Knowledge vs. Box-Checking

Checklist2Chronicle poster polly_mer recently posted this assessment of the importance of a college education:

This is why our responsibility in Gen Ed and even majors classes is to sell the benefits of knowing things instead of checking the boxes.

For example, I tell my students that being able to fake interest in deathly dull material is a primary job skill.  The person who gets the raise or the invitation to the more interesting projects is the person who is engaged all the time.  Yes, we’re all bored silly as that meeting extends into the second hour.  The person who keeps looking between the speaker and a paper that is being filled with notes is a go-getter, even if the notes are just the nouns from the speaker; those notes look plausible when someone looks over and help prevent drooling and obviously tuning out.  The person who is staring at the ceiling and isn’t even doodling is someone who might be told to not bother to come back tomorrow.  If you are a cog in the wheel, then you can be replaced.  If you are the rising star, even if that’s just perception of being keen, then you are harder to replace.  Fake it and keep that job.

The person who can smooze will also be offered opportunities that someone won’t who can’t even be bothered to take five minutes to skim the morning’s headlines and be ready.  When you end up in the coffee line or on the elevator with a boss, you want to be able to make small talk beyond the weather (although the weather is better than being on your phone texting instead of smoozing).  For that matter, you want to be able to make small talk with anyone you see casually regularly.  That guy who eats lunch in the company cafeteria with you at the same time may need another team member and will think of you if you spent five minutes chatting several times a week.  Those jobs will never be advertised; people get a quiet offer based on gut feeling.  Having a college degree can only make the difference if you have adopted the mannerisms of the worker bee instead of the forgettable cog.

Then, we get to why general education is important in terms of skills.  Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to write clear, coherent prose.  Your friends will accept texts.  Your elderly colleagues (i.e., practically everyone over 25 who signs the paychecks) expect emails and reports that have excellent grammar, organization, and main points supported by evidence.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to read at a college level, make inferences and connections, and be able to apply critical thinking to come to conclusions that aren’t already explicitly stated in the material.  Merely reiterating what someone else has already written is useless.  The value comes from putting together different sources of material to conclude something new.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be quantitatively literate at a college level.  That means being able to extract information from all graphs and tabular material.  That means being able to construct the appropriate type of graph to properly present data and analysis as necessary.  That means being able to call muggins on a mismatch between what is claimed in the text and what is evident in the data.

Oh, and then we return to smoozing.  It’s easier to smooze when you have years of material and background reading upon which to draw instead of trying to start from scratch in your first grown-up job.  For example, I ended up traveling to a conference yesterday with the president of my college–hours in her car, on the train, and at the hotel.  That’s face time and we spent almost no time discussing anything in my expertise since my expertise doesn’t match hers.  Instead, it was mostly talk related to general education, the news, and personal stories before we circled back to the purpose of the conference again.

The students are right that grades don’t matter as long as they are passing.  However, we must disabuse the students of the notion that the important thing is the piece of paper instead of the skills and habits the piece of paper is supposed to represent.

I think polly_mer is absolutely right. She (presumably, she) hits on the socialization factor of a university education, which MOOCs can’t even begin to address, as well as the importance of a liberal arts education.

Trying to convince students to take polly_mer’s perspective is another matter, one I struggle with every semester. I think I’m going to start by posting this on my office door.

Jim DeMint: Historian Extraordinaire

Jim DeMint Says There's No Way the Federal Government Freed the SlavesFormer South Carolina senator Jim DeMint doesn’t let history get in the way of his argument that the U.S. government didn’t end slavery:

DeMint: This progressive, the whole idea of being progressive is to progress away from those ideas that made this country great. What we’re trying to conserve as conservative are those things that work. They work today, they work for young people, they work for minorities and we can change this country and change its course very quickly if we just remember what works.

Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, ‘that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.’

DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

While DeMint is right that the abolitionist movement in the U.S. played an essential role in shaping white Americans’ views of slavery as an immoral institution, it still took a civil war, prosecuted by the national government and the nation’s armed forces, to make it happen. The U.S. didn’t “love” slavery away.

