Archive | January, 2014

School Field Trips: A Must for a Complete Education

30 Jan

The recent issue of Museum magazine published by AAM discusses the growing trend of declining field trips to museums and historic sites. (“Why Field Trips Matter?” by Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisda, and Daniel H. Bowen, Museum, January-February 2014.) For example, the article lists the prestigious Field Museum in Chicago dropping from 300,000 students to under 200,000 per year. One can only imagine how smaller, less known museums are faring as this trend takes hold of our nation. Reasons for declining field trips are nothing surprising: financial shortages and/or greater focus on raising student performance on standardized tests.

school field trip

The Museum article focuses on how a recent study shows children who took field trips to art museums have demonstrated an improvement in critical thinking. While it is heartening to see such a positive study for the inclusion of field trips, it seems to skirt the most obvious reason. Students should take field trips as a central part of their overall educational experience. These trips produce better citizens who are more appreciative of their communities and heritage. For some inexplicable reason, this logical rationale for field trips has gone by the wayside.

While I truly understand the harsh budgetary realities that schools face today as well as the need for students to perform well on tests to acquire necessary job skills and get their diplomas, we have seemed to lost sight of providing our students a sound, overall education.  Exposing children to these priceless museums and sites expands their education and builds upon the work they do in the classroom. There is no better way to understand a subject than by visiting the location where an event took place or to see in person a related actual relic or document.  We must also understand that many students from less advantaged backgrounds would never get the opportunity to visit and experience such important museums and institutions if not via a school trip. To quote from that article, we have lost the fact that one of the ultimate goals of providing an education to our students is to produce intelligent, civilized people “who appreciate the breadth of human accomplishments.”  Taking field trips is an absolute necessity to achieving that goal!!!


Review of Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn

27 Jan

I have long been fascinated with the remarkable and unusually long career of American music icon Johnny Cash. Like many, I am intrigued by his rise from exceedingly humble origins on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas to become one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. I have read biographies about him, watched documentaries and the movie I Walk the Line, and of course have a large collection of his music. All this is to say I am familiar with the Johnny Cash story. When I saw longtime music critic Robert Hilburn’s recent biography of Cash, I was curious to see how he would approach his subject and what new he would bring to the table. I was not disappointed in either regard.


Hilburn’s biography is an engrossing, approachable narrative with unusual insight into Cash’s life due to his personal familiarity with him and his friends and family. To its credit, though, the book is no hagiography. It is unflinchingly honest about some of the most serious struggles and shortcomings in his life. These include issues related to both his career and personal life. Despite his status as a country, rock and folk music hero by the 1960s, between the acclaimed Folsom Prison Blues album (1968) and the first career redefining American Recordings album (1994), Cash, even by his own admission, made a lot of pretty mediocre and not very popular music. His personal life had some serious shortcomings at certain stages of his life, as well, including periodic serious bouts with addiction to drugs, infidelity, terrible management of his personal finances, and poor parenting. Hilburn’s treatment of the highs and lows in Cash’s life is for the most part evenhanded and objective if not piercing, providing the most in-depth account of his life yet published.

Thankfully, Hilburn’s study of Cash is most thorough in its chronicle of the two eras generally of most interest to Cash fans; his meteoric rise from a Memphis hardware store employee to a tourmate of Elvis in the 1950s, and in his sudden and unexpected reemergence into the cultural mainstream late in life with the American Recordings albums. When Cash first burst onto the scene in 1955, he was a rock star. From albums to television shows to taking the unprecedented move of recording an album in a prison, his popularity and fame grew so steadily that he had achieved legendary status by his mid-thirties. Hilburn’s examination of how and why that came to be, and how that early success affected the trajectory of his life and that of those around him is exceedingly well done.

