Got Civic Literacy?

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Constitution

U.S. Government 101

With the U.S. Presidential Election and Veterans Day still in the rearview mirror, it seems a good time to discuss our national knowledge – or lack of knowledge – about civics.

You may be familiar with late-night talk show host Jay Leno’s “jaywalking” episodes wherein a guy with a microphone asks easy questions to (apparently) random passersby, often capturing the ignorance of the public to comic (albeit tragic) effect.

I don’t know to what extent these episodes are staged or edited (for every display of ignorance, perhaps a number of others get the answer right) – but from my research and teaching experience, I doubt it’s difficult to find uninformed people. As I write this, I realize I may sound snobby; but lo, we’re talking about very basic, easy questions here – such as in this example . . .

Not too long ago, I saw a little clip (I cannot recall where or which channel) in which an interviewer approached a woman and asked what she did for a living; she was an elementary education teacher. His next question: “How many Senators are in the U.S. Congress?” She quickly spat, “I have no idea.”

What really disturbed me, other than the fact that every teacher in the country ought to know immediately how many U.S. Senators we have, was the lack of shame. She not only didn’t know, she grew hostile at someone imagining she should know . . . yet she proudly calls herself a teacher.

Yes: teachers, middle-school-and-older students, and all citizens in a voting Constitutional Republic: you should know these kinds of easy questions about your government system, and if you don’t, you must take steps to learn! Fortunately, that’s not too difficult, even from your sofa, with selected online resources. You might start your journey by browsing the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute American Civic Literacy Program. Read its interesting yet sobering studies (on the front page) and, for real fun and to see where your own weak spots lie, take its “Civic Knowledge Quiz” (see buttons on the left-hand menu of the site), “Civic Engagement Assessment,” or “Full Civic Literacy Exam.”

(Notable George Washington quote posted on the site: “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”)

Another worthwhile resource, CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), “conducts research on civic education in schools, colleges, and community settings and on young Americans’ voting and political participation, service, activism, media use, and other forms of civic engagement.”

Going back to basics, here’s one more good reference page for civics: the U.S. National Archives’ “America’s Historical Documents.” See and download images of (and read more about) such essentials as the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, and more.

Image via U.S. National Archives’ “America’s Historical Documents” page linked above

Presidents’ Day on the Web: Four Fascinating Sites

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April 30: George Washington becomes the first ...

April 30: George Washington becomes the first President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here in the United States, Presidents’ Day is upon us, at least according to popular conception; actually, the legal name for the holiday is Washington’s Birthday (though George Washington’s birthday is February 22). For more fun facts and enjoyable enlightenment, read on:

The blog of the American Historical Association, AHA Today, brings you “Celebrating Presidents’ Day,” a page of exciting links including Presidential Libraries on YouTube and resources on presidential debates:
http://blog.historians.org/news/1576/celebrating-presidents-day

Test your presidential smarts at the President’s Day Quiz courtesy of CSMonitor.com (Christian Science Monitor online):
http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0219/President-s-Day-Quiz/Longest-Inaugural-Address

Read a bit about each of the presidents at the History Channel’s Presidents’ Day feature; you can also watch videos and browse photo slideshows:
http://www.history.com/topics/presidents-day

An informative birthday tribute to George Washington, this page from the Library of Congress’ American Memory site has plenty of interesting links within:
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/feb22.html

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Veterans Day Links

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Veterans' Day (Part 1 of 5)

It's Veterans Day. (Image by jbelluch via Flickr)

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day in the United States. Originally “Armistice Day” commemorating the end of World War I, the holiday is marked by observances at Arlington National Cemetery and nationwide. Learn more below:

http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/
From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Their page on the holiday’s history is here: http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-veterans-day
From the History Channel.

http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2011/1111_veteransday/
From the U.S. Department of Defense.
http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2011/1111_militaryfamily/
Also from the DOD: information about Military Family Appreciation Month (November).

http://www.history.army.mil/html/reference/holidays/vetsday/index.html
From the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

http://www.teacheroz.com/Military_History.htm
Finally, here is “Military History, Information, & U.S. War Statistics” from Teacher Oz’s Kingdom of History. Listed on the librarian-screened Infomine site.