I also wonder what some of the libertarians, such as Thomas DiLorenzo, will think about DeMint’s perspective on Lincoln as not being representative of “big government.”

Books for Fall 2014 Courses

Credit: was going to write a blog post about a dream I had last night (in which Jonathan Rees revealed that he was part of a superhero tandem intent on fighting corruption within the history profession), but instead I decided to write about my fall semester book choices.

Early U.S.

I’ve abandoned my idea of trying to structure readings around themes in the U.S. survey courses, I reverted to picking readings that address different parts of the course.

Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church (PublicAffairs, 2014) ISBN 9781610393133

This book seemed like a good option to explore the social aspects of the Jacksonian period.

Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010) ISBN 9780807833926

I wanted to use a different book that addressed the Civil War period, and this one appealed to me.

James D. Rice, Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) ISBN 9780195386943

Bacon’s Rebellion has fascinated me for a long time, but I’ve never read a book on it.

Civil War

Michael C.C. Adams, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014) ISBN 9781421412214

I vacillated between this book and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering.

Herman Hattaway and Richard Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003) ISBN 9780700612932

I have wanted to assign this book in past semesters, but other books were a better fit. Not this semester, though.

Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) ISBN 9781469607061

Janney spoke on our campus several years ago when she was working on this book, and I have been looking forward to it ever since.

Rachel Shelden, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) ISBN 9781469610856

I think students will like the approach Shelden takes to antebellum politics.


South Carolinians Don’t Hate Andrew Jackson

At least not the ones I met over spring break.

I had the pleasure of speaking at several events last week in South and North Carolina. My first stop was in Charleston, at the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS). Prior to my address, Harold Closter of the Smithsonian announced a new partnership with the SCHS. No one booed me off stage for talking about Jackson, so I considered that a victory. Afterwards, SCHS held a reception and book signing at the Fireproof Building.DSCN7146

My family and I had a little bit of time to tour Charleston as well. We visited a number of local sites, including Fort Moultrie and John C. Calhoun’s grave at the St. Philip’s Church cemetery.DSCN7137

Virginia Ellison and John Turner of SCHS were gracious hosts for the Charleston event, and I appreciate their work to get me to Charleston.

Following Charleston, my next stop was at Historic Columbia in Columbia, S.C. Mitch Journey was my host there. The event was scheduled in the carriage house next to the beautiful Robert Mills House. Columbians were not as eager to learn about Jackson as Charlestonians, but I still had a good time, although it was far too short for me to fully experience the city’s historic sites.


The last leg of the book tour took place in the Waxhaws, where Jackson was born and raised. Kirk Johnston, Laura Ledford, and the Friends of Andrew Jackson State Park treated me to some good barbecue on the evening of my lecture at the park in Lancaster, S.C. I had my first protesters at this particular lecture. Two high school juniors wore shirts that said, “Remember the Trail of Tears.” They were very respectful, and we talked and even took photos afterwards.


On Saturday, I was honored to give a short address for the commemoration of Jackson’s birthday. I also had the opportunity to speak with a number of community members, who shared their perspective on, and even connections to, Jackson and his family. During the afternoon, Kip Carter, who helped spur my visit to the Waxhaws, took me on a far-flung tour of the area. Kip is a fountain of knowledge about the area, and his own life story was well worth the afternoon.

Cheathem1 (Lightbody--Museum Waxhaws)_16Mr14

On Sunday, I was privileged to speak at the Museum of the Waxhaws in Waxhaw, N.C. Arthur Lightbody was my host there, and he somehow convinced nearly forty people to come out in a cold rain to hear me talk.


I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to swing through the Carolinas and talk about their (!) native son. I came away with a better understanding of Jackson’s early years and even gained new friends along the way. A word to the wise, though–Carolinians have very strong opinions on barbecue sauce, so tread carefully!

From Life to Film: Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

Solomon-Northup-21333433-1-402If you watched the Oscars last night, you are aware that Twelve Years a Slave won Best Picture. I have used Solomon Northup’s narrative in my first-year U.S. survey courses on a couple of occasions, but the availability of the movie will probably force me to retire it as an option.

