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This Day in History 5/30 – The 1806 Duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickenson

Jackson DuelSome epithets seem custom-made for their people they describe.

Father of his country, Great emancipator, Great Soul…hell, any permutation of “the Great”, or “the Terrible”, or “The Magnificent” and so on.  These monikers may, or may not suit their real-life examples perfectly.

Yet for some reason, the term “ornery son of a bitch” just fits Andrew Jackson like a glove.

Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, killer of Seminoles in Florida, and seventh President of the United States, had what we today would call an anger issue.  Andy was pissed, at just about anything.

He was pissed at his parents for not settling in Philadelphia, where they landed from Ireland, and opting for a lawless wilderness called the Waxhaws between North and South Carolina.

He was pissed at the British for killing his Mom, his brothers and for slashing him with a sword during the American Revolution.

He was pissed at Native Americans for supporting the British, for supporting their independence and way of life, heck for even existing.

Most of all, he was pissed at anyone who slandered his wife’s good name.

Andrew Jackson met Rachel Donelson Robards when he first moved to Nashville in 1788.  Robards was in the process of divorcing her difficult husband, and Jackson couldn’t wait to marry her.  When they did wed, in 1790, he thought the divorce was finalized.  It so happened that the divorce was never finalized, making Jackson’s marriage bigamous and invalid.  In fact, some records show Rachel living with Andy AS MRS. JACKSON before the ink was dry on the paperwork.  Even though they remarried legally in 1794, it made Rachel look like a two-timing hussy, and Andrew would be the first to fight for his wife’s honor.

In 1805, a fellow horse trader and plantation owner named Charles Dickinson started to get under Jackson’s skin about his business dealings.  Specifically, Dickinson had issue with a horse race between Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law.  The war of words would escalate from a simple bet on a horse race to a full-fledged public attack on Rachel Jackson’s character.

At first, the original dispute was settled.  Then, Jackson started telling his own twist on the affair, and Dickinson sent a friend to smooth things over.  Jackson then beat the shit out of the friend with his cane, since he was already pissed at dealing with a meddler and an interloper.  Both Dickinson and his friend sent letters calling Jackson a coward.  Jackson responded in a newspaper that the friend was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard.”

This last insult sent Dickinson over the edge.  Since his Facebook page wasn’t available, he publishes an attack in a newspaper calling Jackson a “poltroon and a coward.”Now a casual look at Webster’s would show that Dickinson is being redundant: “poltroon” means a spiritless coward.  However, looking closer, “poltroon” was also meant to describe Jackson as not only cowardly, but evil as well.  This was a sly reference to Jackson’s relations with his wife, which many still saw as somewhat sinful.

Jackson, as ornery SOBs tend to do, demands satisfaction, challenging Dickinson to a duel in nearby Kentucky (Tennessee outlawed dueling).  On May 30, 1806, both combatants met in the Adairville area near the border between the two states.  Dickinson was confident: he was an expert shot and never stopped showing off his skills along the way.  Jackson, knowing his opponent’s skill, thought Dickinson should fire first, as he might be too excited to aim accurately.  If he missed, then Jackson could calmly aim and fire.  Of course, there was the little problem of Jackson dying from his wound, but that was another matter.

As the two men took their places on the ground, they stood slightly angled to each other, so as to give the smallest target possible.  Dickinson, as planned, fired first.  He hit Jackson square in the chest, within an inch of his heart.  Somehow, it could be through adrenaline, stubbornness, or just plain backcountry hate, Jackson manages to stand still, level his pistol, and fire.  The first shot was faulty, as the cock of the pistol only went halfway, so under the rules of dueling Jackson was allowed to recock his pistol and try again.

This time, he hit Dickinson in the chest.  He wasn’t so lucky.

People of the time were shocked, and criticized Jackson for not simply wounding Dickinson and thus settling the affair without loss of life.  Jackson lived through a lifetime of hate; there was no way he was not going to shoot to kill.  Besides, he rationalized that Dickinson was clearly aiming to kill him, so it was only proper to repay the favor.

Jackson was a social outcast after the duel.  It didn’t last long—pretty soon, a few Indian wars and scuffle with the Redcoats in New Orleans would make him a national hero. He would become President, and survive an assassination attempt—even beating the shit out of his would-be assassin with his cane. Yet the rumors about his wife never let up, even after Jackson killed a man for slandering her.

It’s amazing what a life force hate can be.  Can anyone ever be that pissed nowadays?

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Mad Men and the King Assassination

Some of the cast of AMC’s Mad Men.

Yesterday was that rare instance when television illuminates.

Even so, the light shone by the tube can often reflect on our own mirrors—and the image is rarely beautiful.

