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Final American history 2016


Siege of Constantinople: The capture of Constantinople “blocked” the Silk Road.


The 95 Theses: The Reformation set off religious wars.


The Three Sisters: Europeans wanted Native American land


I had the dubious distinction of teaching American history, Pre-Columbus to 1800 in the fall quarter (the Pacific Northwest is on the quarter system; courses are 5 credits per, and 3 courses is a full load for 10 weeks). In my syllabus, the election fell on the week we were discussing the Federalist papers and the formation of the Constitution. Lucky me, to have to explain the Electoral College on election night. This quarter, this year, this century thus far: all hot messes. I find it more and more difficult to teach the history of the US when I feel as though we are in very real danger of witnessing the end of the Republic.

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of this election cycle were the triumph of propaganda on television news and on the Internet and the vehemence of the propagandists’ steadfast followers. From my perspective, this unfortunate mix of ignorance and manipulation will only get worse when the children affected by the “No Child Left Behind” testing frenzy and other politicization of education reach voting age (very soon). My students who are directly out of high school (or still in high school and attending community college through Washington State’s “Running Start” program), show an alarming inability to think independently or critically. They have been tested into obedience. Since kindergarten, this generation has been told that there are correct and quantifiable answers for everything.

The liberal arts are an antidote to that kind of rigid thinking. Since I am a Kool-Aid swilling member of the cult of liberal arts and critical thinking, I could not let my students leave my class with the same level of zombiedom they entered with. (If I left the class for a moment to go to the loo or deal with an interruption, they were perfectly quiet when I returned. It is spooky and unnatural.) So, I wrote the final exam for my course with this liberal arts sensitivity in mind. I will receive the same answers as I would have if I had phrased the questions in the usual history speak, but I made it much harder by requiring independent judgment and freedom of thought. Also, to complete the exam, the students need to employ more than just critical thinking, narrative history method, and study habits. The formula requires thinking more suited to the physical sciences (and law) than the liberal arts. In essence, they have to recognize a faulty equation, fix it, and solve for two variables. Yes, My history exam is algebraic. Math is a liberal art. (So there, troll who laughed at my liberal arts education and told me to pick up a science book—the physical sciences ARE the liberal arts, ye wee numpty.)

I welcome feedback in the form of constructive criticism, reasoned and civil discourse, honest and helpful suggestions, and penetrating questions. To head off the first criticism, I fully prepared the students for this from day one and held two review sessions in which I gave them the answers. We also had mini listening and reading workshops during the quarter. My course is designed as Atlantic history integrating social, political, intellectual, environmental, and cultural history. I “race” and “gender” the master narrative and count Native American tribes as sovereign nations in commerce with Europeans.


The Fall Line dictated the size of any agricultural labor force.


Racial construction created an easily identifiable caste of unfree agricultural workers.



Final Exam

History 146: North America Pre-Columbus to 1800

Tacoma Community College

December 2016

Rather than give you a traditional final exam, I want you find the habit of questioning all assertions for logical consistency, historical accuracy, and intentional manipulation. This is now your civic duty. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we have gone over in class and in the review on Dec. 1 in the final class of the quarter, please follow the instructions carefully, and then upload your answers to this page in one document file.


Much of the news coverage this autumn surrounding the election of 2016 was more akin to emotional assertion and opinion than factual reportage. The situation was so bad that the Oxford English Dictionary, the record of the English language, added the hyphenated word “post-truth” to the official lexicon. Transparency and effective journalism are necessary in order maintain an informed electorate. When opinionated emotion and supposition rule over fact-based reporting and reasoned discourse, democracy itself is in danger.

Too often, a non-expert on television seeks to end discourse with a classic logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. Especially for college students studying history, critical examinations of assertions of authority are necessary. The most common attempt to justify a position has been, “America was founded on the principle of _____________!” Fill in the blank, and this statement seems to carry a great deal of weight. But, as we have discussed many times in class, this statement is far from complete, is oversimplified, and is, in essence, incorrect, no matter how one fills in the blank. Which America? Which founding? Is there a principle or just an expedient method? The word “the” is most obviously problematic because there are certainly more than one “founding” principles.

