Tag Archives: Government

This Day in History 10/13: The Birth of the United States Navy

I don’t know what it is, but I always had a soft spot for the Navy.  They had the spiffiest uniforms–at least the officers, anyway.  Their ships went to exotic ports of call.  A US aircraft carrier could stop international incidents just by sticking itself in a foreign port.

Few recognize the naval contributions to medicine, particularly pathology.  Sailors are medical wonders, world experts at such subjects as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis (at least their transmission, of course).  Yeah, that went a little too far, but at least I didn’t go the “don’t ask, don’t tell” route.

And if you’re asking, no.  I will not put the lyrics to a certain Village People tune.

Today, on October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy, the forerunner of today’s United States Navy.  The original resolution is below:

“Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”  — Resolution of the Continental Congress, October 13, 1775

The original provision called for construction of one or two ships.  A subsequent resolution upped the number to 13. 

It was an incredible case of wishful thinking.  The fledgling United States did not have that kind of dough, and its infant navy relied heavily on privateers: essentially pirates for hire who would attack British ships for their cargo and prize money. 

By the 1790s, the Navy would begin a more structured development, in that 4 large frigates would be constructed: The USS United States, the USS Constitution, the USS Constellation and the USS President.  Through the War of 1812, the young Navy with its four flagships would create among America’s first naval heroes, and establish a fighting reputation well in excess of its small size.

Attached is three filmstrips from the US Department of the Navy‘s series on naval history from the 1950’s.  Its done in that tried-and-true high school filmstrip style, which may put off some students.  At worst, do what I do: make fun of the hokeyness while highlighting the important information.

Have fun.  Anchors aweigh!

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The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

For the past year, the Neighborhood has railed about the attack on social studies by those in the education establishment. 

Last week, a new report has data to back our claims—and its coming from an unlikely source.

Few people would peg the American Enterprise Institute as anti-establishment—unless that establishment was driving a hybrid, collecting welfare checks, having gay intercourse, aborting babies and growing funny crops in a hydroponics lab in the basement.  The conservative DC think-tank counts among its fellows Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lynn Cheney: hardly a bunch that would rock the boat.

AEI’s education team, furthermore, is certainly no rabble-rousers, either.  It’s headed by Frederick Hess, who’s a good buddy of my favorite educational dictator, Michelle Rhee.  He also co-directs AEI’s Future of American Education Project, which involves Rhee and KIPP cofounder Michael Feinberg—what do they chant at the beginning of those meetings, Mike?

Yet amongst little fanfare, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has recently released a report titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. In it, researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett studied high schools and teachers and reported essentially on the state of social studies in this country.  While their findings on content seem self-serving—especially in assessing attitudes towards American society and government—their view of social studies as a subject is spot on.

It is a disturbing picture, yet it gives credence to what we have been saying for years: social studies is suffering in America thanks to the NCLB establishment.

Farkas and Duffett studied a national random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, 245 Catholic and private school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.  Naysayers would point out that social studies teachers hardly constitute an unbiased data group on the subject.  Yet they are the ones most involved, most invested—and most attuned to the deficiencies in their subject area.

The strongest areas of the study are the findings about social studies writ large, about student learning, and standards of content knowledge.

In terms of the subject as a whole, the study backs up our claims.  45% of teachers say their school district treats socials studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.” This is opposed to 43% whose districts considered it unessential, or “important” at best.  45% claim their curriculum has been downgraded due directly to NCLB pressure, although 39% claim to be “holding their own”.  Even more disturbing, 70% of teachers say that social studies classes are of a lower priority due to the pressure of statewide math and language arts tests—even though 93% of teachers want social studies to be assessed in the same way.

Furthermore, these finding are not homogenous to all schools.  68% of private school social studies teachers feel that social studies is considered essential, as opposed to 45% of public school teachers.  Private school teachers also claim to have more control over the pace and content of their curriculum (86%), as well as a more nurturing school atmosphere for the subject.

(Wait a minute, aren’t private schools also subject to NCLB pressures?  What gives?)

The quality of teaching and learning is also of concern, according to the study.  Only 20% of teachers, and 36% of students, value the teaching of facts, dates and major events as an essential part of social studies instruction.  Only 56% of teachers can state that their students have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  64% value teaching the intricacies of the federal government, such as checks and balances, federalism, etc.  63% find knowledge of historical periods important.   Even though the current trend is toward understanding concepts and ideas in social studies, they are difficult to understand without the meat of facts, dates and events.

What’s more, we may not even be sure students are learning.  No more than 24% of teachers say they are “very confident” that their students will graduate knowing all they need to know about social studies to continue to higher education or the working world.

So on a macro scale, the Farkas and Duffett report paint a bleak picture of a subject under assault from an education establishment bent on testing progress, where teachers have lost focus of essential knowledge and students lack concrete understanding.

We knew this already.  The charts and numbers help our cause, though.

What doesn’t help is the study’s assessment of teacher attitudes and values, as well as the criteria for social studies knowledge.  The AEI education team bases knowledge of social studies on what they call the Twelve Concept s of Citizenship, which are:

  • To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
  • To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking
  • To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty
  • To be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves
  • To understand concepts such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances
  • To be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War
  • To follow rules and be respectful of authority
  • To see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world
  • To understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives
  • To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes
  • To be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices
  • To know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor) (AEI Report, Appendix 2)

The problem, of course, is that this basket of items is both too broad and too narrow.  While knowing about the Bill of Rights is important, it could be folded into a larger standard about American citizenship and responsibility.   Some of these are so broad that they lack any meaning. To know facts and dates?  What facts and dates?   To be knowledgeable about different historical periods is okay, but you list three periods that are already broad without including the rest, which is just as important and also pretty hefty in it of itself.

Also, some of these tenets are just dripping with ideology.  Conservatives love law and order, we know that.  Most people, in fact, prefer a safe and secure society.  But there’s a better way to word such sentiments without sounding like a 50’s principal with a crew-cut and tortoise-shell glasses.  Good luck teaching inner-city kids, or any adolescents for that matter, to “follow rules and be respectful of authority.”  My kids would likely hurl you out the window.

The same ideological bent pervades the questions about teacher attitudes and values.  One finding was that 83% of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world.” 76% say that high school should impart respect for military service, and 82% think it is important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”

These numbers, by the way, align almost perfectly to the attitudes of ordinary Americans.  Glad to know teachers are normal, loyal patriots and not the bomb-throwing, lazy Bolsheviks that are depicted by some members of (gasp!) AEI itself.

None of the values studied are particularly galling, at least to me.  Our servicemen and women should be respected, and few would argue that teaching American history must include diverse points of view.  I’m even an advocate of American exceptionalism, to an extent.  Yet if you look at the questions about attitudes and values, one could surmise that the questions were crafted to elicit certain responses.  Like our students, the format and the content/context of the questions shape the data we receive from them.

So the AEI report isn’t perfect.  Maybe they got so wrapped up in progressive education that they forgot to be neo-cons.  Or maybe AEI head Arthur Brooks warned Farkas and Duffett that they better tack right if they know what’s good for them (just ask David Frum).

Regardless of the ideological bent, the report still has value as a window on the sorry state of social studies in this country.  Amongst America’s public schools, social studies is being downgraded more and more, thrown into the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods of scan-tron sheets and number 2 pencils.  Students are lacking even the basic underpinnings of our history and government, even as they leave high school eligible to vote—a frightening prospect indeed.

Which leads me to an essential question, in fact the essential question of the study: “What are teachers trying to teach our youth about citizenship and what it means to be an American?”

My answer: Whatever fits into the pitiful 45-minute block in between assessments and test prep.

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The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

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