Pairing the Past with the Future

history_2It’s been nine years since I retired from education but I have continued to regularly work with students. I can state without hesitation that they are learning mathematics at a much higher level and faster pace than any program that was around when I was a student back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. They are seeing quite advanced material but I’m always a bit concerned that there are still too many who are struggling for mastery of the concepts. I fear that we still operate from a one size fits all mentality when it comes to the pacing of our teaching when we still have students chomping at the bit to move forward and even more struggling to keep up with the flow of information. We seem to have made a race of the learning process rather than tailoring it to the individual needs of each student.

Part of the problem that we have is that as we progress there is more and more material to cover within any discipline in the same amount of time that there was over a hundred years ago. This becomes a particular problem when it comes to and subject but particularly with history, whether it be about the state, the nation or the world. Choosing what to cover and what to leave out has created well known problems with the historical knowledge that young people possess after finishing the required coursework in school. When I was a student the curriculum essentially ended with World War II, leaving more time for in depth emphasis on critical topics. It’s been more than fifty years since I formally studied history and so much has happened since then that needs to be presented and discussed, but what has to go to make room for more recent events?

I suppose that if I were to suggest one very major change to the general education programs in our school it would be to have history be an integral part of every single year of school rather than providing a bit here and a bit there as it now is. American History should be taught in the the fourth or fifth grade, again in the eighth grade and for two years in high school with World History being given at least that much time as well. Courses such as psychology and sociology are certainly interesting but they are not as essential as learning about the past and understanding its impact on both today and tomorrow.

We need a better educated population not just in the STEM subjects but also the social science of history. There is great wisdom in the old saw that history helps us to learn from the mistakes of the past. It furthermore helps us to make connections that provide us with tools for analysis of the present.

I sometimes shudder when faced with the ignorance of history that I encounter with far too many of today’s young. I recall talking with a group of students who knew little or nothing about the political differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson which lie at the very heart of the arguments dividing our nation even today. They were unaware that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy and have no idea what that fact implies. They were unsure of what actually happened in the holocaust and new virtually nothing about the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. They seemed to get most of their information from dubious sites on social media and much of what they did know      was either limited or outright wrong.

While we certainly need our mathematicians and scientists to combat our the problems that plague us, we also should demand that our young graduate from high school with a clear understanding of where our world has been and we must insist that the knowledge that our teachers impart is done so without a tinge of propaganda or editorializing. History is best taught from primary sources that demonstrate the differing points of view that led to decisions that influenced events. Students should be able to see how and why such choices affected outcomes. They need to learn that none of us ever operates in a vacuum and that how we react to events is almost always determined by the worldview of our own time in life.

I studied English grammar and literature in college along with mathematics. I learned that analyzing language or writing requires an understanding of the times in which a tract was written. It is far easier to understand characters of a story when we have a concept of what it was like to be them in a certain time and place. History is as important to the study of the great artistic works of writing as knowing literary devices. Our human experience as portrayed in art is dependent on the times in which the works were created and we will never fully understand them if we do not have some knowledge of history to guide us.

Education has essentially been done in the same basic manner for some time now with only a bit of experimentation here and there. We’ve had a kind of revolution with the teaching of mathematics and science that emphasizes both theory and practice using abstract, visual and concrete examples. It’s time that we rethink the scope and sequencing of history classes as well to allow enough time to study events and ideas in depth. It’s a challenge that we seriously need to undertake as overwhelming as it may seem. We owe it to our children to adequately prepare them for the future and the key to doing that well lies in understanding the past.   

What We Need

common-ground-dove

There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

Another Place In Time

Dickens

I live less than an hour away from Galveston, Texas, a heavenly island in the Gulf of Mexico with a storied history. On a lovely day it’s easy to understand why it was one of the fastest growing and most influential cities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s avenues boasted lovely Victorian homes, many of which still stand, and panoramic views of sandy beaches and the ever changing sea. It was a mecca for entrepreneurs and folks hoping to enjoy a better life. It certainly seemed to be a place that would fulfill all of the hopes and dreams of its citizens. In 1900, a storm approached that would destroy much of the city and kill more individuals than any other hurricane ever has. The terror of the night when nature turned what had been a model city into splinters dashed the optimism of many, but not the underlying spirit of the city of Galveston itself.