In Honor of the Fall Classic: “Our Game.”

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Cardinals

GO CARDS! (Image via mrg.bz / jdurham)

The 107th World Series of Major League Baseball is in full swing! I root for the Cardinals, having grown up near St. Louis with a happy appreciation for the sport and a reverence for the home team. (Baseball runs deep in the Gateway City, which makes being a fan a great pleasure. When I was a kid, Ozzie Smith was doing backflips on the field. What’s not to love?)

So. In keeping with the subject of the blog, I thought about how to tie baseball with some academic, college preparedness lesson. On the surface, sports do not seem to have much to do with academics, and may even seem to be their polar opposite. Echoing in my head with scornful repetition is my high school math teacher’s voice: students’ priority is “playing ball” instead of studying. Some folks object to the business side of professional sports because athletes’ rather sizable paychecks must indicate our national priorities are skewed. In some academic corners, I’ve also heard our love of pro sports is, if not exactly anti-intellectual, somewhat boorish; we love sports too much; if only we had more culture here in the US, and so on, and so on.

But then, so many smart people I know are either athletes themselves or knowledgeable spectators of various sports. And baseball in particular is a thinking person’s game. Ah — it was time to search for further enlightenment in my public library’s sports section. Yes, “enlightenment” is appropriate here, for while I knew sports writing has a thriving following, I’m impressed at the learning possibilities apparent at just a casual romp through the pages of some baseball tomes.

It’s clear one may learn about history and even philosophy and literature through studying this game. To warm up:

-The first World Series was played in 1903, though baseball was gaining national popularity decades before that. Great writers commended the sport: in 1846, poet Walt Whitman declared, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen . . . and be a blessing to us.” Mark Twain in 1889 referred to baseball as “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century” (1).

Ernest L Thayer

The man behind "Casey at the Bat": Ernest L. Thayer (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure the most famous baseball poem is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” but a search for “baseball poetry” on the web will turn up more. One good place to start is Levi Stahl’s “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi,” published at the Poetry Foundation’s website.

-In the early days, catchers’ masks and even gloves were thought to be for wimps: the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1877 opined, “There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as a mask” (2).

A. G. Spalding, a talented pitcher and later, manufacturer of sporting goods, took the Chicago White Stockings and some all-stars on an international exhibition tour in 1888. He lost money on the venture (in which they visited Egypt, Australia, Rome, and England) and seemingly made no baseball converts overseas – but thanks to US sailors and schoolteachers, the game was spreading elsewhere: in Latin America and Japan (3).

Civil War soldiers of both armies played the game; I was astonished to see a photograph of some Union troops posing with what looked like their weapons—yet a handful of the “muskets” are, upon closer examination, baseball bats! (4)

Moses Fleetwood Walker

Moses Fleetwood Walker (Image via Wikipedia)

-You likely know that Jackie Robinson was the first black man in the modern major leagues, signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. You probably also know that blacks had owned and played in the Negro Leagues for years before that. But you may not know that in the organized leagues of the 1870’s and ‘80’s, over 50 black athletes had played alongside whites. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first among them to make the majors in 1884, playing catcher first with the American Association and later joining the International League (which included clubs in New Jersey, New York, and Canada).

Baseball sources document the surrounding controversies and these players’ uphill struggles in the face of resistance to integration. In the late nineteenth century, arguing against league owners’ barring black players from the game, the editor of the Newark Call said, “If anywhere in this world the social barriers are broken down it is on the ball field. There . . . the best man is he who plays best” (5). In discussing the Negro Leagues, Alex and Rob Ruck noted baseball “was a force for cohesion in a black community troubled by divisions over social class, skin color, and splits between Southern migrants and Northern-born” (6). So baseball warrants further study as a historical “force” and a prism through which to examine struggles (here, pertaining to race specifically, but also pertaining to ethics, faith, sacrifice, and role models—to name a few topics covered in the book Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box—citation below).