Still, it’s an engrossing story, and I encourage you to read it. I also suggest reading about how Northup’s narrative was rediscovered and brought into the academic mainstream. You also might be interested in learning more about his descendants here and here.

A Modern-Day Conundrum for Andrew Jackson

AJ duelWould he protect his guns or support the enforcement of constitutional laws?

Missouri senators endorsed legislation on Tuesday that seeks to nullify U.S. gun restrictions and send federal agents to jail for enforcing such laws, though the measure would likely face a court challenge if it gets approved in the state.

Courts have consistently ruled that states cannot nullify federal laws, but that hasn’t stopped Missouri and other states from trying.

Sen. Brian Nieves, the Republican sponsoring the bill, said the legislation would protect law-abiding gun owners from federal encroachments and regulations. Missouri Republicans began pushing for the legislation following President Barack Obama’s call last year for increased background checks and a ban on assault weapons. . . .

Kansas and Alaska have already passed gun nullification laws, while Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Missouri have been pushing. Nine states, led by Montana, have passed laws asserting that gunmakers in their states are exempt from federal regulations, and so they can make all the full-auto machine guns and assault weapons they want.

The real fun comes when local politicians and law enforcement officers get in the nullification game: Nearly 250 sheriffs from Oregon to California to Arizona to Minnesota have written open letters defying federal gun laws and threatening to arrest U.S. government officials working in their jurisdictions. One rural Florida sheriff even beat prosecution last fall for releasing (and destroying evidence related to) a suspect who’d illegally held a concealed weapon.


Even though John C. Calhoun isn’t involved, I’m still going with supporting the Constitution.

Andrew Jackson’s Mammoth Cheese

Jackson’s cheese in the East Room of the White House (White House Historical Association)

Americans in the Early Republic did some strange things. One of those was sending presidents blocks of cheese. Not 16-oz. blocks like you find in grocery stores today, but ones that weighed hundreds of pounds.

For example, in 1801, a group of Cheshire, Massachusetts, women gave Thomas Jefferson a 1,200-lb. block of cheese “as ‘a mark of exalted esteem.’” Andrew Jackson also had the privilege of receiving not just one, but at least two, and perhaps three, blocks of cheese. The largest was a 1,400-lb. block given to him in 1835 and served on Washington’s Birthday in 1837, shortly before Jackson left office. Old Hickory supervised the large crowd that came to consume the cheese; in addition to average citizens, the crowd included some of the president’s political enemies [1].

What do we make of these gifts of “mammoth cheese,” which the White House is celebrating today as a chance to interact on social media with cabinet members and White House staff? Jeff Pasley’s essay on Jefferson’s cheese argues that this gift was fraught with political symbolism. Federalists lampooned the cheese as an indication of the Virginia president’s “hypocrisy and inner turpitude,” Pasley writes, while Jeffersonians accused their opponents of “[fearing] a ‘MAGGOT INSURRECTION.’” A Baptist Cheshire minister accompanied the cheese to Washington and delivered a speech that claimed that God had placed Jefferson in the presidency “‘to defend Republicanism and baffle all the arts of Aristocracy.’” Interestingly, on the day the cheese arrived, Jefferson sent his famed letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists that included the phrase, “wall of separation between Church & State,” which remains contentious to this day [2].AJ's Cheese

Jackson’s 1835 cheese was larger than Jefferson’s and has seemingly surpassed it in being remembered. It also had a political message. The cheese was wrapped in a banner that bore the inscription, “The Union, it must be preserved,” a reference to Jackson’s toast at the 1830 Jefferson Day banquet. To my knowledge, no one has analyzed Jackson’s cheese in the same way that Pasley has Jefferson’s, but I can imagine that there is a story there about Jacksonian political culture.

One thing that does seem clear: The West Wing episode referenced as inspiration for today’s event bears no relation to what happened in 1837. According to historian Robert Remini, Jackson did not hear the people’s grievances–he was simply getting rid of a huge amount of cheese. (Perhaps at the request of President-elect Martin Van Buren, although the smell lingered well into his administration, according to Mental Floss.) Whether today’s event turns out to be a good or bad idea, it is historically inaccurate.