While the neighboring town of Houston became the behemoth of growth and progress Galveston settled for transforming itself into more of a sleepy resort and home for a determined populace that would forever boast of the courage and ingenuity of those who were BOI, born on the island. They literally raised the entire city and built a seawall as a defense against future hurricanes. While the citizenry has seen destruction from storms again and again it always finds a way to bounce back from the momentary setbacks and to enjoy and celebrate life on the island.

There are a number of festivals that have become traditional in the city that is a little bit New Orleans, a little bit refined gentry, a little bit touristy, and always bold. It feels as though life in Galveston is a year long party, a determined celebration of life. Perhaps it is so because the people there understand just how tenuous the human experience actually is.

My favorite of the Galveston festivals has always been the Christmas themed Dickens on the Strand. The buildings of commerce from long ago Galveston still grace the landscape near the city’s port, a place where immigrants first saw the land of the United States and where titans once ruled. Lovely shops and restaurants now attract visitors from places near and far. It’s a wonderful weekend haunt for residents of Houston and its suburbs and for vacationers from other parts of the country and sometimes even the world.

In early December the Strand is decked in Christmas finery and peopled by actors in regalia from the time of Charles Dickens complete with visits from Queen Victoria herself. Those who attend the annual party often wear period costumes filling the street with a long ago feel as they walk among wardens from London, men in top hats, and ladies boasting their finest bonnets.

There are craftsmen and merchants selling all form of goods from Christmas ornaments to art and fine clothing. The smells of roasting chestnuts and cinnamon treats fill the air along with the music of bagpipes and the tunes of Irish jigs. It’s a kind of frivolous way to simply enjoy the season without the worries of time constraints and shopping lists. For a moment it feels like Galveston may have seemed in the long ago when Victoria was still on the throne and a lovely December day in the city was filled with soft sea breezes and brilliantly blue skies. It’s a time when everyone is friendly and happy and seemingly without cares.

The event extends from a Friday evening preview until late afternoon on Sunday usually on the first December weekend before the big Christmas rush begins. Each day features a parade and St. Nicholas wanders through the crowd ready to pose for photos and a recitation of Christmas wishes. One might encounter a band of pirates or a group of steampunk dandies, There are British Bobbies and Scottish clansmen. In other words, its a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

My husband Mike and I have generally arrived incognito in our modern attire but this year we decided to join in the fun of dressing as characters from the past. Mike was particularly impressive with his striped grey suit pants with matching vest, his long coat, top hat and paisley cravat. His neatly polished shoes and silver handled cane made him a Victorian dandy for certain. I found a long black skirt to pair with my high collared white blouse which I adorned with a cameo pin that came from either my mother or my grandmother. I found a hat worthy of a visit with the queen and wore a black shawl in case the fickle weather turned cool. I also happened to have a pair of black boots with three little button fittings to secure them. On the whole we looked rather authentic and turned a head or two as we strolled down the Strand.

It was amusing to be approached by strangers who wanted to take their pictures with us. There was even one child who held us in as much awe as she might have done with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I found myself getting into character and wishing the people that I passed a good day in my most refined accent.

Our afternoon was a much needed diversion from the hectic demands that seem to overtake us the closer we get to December 25. It reminded us to focus on the fun and meaning of the season, perhaps more so because we silently remembered the Galveston citizens of long ago who had so innocently believed that they had found heaven on earth before their lives were ended so brutally and abruptly . Life is indeed short and unpredictable so we have to grab delight wherever and whenever we find it. Dickens on the Strand is a wonderful way to remember to have fun and to love.

What’s In A Name?

