warned that the British Empire was planning to reduce the American colonies to the status of "the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway." Washington later advertised for the slaves who had run away from his plantation to promised freedom with the British Army. In both cases, Washington was using the language of liberty and power, expressing enlightenment ideals, and mediating between people and customs from many different groups.

That was incoherent - which makes sense because this blog post is a brain dump before I get back to work on how to write about these things without getting caught up in answering Ravitch. The point I am groping toward is that we need to remember that
1, people came from many different cultures, continents, and backgrounds.
2, the nation of the United States is unusual because its founding documents are grounded in the language of enlightenment radicalism and British country politics.
3, this language and these ideals have never existed in a vacuum, but have always been internalized and expressed by particular people
4, particular people mediate their language and ideals across unequal power boundaries, creating a middle ground of mutual accommodation but creating it in a way that favors the people who hold power.

If I can keep that tension between multiculturalism and the ideological basis of the American experiment going, I think I might just create a pretty darn good history class.

Posted by
Red Ted
at 11:32 AM | TrackBack
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