One last observation: I find it intriguing that the White House completely ignores the Jefferson cheese and instead references the Jackson cheese instead, especially given Old Hickory’s marginalization within the Democratic party. Maybe Jackson’s image within the Democratic party isn’t quite as damaged as I thought, or maybe Aaron Sorkin is just that influential.

[1] You can read more about Jefferson’s “Mammoth Cheese” in Jeff Pasley’s essay, “The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, ed. Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (2004), 31-56 (quote from p. 31). Jefferson also endorsed the baking of a giant loaf of bread in 1804, but by that time, the cheese block was gone. The linked article on Jackson’s cheese appears to closely follow the story told in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (1977-1984), 3:393-394.

[2] Pasley, “The Cheese and the Words,” 32, 34.

Does Tennessee’s New History Bill Employ Historical Thinking ?

capitolThe Tennessee General Assembly is currently considering a bill that appears to emphasize a specific political agenda in the teaching of history in the state’s public schools.

The version of the bill passed by the state senate says:

Generally, present law requires the textbook commission to recommend textbooks to the state board of education for use in the public schools of the state. In recommending textbooks for use in social studies, Tennessee history, American history or any related subject, the commission must strive to recommend textbooks that accurately and comprehensively portray the full range of diversity and achievement of racial and ethnic minorities as well as the role and importance of religion in history. This bill rewrites this provision to instead require that the commission, in recommending textbooks for use in such subjects, recommend only textbooks that accurately and comprehensively relate and explain the achievements of United States citizens. The text must describe the factual circumstances of advances in political liberty, economic and technological progress, and the success of the United States as a leader in the age of industry, with emphasis on the political and cultural elements that distinguished America in this era from other nations, past and contemporary. Appropriate commentary would include descriptions of religious, ethnic and cultural values that took America on a different course from other nations.

That description can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it’s not a stretch to assume that the bill’s sponsors want to ignore the complexity of the nation’s history in favor of a triumphalist version that ignores the reality of the American past. That assumption is borne out by a newspaper report that the House sponsor, Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), “conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.” One of the adopted amendments reflects this view: “The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights, and the Tennessee Constitution with the Declaration of Rights are available for all to read today, and still apply in exactly the words they originally contained in simple English.”

This bill is an unfortunate, but common, example of the lack of historical thinking among Tennessee’s politicians. Hill and the Senate sponsor, Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains), fail to understand that history is not as clear-cut as they want it to be. For example, I wonder how Hill and Nicely would read the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press? Does “the press” refer only to newspapers? According to their definition, one would think so. How does one interpret the Second Amendment, which is hardly clear-cut in it language and punctuation? What did the Declaration mean when it said that “all men are created equal?” If that phrase still “appl[ies] in exactly the words they originally contained in simple English,” I hope Hill and Nicely are prepared to disenfranchise women, African Americans, and maybe even themselves, if they aren’t wealthy enough. I fully support having students read the Constitution and the Declaration (and I often require it in my courses), but to argue that the documents can only be interpreted in the times in which they were written is absurd and ignores some of the real progress of American society.

Just as concerning as these examples is the belief in the United States’ unique and privileged progress that will be communicated to students. There is nothing wrong with discussing the positive contributions that the United States has made; in fact, I think it is a necessary part of a well-rounded history education. But ignoring the negative aspects of American history does a disservice to students and, I would argue, makes them more cynical.

Why? Because they encounter complexity every day, and this bill says that the complexity doesn’t exist. Taking an extreme example (I hope), if this bill suppresses discussion of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow racism, how would students recognize the contemporary relevance of racism today? If students are not made aware of the incorporation of many socialist policies during the Progressive Era, how can they understand the centralization of the United States government today? If they don’t receive a thorough overview of United States diplomacy during the Cold War, how can they understand the nation’s standing among the world, especially the Middle East, today? None of these subjects has an easy explanation, but this bill suggests that they do.