His writing sparkles even more in detailing his later years, when an unlikely pairing with rap and rock producer Rick Rubin, of Run-DMC and Beastie Boys fame, repackaged “The Man in Black” and his spirituality and moralistic-laden music for a modern audience. This getting back to the basics of his music in a series of starkly accompanied tracks featuring tales of loss and regret coupled with his long famous celebration of underdogs and outcasts is both a tidy bookend on Cash’s long career and, in Hilburn’s treatment, an affirmation of the core themes of his art. Much of what is “new” to fans of Cash in the book is found in Hilburn’s chronicle of Cash’s time with Rubin, when even through a mounting variety of serious and debilitating physical ailments and the crushing blow of the death of his wife June, he continued to be driven to make music that both seemed to know was redefining his status as an American legend. Hilburn brings Cash to life as few have, showing equally his triumphs, failings, strengths and frailties. His book is without doubt the best and most inclusive biography of him available today.


Historic vs. Old

23 Jan

There is a difference between “historic” and “old,” and that demarcation makes all the difference in how historians approach their jobs. To be “historic,” an event or place must be associated with a degree of importance that makes it worthy of notice, study, or preservation. To be “old” merely means something has been around a long time or occurred long ago. Historians must know the difference and react accordingly or we risk rendering our work useless to society.

Historic vs. Old

A key part of the duty of our profession is to distinguish between “historic” and “old” so that we can help make sense of the avalanche of information about the past available to our students, visitors, and readers. Good historians make value judgments on the importance of places and events based on an understanding of the total picture and provide useful analysis accordingly. We simply can’t tell every story, or preserve every building. Neither should we try.


Review of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, by Lawrence Powell

21 Jan

Fascination concerning New Orleans and its origins led me to read Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City.  Wanting to know how such an important city was placed in the worst possible place, Powell’s book went far beyond and traced the history of New Orleans from its French beginnings in the early 1700s all the way through Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in 1815. Along the way, Powell traces the political and cultural development of our nation’s most intriguing city.

Accidental city

New Orleans owes its location to the work of Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, who overcame political and logical reasons for selecting the site of the most important location along the Mississippi River. France hoped New Orleans would be not only be the government center of its Louisiana colony, but its hub of mercantilism as the colony would send home raw materials in return for finished products. Colonial rulers, however, would face the hard realities of rampant smuggling. Managing the practice of smuggling is a constant theme throughout the book.

After Spain gained control over New Orleans in the 1760s, its leaders took their turn managing a city that at times was unmanageable. The 1768 Revolt by the former French citizens against their new rulers and the calamitous fires of 1788 and 1794 highlight this portion of the book. Most of the New Orleans we know today comes from the rebuilding that took place after those fires, creating a city that is although most associated with French culture, is in reality, one that derives most of its architecture from its Spanish period.

The city’s complex racial structure dominates a large portion of the book. Powell details the complicated relationship and interactions of whites, free blacks, and slaves. With free blacks representing nearly 20% of the population in the late 1790s, the hierarchy of class became a thorny issue. Local slave owners also wrestled with colonial governments on who would determine slave regulations with slave owners wanted stricter controls on their “property.”  Discussion of designations such as “quadroon” and “octoroon” also figure prominently in Powell’s discussion on status and class.

Powell’s book provides a wealth of information on the city’s development. There were too many times, however, when the narrative bogged down and it required much effort in getting through some pages. In conclusion, Powell’s book is a worthwhile read to anyone interested in learning how New Orleans persevered through both manmade and natural calamities to become the city that continues to captivate us today.


Lost Knowledge

14 Jan

My hometown of Columbus, Georgia was long a “mill town” in a big way. From the 1840s to the 1990s, dozens of textile mills of various types were at the heart of its economy, some of them among the largest the South has ever seen. The Eagle and Phenix Mills and Bibb Mills, two of the largest, each employed thousands—Bibb so many it was able to function as its own municipality with its own mayor and police force for nearly a century. It is difficult to find anyone with roots in the community that does not have a connection to one of the mills. My own grandparents on both sides of my family were among those who moved here from farms in Alabama and Georgia in the early 1900s to take advantage of the employment opportunities Columbus industries offered. With such a longstanding connection to an industry and a way of life which shaped the community, one would suppose that some sort of awareness of the mills and life within them would be general knowledge. The fact that it is not reminds me of one of the many values of the study of history.

