Monthly Archives: September 2009

Videos for the Classroom: Adlai Stevenson’s finest moment – The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

This is really commemorated about a month later than now, but it leads to a great teachable moment I had with my kids.

We’re studying the powers of the President, and I thought it would be fun if the students worked on a case study of an event that involved Presidential action.  I picked the Cuban missile crisis, and I laid out a dossier of the facts of the case: missiles were discovered in Cuba by an American spy plane.  The United States is under pressure from the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Turkey.  The Russians are not saying for certain that there are missiles.  The United States is prepared to escalate with possible military action. 

I had the class divide into groups, take the facts and create a course of action.  Amazingly, their plans mirrored the plans created by Kennedy’s cabinet and Pentagon officials in 1962.  One group favored a military option, a direct strike on the Cuban missiles.  Another group favored a covert operation to disable the missiles.  Still another favored a unilateral pullout from Turkey as a sign of goodwill.

What was most astonishing was my last group.  They actually said, “Maybe we should get other countries on our side by showing them what we have.”  By doing so, they figured, it would make the Soviets look like the bad guy, the aggressor.  I was floored.  These were barely teenagers and they tackled delicate foreign policy like a pro.

The videos today illustrate what happened, which is what my last group of students drew out in their own way.  The first video is actual footage of the Oct 25, 1962 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, where US ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronts Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin about the missiles in Cuba.  A two-time presidential loser, Stevenson won me over with this, his finest hour.  In a clear, lucid voice, he tells Zorin he is willing to wait “until Hell freezes over” for an answer to his questions about the missiles. 

And then came the photos.  Zorin didn’t have a chance.

I also included the fictionalized version from the film Thirteen Days.  It isn’t that fictionalized, as the dialogue in the UN is almost verbatim from the real thing.  These are both gems to use with your students.  They illustrate how delicate and complex foreign policy can be–yet incredibly direct when we’re in the right.

At the very least, it shows a time when both Republicans and Democrats can conduct foreign policy with a pair of brass ones.


Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 9/28: The Importance of the Norman Conquest

Bayeux_Tapestry_WillelmDuxSince when did a spat among clans of Saxons and Vikings have such an impact on world history?

Today we commemorate such a family feud.  On this day in 1066, William II, Duke of Normandy–also known as “the Conqueror” or “the Bastard”–invaded England on a quest to seize the throne from the sitting monarch Harold Godwinson.  The ensuing climactic struggle, the Battle of Hastings, would have far-reaching effects on both English and European history.  It is an effect that touches all our lives today, including our students.

The problem is an interesting one for students of monarchs and dynastic succession: how do you settle a dynastic dispute with a monarchy that does not have a straight succession?  England’s monarchy was not based on heredity, but rather selected through the Witenagemot, the assembly of nobles and clergy that advised English kings since the 800s.  When Edward “the Confessor” died in 1066, the Witenagemot respected Edward’s wishes and selected Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as King of England.

Yet a number of foreign nobles were of a different opinion.

Normandy, a state in northern France ruled by Viking immigrants known as Normans, had an ambitious ruler of its own, and he had his own claim to the throne.  William of Normandy, known as the “Bastard” due to a dubious birthright, claimed that Edward promised him the throne 14 years earlier.  Furthermore, Harold Godwinson had alleged pledged loyalty to HIM two years before the conquest.  To make things all nice and legal, William had Pope Alexander II consecrate his claim to the throne, thereby giving William religious as well as temporal legitimacy.

William was not alone.  Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hardraada, also claimed Harold Godwinson’s throne.  He claimed that his predecessor, King Magnus, made an agreement with the earlier Danish king of England Hardecanute, stating that if either died without an heir, the other would take over as king.  Harald also had a curious ally: Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, who had attempted to seize the throne himself and joined Harald Hardraada’s claim in an effort to dethrone his brother.

Harold Godwinson had two armies going against him.  This is never a good thing, and Harold can’t divide his forces.  He fights what he thinks is the stronger force first, that of Harald Hardraada and his brother Tostig.  On September 25, 1066, after a four-day forced march, Godwinson defeats the Norwegian force at Stamford Bridge

William invades three days later, and wisely decides to wait for Harold rather than chase after him.  By October 14, Harold’s exhausted army finally faces William’s Norman juggernaut at Hastings.  After a murderous day of fighting, Harold and many of his Saxon nobles are killed, and William marches toward London.  On Christmas day, 1066, William the Bastard, William the Conqueror becomes King William I of England.  Every British monarch since William can trace their roots back to this “bastard.”