This bill is an example of the “Humpty Dumpty history” that I wrote about three years ago. It’s simplistic, dumbed-down political indoctrination, and conservatives who support this bill should be ashamed of themselves for doing a disservice to Tennessee students.

After King’s Death

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-9365086-2-402One of my mentors at my previous institution was Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger. She held the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Endowed Chair in Business Ethics (since renamed and repurposed) and also served as director of the Faculty Center for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching.

Eleanor’s background is fascinating. One of the stories that I heard circulated on campus was that following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the King family took refuge with the Dunfey family. Out of respect, I never asked Eleanor about the story, but knowing her as I did, I had no trouble believing that her family would show that kind of compassion.

Eleanor recently posted a link to a 2006 newspaper article that confirmed the story as I had heard it. I hope you’ll read the story and reflect on the way that life carries on in the aftermath of tragedy. King was a husband and a father, and as much as the United States (and the world) mourned his death, his family mourned him more.

The Evolution of a Book, Pt. 15: Promoting Your Book


(Previous entries in this series: Pts. 12345678910111213, and 14)

In August, I wrote my last entry in this series on developing a marketing plan for your book. Having implemented many of those ideas, I wanted to give some insight into what has and hasn’t worked for me so far.

Once I had a pretty firm idea of when the book would be out, I began targeting approximately 100 groups and organizations with e-mails about speaking. (I prefer corresponding via e-mail for a couple of reasons: it allows me to preserve an accurate record of who I’ve contacted and what was said and because I’m not sure how many people keep track of snail mail nowadays.) I compiled the list from my professional and personal networks, groups I’ve previously spoken to, groups with a clear connection to Andrew Jackson, and suggestions from other colleagues. I have had a booking success rate of approximately 25%, and I have received answers (either affirmative or negative) from almost everyone I contacted.

Scheduling talks in some organized manner is key. For example, once I booked a talk in South Carolina for spring break, I reached out to other organizations in that area or along the way to see if the timing would work for them. In that case, I was able to schedule four talks in one trip. Organized coordinating has also been important because of my teaching schedule. With limited days on which I can travel, even if it’s in the area, I need to know what dates/times are feasible for me and if I can offer an alternate date for a group if there’s a conflict.

The South Carolina trip I mentioned actually offers a nice segue into a dicey topic: honoraria/travel funds. Some groups are upfront about whether they will offer either of these; most, however, are not. Some have even asked me to name my fee. The best advice I can give is to try to at least break even financially. If you have to travel two hours to give a talk, I don’t think it’s uncouth to ask for enough of a fee to pay for your gas. If the talk requires an overnight stay, requesting lodging shouldn’t come as a surprise to the organization.

Some groups may also put you in a weird spot due to their disorganization. Be proactive in getting the information that you need for the talk, and plan to arrive early to set up, especially if you are using audio-visual aids. That also gives you time to read the audience and setting.  Most attendees probably love history and/or are widely read but aren’t experts on your topic, so give it to them in a form they can easily understand. Also make sure that you respond to the setting. If you are in an open room with senior citizens who may find it hard to hear you, you will need to project more than if you are in a living room speaking to a book club. Use A/V if you can, but be able to talk without it in case something goes wrong.

Another consideration to give some thought is your book’s price point. Finding a price point that makes the book affordable, yet still allows you to turn a small profit is difficult. You have to realize that not many people are going to pay $50 for a book they can buy online for $30. With this book, I discovered that $5 made the difference between attendees balking at or making the purchase.

One final recommendation: seek out non-academic venues to write about your book. I wrote pieces for History News Network and Readex and am currently working on three others. These opportunities expose your book to audiences that you might not reach otherwise but that are likely to be interested in reading more about your topic.

Above all, be friendly and courteous. Send a thank-you note afterwards to the person most responsible for setting up the talk or asking you to submit a piece of writing. It’s not only good manners–that person may just invite you back to speak or write in the future or recommend you to someone else.

You can also see some book-promotion tips in Liz Covart’s summary of last week’s AHA panel on writing and the Twitter timelines of CovartBecky Erbelding, and Jordan Grant for that panel.


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