Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Daniel Day-Lewis as historian
     Informing imaginations

Jim Cullen has an interesting article in the wonderful online journal Common-Place. The article gives his rationale for using Hollywood films to teach American history, as a way to cultivate “an informed imagination.” He wants his students, who don’t read enough, to gain some sense of the richness and texture of the worlds that make up America’s past. He noted after the fact that all four of the films he settled on for first semester included the same actor: Daniel Day-Lewis. The four films provide something of an arc from the Puritans to the early dawn of the Progressive Era: The Crucible (1996), Last of the Mohicans (1992), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Age of Innocence (1993).

“The engine of American history” that one sees in the various roles played by Day-Lewis “is a restless individualist who strains against an inherited culture, an individual as likely to look back as to look forward, but an individual who, in that very restlessness, also paves the way for a new generation, one that will ultimately produce a new rebellion for a new age.” He sees this as a relevant vision for high schools which, “whatever their specific deficiencies, are veritable workshops of dreams.”

He goes on to note that in some ways Day-Lewis may be a better historian for high schoolers than academics who, for the most part, see vivid and sweeping storylines as too simplistic.

There is one . . . aspect of Day-Lewiss vision of American history that distinguishes it from others propagated by popular media. And that is that it is a vision, a sweeping interpretation that takes in the American past as a whole. Not many professional historians (Sean Wilentz comes to mind as an exception) consider it appropriate to even try. In this regard, Day-Lewis harkens back to earlier generations of American historians: Hofstadter, Parrington, and, especially, Turner, and maybe a few modern descendants such as Patricia Limerick. For a variety of structural and ideological reasons, the contemporary professional vision of the past is fractured, slivered into shards that are constantly being recombined into often compelling new arrangements. A postmodern playhouse. That’s fine for graduate students, maybe. But thats not what the kids I see need right now.

They need to grapple with a frontiersman in the woods.

I, too, like to use film to make other places and times more vivid. I have kids read as much as possible, but I think they also need to experience film and learn to view it critically. I wouldn’t use The Gangs of New York in class, though. It’s rated R “for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.” Hollywood deems it inappropriate for people under 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, and I would hate to think Hollywood is more protective of young people than the school where I work.

What films have worked well in your classes for bringing a different time to life? What films would you recommend to enrich students’ sense of the world of circa 1910?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Summer medic on wildland fires
     A change is as good as good as a rest

Lunch break: A member of the Zuni hotshots during lunch on the patio of the Shepp Ranch. The ranch is accessible only by air or jetboat. It’s a wonderful place to clear one’s mind of distractions.

I’m spending much of my summer working as an Incident Medical Specialist on wildland fires in the West—a medic on forest fires. It’s a great change of pace. I just got back from 16 days on the Rattlesnake Fire in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. I was “spiked out” at the Shepp Ranch on the Salmon River and, for three of the days, at a remote “ranch” up Indian Creek.

No cell phones. No roads. On smoky days, no helicopters. Most transportation was by jet boat and nearly the only communication was hand-held radios, which allowed us to talk to others on the fire.

In some ways it’s the opposite of classrooms, which are overconnected sytems if ever there were such things. There’s so much communication going on that it’s hard to think.

The crew I spent the most time with was a Zuni Hotshot crew from New Mexico. A very respectful and hard-working bunch. Up at 5:30 every morning and then working until dark, which in the north country this time of year is after 9:00. The fire is more or less uncontrollable, so the work is mostly point protection: clearing brush and timber near buildings, lighting backfires, setting up pumps and sprinklers. The fire will burn until rain or snow puts it out. The country is too steep and too remote to be contained through any practical efforts.

It’s refreshing to be outside all the time, without news, internet, meetings, phone calls, bills and a thousand household chores. Just a book or two.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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