Mad Men has been one of my favorite programs for a long time—mostly for superficial reasons.  Sure, the series gets deep once in a while, exploring emotions or lack thereof (the latter in the case of main character Don Draper), but I just love the entire ambiance.  The clothes, the furniture, the hair, the constant booze, cigarettes and womanizing; the show does a great job romanticizing a time and place that, if you had an ounce of humanity in you, shouldn’t be celebrated at all.

Yet yesterday’s episode, which focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, gave an interesting window into how this predominantly white establishment dealt with crisis.

Let’s face it; for most of America, the 1960s was still a time of rigid social mores, gender roles, and class divisions that gave more leeway to those males who climbed higher up the food chain (a time we’re unfortunately cycling back to today).  The counter culture image of the Sixties was what America saw on TV, but not necessarily what dictated their everyday lives.

To paraphrase a famous saying, by the time the Sixties really reached middle America, it was the Seventies, and nobody cared.

It certainly seemed that way for the characters of Mad Men, as the episode opened with an advertising awards ceremony in New York.  As the advertising honchos got in their tuxedos and mink stoles, the keynote speech (given by the late Paul Newman as an endorsement to 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy) was interrupted by a shout that King was killed in Memphis.

As the episode wore on, the emotions of the principal characters ran the gamut.  Megan Draper and Peggy Olsen cried at the news.  Don and Roger Sterling stood as stoic as possible—with Roger cracking wise that he thought King’s famous eloquence would save him.  Old-money scion Pete Campbell lashes out at Harry Crane for thinking of profits on what he calls a “shameful, shameful day!”  Buxom office matron Joan Harris hugs Don’s Black secretary Dawn.  Even Don’s son Bobby starts ripping the wallpaper in frustration.

If there was one common theme in their reactions to the King assassination, it isn’t rage, regret, or even sadness—it is awkwardness.

It’s an awkwardness that captures beautifully the confused mindset of most of white America (at least north of the Mason Dixon) at the time.

The King assassination was one of the defining moments of the decade, and opened a groundswell of emotions.  The survivors of King’s movement tried to keep his legacy and activism alive as best they could.  Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement called for an end to nonviolent resistance.  Riots sprang up in overt 100 urban areas, including Washington, DC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York.

Again, if you didn’t live in these riot zones, all of this was seen through television.  Most of America, to be honest, really didn’t know how to react.  David Halberstam, the famous journalist, reported callous, even vicious reactions by whites, particularly in the South.  Yet most of America was too stunned…too bewildered…and definitely not sure of what the right reaction should be, especially since the wrong reaction (riots, violence) was sprawled all over the six-o’clock news.

Mad Men was not about to cover the rage and discontent in the Black community, and rightfully so.  Mad Men never has been, and never will be a show about people of color in the 1960s.  It’s about white America, the elite of white America, and how that elite changes with the rise of mass culture and mass communications.  Old-money nabobs like Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper evolve into the self-made media elites like Don Draper.

As such, it would be extremely stilted, and rather phony, to shift focus from Madison Avenue to the streets of Harlem.  The awkward silences, the phony hugs, the confusion about what to do—all of that reflected perfectly the era and the people of the ruling class of 1960s New York, and nothing else.

Yet even with a clear view, the vista is not always pleasant.  In hindsight, we should’ve known better.

The assassination did not serve as a galvanizing force in America.   On the contrary, it showed how while the activists, intellectuals and politicians moved closer together, the rest of America was still far apart.  Not only were the differences vast, but growing every year as awareness through the media didn’t always lead to acceptance or even sympathy.  Many whites in 1968 still saw civil rights as a threat to their way of life, and not just in the South.

The awkwardness, therefore, reflected a reinforcement of social niceties that mask true intentions.  It’s difficult to know how anyone on Mad Men truly felt about civil rights: even the most liberal of characters, like Peggy Olsen, hasn’t had her worldview tested by a Black family moving next door.

So, in its own way, Mad Men was a lot more realistic about the attitudes of the 1960s than any other show.  The strange silences, stilted apologies and affected shows of affection demonstrate an establishment ( indeed, an entire population) with not only an extreme disconnect to the world around them, but a complete breakdown as the chaos enters the front door.

As our society suffered further catastrophes in the decades since, one must wonder if we ever learned how to react.

What do we do when the world comes crashing down?

Do we make the painful observations that are necessary to make our world better…or just wrap ourselves in the comfort of awkward silence?

 

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This Day in History 4/27: US Marines-led force captures Derne

“Don’t call it a comeback,
I been here for years,
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear…” ~ from “I’m Gonna Knock You Out”, by LL Cool J (1990)

Don’t ever think that we’re new to the regime-change business.  We’ve had over two centuries of experience messing with other countries.

