All Posts Tagged With: "history"
We must engage the past even when it’s uncomfortable
Remember the end of the film Dead Poets Society? When the students all stand up on their desks and cry “O Captain, My Captain!” as a tribute to the wronged and noble teacher Mr. Keating?
The reference is, of course, to a famous poem by the American writer Walt Whitman. Whitman is one of the giants of American literature, and the poem is usually interpreted as an elegy to the recently assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, was, much-hated in the South for, among other things, his opposition to slavery.
So it might have come as a surprise that the man who so eloquently eulogized the Great Emancipator is now at the centre of a controversy over racism. A graduate student at Northwestern University is, according to reports, willing to fail a class rather than perform a piece of music based on a Whitman work. The student insists that Whitman was an “historically racist” man, who denigrated African Americans and opposed their voting rights.
His teacher, reported as Dr. Nally, said that the student must perform the work assigned or fail.
Many will applaud the student. I applaud the professor.
Though standing up to racism is, in the most general terms, laudable, even the most basic sense of history makes it evident that, as Oscar Wilde said, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” People live in a particular social context; their ways of thinking are not predetermined, but inevitably shaped by that context. Few, if any, can entirely rise above the values of their time, even when they try.
Case in point: have a look at this good summary of the poet’s views which traces Whitman’s “confused and contradictory” positions on race in his time.
So even if we accept that Whitman was, to some extent, a racist by modern standards, we must also admit that human history is in large part the history of deplorable attitudes. Rejecting anyone and anything that has any connection to immoral attitudes is to reject nearly all of history.
Of course, if you don’t care to read Whitman in your own time, that’s your business, but it is the role of a university professor to present a course of study that allows the student to gain an appreciation of the subject matter.
If all students were free to do as our grad student did, that fundamental duty would be impossible to carry out. Philosophy classes would be hobbled: have you read Aristotle’s defence of slavery? Goodnight sweet Shakespeare for his racism and sexism. No chance of getting to know Dickens’ Oliver Twist because of its anti-Semitism. The whole discipline of Anthropology has a pretty shady past, too, so there goes that.
If students can pick and choose what they are willing to read and engage with—and to toss out anything they find offensive or uncomfortable—they will be missing a crucial part of education: the process of coming to grips with the complex and often disturbing legacy of oppression, brutality, and stupidity that comprises a great deal of our collective past.
Let’s hope this is an isolated incident and not part of a larger trend. If it is, I may be packing my boxes one of these days.
Maybe my students will stand on their desks for me.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Ships vanished in the Arctic in 1845
A long-standing Arctic mystery has become even more baffling with research that appears to debunk a common theory about the demise of the Franklin expedition.
Chemists at the University of Western Ontario used an array of the latest analytic techniques to conclude that poorly made cans of food were probably not responsible for the lead that poisoned the officers and crew of the doomed 19th-century voyage to explore the Arctic.
“We’ll probably never know what happened to the crew of the Franklin (expedition), so it will remain one of the great mysteries of Canadian history,” said Prof. Ron Martin.
“Our resources fail to support the hypothesis that the lead in the bones came from tins, and I certainly believe it didn’t.”
The Franklin expedition headed north, never to return, in 1845. Although some remains of the 129 crew have been discovered, along with ghastly evidence of cannibalism, the two ships Erebus and Terror have never been found despite a century and a half of searching.
Their mystery and legend remain to this day.
Three graves of Franklin crew members discovered on Beechey Island were exhumed in 1984 and their corpses analyzed in an attempt to shed light on the disaster.
While diseases, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, are believed to have been the immediate causes of death, high levels of lead found in the sailors’ bones are thought to have weakened the men and clouded their judgment. Looking for a source of the lead, scientists concluded it probably came from the solder used to seal the cans of food in the ships’ stores.
Martin’s work, published in February in Applied Physics A, re-examined some of the bones using techniques developed since the original analysis. Martin and his colleagues concluded there was so much lead in the bones, and it was distributed so widely, that it couldn’t have accumulated during the few months the men were at sea before they died.
Nor did he find areas where lead was concentrated, as there would be if the potent toxin had only recently been ingested.
“The wide distribution and high concentrations of lead in the measured bones is indicative of long-term exposure before the start of the expedition,” says the paper.
“The lead distribution is essentially uniform as might be expected from lifetime lead ingestion. There is no evidence for a sudden massive increase in lead during the latter part of any individual’s life.”
Martin points out the sailors buried on Beechey Island had died only three months into the voyage. At that point in the expedition, the crew is unlikely to have even dug into the cans.