Houston_skyline_security

The challenge was to give my city/town a new name, but what is the place that I call home? I was born and raised in Houston, Texas where I spent all of my years until I moved to the suburbs in a town called Pearland. To this very day when asked where I live I instantly respond with Houston. Even though I can’t vote there I think of the Houston mayor as my own. Most of my doctors have their offices in Houston including my dentist. I get my hair styled and cut in Houston and I still do at least fifty percent of my shopping in Houston. I don’t really think of myself as a Pearlander even though by strict definition I am. So should I rename the bedroom community where I awake each morning or the city where I was born and grew old? Perhaps I can do a bit of both.

I’ve struggled with the idea of rebranding Houston. Just as with my own name the habit of being called a certain thing somehow seems to become almost a definition of a city or a person. Houston is Houston and calling it anything else feels as absurd as changing my own name this late in the game. I have become Sharron whether I like it or not and so it is also with Houston, a city named after Texas hero, Sam Houston and more or less forged by a couple of brothers with a bent for selling real estate,

There was always something a bit audacious and confusing about Sam Houston and the same is true with Houston. Sam had once been heralded as a rising star in Congress and a potential future candidate for President of the United States but he had a wild streak, a bent for adventure and the exotic, and a bit too much enjoyment of drinking to follow a straight path. Instead he ended up leading a rag tag group of rebels against a powerful Mexican army in an effort to gain independence for an area in the far northern reaches of Mexico. After a stunning win at San Jacinto in which his army captured General Santa Ana, he indeed became president of the new republic of Texas but eventually settled down to a quieter life in Huntsville, Texas.

Sam Houston was a conundrum. He lived among native Americans and seemed to prefer them and their lifestyle over his own kind. He was an advocate for the dispossessed but owned slaves whom he eventually freed and even helped o start businesses. He was brilliant but suffered from bouts of severe depression. He had so much potential that never really came to complete fruition, and so it seems to be with the city that was named in his honor.

Houston, Texas has always been a bit rough around the edges in spite of efforts by city leaders to make it more refined. It has wonderful centers of art, music, theater and learning but it is also plagued by a tough and tumble underbelly that sometimes threatens to become its face and definition. Just when Houston seems on the verge of becoming respected by the rest of the country something always seems to happen to make those who do not understand it shake their heads in derision. Lots of assumptions are made about Houston by those outside its city limits but few of them are true. It’s a southern city with a liberal democratic government and more diversity than any other place in the entire United States.

So how would I go about renaming Houston? Is there a moniker that is more appropriate than the one that links it to a man who lead a confusing and often misjudged life? The place has had a number of nicknames over time. It was once known as “Bayou City” which is a reminder of the ribbons of waterways that trace throughout the area and sometimes cause disturbing floods. Back in the heydays of NASA it became “Space City, USA.” Somehow that seems too much like a passing reference to become a new name. These days its mostly called “H town” which has a friendly vibe but is a bit too informal to become an official designation.

I thought of famous individuals who had contributed greatly to the progress of Houston but none of their names sounded right. William Marsh Rice was a visionary who gave the city a great university and the land for one of the best medical centers in the country as well as the property that would one day become NASA but Riceville, Riceland, or Rice City doesn’t seem to describe the city at all.

The same is true when considering other prominent Houstonians like Jesse Jones or George H.W. Bush. Such considerations are far too ordinary for a place like Houston which is home to areas more quirky than anything that weird Austin has. In fact Houston has a little bit of San Antonio (with considerably more Hispanics), a little bit of Dallas with its multiple thriving business areas, and little bit of Austin with an arts and culinary scene worthy of any great city. In fact there seems to be no way to adequately describe the dynamic and friendly place that is Houston other than keeping the name of it had at its founding.

