Tag Archives: History of the United States

Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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The Authentic History Center: A Website Review

A Rotten Place to Visit and You Wouldn't Want ...

Image by John McNab via Flickr

The Internet is rarely the best place for “one stop shopping.”

As in the non-digital world, one often has to go to multiple sites to get the best prices.  For some reason, no one site has the best of everything, which really plays havoc on your shipping and handling costs.

The same is true for the history educator that needs visual artifacts in a hurry.  For frequent visitors to the Neighborhood, there is a list of my “Non-Blog Faves” to the right, websites that cater to the needs of today’s history-minded folks.  Note the length: although many of these sites claim to be “one-stop shops”, there’s always that picture of a basket or a weird Mayan dish that can only be found on certain sites that bug out your school district’s firewall (believe me, I know).

Recently, I needed to find such a place for the entire collection of photographs in Jacob Riis‘ groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.  I was creating a slideshow with the photos and its a royal pain in the ass finding them all in one site.  Usually, it would take multiple image searches and sifts through multiple prints of dubious quality.

Just before I bitch-slapped my laptop in frustration, I cam across a curious little site.  The Authentic History Center had what I needed, and then some.  Not only did it have all the photos, but all the TEXT as well, including the drawn illustrations.

What balls on these guys, I thought.  This had to be investigated further.

Any site that has a single creator or author should be used with a cautious eye.  Too many kooks, nutjobs and dangerously uneducated wingnuts are out there to spread misleading and false information disguised as fact, simply because it sounds kind of official: read www.martinlutherking.org if you don’t believe me.  So I was immediated suspicious of any guy that creates a site claiming “authentic” history.

Well, Thank God.  The creater of the Authentic History Center project is a crazy history-obsessed wierdo like yours truly–and possibly any one of my regular readers.

(…and believe me, the world needs more wierdos like us)

Michael Barnes is a high school history teacher in west Michigan who created this site to provide a catalog of popular culture throughout American history.  His artifacts cover a wide range, from posters (his World War I posters are most impressive) to magazine covers, cartoons to audio and video recordings.

What’s better, the artifacts are meant to be studied with as little editorializing as possible.  A student doesn’t have to worry about some grad-student pea brain or a bedsheet-wearing cross burner slipping bad info into the term paper.   Even if you need analysis, Barnes provides incredibly even-handed views.  Along the way are interpretive essays that give some insight into the historical events, people and crises covered in the artifacts.

His honesty shines through in his intro to How the Other Half Lives, for example:

This pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis focused on the plight of the poor in the Lower East Side, and greatly influenced future “muckraking” journalism. Riis mostly attributed the plight of the poor to environmental conditions, but he also divided the poor into two categories: deserving of assistance (mostly women and children) and undeserving (mostly the unemployed and intractably criminal). He wrote with prejudice about Jews, Italians, and Irish, and he stopped short of calling for government intervention. Still, the catalyst of his work was a genuine sympathy for his subjects, and his work shocked many New Yorkers.

Concise, accurate, good use of the source material and generally a great summary of the work (although he did neglect to mention that many of Riis’ photographs were staged).

The AHC is a work in progress, so don’t expect everything you need to be there right away.  The site is constantly growing with new artifacts and new materials.  Until then, take some time to explore what Michael Barnes has and see how it can be used in your classrooms.

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This Day in History 3/14: Whitney Patents the Cotton Gin

March 14, 1794 patent for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, courtesy of the National Archives

Eli Whitney made slavery profitable.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it.

In one of the great “my bads” in American history, Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney received Patent X72 for his cotton “engine”, or “gin.”  This device mechanized the separation of cotton seeds from their fibers, which had been an arduous, labor-intensive process.  Once considered a luxury item, short-staple cotton became a valuable commodity almost overnight, and it revived a dying institution in the South–slavery.

Yet if his patents were respected–which was impossible at the time–Whitney probably didn’t intend for it to be that way.

The cotton gins were not originally meant to be sold to plantations to use onsite.  Whitney’s original business model (albeit flawed) provided that cotton growers send their bales to his gins in Connecticut, where his machines would process the cotton for 40% of the ginned product as a fee.  Most Southern growers resented this arrangement, which smelled of shady proprietorships of grist and saw mills.  Furthermore, since patent law was difficult to enforce at the time, it was easily copied by tinkerers and craftsmen throughout the South.  In fact, Whitney ate up all his profits fighting patent infringements in court, and his business went bankrupt in 1797.