English: William Eaton (1764-1811)

English: William Eaton (1764-1811) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On April 27, 1805, a small force of United States Marines, commanding about 500 mercenaries and supported by three warships, an ambitious diplomat and a deposed former pasha, attacked and captured the city of Derne in modern-day Libya.  It was the first recorded land battle by the United States on foreign soil, and the first time the Stars and Stripes flew in combat in another country.

It was also part of our first war on terror (sensing a pattern here?).

Since the 1600s, pirates sponsored by the Barbary States (Modern day Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya) preyed upon Western ships in the Mediterranean.  The Barbary States were (except for Morocco) nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.  In reality, they stopped listening to Constantinople a long time ago.  Each state quietly sponsored a pirate fleet that pillaged any ship entering their waters, usually for gold, materials, ships and especially captives to be ransomed for big payouts.

To avoid such inconveniences, the Great Powers of Europe did what most Great Powers do: pay off the pirates to leave them alone.  Britain, France and other sea powers paid the Barbary States a yearly “tribute” to let their ships sail the Mediterranean untouched.

By  1801, the young United States suffered a similar problem in the Med.  Unfortunately, it couldn’t afford to pay off the pirate states; thus leading to the rallying cry, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”, which actually came from the previous XYZ Affair with the French in 1797-1798, but it seems to fit better here.

For four long years, the US Navy engages in a series of naval and coastal battles with Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary Wars.  There were successes and failures on both sides: an American frigate was lost in 1801, the USS Philadelphia, only to have it burned in Tripoli harbor in a daring raid.  It deprived the Tripolitans of their prize and even impressed Lord Horatio Nelson, the great British naval commander who had his hands (or hand, I forgot he lost an arm) full with Napoleon so he couldn’t meddle too much.

Things were seemingly at a stalemate by 1805, when a diplomat, an old veteran of the Middle East, had a crazy idea.

William Eaton was the former US Consul to Tunis, a man with a decent reputation amongst Arabs and Americans alike.  As the war dragged on, Eaton was recalled to Washington and came up with an outrageous way to gain the upper-hand.  Instead of ships slugging it out in the Med, the war could open a second front on land.  The ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, deposed his brother Hamet in a coup ten years earlier.  The plan would involve going to Egypt, where the exiled brother was living, recruit him and hundreds of mercenaries to cross the desert and reinstate him to his rightful throne.  The whole scheme involved naval support from three military vessels and a handful of US Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.

Amazingly, the US government gave full support to this adventure, sending Eaton to the Med with the lofty, if slightly bullshitty, title of “Naval Agent to the Barbary States.” He found Hamet Karamanli, who agreed to the plan and helped recruit about 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries—with Eaton acting as general and commander-in-chief (he appointed himself).  They set up a base in Alexandria, Egypt, where Eaton, O’Bannon, Hamet and squadron commander Isaac Hull laid out their plans.  The objective would be the port city of Derne, capital of the province of Cyrenaica and a base of power for Yusuf.

This motley crew sets across the Libyan desert on March 6, 1805.  It would take almost two months and over 500 miles to cross, and it soon became clear that mercenaries tend to be a handful—especially when they’re two groups that hate each other.  They were promised money and supplies upon reaching Derne, and many weren’t willing to wait that long.  On any given occasion, either the Arabs or the Greeks (sometimes both) threatened to mutiny.  In the first week alone, several of the Arab camel drivers mutinied and turned back.  Things didn’t really settle down until April 25, when they reached Bomba, a city up the coast from Derne where the three naval vessels waited with the appropriate money and supplies to keep the mercenaries happy…for now.

Hull’s squadron bombarded Derne on April 27.  Hamet Karamanli led the Arab mercenaries towards the governor’s palace, cutting of the escape route to Tripoli, while Eaton led the Greeks and the Marines towards the harbor fortress.  Hamet’s forces stormed the western part of the city easily, while Eaton was seriously wounded leading his force over the walls of the defenses.  The defenders left all their cannon loaded as they fled, so Eaton turned the guns on the city and opened fire.  Meanwhile, O’Bannon raised the American flag over the Derne defenses.  The town fell by 4 in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Yusuf had already sent reinforcements to Derne, only to find that the city had already fallen.  While Eaton fortified his position, Hamet and the Arabs patrolled the governor’s palace and the outskirts.  When Yusuf’s forces attacked on May 13, the Arabs fell back before Eaton’s guns and the batteries of the USS Argus saved the day, driving the invaders back to their original positions.

Feeling confident, Eaton was ready to press on to Tripoli and finish off Yusuf…and then, en route to his prize, his government stabs Eaton in the back.

