Friday, March 28, 2014

7 Questions with U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, Georgia

(Senator Saxby Chambliss was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994.  Since his election in 2002, he has represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate. )

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

When I was 8 years old, my parents allowed me to stay up past 1 a.m. to see the results of the 1952 election when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected U.S. president. Looking back, that moment sparked an interest in government, and politics, and history.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

I have always admired the great leaders that came before me, and believe we can all learn from their wisdom as well as their mistakes. My upbringing and my personal history are the foundation of my success. I was taught important lessons of integrity and honesty early on, and I never forget that.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

History is something I rely on every day. Working in the United States Senate, we must look back at the history of our nation, our founding fathers, and the principles this nation was founded on to know which direction to take the country. I believe our nation’s first president, George Washington, was this nation’s greatest political leader.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

It is important to learn about our past and about those who came before us in order to see how their actions and decisions affected the course of history. History gives us the unique opportunity to learn lessons from the past, determine what actions led to certain outcomes, and then use this information to shape our future.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

The Revolutionary War period of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson is my favorite period of history because that is when the ideas of great men developed into the foundation of our country. Those ideas shaped the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, documents that are still the envy of the free world.

6. How can today’s students benefit from studying history?

Every time I meet with a group of young people I encourage them to read everything they can get their hands on, stay up to speed on current events, seek out the places around the world they find of interest. Most importantly, I always tell them to never forget their roots.  Learning about the past teaches our young people about the decisions that were made, as well as the benefits and consequences that may arise from the actions they take.  It also gives them a sense of their own past, which makes up so much of who we are.

7. What should Americans know about history and why?

Americans should remember that history gives us a sense of identity by learning who we are through where we came from.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

7 Questions With Joel Walker, Education Specialist, National Archives

(Mr. Joel Walker grew up in the Midwest and was an educator in Kansas and South Carolina before accepting his current position as Education Specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta, located in Morrow, Georgia.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
 There wasn't any certain moment that got me hooked on history.  It was just something that was a part of me growing up.  As an elementary-aged kid, my family made the forty-mile drive from Grand Island, Nebraska to Hastings, Nebraska about every year.  At the time, GI did not have a museum but Hastings had the "House of Yesterday."  It was the classic, old cluttered museum.  The Civil War era exhibit case always mesmerized me with its ragged blue sack coat.  This was before the Native American burial act was passed and off in a side room was a skeleton of a Pawnee displayed as if it had just been found in a recently discovered grave by some archeologist.  To this day, I prefer the cluttered museum to "clean" modern exhibit theory.  Later, when I was in my teens, I heard the Nebraska Poet Laureate, John Neihardt, recite from memory his account of the death of Crazy Horse.  A few weeks after hearing his recital, I was standing at the exact spot where Crazy Horse had been bayoneted at the guard house at Fort Robinson.  You can imagine how Neihardt's poetry still echoed in my mind as I stood on the spot of the deed.  These and other early historical experiences just resonated with me.  I never had an unfavorable opinion of the discipline of history from my earliest memories.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

 History plays a role in almost every thought pattern I have.  I get frustrated when I hear the media cover some story as if nothing like it ever happened before when there are multiple related historical examples and the ideas and opinions of modern politicians, seem to me, to be just the extensions of past political narratives.  Harry Truman once said that the only new thing was some history he hadn't yet read about.  I think there is a lot of truth in that statement.  On another side of the question, I see a historical character in many of the people that I meet.  I remember sitting in a school program back in the school where I taught in western Kansas.  I was looking around at the parents in the audience.  They were mostly farmers and I couldn't help but see the descendants of the homesteaders, probably 4th or 5th generation descendants but it was like I was transported back to the 1880s.  I see a lot of the past in the people here in Georgia and South Carolina (where I used to work) as well.  The past is a big part of us and unresolved issues as well important achievements and milestones shape us and our offspring for years to come.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