As for my present town of Pearland I would not be audacious enough to suggest a change given that I have not lived here long enough to earn that right, so I suppose that I will forgo the challenge of changing the name of either place. In fact, it seems to me that human efforts to do so in other parts of the world have rarely turned out well. Perhaps its time that we simply stick with whatever we have become. I am Sharron and suddenly calling me Sarah Elizabeth would be absurd. So it is with Houston and Pearland. We are all three what we already are. Our dreams and personalities have become synonymous with the names that we were given to us long agoe for better or worse and somehow that seems okay.   

We Will Persist

da vinci

We hear about wars, violence, poverty and other ills almost instantly these days. The problems that people face with health and relationships are openly discussed. We debate how to deal with them while also feeling a sense of satisfaction that we are becoming a more “woke” society even as some cling anxiously to old ways of thinking and doing things. We are so anxious that we consume medications, alcohol and even illegal drugs to still our pain. We begin to wonder if we are somehow mucking up our own existences and those of our children. We believe that surely we are capable of doing far better in our efforts to make the world safer, kinder, more peaceful. We believe that we have the tools but somehow fall short. We hear lectures about our imperfections and feel guilt. At least we are led to believe that we have somehow been complicit in the demise of all that is good.

Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in classes in history, travel to places whose evolution of thought shaped the world in which we live today. I have learned that if there are any strict conclusions to be drawn about the state of the society in which we now exist it is that we have come a very long way from the darkness that once ruled. In centuries of old not even kings and queens were immune from travails that were devastating and deathly while the common folk were at the mercy of the whims of a ruling class into which they had little hope of gaining admittance. Slowly but surely the marvelous imagination of humankind has changed all of that.

Queen Anne, of the Stuart line in English royalty, endured seventeen pregnancies only one of which resulted in the successful birth of a child. That son died at the age of eleven. At the close of the seventeenth century life was often brutal even for the wealthiest. Families toiled with little hope of reprieve from their labors. It was not uncommon for a worker to earn less than twenty pounds in a year. The idea of freedoms was only beginning to take hold and would burst forth in the next century in an imperfect but revolutionary form that would slowly but surely change the trajectory of potential for all people.

I think that we all too often underestimate the miracles that are all around us. While we have yet to achieve human perfection in any of our social constructs we have come farther than even our most courageous and enlightened ancestors dared dream. Women still lose babies but not to the extent of long ago times. When a child is born there is a sense of assurance that he/she will grow into adulthood, a luxury that we take for granted in ways that would astound the parents who came before us. We complain about injustice, just as we should, without celebrating enough that we already have so many freedoms that did not exist in the long ago. In other words we may be living in the best of times without even realizing it.

That does not mean that we should be content with the status quo. There is always room for improvement, but our guilty breast beating may be overly dramatic. The truth is that most of the evil and want in the world is an anomaly rather than a way of life. When I drive down a crowded freeway in my city I notice the jerk who weaves in and out of the traffic without regard for safety because he is the exception, not the rule. Millions of people across the globe are living with a sense of decency, thus we take note of those who are cruel and unjust. We see them because they are so unlike what we have come to expect.

I only need sit in the room where I write to witness the ingenuity and glory of humans. I hear music coming from a device that brings the greatest talent of the world into my home. I work by the lights that were unknown for thousands of years. I tap my fingers on the keys of a computer that holds more knowledge than the great library of Alexandria. I am immune from cruel diseases that my grandfather saw firsthand. I have works of art hanging on my walls that might have once been only the possession of kings. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer because machines that keep me comfortable whir away. I hear the buses conveying the neighborhood children to schools where they receive educations that were at one time only the purview of the wealthiest. I am free to worship and think as I wish and even to openly tell people my thoughts without fear of being imprisoned. How can I not be thankful for my many privileges when I think of how wonderful life has become for an ordinary soul like me?

No, we are not yet perfect, but we are far from being deplorable. We are moving forward continuously and often at a pace more rapid than at any time in history. We will no doubt see many more great wonders that are products of our human capacity to think and invent. There are geniuses and thinkers and visionaries among us who will lead us forward and past the turmoils that threaten our well being. It is our way and I have every confidence that we will persist.