Eagle and Phenix

Now only a generation or two removed from life for a substantial portion of local citizens being scheduled by mill shifts, it is surprising to see how little people know about the facilities. For example, a friend of mine who is a collector of antique equipment not long ago purchased a piece of machinery that was a mainstay at some of the Columbus mills for decades. Surely, he thought, it would be a simple task to find someone to give him some information on how it operated, as there were once hundreds if not thousands in operation in the city. Having failed to find anyone after searching, he contacted me for assistance. I happened to know the last official employee of the largest, longest-lived Columbus mills, who was kept on by the firm that bought the facility once it moved production out of the country. He worked the last several years of his long career as a security guard for the facility after production shut down decades ago. He spent about fifty years associated with the mill, and seemed to know more about its operation than anyone else I knew. He had become a unique link to a past that is everywhere evident but rarely contemplated. I asked the gentleman to help me find someone in town with firsthand experience on one of the machines.

He couldn’t do it. He reported simply after a few weeks that all the folks he knew who worked on the machines were gone, having moved, passed away, or had age rob them of their memory. We talked for a bit about how remarkable it was that something so common in his youth could be so unfamiliar in his senior years. The conversation reminded me of just how much society forgets about itself with each passing generation. How many of us in the South know anything about planting or harvesting cotton, for example? Yet cotton agriculture dominated daily life in the region for nearly two centuries. In our study of history, we may know the dates of a few important events, but we often know virtually nothing of how those we read about really lived and thought.

I am not calling for a refocusing of historic inquiry here, as I do believe studying landmark events that alter daily life for everyone in a society, such as wars, depressions, and large-scale political shifts, are usually the best way to understand how and why things change over time. But I do think that an alarming amount of information about day to day existence in the past is simply forgotten, unexplored, or irretrievable by historians in their studies. The experience with the mill equipment reminded me that even our most informed chronicles of the past are unable to give a true account of the times they explore for this very reason. It doesn’t mean that so much knowledge is routinely is lost that the study of the past is hopelessly flawed, however. Rather, I think it underscores the importance of the historian’s craft to interpret and preserve at least some of the stories that demonstrate how we got to where we are today and help guide us into the future. The natural tendency, after all, is for societies to totally forget their own past in their preoccupation with the present. It is our job as historians to help turn the attention of our fellow citizens to previous times, however briefly, through relating experiences and events in the most informed manner we can. Without historians, such investigation would never even take place.


175 Years of History

10 Jan

On January 7, 1839, state lawmakers met for the first time in the newly-built statehouse in Jackson, Mississippi. Designed by renowned British architect William Nichols, the Greek Revival statehouse dominated the landscape of the young town. Having been capital city for less than twenty years, Jackson was still a frontier town, trying to maintain its hold as the governmental center of a growing state. Nichols’s masterpiece cemented Jackson’s place as capital and would serve as Mississippi’s capitol building for over sixty years, playing host to events that not only shaped Mississippi’s history, but that of the nation as well.

OCM exterior view1

The Old Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. It gained this consideration not for its age and beauty, but due to the history that occurred within those walls; history that for better or worse, made Mississippi what it is today. A listing of these events would take pages, but the Secession Convention of 1861, Constitutional Conventions of 1868 and 1890, the passage of the infamous Black Codes, the election of African American Hiram Revels to the U.S. Senate, and visits and speeches by national statesmen are but a few of the monumental events that have defined Mississippi. A solid grasp of the Old Capitol’s history reveals not only an understanding of Mississippi’s past, but also provides a glimpse into where Mississippi needs to go in the future.

175 years logo

Former Governor William Winter has stated that the Old Capitol is to Mississippi what Independence Hall is to Philadelphia and the Alamo is to Texas. It is our state’s premier symbol and a visit to it opens one’s mind to the hopes and dreams of the state’s forefathers as well as that of our current citizens. So I take a moment to salute the 175 years of incomparable history of the Old Capitol and strongly recommend a visit to Mississippi’s most treasured historic landmark. You will be amazed by what you find.


