Tag Archives: Comedy

Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

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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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