Monthly Archives: November 2011

Good News for New York State Social Studies Tests

English: New York State Education Department o...

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In the last few years, social studies has taken a huge hit in states across America.

So any glimmer of hope–no matter how faint–is worth celebrating.

In late October, the New York State Education Department released a Notice of Intent informing testing companies and providers that the NYSED will be issuing a request for proposals for upcoming science tests in grades 4, 6 and 8 as well as a resurrected state social studies test in grades 6-8.  According to the statement, the tests will be developed in the spring or summer of 2012, with field tests ready for 2013.  The entire system is targeted for launch for the 2013-2014 school year.

A big kudos to New York’s Education Commissioner John King for addressing a major injustice done in 2010 for budgetary reasons.  As followers of the Neighborhood are aware, the fifth and eighth grade social studies tests were suspended in 2010 due to financial constraints.  When I wrote to then-Senior Deputy Commissioner King, he informed me there was no set timetable for these tests to return.

Although it is an initial step, this request for proposals is a definite step in the right direction.

Best of luck to Dr. King and the folks at Albany in creating authentic, rigorous assessments for middle schoolers in science and social studies.  Hopefully, this will lead to an eventual re-instatement of an elementary level social studies test which is absolutely necessary.

That, however, remains for another day.

 

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This Day in History 11/28: The Birth of Lord—or Lady—Cornbury

Lord Cornbury

Painting of a woman alleged to be Lord Cornbury. New-York Historical Society. Image via Wikipedia

History is primarily the business of debunking popular myths.

Yet some myths are so scandalous, so outrageous and so off-the-wall that you sincerely wish they were true—even if you know they’re probably not.

Such is the case with Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Viscount Cornbury. Historians know Lord Cornbury as among the worst colonial governors in American history. According to 19th century historian George Bancroft, Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy’s “arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility”.

Yet his popular reputation rests in a painting.

In the New-York Historical Society hangs a painting of a woman. She is a rather ugly woman wearing a nice blue period dress…and a distinct five-o’clock shadow. For many years, this painting, which is unsigned and unattributed, was believed to be Lord Cornbury himself, sparking the popular myth that he was America’s first transvestite political leader.

Yet looking back, the claim of cross-dressing just doesn’t add up.

To be fair, the transvestitism isn’t what made Cornbury such a dickhead. Apparently his whole life was an exercise in profligate douchebaggery. During an unremarkable spell as a Tory member of Parliament, Cornbury served as a Page of Honour during James II’s coronation. Yet when William and Mary came ashore in 1688, Cornbury was one of the first officers to dump James off—and take a massive load of soldiers with him.

His later career only gets worse. As governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, he earned a foul reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He favored Anglican churches with vast amounts of real estate, in open defiance of New York’s longstanding religious toleration. £1500 meant for the defense of New York harbor suddenly went missing. Bribes and corrupt payoffs became commonplace. His critics described him as a “fop”, a “wastrel” a “degenerate” and a “pervert.”

Even the little lady at home got in the act. According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in their work Gotham, Cornbury ‘s wife was known as a petty thief, swiping clothes and jewels from New York society ladies: “the sound of her carriage at the door, people said, was a warning to hide anything of value.”

The British didn’t much care for him, either. After his removal in 1708, Cornbury landed in debtor’s prison, where he received the not so welcome news that his father died and he would be the new Lord Clarendon. The title came with some serious money. It allowed him to get out of jail and pay his debts only to piss his fortune away again with the creditors knocking a second time. He finally dies alone and in debt in 1723, to be buried in Westminster Abbey (in what kinds of clothes I’m not sure.)

Yet the story of the cross-dressing governor persists. It has taken on a life of its own: Ric Burns’ documentary on New York states Cornbury’s sartorial transgressions almost as fact. I’ve even heard teachers showing the aforementioned painting as an actual portrait of Cornbury.

Yet as fun as the story is, the historian in me thinks the evidence to support it is not only thin, but woefully one-sided. Patricia Bonomi, Professor emeriti of history at New York University, agrees.

In 1998, Bonomi wrote The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America, among the few scholarly works addressing Cornbury’s tenure as New York’s governor. In this work, she debunks the transvestite myth as a rumor started by his colonial opponents in New York.

First, transvestitism was, according to Bonomi, considered a heinous act in the 18th century. The painting purported to be Cornbury would probably not have been him, since such a public display was usually meted out by political cartoons and the like. It would be almost as if a pedophile sat with his/her victim for a portrait at Sears: ballsy, obscene, irrational…but probably unlikely.

Second, the evidence of the cross-dressing comes from four letters dated 1707-1709, all from three colonists bent on removing Cornbury from office. According to the letters, Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly in an elaborate gown reminiscent of Queen Anne, claiming that as the Queen’s power in the colony he needed to represent her in every way possible. During Lady Cornbury’s funeral in 1707 (when the shoplifting was done), Cornbury also supposedly attended in female dress.

However, according to Bonomi, none of his officers, ministers or colonial agents ever mentioned these tendencies. None of the authors of the letters even claim to have seen this, either. It appears it was an attempt to get him out of office by any means necessary—and it worked.

Bonomi also claims (and I’m not totally convinced of this) that Cornbury was not as corrupt and profligate as is claimed. She claims that he was welcomed warmly in England on his return in 1709, and served high offices. I’m not as convinced at this—especially since fiscal malfeasance tends to leave a more verifiable paper trail than sexual transgressions.