Review of The University of Alabama: A Guide to the Campus and Its Architecture, by Robert Mellown

8 Jan

Although a graduate of the University of Alabama and a former student of noted architectural historian Dr. Robert Mellown for a semester, I am embarrassed to admit I have just now read his popular guide to the architecture on campus. Originally published in 1988, the book has been updated and recently released in revised form to include information on the explosive growth on campus since the 1980s. At the time of original publication, enrollment at the University stood at about 15,000—today it is nearing 35,000 on a steadily-expanding campus that covers several square miles near downtown Tuscaloosa along the banks of the Black Warrior River.


The book is at once inclusive and brief, as Mellown is a master and providing a basic overview of campus history while being detailed enough to give readers a real sense of the story of the school’s development. Although technically an architectural guide, the richly illustrated book is actually a wonderful history of the university and its development in narrative form; the buildings noted by Mellown are evidence of the different eras and influences in its maturation. The school began in 1831 as a small affair, went through a period as a military school, and finally began to take on the shape of the huge modern institution it is today in the mid-1900s.

The most interesting thing about the book is its chronicling of campus architecture by era. For the most part, this makes touring relatively easy, as the buildings constructed in different eras of growth tend to be clustered in certain areas anyway. Luckily there has been, with notable exceptions, a conscious commitment to consistency in the appearance of campus that have made it picturesque even as it has grown into a sprawling complex that is quite literally a city unto itself. Especially enlightening is the tour of the antebellum campus, largely gone through destruction by Union cavalry during the Civil War. Modeled after the University of Virginia, only traces of the original campus remain in just a handful of buildings, but Mellown allows you to easily understand the outlines of the original facilities and their impact on more modern development. He goes on to chronicle the cluster of buildings that make up the Victorian campus, the early 1900s expansion that reoriented the campus center, the post-World War II development, and finally, the recent wave of building that has resulted in some of the most ambitious building projects ever seen on campus. The book also explores the history of the various athletic facilities on campus. Also useful is his tour of off-campus sites with strong relationship to the university, such as a number of antebellum homes and the riverwalk and park on the banks of the Black Warrior. Mellown’s book is a model collegiate campus tour guide and history, and a book every student of the University of Alabama should have.


Review of Images of America: Helen, by Chris Brooks and David Greear

3 Jan

Because my family and I like to vacation in the north Georgia mountains near the small town of Helen, when I saw the recent entry in Arcadia Press’ Images of America series on the city, I was intrigued. The town presents a remarkable story, transitioning itself in the 1960s from a small and dying lumber mill town to a tourism-based community through the vision of some local citizens and the whole-hearted buy-in of the local populace. What was a nondescript one-street mountain town along the banks of the Chattahoochee River was transformed in surprising fashion in less than a decade into “Alpine Helen,” a Georgian version of Bavaria in which every building in town (save a few grandfathered in) was designed in the architectural styles found in the German mountains. Over the course of the next few decades, the concept took off and now there are several German restaurants, import stores, and assorted German-themed shops in town, along with the longest Oktoberfest in the country. It is one of Georgia’s most-visited tourist attractions.


With all this faux-European influence and the associated recent boom in development, the real roots of the town are understandably lost. Save for a few independent publications by local historian Matt Gedney, there really is not much readily available on the history of town or the wider White County region. Brooks and Greear’s book demonstrates the community’s history stretches back to the early 1800s, when a trading stand along the Unicoi Highway through the Cherokee Nation was first constructed. It is a fascinating story, but one that does not translate well into an image-based book at times. There is a natural tendency to focus the book on the modern era, where photographs of gold-mining activities in the region and the saw mill that sustained the small community for decades are relatively more abundant. I can’t say the book is one of the most dynamic in the Arcadia catalog because of its uneven focus on only two eras of Helen’s past (the mill era and the transformation into “Alpine Helen”), but it is well-researched, well-written, and communicates a bit of the rich history most travelers are scarcely aware of when they visit the place. It fills a void in scholarship on the area, and is well worth your time if you have an interest in the history of the mountain country of northeast Georgia.