-Some consider baseball to be symbolic and mystical. I remember my World Mythology professor in college discussing baseball – think the magic of Field of Dreams, and consider this quote:
“Baseball writers range from those who spill thousands of words breaking down the game statistically to those who spend just as many words explaining the deep spiritual meaning of the game, conjuring up emerald chess boards and the secret of life itself being found somewhere on the base paths” (7).

You can explore many more such secrets between the covers of baseball books. Grab some peanuts and Cracker Jack, curl up in a chair with a bookmark, and read on into extra innings.

Related reading:
http://www.loc.gov/topics/baseball/
Historic Baseball Resources at the Library of Congress.

Sources and Notes:
Bronson, Eric, ed. Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box. Chicago: Carus, 2004.

Kindred, Dave. Glove Stories: The Collected Baseball Writings of Dave Kindred. St. Louis: Sporting News, 2002.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1994.

(1)    Qtd. in Ward and Burns, pgs. 3 and 31.
(2)    Ward and Burns, pg. 28.
(3)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 29-31.
(4)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 10-13.
(5)    Ward and Burns, pgs. 40-44.
(6)    Ruck, Alex and Rob Ruck, “The Negro Leagues and the Contradictions of Social Darwinism,” pg. 184, in Bronson.
(7)    Feinstein, John, Forward, pg. 13, in Kindred.

Web Voyage for Columbus History

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A replica of the Santa María, Columbus’ flagsh...

Image via Wikipedia

I post this just after midnight of Columbus Day: a U.S. national holiday since 1934 (read this year’s Presidential Proclamation here). In recent years, the holiday has become a quiet one; it is not easy to find much positive web chatter about Christopher Columbus himself – though notably, some do mark Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian heritage.

While recognizing and respecting the controversy over the man and the holiday, I thought I would set out for some scholarly web sources on Columbus and related history. After all, every holiday is an opportunity for learning; and below, you can learn a little about maritime navigation and the famous ships, listen to a historian’s interview, watch relevant videos, and read about the voyage in Columbus’ own words.

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/oct12.html
Learn about Columbus Day on the Library of Congress’ American Memory site.

http://www.history.com/topics/columbus-day
The History Channel’s pages on Columbus include videos and a series of articles.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=141164702
“Think You Know The Real Christopher Columbus?” from National Public Radio: an interview with historian William Fowler of Northeastern University, hosted by Tony Cox. Listen to the audio or read the transcript.

http://usm.maine.edu/maps/web-document/1/home
Here you can read The Columbus 1493 Letter about his voyage: “a key document in the social and intellectual histories of both Europe and the Americas” and a best seller, at the time, in Europe. From The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine.

http://www.vlib.us/amdocs/
Click “1400” in the yellow box to find several Columbus documents, including excerpts from his voyaging journal. From AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History, WWW Virtual Library.

http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/1492.exhibit/Intro.html
Learn some basic information at “1492: An Ongoing Voyage,” an online exhibit originating from the Library of Congress and now housed at Ibiblio.org (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill).

http://www.columbusnavigation.com/
“The Columbus Navigation Homepage: Examining the History, Navigation, and Landfall of Christopher Columbus.” From historian Keith A. Pickering.

Ten Years Ago

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Flight 93 National Memorial wall of tributes.

Image via Wikipedia

On the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, it is hopeful and uplifting to witness reverend memorials dedicated to lives lost; and it’s well worth visiting these memorials’ websites to learn more about the tragedy and tributes to the victims.

http://www.911memorial.org/
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

http://pentagonmemorial.org/
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

http://www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm
The Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

Four for the Fourth: American Revolution Websites

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Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (Image via Wikipedia)

Happy Independence Day!  See below for four good sites dedicated to teaching American Revolutionary History to the DIY learner.

http://www.ouramericanrevolution.org/
1) From the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: a visually rich site including multimedia, biographies, and historical objects associated with the American Revolution.

http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution
2) From the History Channel: a collection of Revolutionary War videos and lessons.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/amerrev.asp
3) From Yale Law School’s Avalon Project (“Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy”): links to documents associated with the American Revolution.

http://www.hippocampus.org/US%20History
4) From the learning site Hippocampus: this page includes several chapters about the American Revolution (“Road to Revolution” and “The American Revolution”).

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