Your assignment is to complete the statement, to fill in the blank, explain your choice, and connect it to the United States c. 1804. However, you must first change the statement so that it is accurate. “America” is a hemisphere, and, in the time period covered by History 146, parts of “America” were claimed by at least five European powers and thousands of Native American tribes. To fill in the blank, you will have to specify which America you mean. British North America? The Early American Republic? The Revolutionary Era? New England, the Middle Colonies, Tidewater, or the South? Jefferson’s America? Hamilton’s? You will also have to verify that “founded” is the correct verb. Is “coalesced” a more appropriate term? Also, was there actually a principle involved, or can you argue that a system of labor procurement was in play?

Similarly, if you answer using the ideas of the any of the Enlightenment “Founders,” please make sure you articulate the fact that the ideas swirling around both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were contradictory. If you answer the question for Jefferson, you need to acknowledge the Federalists and vice versa. If you answer with any freedom mentioned in these documents, be prepared to explain the history of that idea on this continent and/or in Europe or from Native Americans. One very large and flexible answer is “commerce”; one especially difficult answer is “hypocrisy.” Remember, Virginia and Massachusetts were two very different societies from the beginning, as were the Caribbean and Louisiana.

I expect you to construct the statement in two different ways and write at least four pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times or Times New Roman for each statement, about 1000 words per answer.

What I want is for you to pull on a thread in the history we have studied this quarter and explain how that subject contributed to the identity of the nation in 1800. In addition, you should be prepared to discuss certain aspects of correlation or opposition to the topic you pick. For example, many have suggested the answer with slavery. I think that is a good answer. You must give a short narrative history of slavery, explain why it answers the “founding” part of the question, and include a discussion of race formation. Without discussing race formation, you cannot give an accurate answer to the answer of how slavery was foundational. True, it was an economic system, but the social and political realities of race were solidly integrated into the national character by 1800 as much as the South relied on the economic benefits of a captive workforce. As we have discussed, there are many, many ways to complete the statement. Pick two, describe how each evolved, and explain why they are so important to the concept “America” as to be considered foundational.

An “A” answer would include:

  • An accurate reformulation of the statement “America was founded on the principle of ______________”;
  • A historically accurate answer (for example, “capitalism” is not historically accurate);
  • An accurate timeline (in terms of cause and effect, not an absolute date timeline) of the principle/institution/concept/activity you choose to explain;
  • A cogent explanation of how and why your answer was manifest in the politics, culture, social structure, or even geography of the United States, c. 1804;
  • A successful demonstration that you use a dictionary to look up words you do not know;
  • Evidence of hard work and engagement with the substance of the course;
  • A demonstration of critical and lateral thinking. Outside the box is good too. Just tie it all together in a killer conclusion.

You are NOT required (or permitted) to do any of the following:

  • Completely answer the question. That would be impossible as an undergraduate or in 4 pages.
  • Use any materials extraneous to the class. Use ONLY lecture/discussion notes, PowerPoints (up on Canvas), your textbook, and additional readings either handed out in class or posted on Canvas.
  • Use footnotes or citations. If you quote the Declaration of Independence or the Sermon on the Arabella, simply identify the document and the speaker. For example, “John Winthrop called the new society ‘a cittie upon a hill’ in his sermon on the Arabella.” No notes required.
  • Use the thinking of someone else. I want you to work your way through the answer yourself.
  • Panic. This is doable because you are smart and able.
  • Plagiarize. This is doable because you are fierce and competent.


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Filed under 2016 election, American history, Environment, Higher Education, Ideas, Intellectual History, Pedagogy, Resistance, teaching, Thinking, US Constitution

Mourning Over the Inland Sea

As much as I want legroom when I fly in cattle class, I always choose to sit by the window for daytime flights. However, what I see below, on this trip from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, is tragedy only in the sense that it was caused by human hubris. The violence of poverty and ignorance are written on the face of the Earth below. I cannot document the devastation well enough on my iPhone, but I can tell a sad tale. The route appears to follow a traditional VOR route just to the south of Russia until the Black Sea, when the plane turns left and heads directly for Istanbul. There is so much light brown earth that the view seems monotonous, unless one realizes that most of what the plane is flying over used to be water.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

I am, of course, referring to what was once known as the Aral Sea. To my historian’s brain and my photographer’s eyes, I can see a lot of things that are no longer there, first of which is water. Either Turkish Airlines is using maps made in the 90s or the desertification has accelerated because everything that marked in blue on the map is now brown, tan, or black interspersed with wee bits of green next to a brown “river.” There is no blue where there should be. I know the maps are accurate because I can feel the airplane turn at the appropriate VOR, which is supposed to be on a coastline. Now the plane turns in an anonymous-looking piece of desert.