I got a late start in the history profession and didn't start teaching until I was 31 and then I taught mostly science with only one class of American history.  I did that for ten years but in the summers starting after I finished my first year in the classroom, I served as a seasonal park ranger with the National Park Service at two Indian War forts: Fort Larned National Historic Site and Fort Union National Monument.  With this job, I did Living History as a private, eventually a corporal, in Company C of the US Infantry (a historic unit stationed at Fort Larned in the late 1860s).  I also got to do museum curatorial work as well as other duties with the NPS.  A crazy new principal at the middle school where I taught motivated me to go into public history full-time and I was hired as an education coordinator at the Kansas State Museum. I did about every job imaginable there: worked with the docents, ran the children's hands-on gallery, wrote exhibit scripts, ran the Kansas History Day program, and even wrote two books, etc.  After fours years of working my tail off and living on near starvation wages (as well as working a second and third job at times), I took a better paying job at the South Carolina state archives as the education director.  I mostly was the state coordinator of National History Day but supervised a staff of four that coordinated a state wide TAH grant.  Working with about 9,500 students each year plus judging at nationals I learned an amazing amount about a variety of historical topics.  To this day, working with NHD students and teachers brings me a ton of satisfaction.  I did get very tired though of coordinating regional and state contests which was the least favorite thing I did on that job.  I have been with the National Archives since early 2009.  My favorite thing about this job is exploring and showing off the records in our building. 

Why is it important to study history? 

The past is who we are.  I compare it to someone receiving psychological counseling.  Why does a person act a certain way? Probably something in their early childhood that traumatized them.  Maybe some family tradition helped build a solid foundation of confidence.  Our personal past helps create the person we become in later life so why wouldn't the historic past have the same effect on us as individuals, families, communities, societies?  For example, why is the modern South predominantly Republican when it was once predominantly Democrat?  1948, Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat Movement, so forth and so on.  We are our past and knowing our past and our past's relationship with others (I like to call it "our story" instead of "his story") is how the future is actually going to improve and get better.  Just like the person receiving counseling has to deal with the past to heal, we, on a variety of levels, have to do the same.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about or teach about and why?

I grew up loving western American history, especially the history of the Great Plains: the Native Americans, the French and the Spanish on the Plains, the overland routes, homesteaders, the dust bowl, etc. but up until I left Kansas and went to South Carolina, the history I loved always had a direct connection to me.  Moving to the South and learning a new regional history forced me to have a new appreciation for a history that wasn't my own.  I no longer have to have some personal connection to a history to find meaning in it.  I kind of like being an outsider to a history not so I can "judge" it but that I can see all the different sides of the story.  I don't "love" southern history like I do the history of the Great Plains but I find it fascinating.  People who never lived in the South over-simplify it but the historical narrative of the South is unbelievably complex as is its present.  As far as teaching the history of the South, I would feel very uncomfortable teaching it.  My favorite subject to teaching is the full narrative of American history.  When I taught American history to 8th graders, we began on the first day of class with the crossing of the ancient Asians across the Bering Strait and ended with the Clinton Administration on the last day (actually a couple of days before the final test).  I loved telling it as this long and on-going narrative which is what it is.

Why are the National Archives, and the work of archivists in general, important?

 The mission of the National Archives is to preserve and make accessible the records of the federal government. These records not only tell us who we are but help to keep us free. You just have to think about George Orwell's novel, 1984, to understand how original records and access to them can have an effect on our freedom.  It may not be exactly like Orwell's notion, but think of our society's lack of attention span and how the news is delivered to us, how politicians run their campaigns with small sound bites, how we seem to want everything simplified into a 3 minute news story.  The present is a complex story built and formed from events, thoughts, ideas, etc. from the past.  Any attempt to simplify this complexity is at best just dumbing it down, at worst, well, you can draw your own conclusions.  Having access to the original, historically-related records can put a whole new light on what is happening today. Obviously, it is easy to see this relationship with federal records, but state records are similar.  Want to have a more complete understanding of why South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860? Read the Declarations of Immediate Cause in the South Carolina state archives that accompanied the Ordinance of Secession.  County, school, corporate archives have clues to what really happened.  The archivist has the responsibility to organize these records in ways that help the researcher to find the records - the answers - that they are looking for.

What should the general public know about the National Archives and the services it provides?