So why is this blood feud so important?

The Norman conquest changed the face of England.  The feudal system of France was superimposed and strengthened with the complex institutions that existed in Saxon-era English government, resulting in the future development of a Parliament and a protection of basic rights.  The Norman government would forever forge a bond between England and France, for good or ill.  Norman nobility and clergy would dominate England, relegating the local Anglo-Saxon populations to subservience both politically and culturally.  Both groups would eventually intermarry until they evolved into the modern English people.

The most important impact, however, was in language.  Without the Norman conquest, English would look very different than it does today.

The Normans spoke a language that was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French, so it had words that were familiar to the English of 1066.  French would become the language of government after the conquest, and English would develop alongside among the population, borrowing and adapting French words into their Anglo-Saxon tongue.  What developed was Middle English, and by the mid-13th century this became a language used by both nobility and commoners throughout the kingdom.  The greatest example of this is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Here is the first stanza of the General Prologue, and notice the French influence, along with the connections to modern English.

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
     The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
     And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
     Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
 5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
     Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
     The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
     Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
     And smale foweles maken melodye,
 10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
     (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
     Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
     And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
     To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
 15 And specially from every shires ende
     Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
     The hooly blisful martir for to seke
     That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Gutting of a Georgetown Tradition: Meddling with “Map of the Modern World”

I had another post in mind today at the Neighborhood, but this news was sent to me by my fellow alumni and its getting my blood up.

In an earlier post on geography, I mentioned a course I took at Georgetown called “Map of the Modern World”, a 1-credit boot camp of world geography and geopolitics.   As a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) I had to take this course as a graduation requirement–since the qualification exam rendered me, in Professor Pirtle’s thundrous voice, “geographically ignorant.”  Even though it was a killer for a one-credit course, it was one of the most rewarding courses I took.  I know of no other university that has a geography course that even comes close.

Yet, just as it does in the world of education, the “boutique” theories seem to be adopted by administrators as if they were flavors of the month.  Such is the case at SFS, where the new dean, James Reardon-Anderson, wants to take over the course personally.  Instead of the classic geopolitical survey that each student in the SFS has received (gratefully) for decades, Reardon-Anderson plans to restructure the course as a study of geographic forces and human interactions.  The grit-and-grind of the Mercator map is replaced by the soft Venn diagrams of interactions, encounters and relationships.

The scholarship behind this change shouldn’t be new to many people–the work of Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA and author of the popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond’s work postulates that the driving forces behind human interaction, as well as human inequality, are the geographic forces that have shaped the development of Earth’s multitude of societies.

Diamond’s work is not at issue.  What is at issue is using his theories in a course that was never designed as an anthropological or sociological survey.  To really see the difference, here’s the old course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit-hour course is designed to provide you with regional overviews of the evolution of the world political map since 1800. The objective of this course is to enhance your basic working knowledge of the political map of the modern world as a first step in understanding world events and international relations. The method of instruction
will be lectures supported by a heavy dose of maps and short outside readings. The lectures will focus on the evolution of the modern political map of each region and on major nationalist, ethnic, boundary, and territorial conflicts and tension areas.

Here is the new course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit course is designed to provide basic knowledge of the physical and political geography of the world. Weekly lectures cover the fundamental forces that shape the physical geography and the effects of physical geography on human behavior in ten regions of the world. The final exam covers information presented in the lectures, the location and capitals of contemporary states, and the identification of major geographical features. The final examination is multiple choice and graded pass-fail. The course is required for graduation from the School of Foreign Service.

As a point of clarification, ths course was always a requirement to graduate and was always graded pass-fail.  Yet the differences are obvious.  Map of the Modern World was a course designed for future diplomats and international leaders in order to establish a baseline knowledge of the world and its machinations.  Period.  Since the SFS was designed as a school for training future diplomats, this makes perfect sense.

Reardon-Anderson’s version is cute.  It’s too cute.  In fact, it’s more like an elective course than a requirement for a school of international relations.  Because of the new dean’s penchant for the theory du jour, students at Georgetown will be less than adequately prepared for the roles they aspire to after graduation.  No 1-credit course can do justice to Diamond’s theories while preserving the original goal of establishing background knowledge of the political world to students of international affairs. 

