Monthly Archives: September 2015

Creating a generation of historical illiterates…

Back in 1979, British science historian James Burke hosted a series on Public Television titled “Connections,” in which he linked a variety of seemingly unconnected inventions and historical happenings to explain how everything from telecommunications to nuclear power came to be.

It was hugely entertaining and informative at the same time.

This year, science historian Steven Johnson has been presenting “How We Got to Now,” also on PBS. Using an approach similar to Burke’s, Johnson connects the technological dots to explain hos even the most modern inventions have their roots in the past, sometimes in the ancient world.

Like Burke (but without the bad leisure suits, the plague of the 1970s), Johnson delivers profound facts about how modern life is rooted in the past in an entertaining way that imparts knowledge so effortlessly that we barely realize he’s been teaching us things we need and ought to know.

The tragic, triumphant winter the Continental Army spent at Valley Forge won’t be among the facts rattling around in the heads of South Dakota public school students, thanks to new history standards recently approved by the state board of education that take effect next school year.

I thought of those two men and their programs this morning when I read a startling and dismaying piece by John Fea, the chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA and the author of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past over at the Raw Story web site.

It seems the State of South Dakota has decided their public school students, from kindergarten through high school, will no longer be required to learn about early American history.

The new standards, which take effect next year, eliminate the requirement to teach the first 100 years of U.S. history, which means the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the development of the Constitution, slavery, Native People, and all the rest of the history, good and bad, that has accumulated to make us what we are today. Teachers, of course, will be welcome to teach that era of history if they have the time, but the students won’t be tested on it. And as we’ve learned during the past several years, if it doesn’t appear on standardized achievement tests, it’s not going to be taught because more and more of a teacher’s career is based on how students perform on those tests.

I haven’t read what the rationale for this short-sighted and destructive change is, but I’m assuming its bottom line rests on the finances of the situation, as do so many decisions affecting our modern educational system.

Time was, we used to use history as a tool to help us learn from both our successes and our mistakes. Today, what the military likes to call “lessons learned” seem to have been cast aside in favor of ignoring consequences—both good and bad—in favor of relying instead on strongly held beliefs.

It’s a destructive and dismaying trend, and the folks in South Dakota are, unless things change, doomed to producing future generations of citizens with no knowledge of the great errors and great accomplishments that have made the country they live in came to be the way it is today.

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Filed under Frustration, People in History, Semi-Current Events

A little humor for a September afternoon…

Paraprosdokians are figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, and quite often humorous, that creates a sort of intellectual whiplash. Winston Churchill loved them and the Marx Brothers (along with a lot of other comedians) made a career out of them.

The term is obviously Greek, and, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong…right?) comes from the combination of two Greek words, “παρά,” meaning “against,” and “προσδοκία,” meaning “expectation.”

A while back, someone sent me a list of some of them, and they gave me a chuckle. So I stole others from various places on the web and here’s my current list for your amusement:

Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on my list.

Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

War does not determine who is right, only who is left.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

They begin the evening news with ‘Good Evening,’ then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

Buses stop in bus stations. Trains stop in train stations. On my desk is a work station .

I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

In filling out an application, where it says, ‘In case of emergency, notify:’ I put ‘DOCTOR.’

I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

There’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away.

I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.

You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

Where there’s a will, there are relatives.

“I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.” — Will Rogers

“She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.” — Groucho Marx

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” — Groucho Marx

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx

“If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be surprised.” — Dorothy Parker

“I don’t care what is written about me as long as it isn’t true.” — Dorothy Parker

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” — Dorothy Parker

“The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of their tires.” — Dorothy Parker

“That woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them.” — Dorothy Parker

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.” — Dorothy Parker

“He and I had an office so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” — Dorothy Parker

“Look at him, a rhinestone in the rough.” — Dorothy Parker

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” — Dorothy Parker

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” — Henry J. Tillman

“A fool and his money are soon elected.” — Will Rogers

“If I am reading this graph correctly, I would be very surprised.” — Stephen Colbert “There’s a bunch of different crunches that affect the abs … my favorite is Nestle.” — Shmuel Breban

“When I was 10, I beat up the school bully. His arms were in casts. That’s what gave me the courage.” — Emo Philips

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.” — Jack Handey

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”- Winston Churchill

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” — Winston Churchill (said of Clement Attlee)

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” — Groucho Marx

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?

Some people are like Slinkies—not really good for anything, but you can’t help smiling when you see one tumble down the stairs.

Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.

Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars but check when you say the paint is wet?

Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?

The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.

Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

And…..finally:

I’m supposed to respect my elders, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one these days.

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The star-crossed I&M Canal…

When missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet first saw the area around Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan in 1673, they were struck by how easy it might be to build a canal connecting the headwaters of the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River.

Jolliet suggested that it wouldn’t take much labor to dig a deep enough canal to link the Des Plaines—part of the Illinois River system—to the Chicago River whose mouth is on Lake Michigan. One short canal, the Jesuit explorer suggested, would connect the south-flowing Illinois and Mississippi rivers with the Great Lakes highway from the interior of northern North America with the Atlantic seaboard colonies.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois' economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

Local Indians, in fact, told the explorers that the two rivers occasionally mingled their waters during wet spring seasons or other times when both were at flood stage.