“They ate everything that was fresh first,” he said. “They wouldn’t have started on the tins yet.”
Martin said evidence — including early results from tests on bones from a pioneer cemetery outside London — suggests that high lead levels were common in those times.
“All the bones we looked at there, the lead levels would have been pretty much the same,” he said.
“In that time period, there was lead everywhere. They had lead coming out their ears.”
Martin’s work would also appear to exonerate other sources of lead that some researchers have proposed as a source, including the ship’s water system. Water pipes on Franklin’s vessels were made of lead.
Lead is toxic to the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems. Symptoms of lead poisoning include confusion, which makes it an attractive explanation for some of the decisions made by Franklin and his crew after their ships were stuck in the ice, such as dragging heavy lifeboats over the tundra laden with non-essentials such as silverware.
Martin’s team concludes that if Franklin and his men were poisoned by lead, it probably began long before they set sail for what is now the Canadian Arctic.
The mystery, which has inspired Canadian artists from folksinger Stan Rogers to novelist Mordecai Richler, persists.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton
Man accused of stealing items from universities
The Mounties held a show-and-tell today of antiques, rare books, historical letters and paintings they allege were brazenly stolen from across Atlantic Canada and put on display in a Halifax-area home.
Officers seized some 1,000 items last Friday from the two-storey home in Fall River, believed to be from universities, libraries, museums, antique dealers and private collections and worth more than $500,000.
Leader recalls great teachers, friendships and… manure?
The 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings asked some of Canada’s most successful writers, politicians and scientists what they wish they’d known in university. Their answers are perfect additions to our First Year Survivor blog. Here’s advice from Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario and interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
I came to University College, University of Toronto, in the fall of 1966, studied modern history, and graduated with a B.A. in 1969. In the first week I was assigned by the seniors in residence late one night to find a bucket of horse manure, which meant figuring out where the police stables were.
Andrew Scheer’s university advice
The 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings asked some of Canada’s most successful writers, politicians and scientists what they wish they’d known in university. Their answers are perfect additions to our First Year Survivor blog. Here’s advice from Andrew Scheer, the 33-year-old Member of Parliament for Regina—Qu’Appelle and Speaker of the House of Commons.
I always had an interest in politics, so I took several political science courses while pursuing a history degree at the University of Ottawa. I moved to Regina to get married (my wife had moved back home there), and I took my last few credits at the University of Regina.
I really enjoyed first year. In university you get to meet hundreds of other young people with similar passions. Solving the world’s problems in the campus pub, volunteering during provincial or federal elections and participating in student associations were not only fun, but very educational.
A pipeline protest, a really bad cartoon & black cats
1. Critics of the Northern Gateway pipline project are hoping at least a thousand people will turn up today for a protest rally at the B.C. legislature in Victoria, reports The Canadian Press. The protests have been endorsed by unions such as the the Canadian Auto Workers, the B.C. Teacher’s Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, plus celebrities including actor Ellen Page and singer Dan Mangan.
2. A student newspaper cartoonist has been fired from the Arizona Daily Wildcat after an anti-gay comic strip prompted thousands of complaints. The comic shows a father telling his son that if he’s gay, he will be shot with a shotgun, rolled into a carpet and thrown off a bridge. The boy says, “Well I guess that’s what you call a ‘Fruit Roll Up.’”
3. Animal welfare advocates say they no longer ban adoption of black cats at Halloween—a practice that stemmed from fears the animals would be harmed. In fact, the Ontario SPCA is now offering a discount on the adoption of black, orange and calico cats, reports The Canadian Press. How cute.
Skateboarding, Shell, eSports, Indian booze and 1812
1. The University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus may be the first big campus in Canada with a skateboard and BMX bike park. The final park designs are here.
2. Citing printing difficulties and a monthly schedule that turned it stale, The Cadre, one of Canada’s funniest student newspapers, has gone online-only. Arshy Mann of the Canadian University Press worries that ink-and-paper expertise will dry up, that the paper will lose most advertising revenue and that students read it less since they can’t take it on the bus.
3. A Conservative MP says Canada’s largest union of federal public servants, which represents people who work for the Canadian government in Canada shouldn’t have endorsed the separatist Parti Quebecois that wants to leave Canada. Pierre Poilievre is calling for new rules to allow members to opt out of paying union dues.
Subject rankings for psychology, law, economics…
Here are the top five highest ranked universities in the QS World University Rankings by Subject and the rankings of all Canadian schools for arts, humanities, and business. For science, engineering, and health disciplines click here. For the full rankings, visit TopUniversities.com.