It’s embarrassing that such a change is even considered, let alone approved.  Climate change, human interactions, geographic forces–these are all worthy of study.  But not in Map.

This leads to my last point.   Map of the Modern World was a rite of passage for students in the SFS program at Georgetown, the oldest school for international studies dating back to 1919.  Every year, each spring, freshman entered the large lecture hall in the Reiss Science Building for 45 minutes of backbreaking maps, charts, definitions, treaties, Latin terms such as “uti possidetes” (one of my old classmates please correct my spelling), and the logjam of minutia that make the modern international system. 

Damnit, that boot camp did a body good, and no boutique theories or Johnny-come-lately techniques should mess up a good thing.

I’m calling on all my former SFS alumni, alumni from other Georgetown schools, even non-alumni that visit the Neighborhood to take action and stop Reardon-Anderson’s quest to sink the SFS into “geographic ignorance.”

A Facebook group has been made for those who want to join, linked here.  Those wishing to express their opinions directly to the school can e-mail Dean Reardon-Anderson at  Be sure to CC Dean Lancaster at

Lets save at least one piece of our education that actually worked.  Show the administration at SFS that some cows are too damned sacred to make into hamburger.


Filed under Uncategorized

Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull.  Yale University Art Gallery

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull. Yale University Art Gallery

Should we have revolted against the British Empire?   According to Carol Berkin, we never had it so good–as long as you were a New England merchant, a Caribbean slave trader or a tidewater planter.  That covers everybody, right?

Here at the Neighborhood, mythbusting in history has always been a key issue.  Because so much of our collective history has been built on myths created over centuries, this process is often complex, messy and controversial. 

Over the months, we’ve tackled subjects as diverse as the Boston Massacre, Native Americans, the War of 1812Civil Rights, even Jesus.  With each, it was important to strip away the veneer of the textbook to get as close to the source as possible.  Carol Berkin, University Professor of History at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center, does a similar job with the American Revolution in the latest issue of History Now, from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.

Berkin does an excellent job in parsing a straightforward narrative into a complex web of conflicts, struggles and contradictions.  Upon reading her analysis, Great Britain seems less than a tyrannical imperial power and more like a rookie teacher who can’t control her students.  The British were real penny-pinchers when it came to colonial control, leaving much of the actual legwork to local assemblies that took advantage of the crown, Native Americans, and poorer backcountry farmers and townspeople. 

It was only with the French and Indian War, which left the empire broke, that Britain decided to read up on classroom management and establish some routines and procedures for effective imperial rule.  By then it was too late–the little monsters that were the 13 colonies had already dumped the hamster cage, spilled the paste on the floor and pulled the fire alarm (so to speak).  No amount of time in the woodshed was going to control this bunch.

In all, Berkin makes a great framework for upper-grade elementary, middle and high school teachers to enrich their U.S. history lessons.  Focusing on even one of her points can make a week’s worth of lessons.  Please let us know how you used this information in the classroom and comment her at the Neighborhood.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Obama of Tammany Hall: Presidential Meddling in State Politics

William M. Boss Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

William M. "Boss" Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

“He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” – Benjamin Franklin

We hate to admit it, but local politics still carries the cigar odors and whiskey stains of generations past.

In 1868, the Democratic National Convention was held in the New York Democratic Party’s extravagant new building on 14th Street—Tammany Hall.  Tammany Hall was also the name of a fraternal society and political machine that dominated Democratic politics in New York City from the early 1800s to the 1960s.  The Hall itself was built with ill-gotten gains from extorting contracts to build the city’s new courthouse—the same place where New York’s Department of Education is housed. 

William Tweed, then boss of Tammany Hall, basically summoned the regional bosses to the Hall, ushered them into a room, and closed the door.   They left with their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour, and that was that.  Such was the politics of the 19th Century—backroom deals, stuffing of pockets, and treacherous double-dealing.

Sometimes those old habits die hard. 

As much as our current President advocates bipartisanship and a return to principled government, the bare-knuckle brawls of the local ward heelers are never far from his mind.

Such was the case on Monday, when Barack Obama culminated weeks of machinations to pressure the widely unpopular governor of New York, David Paterson, from running in the 2010 gubernatorial election.  En route to a speech on the economy in Troy, New York, Obama gave Paterson a chilly reception at the local airport, whispering words in Dave’s ears that seemed to knock him senseless.

