Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Land -- Water -- Limits -- Care -- Future

One of the alums who had a lot to do with getting me to use the method of my blog and Electronic Teaching would be Dan Mulhall. If you blog followers pursue the material found there, you will find Dan's name mentioned "on occasion".

Over the past few years, Dan has suggested books for me and on a few occasions I have suggested books for him to read. It has been an interesting exchange.

This past summer with the heat and the drought, Dan asked me if I had read Timothy Egan's, The Worst Hard Times.  I had not, of course, and it was not until several months after he asked me that I had actually picked up the book and started reading it.

I do not like to admit this, but this past summer was very hard on me. I usually do not get down in regard to hot weather and drought, but this summer really took a toll on me. For many years, I taught John Steinbeck's novels, but the one that I have read most and taught most times would be: The Grapes of Wrath. Of course, Dan knew that I had read and re-read and re-read G of W many times. But the book he was suggesting to me was an historical account of the heart of the dust bowl.

Wow! This was quite a read! There was a point that I could not put the book down. And as I was reading it I kept reminding myself that this was NOT fiction-- this is REAL stuff. Of course, Steinbeck's story is based on real stuff as well, but some of Egan's characters still live and some of them have just recently passed on-- Hazel Shaw would be one of them. Hazel was an incredible person and a very dedicated teacher. I looked her up on the internet and found out that she recently passed on. Her story is quite a story.

Since I come from rural background and my own parents lived during the Dust Bowl and Depression times, I, too, have heard stories about these times. Indeed, these stories are 2nd-hand, but when told by your family, they sink to depths that are not forgettable.

When I go to my homeland (Boone County) these days, what I see is much different than it was when I was growing up. No longer are there many small family farms. Much of the land is very open now--acres and acres all together. And much of it is marked with circular movement -- center pivots for irrigation.

This past year with the drought, many farmers baled every growable corn stalk after they harvested the corn-- what corn there was to harvest. Little mulch remains in many fields. It is actually quite bare and naked. In Steinbeck's G of W, he described the land as being "raped". I am not so sure that that terminology is not appropriate again!

Although many say that there will never be a Dust Bowl like in the 1930'3, I can't imagine, myself, that there will not be some soil flying around. With still well below moisture levels -- everything is still very dry.

The epilogue of Egan's book talks about depleting the Ogallala Aquifer. In fact, we are probably already taken way too much of the great resource. One wonders where this will all take us in the future.

Land -- land -- land -- and how it is cared for -- seems to be a very important issue for us in the future.

When I finished Egan's book, I immediately picked up Will Cather's -- O, Pioneers. It was as enjoyable to read this time as it was the first time I read it and taught it years ago. And of course, I was reminded of Centennial again with this type of literature.

Thank you, Dan, for this last suggestion. And since you are in the same business as I am, know that I am praying for our land to be blessed with spring rains.

What is your next suggestion?

Below is an article that Dan Mulhall sent me after I had finished the book.


The article below was in yesterday’s NY Times. It’s by the Author of the The Worst Hard Time. I think it is a very compelling argument for the benefits of historical novels.


Timothy Egan December 13, 2012, 8:15 pm169 Comments

In Ignorance We Trust


A packet of letters arrived the other day from the honors English class at St. Lawrence School in Brasher Falls, N.Y. Snail mail, from high school sophomores? Yes, and honest, witty and insightful snail mail at that. They had been forced to read a book of mine.

“Personally, I don’t like reading about history or learning about it,” wrote one student, setting the tone for the rest of the class.

“The Dust Bowl? Really?” So began another missive. “When we heard we were reading your book…heads dropped. Let me rephrase that, heads fell to the floor and rolled down the hallway.”

You get the drift: history is a brain freeze. And, writers of history, well, there’s a special place with the already-chewed gum in nerd camp for them. But as I read through the letters I was cheered. Some of the last survivors of the American Dust Bowl were high school sophomores when they were hit with the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster. In that 1930s story of gritty resilience, the Brasher Falls kids of 2012 found a fresh way to look at their own lives and this planet.

History is always utilitarian, and often entertaining. It stirs the blood of any lover of the past to see Steven Spielberg’s majestic “Lincoln” — at its core, a drama about politicians with ZZ Top beards writing legislation — crush the usual soulless, computer-generated distractions at the box office.

But history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

David McCullough, the snowy-headed author and occasional national scold, says we are raising a generation of Americans who are historically illiterate. He cites Harry Truman’s line that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. And today, in part by design, there’s a lot of know-nothingness throughout the land. Only 12 percent of high school seniors are “at or above proficient” in American history, which, of course, doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

For knuckleheaded refinement look to the state of Florida, a breeder of bad ideas from its dangerous gun laws to its deliberate attempts to make it hard for citizens to vote. Gov. Rick Scott’s task force on higher education is now suggesting that college students with business-friendly majors pay less tuition than those in traditional liberal arts fields.

“You know, we don’t need a lot of anthropologists in this state,” the governor said in October. “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on.”

Notice he said “all.” If the governor, who’s been trying to run Florida like a corporation, had applied the skills of the liberal arts, his approval rating might be higher than 38 percent. Any anthropologist could tell Scott how he misread human behavior in the Sunshine State.

It’s fine to encourage society to crank out more engineers, computer technicians and health care specialists. We need them. But do we really want to discourage people from trying to understand where they came from? The Florida proposals would enshrine the unexamined life.

This is but one byproduct of the rage among educators to use math and science like a stick against history, literature, art or philosophy.

And yet, as McCullough has said, the keepers of academic gates in these fields are their own worst enemies. Too many history books are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense. There are certainly exceptions among the authors — the witty Patricia Limerick at the University of Colorado, for example, or the prolific Douglas Brinkley at Rice. And I defy anyone to read Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” (enlightened German teenager takes over Russia) or Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (Nazis, oozing evil in diplomatic circles) and not come away moved.

But in the great void between readable histories and snooze-fest treatises have stepped demagogues with agendas, from Glenn Beck and his paranoid writings on the perils of progressivism, to Oliver Stone and his highly selective retelling of the 20th century.

One of my best friends in college ripped through chemistry, engineering and advanced calculus courses. And then, degree in hand, he felt strangely uncompleted. On his own, and for a full year, he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald and Civil War histories. He spent the next 30 years at Boeing. No doubt, he was one of the few mechanical engineers who not only was aware of Faulkner’s immortal line — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — but also understood what it meant

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