1. Harvard University (United States)
2. University of California, Berkeley (UCB) (United States)
3. University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
4. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) (United Kingdom)
5. University of Chicago (United States)
16. University of Toronto
33. McGill University
40. University of British Columbia
45. Queen’s University
51-100. Université de Montréal, University of Alberta
101-150. McMaster University, Western University, Université du Québec, University of Waterloo, York University
151-200. Carleton University, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, Laval University, Simon Fraser University, University of Calgary, University of Ottawa, University of Victoria
It’s redundant, it’s unfair, and coercion causes resentment
A third-year student from First Nations University wants to force all students at the nearby University of Regina—and eventually everywhere—to take mandatory Indigenous Studies courses.
The idea is gaining steam more quickly than Julianne Beaudin-Herney, 20, had imagined.
More than 1,000 people have signed her petition entitled Students Initiative to Change On-Campus Systemic Racism. Administrators have offered support, student union presidents across the country have fallen over themselves to sign. NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton added her name.
The only people who have dared to publicly question the proposal are a few U of R engineering students. They don’t want to lose the single humanities course they get out of 45 classes in 4.5 years. Engineering undergrads are already so busy that only 64 per cent of them finish in six years.
Here are some job statistics you’ll want to consider
After a steep recession-era decline in hiring of academics in the arts and social sciences, potential PhDs have reasons for optimism—or despair—depending on how you look at it.
The good news is that job listings on the American Historical Association’s website, considered a market barometer for North America, increased from 569 in the 2009-10 academic year to 627 in 2010-11. That’s up 10.2 per cent year-on-year.
The bad news? That figure is still 40 per cent lower than the 1,064 jobs posted in 2007-08, before the recession led to budgetary restraint.
The modest rebound is a common theme across the arts and social sciences.
How one mother coped when her daughter left for school
From the Maclean’s University Rankings—on newsstands now. Story by Ellen Vanstone.
I wasn’t actually planning to attend college with my daughter Eliza when her acceptance letter arrived in the mail last spring. That would be creepy—like the mother in that Robert Munsch book who stalked her grown-up son, breaking into his house to cuddle him while he slept. I am perfectly aware that the parentally appropriate, non-crazy thing to do when your child leaves home is to let them go and have their own life.
And yet, I still felt there should be some kind of special dispensation in my case—since the school that accepted my child was the Savannah College of Art and Design, on the Savannah River, in Savannah, Ga.
Anglo students must not consider Bill 101 when writing test
Historians are calling on Quebec to offer better questions on the History and Citizenship exams that Anglophone students must pass in order to graduate from CEGEP.
Sam Allison, a recently-retired history teacher, and Jon Bradley, an associate professor in Education at McGill University suggested in an editorial in the Montreal Gazette earlier this week that the test is extremely flawed. Here’s their argument:
First, English students are asked to use French-language documents to answer essay questions. What if they don’t read French?
Second, they’re asked to respond to questions with words that don’t translate into English like agriculturalism and cooperatism. Those words mean nothing to anglophones.
Finally, in one essay question, they are asked to consider the demographic changes that occurred in the twentieth century “in terms of immigration, migration within Quebec and natural growth.”
That means students are not to consider inter-provincial migration, which means that they are not to consider the effects of Bill 101, also known as the Charter of the French Language.
That bill had, arguably, a much greater impact on the province than other forms of migration. Bill 101 made French the only official language and put many restrictions on English-language schools and employment. Roughly 244,000 English speakers left Quebec in the 25 years following the passage of Bill 101, according to Statistics Canada. Many businesses moved to Toronto.
It’s an part of the province’s history that should not be ignored, write Allison and Bradley. “While many Quebecers may believe that studies of the province’s history should promote a nationalist perspective, this is far outweighed by the right of all children to have a balanced view of our past.”
Journal shines light on pre-Confederation history
Recent history grads may be forgiven for not knowing the significance of the 1st Baron of Dorchester, or that his 1774* Quebec Act was once known as Canada’s Magna Carta. They don’t teach much pre-Confederation history in school. “In high school, we had to take one history course and all I learned about was World War One, World War Two—maybe we touched on the Depression,” says Amy Legate-Wolfe, the 22-year-old co-president of the University of Toronto’s History Students’ Association. She didn’t choose any Canadian history courses in university either, preferring to learn about British monarchs and the origins of Hong Kong.