He then met with state Democratic leaders behind closed doors.  Paterson was not invited.  Yet what happened at the speech made me cringe.

At the speech at Troy Community College, Obama lavished praise on New York’s Attorney General—and potential 2010 candidate—Andrew Cuomo, saluting and giving praises to the presumptive candidate to the cheers of the honchos present.  It was almost like a coronation, and it happened in front of the crestfallen governor.

This display, I’m sorry to say, was petty, vulgar, tasteless and a stain on Obama’s high office.

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday.  Wouldnt the Boss be proud?

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday. Wouldn't the "Boss" be proud?

There is no doubt that the chief executive has often found itself embroiled in local politics, particularly with midterm elections around the corner.  Such was this case, where New York’s gubernatorial seat was up for grabs.  He may even need to ruffle a few feathers in the smoke-filled room to make sure his demands are met.

But insulting a sitting governor in public is an unforgivable sin and a shameful act.

No matter what the dispute, no matter how contentious the politics, the institutions of power demand respect.  I don’t agree with David Paterson.  I often don’t agree with Barack Obama.  Yet both are worthy of my respect because of the offices they hold.

David Paterson, like it or not, is the governor of the State of New York.  Andrew Cuomo is the Attorney General.   David outranks him.  Period.  End of discussion.  Paterson’s snub offends not only his person, but the state as a whole.  Woe to any other state of the Union that dares defy Obama’s plans.

Barack Obama’s actions are even more insulting given his reputation and vision for government.  In an age where transparency, legality and institutional order are necessary, Obama has reverted to the arbitrary, often brutal tactics of Chicago bosses and Tammany ward heelers. 

These are not the actions of a President of the United States.  These are the acts of William Tweed, Richard Croker, James Michael Curley, Tom Pendergast, Edwin Edwards, and Richard Daley—bosses whose actions forever haunt our democratic process.    

Regardless of your opinion on any of the principals in this affair, the office of the Presidency is not an ax used to decapitate dead weight in local elections.  It is a national bulwark that must transcend the guttural minutia of local politics. 

Mr. President, please leave the glad-handing and the ballot-stuffing to the ward bosses.  You’re too important to be mixed up in this mess.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 9/21: Benedict Arnold “Sells Out” America

HD-SN-99-01721To try to defend Benedict Arnold is a lot like being the defense lawyer at the Nuremburg trials.  Somebody has to do it, even though you know the guy’s guilty as sin.

I’m not going to sweep Arnold’s treachery under the rug–the guy did sell out the country he was defending, after all.  Yet I don’t want to paint this guy as entirely evil.  Prior to his treachery, Arnold was the most able, successful commander in the Continental Army.  Some would say he was even better than George Washington.  What Arnold did has to viewed in the lens of his times and compared to other “traitors” of the Revolution–people who’s acts do not seem that treasonous today.

Here’s the Law and Order, CSI-esque lowdown of what happened.  Since the spring of 1779, Arnold was in communication with the British forces of Sir Henry Clinton about offering his services to the Crown.  The strategic chokepoint of West Point, NY was about to be given to Arnold to command.  He gained command of the fortress on August 3, 1780, and received the offer he was negotiating for a year: the British were offering  £20,000 in exchange for the fortress.   The deal was sealed with Arnold meeting Major John Andre on Sept. 21.  However, Andre was captured two days later and the plot unraveled.  Arnold managed to slip to the British lines–even getting Washington’s permission to allow his mistress safe passage to England.  Andre was tried and hanged as a spy.  America develops a new definition for a two-timing, snake-in-the-grass son-of-a-bitch.

There’s no doubt that Arnold’s actions were a complete dick move.  West Point was the strategic point in the Hudson that opened it to Lake George, then Lake Champlain and into Canada, where British reinforcements were waiting.  His motives, too, seem to denote the whiff of an insufferable asshole.  He was pissed at being passed over for commands, and he spent his dough like a rapper at the Source Awards, which got him deep in the hole.  Yet does Arnold deserve his eternal shitpile?

Yes, but with a little less shit than was piled on before.  Also, the shit has to spread to other people.  I’m sorry, George, but you should’ve seen this coming.

The biggest charge is that Arnold committed treason against the country he defended, even suffering wounds in the service.  While I don’t doubt his brilliant service prior to the West Point affair–his actions in Saratoga saved the Revolution, for Christ’s sake–I do question his patriotism, or his commitment to the cause.  In my opinion, Arnold was never a real patriot, but rather a voraciously ambitious opportunist. 