What is important in looking at this episode—and what Bonomi gets right—is how sex was used as a political tool even in the early 18th century. The cross-dressing scandal, more than anything else, is what drove Queen Anne to replace Cornbury in 1708. Sexual misconduct, even as a rumor, is still a powerful tool, now as it was in Cornbury’s time.

However, even as one can probably put the transvestite myth of Lord Cornbury in doubt, there is some sense of loss. Without the hoop skirts and corsets, Cornbury becomes just another greedy colonial governor.

Sometimes the myths really do add to the history—even if it isn’t really true.

 

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This Day in History 11/21: The Mayflower Compact is signed

The Mayflower Compact, a painting by Jean Leon...

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The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 21 (November 11 in the old calendar), 1620, causes a lot of confusion.

Therefore, before we go any further, let’s get some things clear:

1. The so-called Pilgrims (or Separatists or whatever the fuck they wanted to call themselves) were not interested in creating a democracy.

2. They did not believe in religious freedom for anyone but themselves.

3. No one asked the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Patuxet or any of the other indigenous tribes of the region to sign this thing (which they would have happily done with a tomahawk to their pasty white skulls).

The usual line fed to us is that the Pilgrims created the Compact as the first form of government in the Thirteen Colonies of North America.  There goes log of bullshit # 1–sorry, Jesus freaks, but the tobacco-growing, native-wenching planters of Virginia had you beat by one year, creating the House of Burgesses in 1619.

The other old saw follows that the Pilgrims intended to form a democratic form of government among the colonists, thus being the antecedent to the United States Constitution.  Again…this is wrong on so many levels.

The reasons for the Compact were complex, but mostly had to do with the sizeable amount of colonists aboard the Mayflower who were (gasp!) not Pilgrims, Separatists, Puritans or anything else.  They had no illusions about John Winthrop‘s City on a Hill, or creating a New Jerusalem in the wilderness–they came to go to Virginia and join the wenching tobacco planters.  When the ship veered off course and landed at Cape Cod instead, the outsiders, or “strangers” claimed independence from the Pilgrim leaders.  By contract, the voyage was to land in Virginia.  It didn’t, so by law (at least in their mind) the Bible-thumpers had no control over them.

The Pilgrims, rightfully, got nervous.  They understood that if they didn’t stick together, the colony would not survive, be it by starvation, disease, exposure, or the aforementioned tomahawks to the noggin.  So they decided to bargain with the “strangers” and form a haphazard agreement.  It was basically not much of a government at all, but rather a social contract meant to bind the colonists to the rules set forth from that point on.

The following is a modern translation of the Compact:

 “In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.”

Three things are abundantly clear in reading this modern translation:

1. The Pilgrims had a shitty sense of geography.  They still insisted they were in Virginia–albeit the “northern parts of Virginia.”  This was probably put in to keep the “strangers” from trying any legal funny business.  By that definition, Virginia should extend all the way to fucking Nova Scotia.

2. The Compact did not lay out a single plank for a framework of government.  All it did was establish a “body politic” that would be bound to the rules and regulations of the colony, rules that are supposedly “convenient for the general good of the colony.”  Exactly how these rules would be enacted–and especially who would be involved in government–was left eerily vague.  Looking at the list of 41 white male signers, you can guess who was running things.

3. For a group of people threatened with prison, torture and death by their own home government, the Pilgrims still show a remarkable allegiance to James I of England, Scotland and Ireland–even going so far as to use his full and correct title TWICE (how’s that for filling a page!)  This could lead modern readers to think the Pilgrims either still showed obedience to the sovereign or were real sado-masochists under those doublets and breeches.

Was the Mayflower Compact important?  Sure it was.  It was among the earliest attempts to create a social contract bound by the consent of the governed, albeit imperfectly.  It embodied the social and communal ideals of the Separatist movement, emphasizing rule of law and mutual cooperation.

Yet was the Compact the big thing our teachers made it out to be?  Probably not.  It didn’t establish a government at all.  It didn’t stipulate the rights of colonists.  It didn’t lay a foundation for governance or the creation of laws.

Worst of all, the Pilgrim fathers certainly had selective amnesia about the Compact when it came to women, dissenters and especially Native Americans.  The subsequent wars over New England, particularly the Pequot War of 1637 and especially King Phillip’s War of 1675-1676, demonstrate a concerted effort by the English colonists to marginalize, exclude and ultimately erase any native influence on their culture and their precious Compact.

It would take another 167 years of foundations–and another two centuries of defining those foundations–to actually create the system that lived up to the Pilgrim ideal.

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Some Fun at Parent-Teacher Conferences

This week, schools in New York City will have the first parent-teacher conferences…or as we in the faculty lounge like to call them: “The Crying Game.”

This cartoon showcases not only parent denial, but also teacher intransigence.  Lets hope our conferences this week are more productive.

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Videos for the Classroom: Election Day on Sesame Street

This was, honest to God, the very first time I ever heard about voting.

When I was a kid, it was shows like Sesame Street that introduced me to a lot of the basics of American life.  This video is still a great one to use with young students who still can’t participate in Election Day.

The best part is when David goes apeshit on Big Bird and Snuffy about voter registration.

Enjoy this classic clip of a great show before it was ruined by Elmo and the big purple dinosaur.

 

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