Queen’s student writes exam in full armour
A video on YouTube captures the giggles of fellow students at Queen’s University when a student strode into his medieval history examination last month wearing a full suit of armour. The video, entitled Going to War by Mastadufus, has received nearly 2,000 hits. The student was met by an entertained exam proctor who quipped, “You know you lose your knighthood if you fail, right?” According to the The Kingston Herald, Medieval Studies is growing in popularity at Queen’s, as evidenced by a new minor in the subject that was approved in May.
Remember when choice and flexibility were good things?
With Nova Scotia’s O’Neill report in the books, and a similar report just released in Ontario, specialization is the new watchword for Canadian universities. Thus Bonnie Patterson, President of the Council of Ontario Universities: “the funding realities mean we’re going to have to build on the differences that already exist.”
Setting aside the question that the so-called funding realities are really funding decisions, the emphasis on specialization is troubling from the point of view of quality higher education.
Of course, some specialization is inevitable, or at least practical. Not every university can have a medical school, and a law school, and a major in South American Urban Geography. Fine. But I worry when I hear people like Harvey Weingarten, President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario say things like this: “If Ryerson were to say its priority is undergraduate programs that graduate the next wave of entrepreneurs, for example, it might be that the U of T wouldn’t have a program exactly like that.”
Setting aside the fact that if Ontario really wanted to save money it could eliminate a few of these education councils, Weingarten’s comments hint that specialization is all about output. If Ontario needs graduates in various areas, the implication runs, it doesn’t need every school to fulfill that need. Put another way, if a student wants program x, she only needs one school to offer it and she can go there.
But the underlying assumption is that a university education is designed only, or mainly, as an economic investment. Universities are understood like factories, turning out useful products and thus should be specialized so as to be more efficient.
Setting aside the fact that it is inherently repugnant to think of people as products (the report calls for graduates who, like iPods should be “highly valued and competitive” [p.15]), the specialization perspective assumes that students know what they want to study when they go to university and will stick to that field of study all the way through. Anyone who teaches at a university knows that these assumptions are actually false, and idealists like me see them as deeply troubling.
For one thing, circumstances mean that students are not infinitely mobile. A student in Sudbury may not feasibly be able to move to Windsor to study. Consequently, specialization means limiting choices. The report claims that “differentiation” will mean more variety of programs overall (p. 6) but later reveals that claim to be false by insisting that universities must work with their existing programs (p.10). In other words, the Kingston girl who might have been a world-class artist may end up toiling as an accountant because Fine Arts was only available at Western, not Queen’s. Such things may happen even now, but they become more likely the more specialized institutions become.
The world didn’t begin with you. Or your parents.
When Kanye West made an ass of himself during last year’s VMA broadcast, there was one aspect that, to my mind, received too little attention. It was this: during his, er, tantrum, Kanye declared Beyonce’s video “one of the best videos of all time.” He repeated it for emphasis.
Of all time? Better than medieval music videos? Better than Shakespeare’s video for “Hark, Hark!”? Music videos are a very recent phenomenon, the term only coming into wide usage in the 1980s, so “best video of all time” is not just a rude thing to say; it’s moronic. It’s almost nonsensical.
I’ve been hearing a lot of this “all time” stuff lately, and it scares me. Comedy Central has created a list of the best stand up comics of all time but it doesn’t include Elizabethan funnyman Will Kemp. Did they even consider Kemp? I doubt it. Never mind that the man danced across England! Since the death of Michael Jackson, there have been commentators declaring him the greatest entertainer of all time. Really? Better than Thespis of Icaria who, you know, came up with a little thing called acting? But then he couldn’t walk forwards and backwards at the same time, or could he? I believe Aristotle is silent on the point.
It’s possible that that this is just another instance of sloppy hyperbole whereby “of all time” is simply a wildly vague intensifier. If so, it is silly, but not dangerous. But my fear is that people like Kanye West and Randy Jackson and lots of others really do actually mean of all time, it’s just that they think the world began fifty or sixty years ago. Not literally, but in their considerations of time, they don’t think back more than a generation or two. My first-year students are fond of writing things like “before the 1970s, divorce was unheard of.” Really? Google Dorothy Parker and get back to me. For that matter, Google Henry VIII.
What all these people lack is a cornerstone of even a basic education: a sense of history. Without at least a general knowledge of the long history of human civilization, one simply cannot think and speak insightfully about anything of social or artistic importance. Without a sense of history, one tends to think that information technology began with the Blackberry, and that no one had heard of sex before HBO. Or, if they did, no one liked it.