Yusuf, eager to keep his throne against his invading brother, sent feelers out to the US to sign a peace treaty.  Tobias Lear, George Washington’s former secretary and now Consul General to the North African Coast, negotiated a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Yusuf on June 4, 1805.  Incredibly, the treaty did exactly as the US didn’t want to do: pay a ransom, this time $60,000 for the release of prisoners from the Philadelphia and other ships.  Even worse, Yusuf would keep his throne, with the backing of the United States.

Hamet would return to Alexandria, the mercenaries would never be paid in full, and although O’Bannon and Eaton returned home as heroes, they never forgave Lear for his perceived treachery.

Despite the setbacks, Derne was more than just a pyrrhic victory.  Important lessons were learned, such as:

Never fuck with the Marines – a handful…yes, a HANDFUL…of Marines managed to recruit a regiment of hired killers, march them 500 miles across the Sahara, then attack a heavily fortified position, take possession AND repel ensuing counterattacks.  Derne made the US Marine Corps, plain and simple.  All jarheads trace their ancestry to Presley O’Bannon and his small band of asskickers—and they did it in those hot-as-hell Napoleonic uniforms, making them even more badass.  Finally, the Mameluke sword Marine officers carry today is modeled on the one supposedly given to O’Bannon by Hamet Karamanli as a gift for his service.

Never run a line of credit on mercenaries – The 500 goons hired to take Derne wanted cash, and fast.  Eaton kept dangling the carrot to get them crossing the desert, hyping the riches of Derne if they just got there.  A few mutinies later, it was clear they had to stop short and pay that deposit.  Mercenaries don’t carry plastic, and they don’t take IOUs or even COD.  When they were forced to return thanks to the treaty…let’s just say any town between Derne and Alexandria was fair game.

In a multinational force, the Yanks often draw the shit job – ask the poor guys at Omaha Beach about this one.  Hamet Karamanli takes the Arabs to the west side of town with almost no resistance, while Eaton and O’Bannon slog over the defenses and sustain a lot of the damage, at least initially.  Their offense ground to a halt while Hamet’s Arabs stormed the rest of the town in a walk.

No one fucks over a diplomat as much as another diplomat – or, for that matter, an FBI agent, a spy, a CIA operative, a Senate committee chairman, etc.  Derne was the start of 200 years of half-finished foreign adventures, thanks to the double-dealing, backstabbing, face-saving and ass-kissing of our federal agencies that rarely play nice together for long.

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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 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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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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This Day in History 1/25: Idi Amin takes power in Uganda

At first, many thought that the jolly general from the King’s African Rifles was a droll African joke.

Today, few are laughing about him.

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin deposed president Milton Obote to become Uganda’s most notorious leader.  A veteran of the British colonial forces, Amin’s delusions, his lust for riches and power, and especially his brutality would create a figure both fascinating and horrifying in the public imagination.

In a nutshell, Amin was a stone cold bad guy.  Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 deaths during his eight-year regime from 1971-1979.  His wrath spread to ethnic minorities, Asians (whom Amin expelled in 1972 amid an ill-conceived program of reappopriation), religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, foreign nationals, and pretty much anyone who stood in his way.

How did he dispatch so many people at will?  Don’t ask.

Amin was also fond of pissing off pretty much everybody.  An early supporter of the United States and Israel, he did an abrupt about-face in 1972, siding with Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which supplied arms and helped in interrogation and torture.  The expulsion of the Ugandan Asians didn’t sit well with India, which severed relations with Uganda, as did Great Britain.  By 1973, even the US had to jump ship.

This, of course, didn’t prevent Amin from taking top billing in a notorious international incident.  In 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport.  Once landed, the non-Jewish hostages were released, and another 103 hostages were held at the airport.  Amin took to the cameras to play the diplomat, but Israel wasn’t fooled.  A group of Israeli commandos seized the airport and freed all the hostages, killing seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops.

As time went on, Amin would further dip into madness.  His official title became, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” The VC, by the way, was the Victorious Cross, which he made up after the British Victoria Cross (The real VC).  His doctorate was one he conferred on himself.  He never got a real DSO (Distinguished Service Order) or an MC (Military Cross), but Amin was never one to worry about the facts.

He also didn’t have to worry about atoning for his sins, neither.

After he was deposed in 1979, Amin would first live in Libya, then Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, in a twisted sense of generosity, bankrolled his sorry butt in order that he stay out of politics.  He lived out the rest of his days not feeling one ounce of remorse for what he did, right up to his death in 2003.

The attached film is a 1974 French documentary  named Idi Amin Dada.  It shows Amin at the height of his power, and you can almost taste the crazy coming off the screen.

WARNING: It’s probably too violent for classroom use.

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