 Unfortunately much of the general public sees the National Archives as only a place to do family history.  One certainly can do genealogy at NARA but in reality, maybe 15% of the records in our building or in most NARA sites actually have a genealogical relationship.  Somebody once said that all history is family history.  I don't accept that definition.  If we only see history in relationship to our family history, then history never gets beyond an egocentric view.  To me, history is the understanding of all our stories.  It is, at its core, the very basis of meaning in our lives, the meaning of who we are as a country.  I guess what I would want the general public to know about the National Archives is that we may not have the complete story of this country within our walls but we have a very good representation of records that document the breath and depth of the American story.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

7 Questions with Becky Ryckeley, Social Studies Coordinator

(Becky Ryckeley was a high school educator for several years before becoming the Social Studies Coordinator for Henry County (GA) Schools, and she is currently the Social Studies Coordinator for Fayette County (GA) schools.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I grew up visiting historic places. My family is from Springfield, Illinois, and we visited Lincoln’s Home and New Salem a lot. My parents also told a lot of stories of their childhoods, and life was so different for them that it was amazing. My dad talked a lot about jumping the train to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play and about the coal delivery truck that put coal in their cellar for heat. My mom grew up on a farm outside of Springfield, without indoor plumbing and attended a “blab” school (A Blab school was a type of school common in United States in the 19th century where books and materials were uncommon, and lessons consisted of a teacher speaking a lesson, and the students reciting it back in unison. – Wikipedia). They are both pretty young (still in their 70s) so they illustrate how much everything changed in the 50s and 60s. I guess my childhood in the 70s and 80s will fascinate my grandchildren. My oldest brother, Mark, loved history and would read history books to me all the time (we were four years apart). He loved the wars and was a huge Paton and Sherman fan. He died when I was nine, but his love and passion deeply impacted me. I found solace reading biographies. Shortly after his death, we moved to Northern Virginia – which is one big, historical marker. It is impossible not to feel the presence of the past in such a region.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History is alive for me. Of course, it was a huge part of my childhood as I mentioned previously. I think about events from the past a lot. They affect me emotionally. I suppose that is because of my brother, as well, but it feels personal. Currently I am writing a dissertation on the history of education. I am stunned by the similarities in education in 1930s Georgia and today. A few weeks ago, State School Superintendent Barge wrote a letter about the lack of funding for rural schools due to the austerity cuts and outdated QBE funding. It could have been written in 1934 – the issues he discussed were present then. It amazes me that although there have been great changes, some things don’t seem to change – like lack of funding for education, but the task of teachers expanding to meet emotional and social needs of their students.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I taught history and I coordinate the social studies program, so I guess it is fairly all-encompassing. I think it is quite interesting that in many cases I am the “organizational history” person in meetings – I tend to have to give the background of how and why we do things the way we do. I would love to research professionally, but the writing isn’t as much fun, so I am not sure I am destined to be a great historian.

Why is studying/knowing history important?
I think it is important to know where we started, what has changed, and what remains the same. I think a lot about civil rights- my dissertation is about rural education for black children in Georgia in the 1930s. What strikes me is that even if the geography changes (more of an urban population than rural at this point) there are many continuous problems across the decades. I think if we have a deep understanding about how and why people in the past acted and thought, we can build on their efforts. It is funny, ironic really, to think that scientist build on one another’s research and are able to stand on the shoulders of giants, but educators don’t seem to build. We more swing on a pendulum of reform efforts – if we could understand how teachers sought to reach students 80 years ago and honor what worked for them, then we could continue to hone their successes. Instead, we forget what they did. By forget, I mean, disregard – not study or know. Some things that worked need adaptation. We don’t treat history like a lab science that can help us solve present day problems, but that is precisely what I think we should do.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
This is an impossible question. I love most of it. I don’t really enjoy wars – more because war is a failure of diplomacy and is so sad. Since history feels personal to me, war feels personal. I used to enjoy reading about European battles, but more for the romance than anything else. When I think about Agincourt, for example, I feel really sad for the French but love the triumph of the foot soldier over the cavalry. I don’t mean to be coy, but I like almost any history. A recent passion I discovered in a historiography course at Georgia State – the oceans history. It was fascinating to think about the Atlantic as a highway connecting Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. I also enjoyed reading the history of the Mediterranean – not the people, but the Sea as a conduit and shaper of great civilizations.

How can today’s students benefit from studying history?
 History expands our lives from the here and now to the everywhere at every time. If you can almost grasp quantum theory, history can be that way – it takes us to different times. I live in a quaint, small town that had a cotton gin and a railroad depot. It was almost dead a decade ago, but a new industry moved in and revived it. My town is a tv set for a very popular tv series, and it thrums with the energy of tourists visiting. But what makes it so charming is the old houses and structures.

If you were given the unlimited ability to redesign k-12 social studies education, What would you do?
 I would need to be able to redesign all curriculum – I would throw out distinct subject areas because they are really false. I would devise a problem-based curriculum in which students rely on academic disciplines to solve.