There are lots of ways to acquire this sense of history and lots of disciplines whose subject matter will teach it to you, including, of course, but not limited to history itself. If you study politics, pay attention to those classes on The Prince. If you study literature, make sure you take a course in the Restoration or the Renaissance, even if you don’t have to. If you study physics or chemistry, be sure to do some reading on astrology and alchemy, too.
None of this will make you as rich as Kanye West, of course, but it might save you from a life inside a mind like his.
…until next semester.
I still have two exams before Christmas vacation. I’ve got six chapters of my microbiology textbook to read before Friday, and I’m trying to not even think about history. But ever since last Thursday, life has been worth living again.
Organic chemistry is finished. Gone. Forever.
Until next semester. When I have Organic Chemistry Part 2.
How to make it through the home stretch
There’s only one week of classes left. I’ve got a chemistry lab, a biology lab, and a couple of history classes between me and Christmas vacation. It’s the home stretch.
But I’m stuck in Post-Midterm Apathy.
I only have to read a couple of chapters in my chemistry textbook, practice with my molecular model kit, and do some study problems to prepare for my organic chemistry final exam. There’s only one assignment and a test left in my religious studies class.
And then I’m finished.
But I just don’t have it in me. Thanks to five full courses, two labs, and two part-time jobs, I admit it: between September and November, I used up all my School Energy.
It’s times like this that I need to do some carefully planned procrastination.
Otherwise, I just end up siphoning off study time by doing stuff that isn’t really worthwhile. Like staring at the same paragraph in my history textbook for half an hour. Or checking my e-mail. Twenty times in a row.
Instead, I know I should allow myself a couple of hours to recharge, doing anything I want, guilt-free. And then my Study Efficiency will be back up and running for the next week.
Okay Halo 3, here I come.
Making the complicated science accessible to millions
Every once in a while my microbiology textbook shares a vaguely interesting fact that (almost) makes it worth reading. Like the fact that certain species of bacteria can be found 4,700 feet underground.
Sometimes my history textbook can be interesting. A Minoan palace that dates back to 1500 BCE featured indoor plumbing.
But there are absolutely no redeeming qualities to my Organic Chemistry textbook. Here are some of the organic molecules mentioned in the textbook:
Those are real names. Seriously.
Another problem: some of the names are way too similar. Certain types of molecules are called “alkanes.” Some are called “alkenes.” Others are called “alkynes.” Then there are ethers and esters. Amines and amides.
Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier if organic molecules were named the same way hurricanes are? As in “Chemical Bob” or “Chemical Irene”?
Of course, considering that there are tens of millions of organic molecules, we might start running out of names. Or at the very least, we might have to start using wimpy names. Like “Chemical Lawrence” or “Chemical Stuart.”
But there is an alternative. It’s a naming system that would be easy to learn and intuitive to use. Heck, it would transform Organic Chemistry. Instead of being universally hated, it would be an accessible and manageable course.
The new system: naming organic molecules after Pokemon.
It’s a tried-and-true method. For the past decade, millions of kids under the age of 12 have been able to memorize the names of thousands of Pokemon. And they can pronounce them perfectly, too. Why shouldn’t it work for Organic Chemistry?
There would be no such thing as “1,2-Dibromobenzene” or “1-Chloro-3-ethylbenzene.”Students wouldn’t have to learn names like “N-Phenylacetamide” or “1-(1,1-Dimethylethyl)-3-nitrobenzene.”
Instead, they would be memorizing “Charmander” and “Pikachu.”
Yup, easy peasy.
When a textbook’s bias is obvious
I always thought university textbooks were supposed to be objective. An unbiased source of information.
Until my history textbook referred to someone as a “mama’s boy.” Seriously.
According to the textbook, Ibbi-Sin, a king from the Dynasty of Ur, wasn’t just an incompetent ruler. He was “something of a mama’s boy.”
The term “mama’s boy” sounds like a subjective judgement, as opposed to an objective statement of fact. Sure, I know everyone has a bias. Even textbook authors. But I figured that university textbooks should at least appear to be making an attempt at sounding neutral. You know, something more along the lines of ‘attachment disorder’ or ‘parent-child relationship psychosis.’
When I saw that pharse, I was startled. If a history textbook is going to insult someone, I thought they’d call them “inadequate” or “inept.” My textbook is breaking the rules.
That Alexander guy who took over Egypt? A mega-jerk.
Aristotle thought there were only five elements. What a moron!
And Gandhi, whining about human rights and junk. Talk about a cry-ass.