Arnold, being a good Connecticut boy, made his living at the mercantile trade.  He made a pretty good living up until the crises of the 1760s, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.  Arnold continued to smuggle goods in defiance of the act, even attending local Sons of Liberty meetings.  Yet it’s hard to see this as more than self-serving: Arnold was hurt in his pockets, and his subsequent actions in the Continental Army bear out his monetary concerns. 

His military career was a quest for glory–not for liberty.  He took on daring assignments to boost his resume.  Taking Fort Ticonderoga without a shot and engineering a brilliant retreat from a failed Canadian invasion in 1776 definitely add to Arnold’s skill set. 

Then came his big project, Saratoga, a job he lobbied for relentlessly.  Washington went with Horatio Gates, against the wishes of Arnold and others who saw Gates as a British-trained sissy.  The battle bore this out: Gates was playing safe with a fortified position against British, Canadian and German mercenary forces.   Arnold defied Gates by leading a headlong charge into the British lines with three regiments at a dead run, a bold move that broke the lines and bust open a gap to the Canadian and German reinforcements.  The lobsterbacks didn’t have a chance: John Burgoyne and the entire northern British army surrenders to Gates. 

So why the beef with the Continentals?  Money and glory.  Arnold was constantly getting passed over for promotions he felt he deserved–including Saratoga, which he actually did deserve.  Furthermore, he was owed money from the Continental Congress since his expeditions were paid mostly out of his own pocket–but many of the generals did the same thing, including Washington.  It also didn’t help that as military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he lived high on the hog and took on a high-maintenance mistress with Loyalist sympathies. 

If Arnold was a true patriot from the beginning, I could see the treason much clearer.  The fact is, the military victories blinded the Continental commanders to Arnold’s clear personality flaws.  He was an overachieving prick with a lust for money and power.  No one should have given him command of a pisspot, let alone West Point.  Since the 1760s, his quest was for personal fame and fortune, and he showed absolutely no inclination that the patriot cause meshed with his own philosophy.

Arnold was not the only traitor with a need for cash.  Benjamin Church was the doctor for the Massachusetts militia, later the Continental army, during the opening months of the Revolution in 1775.  During that time, and also to get out of a hole, he was sending secret information to British general Thomas Gage, including troop movements.  He was caught and managed to slip on a ship, never to be seen again. 

Robert Rogers, an American ranger who served brilliantly during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, offered his services to the Continentals.  It didn’t help that the Congress offered him a commission and was rebuffed, stating that he was a British officer.  His drinking didn’t help, either.  Washington had him arrested rather than risk his person causing havoc.  Rogers would subsequently raise a gang of loyalist guerrillas that would capture American spy Nathan Hale in 1776, obstentsibly by pretending that Rogers was a patriot spy, too.  Even today, the US Army names its pioneer divisions Rangers, after Rogers, who worked against the Americans.

So it’s probably best to cut Arnold some slack, but not a whole lot.  His treachery succeeded not because of some inherent feeling of loyalty to Great Britain, but because the people around him could not see the amoral nature of his actions.  He was but one of many American turncoats in the Revolutionary period, and most of them were turncoats for reasons far more reasoned than Arnold.

In short, Arnold’s story teaches us that it’s good to tolerate a bastard if he’s an earner.  If he gets a little grabby, though, it’s time to cut him loose.

George Washington’s kicking himself right now.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New Year, and New Responsibilities

All of a sudden, I have a lot on my plate this year.

On top of preparing whole grades for the state exam in social studies, I’m now designing assessments and curriculum maps for lower grades, ordering textbooks, and designing pacing and tracking spreadsheets for student progress.  Am I in a wierd nightmare, or did I just become an administrator?

At any rate, because of so many things on my plate, my attention to the Neighborhood may be a little…well…off.  Let’s put it this way: tonight, after I finished assessments for kindergarten and first grade, I’ll be creating test prep material for the older kids, which can be taxing to the extreme. 

The only thing that actually is somewhat relaxing is the Neighborhood.  And even that becomes a chore on top of all my duties.  I’ll be updating more sporadically between now and the end of October.  I guarantee, though, that by the beginning of November the Neighborhood will be on the top of my list. 

Now, back to the grind.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized