Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Castro Retirement: Passing of the Guard, or a Prelude to Counter-Revolution?

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.

In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.

At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018.  It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Yet even more surprising is the follow-up.  Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.

Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel?  Hardly.

Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order.  Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres.  An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista.  He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made.  Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.

So the new blood is simply that…new.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.

This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet.  His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution.  In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.

It didn’t help him, though.  We saw him for the tyrant he was.

Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers.  In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:

First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet.  To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd.  However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades.  The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession.  I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.

Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer.  The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.

The reason?  If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them?  Are the Castros special?  Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?

Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail.  George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution.  He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.

To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.

The Castros are hardly a model in this case.  For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically.  Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind.  It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.

Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.

These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.

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More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC

slaverymathditto152acf8d-97a2-4cc7-993a-52fe818552fdToday’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.

A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.

Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.

At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.

Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base.  Here are two examples:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.

Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible.  Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?

Was she being deliberately insensitive?  I would guess not.  Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience.  After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight.  Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.

Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design?  Absolutely.

It’s not her fault entirely.  Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about.  In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.

However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning.  Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know.  A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.

For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills.  It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him?  How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage?  My guess: not very likely.

How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry?  Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?

If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:

  1. What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
  2. How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?

In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa?  The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation.  There’s no good answer to this.

Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.

There’s too much at stake not to do so.

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Videos for the Classroom: What the Ancient Greeks Did for Us

Since I work double-duty as a social studies AND science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to combine the two…sometimes out of piquing interest, often out of laziness.

Today’s offering is just plain fun.

I’ve seen various episodes of this BBC series over the years.  What the Ancients Did for Us is a 2005 series on  BBC that detailed the accomplishments of various ancient societies and their impact on our lives today.  It was derived from earlier shows that looked at contributions from earlier periods of British history, such as the Tudor period, the Stuart era or the Industrial Revolution.

Yet this is no ordinary history documentary.  Ancients was produced in conjunction with the Open University, the largest British university by student enrollment and a pioneer in distance learning.  As such, it not only provides information on the civilization (names, dates, and whatnot) but also practical demonstrations of the kind of technology used at that time period–often with amazing results.

I’ve attached the episode on the Ancient Greeks, as this is the next unit we will be studying in my class.  I’ve already previewed the film to a few students of mine, and they all saw the experiments (from Archimedes’ screw to Hero’s steam Jet engine) as great ideas for science fair projects.  One even wanted to try out Archimedes’ famed “Death Ray” – the mirrored weapon used to angle the sun’s thermal energy towards wooden galleys with devastating results.

I’m not sure that will fly with the principal (nor the fire chief) but the series is a great connection between science and history.

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The Story of Papal Names; or, Why is there no pope named Jimbo?

English: PORTRAIT OF JOHN XXIII Español: IMAGE...

John XXIII (1881-1963), A great Pope, a not so original name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff, the personification of Christ on Earth, was once called Fabian.

Some were even Silverius, Soter, Zachary, Hilarius, Conon, Anacletus, two Pelagiuses, and even a Sylvester—three of them.

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th, the Catholic Church reeled in shock, even though his Holiness had been hinting at retirement for some time now.  However, I’m sure the cardinals started jockeying for position once their pacemakers kicked in.  With the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and locked, the conclave of the College of Cardinals will be busy in their voting, politicking and burning of paper in the process of selecting a new pope.

Since any one of these red-hatted guys can get the top job, they all probably have one thing in mind—what will be my papal name?

Since the 6th Century, almost all popes of the Roman Catholic Church have used a regnal or papal name during their reign.  The early popes, being usually in hiding, on the run, or martyred in an arena in cruel and entertaining ways, really didn’t have much time for picking new names.  Yet the acceptance of Christianity in 313, followed by its adoption as the state religion of Rome in 395, gave the papacy some long-needed breathing room for pomp, ceremony, and especially the affectations of monarchy—hence the papal name.

The first papal name was chosen by Mercurius in 533.  Once he was elected, Mercurius decided to change a really pagan name (he was named after the Roman god Mercury) to the more Christ-friendly John II.  It made sense: There were no Roman emperors named Yahweh or Osiris, either.  This change became more commonplace after the 10th Century, and would be de rigueur for all popes since the 16th Century.

The papal names followed no particular pattern.  Most popes chose the names of predecessors they admired, though some chose names of family members, members, even fellow clergymen who shared their ideas of politics and dogma.  The names cover an amazing range of styles (Adrian, Eugene, Boniface), languages (Alexander, Celestine, Miltiades) and perceived moral attributes (Innocent, Clement, Pius).

Until 1978, all popes picked one name.   John Paul I decided to honor two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI (which didn’t help him much since he died 33 days later).  John Paul II continued this tradition, yet his successor Joseph Ratzinger went old school with Benedict XVI—a nice touch for a German theologian who tended to always look in the rearview mirror.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Some names just keep coming back: There were 23 Johns, the most of any papal name, with 16 Gregorys, 16 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Innocents (most of whom were probably not true to that namesake), 13 Leos (though not of the zodiac sign of the same name), 12 Piuses (again, you’re just asking for criticism if you choose a name like Pius), 9 Stephens, 9 Bonifaces (an excellent choice of name, in my opinion), 8 Urbans (though none named Rural, oddly), and 8 Alexanders, of which the sixth one you may recognize as Jeremy Irons on Showtime.

Even with the free-for-all in nomenclature, there are some unspoken no-nos.  There is no Peter II, for example.  Peter, as in Peter the apostle, was the first pope, and no one could be pretentious enough to claim they are a second Peter (although Jeremy Irons comes close).  That’s almost as snotty as naming yourself Jesus II; and I don’t have to explain why.

Also, names often go out of fashion, sometimes thanks to one bad apple.  For over 500 years, there was no pope named John.  This was because the last John (John XXIII) was not only an antipope (or false pretender), but he was morally corrupt and such a scheming little shit that even the mention of his name would probably have gotten you excommunicated.  When Giuseppe Roncalli  was elected in 1958, they weren’t sure if he was John XXIII or John XXIV, since that other John carried such a stain.  Roncalli, the kind son of Italian sharecroppers, was no such blight on the name, and took on the moniker of John XXIII, as if the other prick never existed.

So what will the new guy choose?  It’s difficult to say, since rules and fashion continue to shift and change.   For the Neighborhood, we feel the next pontiff might do well to give one of the older, more obscure monikers a try.  We’re not ready for another John Paul.  John, Leo,  Pius or even Benedict (at least now) seems a little safe.

Resurrect old standards like Urban, Boniface, Sixtus or Celestine.  He might even choose Gelasius, Theodore, Paschal or even Zephyrinus.

Whatever name is chosen—in the grand scheme of things, a papal name is not necessarily the measure of a papacy.

Then again, would we ever gain spiritual strength today from a pope named Lando (reigned 913-914)?

Probably not…unless there’s a Star Wars convention nearby.

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The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

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This Day in History 2/5: Jean Baptiste Bernadotte becomes King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norw...

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norway (1763-1844) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of many ways I like to annoy my beautiful fiancée is to poke fun at her Swedish ancestry.

What’s not to love about Sweden–the near-arctic temperatures, the overtaxed welfare state, modular furniture, a penchant for experimental pornography and a cuisine that has had few true winners since the days of the longship.

Yet of all the things to knock the Swedes for, I always come back to one—deep down, the King of Sweden isn’t even a Swede.

He’s the descendant of a down-on-his-luck field marshal from Gascony.

On February 5, 1818, Field Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of the Empire, former Minister of War, former governor of Hanover, Prince of Ponte Corvo, became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and King Karl III Johan of Norway.  He would be the first of the House of Bernadotte, the royal family that still reigns over Sweden today.

The story of Bernadotte’s peculiar rise to a Scandinavian throne is something out of a Hollywood comedy.

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was a son of a tailor and small-town lawyer in the town of Pau in southwestern France.   He had the good fortune of reaching manhood at the cusp of the French Revolution: a perfect time for an ambitious boy with no apparent prospects.  By the time of the rise of Napoleon to power in 1799, Bernadotte had risen from tailor’s son to accomplished general and Minister of War under the Directory (the government in power before Napoleon’s coup).

Napoleon knew a good general when he saw one, and made Bernadotte a Marshal of the Empire in 1804.  He distinguished himself in the 1805 campaign at the victories at Ulm and Austerlitz.  As a reward, Napoleon made Bernadotte Prince of Ponte Corvo, a hick town in central Italy that was only good as a strategic location (which didn’t help its fate…it was flattened during World War II).  He was even married to the sister of Napoleon’s sister-in-law.

It looked like Jean Baptiste had it made.  So why would he hightail it to the fjords five years later?

Bernadotte was never easy to figure out.  He never went along with Napoleon’s coup d’etat, and rumors were circulating that he was an erratic hothead and a closeted Jacobin (rumors Bernadotte never refuted).   Unlike the other field marshals, Bernadotte made his bones during the early years of the Revolution—he was already a name before Napoleon rose to power and never needed his short coattails to rise to anything.  Loud, impulsive, fun-loving, Bernadotte would never have the best of relations with Napoleon, who saw him as a bulldog of a general but possibly as a potential rival.

Furthermore, Bernadotte’s battlefield behavior was growing more erratic, at least from Napoleon’s low horizon.  On an expedition against the Danes in the northern European port of Lubeck, he treated Swedish prisoners with kindness and respect, making connections that would prove fortunate for him (and not for Napoleon).  The Lubeck expedition was supposed to lead to an invasion of Sweden which never materialized.  In 1806 Bernadotte took his sweet time bringing up reinforcements at Jena and Auerstadt.  He led a contingent from Saxony in the 1809 Battle of Wagram, and on his own, issued an Order of the Day crediting his Saxon regiments with the victory.  Never mind that Bernadotte’s men, exhausted and ill-trained, had retreated against the Emperor’s instructions—even while Bernadotte himself tried to rally the men forward.

It was during Wagram that Napoleon stripped Bernadotte of his command.

Demoralized and notably pissed off, Bernadotte returned to Paris a dejected has-been.  He was to prepare defenses in the Netherlands against a British invasion which wasn’t happening (most of the invading forces died of fever).  Then came the meaningless post of governor of Rome.  It appeared Jean Baptiste’s best days were behind him.

Then, a letter arrived that would change everything.

It seems that Bernadotte’s antics made waves across the Baltic.  In Sweden, the aging King Karl XIII Johan was childless, as his heir unexpectedly died of a stroke.  Frantic, the Swedish ministers searched across Europe for a new presumptive heir to the Swedish throne.  Their main rival was Russia, so a man with a military background was preferred.  However, Napoleon was an ever-looming threat, so maybe a French general would work so that the Emperor would back off.

Bernadotte arose as the ideal candidate.  He was an accomplished general, who still ( at least on paper) had Napoleon’s support.  Furthermore, his kind actions towards the Swedes at Lubeck made him immensely popular with the Swedish army.  After much debate, on August 21, 1810, Bernadotte was elected the new Crown Prince by the Swedish Estates General, and subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces.

When the letter came that fall, Bernadotte didn’t believe it.  He never saw it coming.  Napoleon thought the whole thing was a joke.  He didn’t support the move, but didn’t oppose it either—he probably though Bernadotte would fuck this up like the retreats at Wagram.

Looking at the situation, you have to agree with Napoleon to a point.  It sounds like a bad fish-out-of-water movie.  You could hear the awkward first time Bernadotte walks the streets of Stockholm (“Bonjour mon peuple, je suis votre nouveau roi … me prendre à votre …smorgasbord.),

or his first Swedish winter (“Sacre bleu…It’s so cold I’m freezing my boulettes off!”),

or his first encounter with local cuisine (“Lutfisk?  Merci…[sniffs]…Merde!!!”).

Yet the fuck up didn’t happen.  On the contrary, it was the beginning of Bernadotte’s spectacular second act.

Somehow, he must have seen this as a new lease on life.  When Bernadotte arrived in Stockholm on November 2, 1810, he figured if he was going to do this, he would do this right.  He received the homage of the Estates General, and the old king officially adopted him as his son, naming him Karl Johan.    He didn’t have long to get used to the job.  With a dying king and a council of ministers divided, Bernadotte became the most powerful man in Sweden.

His first act?  Turning on his old boss.

In 1813, Sweden joined the Sixth Coalition, the alliance of countries opposing Napoleon led by Great Britain.  Obviously, there was a selfish end to all this: Sweden hoped to solidify its claim on Norway.  Regardless, as commander of the Northern army, Crown Prince Karl Johan defeated two of his old buddies, Marshals Oudinot and Ney.  Later on, he decided to ditch the coalition and focus on taking Norway, which he finally did after beating up the Danes in 1814.  After the allies recognized his claim, Karl Johan was now the heir to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden.

1818 saw death of the old king and the coronation of King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Karl III Johan of Norway.  Even though he never learned a word of Swedish (nor Norwegian), Karl Johan worked hard to be a good king.  He became a Lutheran, which made him even more popular among the people.  His reign witnessed the completion of the Gota Canal, and he managed the country’s postwar finances.  He kept both Russia and Great Britain as allies, keeping Sweden in an almost perpetual period of peace to this day.

Arms of Sweden. Note the central Arms of the House of Bernadotte. Jean Baptiste’s arms are to the right with the eagle.

His brash ways were also gone.  Over time, Karl Johan went from fiery Jacobin to firm ultra-conservative monarch.  His restrictions on freedoms and his hesitance to modernize Swedish commerce or to institute liberal democratic reforms made him less popular as time wore on.  Yet his intellect, his experience, and his personal charm kept him in power until his death in 1844.  He was astoundingly mourned as a savior of the nation, and one of Sweden’s greatest kings.

That blustery Gascon still affects us today.  His descendants not only reign in Sweden.  There are Bernadottes in Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg and Denmark.  The Swedish coat of arms still carries Jean Baptiste’s old arms as Prince of Ponte Corvo, complete with Napoleon’s eagle under the big dipper.

Finally, it just goes to show how crazy life can be, even for a slightly off French field marshal from the Pyrenees.

I wonder if he ever did try that lutfisk.

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