If the system were left as Whitney designed, who knows what would have happened to slave populations in southern plantations.  By the end of the 18th century slavery was dying in the North, and was increasingly unprofitable in the South–almost to the point of planters selling all their enslaved Africans and using hired hands instead.

Yet the gin, especially the patent-infringed gins that spread on every plantation, made machine-processed short-staple cotton available onsite for massive profits.  Cotton became such a commercial boon it tangentially boosted the fortunes of textile mills in New England, Great Britain and continental Europe: Now these “free” places were also tied to the slave economy.  Easier processed cotton meant more production, and more production required more hands picking up to 300 or even 400 pounds a day as a quota.

The whole vicious cycle spiraled through the early 19th century until the matter was settled with four years of bloodshed.

Eli Whitney is not exactly a beloved figure in most Black households.  Most likely, he’s burned in effigy with Roger Taney, “Bull” Connor and George Wallace.  One cannot know a man’s true intentions, but I don’t think he wanted to expand slavery by building a machine.  Instead, he wanted to get rich from a labor-saving device that would revolutionize an industry.

Too bad he was such a crappy businessman.

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Links for Women’s History Month

Alice Paul source: http://www.americaslibrary....

Alice Paul (1885-1977) Activist, Suffragette, played by Hillary Swank in an HBO movie. Image via Wikipedia

March is Women’s History Month, something we take seriously at the Neighborhood, along with all our other holidays (even “Talk Like a Pirate” Day…AArrrggghh!).

It seems like we’re not the only site getting in on the act.  A typical Google search finds thousands of sites that have something to say about the holiday.  To that end, I’ve whittled it down to a list of websites you may find helpful when teaching about the importance of women in American history (as always, tell them Mr. D sent you):

National Women’s History Project – Here’s a good place to start.  The NWHP has a great clearinghouse house for anything and everything related to women’s studies.  Biographies, articles, lesson plans, resources, primary documents…you name it.

Women’s History Month from the Library of Congress – I guess you could call this the “official” page of the month.  Another one-stop shopping center of materials, but with the awesome powers of the Library of Congress, the National Parks Service, the National Archives, and the National Endowment for the Humanities backing it up.

Women’s History Month – History.com – History (which is what the History Channel calls itself nowadays) has also gotten into the act, just in case those shows about lumberjacks, truckers and pawnbrokers made you forget the original purpose of the network.  As expected, History’s site is a bit more multimedia, with streaming videos, links to photo galleries of famous women, etc.  Does have a nice summary on the history of the holiday, though.

Women’s History Month – Time for Kids – A little more kid-friendly than the other sites, TFK did a good job highlighting important women as well as the struggles for women’s rights, such as the suffrage movement and the 1970s feminist movement.  A really nice feature is “Name that ‘Toon” which takes political cartoons from past and present, asking the readers to supply their own captions.

Women Who Changed History – ScholasticScholastic‘s site is more of a research starter for students who can’t seem to find the right woman for their biography.  It includes the bios of women past and present, summaries of important movements, and quizzes/games for students to learn more.

Women’s History and Heritage Month – Smithsonian Magazine – Designed for older students and scholars, Smithsonian Magazine’s site features nuanced, scholarly articles on aspects of women’s history often overlooked by conventional sources, such as women artists of the Hudson River School, philanthropist Melinda Gates, Harriet Tubman’s spirituality, and a re-examinaton of Victorian womanhood.

National Women’s History Museum – Yet another omnibus site for the holiday, but with a concrete purpose.  The mission: to build a museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC dedicated to women’s history (a worthy cause, indeed).  Worth a look, even if you’re overloaded with materials.

Women’s History Month – Biography Channel – A favorite offshoot of A&E, the Biography Channel sure made it easy for students to research their favorite heroines for that big assignment.  Even if all the information isn’t there (and it probably isn’t), there’s enough story starters to get your kids on the right track.

Women’s History Month – The New York Times – The New York Times Education section has also gotten into the act, with resources, articles, lesson plans and printouts to be used in the classroom.  Their resources are worth a look, since they must use their vast archive of periodicals as a source.

Women’s History Month – ABC Teach – I don’t like putting pay sites on here, but the free part of ABC Teach is important, in that it has templates and worksheets that will help you plan your Women’s History Month activities.  DON’T BOTHER with the “member’s only” stuff – you can get that at the other sites for free.

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