This entire area is rendered in blue on the aviation map. That’s not good.

Of course, I saw more than the missing blue where the authority of the map told me it would be. I hopped into my historian’s time machine and looked back further in time than my own study of geography in the 1980s, when the Aral “Sea” was considerably bluer and, as I naively thought, had not begun to shrink. I read that the Aral Sea had been shrinking for some two decades now, but it has been shrinking for a lot longer than that. We, the parasites who live on this planet, only noticed or cared twenty years ago. Any fool can see from 36,000 feet that the entire basin had once been a great inland sea, spread from Tashkent and Bukhara in the (arbitrary East) to Baku in the West.

Yes, Baku. When I say that the entire basis was a great inland sea, it must have stretched from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, south to Iran. Of course, I am writing from 36,000 feet up, not as an archaeologist digging a meter under the sun-baked crust of no man’s land, the land of Alexander, Mongols, Infidels, and Intifadas. But as much as one can see on the scarred Earth the impact crater that in grade school I learned had the name “Yucatan,” I can see the bottom of a prehistoric (or a very, very old) ocean.


Sand dunes where there once was a freshwater-fed, saline inland sea.

Sadly, no one else on board this metal tube seems to notice or care. I was nearly weeping watching those around me drink their clean water from plastic cups and thinking what have we wrought? The fighter still remains.

I had seen this same tableau when I flew over in 2012. The area was cloudy in 2013. The new things I saw this trip freaked me out the most: empty oxbows and sandy fields. Oxbow lake occurs when sediment fills in a meandering bend in a river, cutting off the meander, and creating a semicircular lake. The strong flow of the river continues in a deep and straight channel. In stable environments, oxbow lakes usually take some time to form. Sedimentary buildup is not a quick process when water is flowing freely. Oxbows are rare, except in places where water levels drop quickly. In the sand below, the unmistakable shape of an oxbow lake lay in the middle of a desert with no river nearby. The lake was completely dried up. So, if this whole area was once covered in water, the oxbow formed from a river that had had a fairly constant source even when the surrounding water had disappeared. The river flowed long and strongly enough to etch a meander in the soil and then filled it in with silt. Since then, the river itself had completely stopped flowing, and the oxbow lake either dried or was drained. That’s some serious devastation.


Image The meandering white line is a dried river bed. Just on the edge of the shadow, an oxbow (now dried) is clearly visible. The river kept flowing after the oxbow formed. The unmistakable grid of human settlement is the dominant feature on the bottom third.


The second and almost unbelievable sight was abandoned and desertified agricultural fields nowhere near water. The Aral Sea did not disappear due to some natural disaster (unless one considers human habitation a natural disaster). The manmade Janus-faced disasters of poverty and greed are at fault. As evidenced by the oxbow, water flowed into this dry place from some wet place. Humans used the water faster than it could be replaced and permanently altered the ecosystem. The Aral Sea died to irrigate, of all possible crops, cotton, one of the most water hungry and lucrative plants around. Poverty and commerce drained the sea, and when the water receded from overuse, the fields were abandoned and moved closer to the ever-decreasing water. Circular fields testify to machine irrigation; rectangular fields were probably hand or canal irrigated. All of them are now just patterns in the sand.


ImageThe white patches on rectangles are sand dunes on what were fields. New fields are interspersed, most at the top of the image and in the depression in the bottom third, where the oxbows are forming. I’m curious what it will look like next time I fly to Kyrgyzstan.


Sigh. More in Istanbul. The drinks cart is coming. …


Archaeology of Bukhara

The Aral Sea Crisis

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Filed under Environment, Environmental devastation, Flight, Greed, Poverty, Travel, Ugliness, Witnessing