But while a canal linking the Illinois River and Lake Michigan didn’t seem like much of an engineering challenge to 17th Century French explorers, the idea never really took off, mainly due to the remoteness of the Illinois Country from the other settled areas of Colonial North America.

That the idea wasn’t acted upon didn’t mean people forgot about it, however. When the U.S. government moved into the area after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War, military officers and others again began contemplating the construction of a canal. When the government concluded a treaty with Indian tribes in northern Illinois in 1816, one of the provisions was a cession of land roughly 10 miles either side of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers for 100 miles southwest from Lake Michigan to the rapids on the Illinois River that marked the head of steamboat navigation. The tribes were persuaded to give up the land for a virtual pittance on the assurance of Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, that a canal built in the area would be an economic boon for the Native Americans.

At first, the U.S. Government agreed with Louis Jolliet on the ease of connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. Major Stephen Long of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1816 contending that the canal could be built “with very little expense compared with the magnitude of the object,” which was building the economic power of the West. But President James Monroe figured it wasn’t the federal government’s job to finance internal improvements and so the idea again languished.

It wasn’t until 1822 that Congress finally authorized construction of a canal on the ceded lands. The idea was that land within the 10-mile strip on either side of the river could be sold to defray the cost of building the waterway. But Congress only gave the new state of Illinois enough right-of-way for the canal itself and the towpath, keeping the rest of the land for itself. Illinois Gov. Shadrack Bond decided to go ahead with the project anyway and got the engineering work moving ahead.

Some of the old I&M Canal's locks have been restored, like this one, Lock 15, at LaSalle, Illinois. (I&M Heritage Corridor photo)

Some of the old I&M Canal’s locks have been restored, like this one, Lock 15, at LaSalle, Illinois. (I&M Heritage Corridor photo)

That’s when it was discovered the project wouldn’t be quite as easy as it seemed. While the area around Chicago seemed to be nothing but muddy wetlands, it turned out that bedrock hidden by all that mud and water was close to the surface. Further, there turned out to be quite a bit of fall between Lake Michigan and Peru, where steamboats had to stop most of the time due to rapids on the Illinois River. And finally, while it was relatively easy to get from the headwaters of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines, that really didn’t get you anywhere worthwhile. The Des Plaines, for much of the year, was so shallow that even fur trade canoes had to be portaged around long stretches of it. At certain times, the portage at Chicago to water where boats and canoes could actually float was up to 60 miles in length. So the river as part of the canal was ruled out, and a dug canal paralleling the river for 96 miles from Lake Michigan to Peru was in.

With those problems understood, engineers estimated the canal would probably cost $700,000, a huge sum in those days.

To help out, Congress granted the state a five-mile swath of land on each side of the proposed canal route in 1827 (a total of 290,915 acres), with the land sales at $1.25 an acre to help finance construction.

But at first, land sales were as sluggish as the Chicago River’s current, and cost estimates kept rising to astonishing heights.

Even so, there was agitation to get the project going. After all, the Erie Canal in New York, that linked Lake Erie with the Hudson River across more than 300 miles of extremely rough, almost mountainous, country had been built and opened in 1826. The New York canal was not only an engineering marvel—probably the greatest engineering triumph of the first half of the 19th Century in the United States—but was also a huge financial success.

So despite the ever-increasing construction estimates and other concerns, construction began July 4, 1836 in Bridgeport near Chicago. The start of construction immediately caused hysterical land speculation along the canal’s route.

And then the whole thing—canal construction, land speculation, and get-rich schemes too numerous to count—came to a screeching halt when the Panic of 1837, one of the nation’s most severe depressions, struck. The panic was a likely unintended consequence of President Andrew Jackson’s hatred of both paper money and the Bank of the United States. Jackson forced paper money to be recalled throughout the west and decreed only gold or silver coins would be accepted. The move literally sucked all the money out of the fast-growing western frontier of the era—meaning Illinois and the other states created from the Old Northwest Territory.

The outstanding bonds on the canal bankrupted Illinois—and cost estimates rose to more than $13 million. The General Assembly, led by Whigs who championed internal improvements at government expense, had involved the state ever more deeply in financing the canal. Although it limped along as a little money trickled in here and there, by 1842, construction had stopped altogether.

Very early on, a so-called “deep cut” strategy, which would have allowed boats to enter the canal directly from Lake Michigan and sail serenely to Peru was contemplated. But as soon as the route was surveyed and land contours mapped that was dropped in favor of building locks along the canal route.

The canal route descends 141 feet from its entry on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the end of the line at Peru. To handle the drop, a series of 15 locks were designed by canal engineer William Gooding. Dams and feeder aqueducts were built from several rivers and streams—including the Fox River at Dayton—to supply water for the canal. The feeders were made largely redundant in 1871 when a deep cut was made through the rise from the elevation of Lake Michigan to Lockport, and water from the lake could be used to fill the canal.

Along with other engineering miracles, the canal crossed the Fox River at Ottawa via an aqueduct.

After many fits and starts, the Illinois and Michigan Canal finally opened for business in 1848. And just as its promoters had promised, it became a powerful economic engine driving growth in northern Illinois.

From April 24 to Oct. 15, you can even take a ride on a replica canal boat towed by a mule at LaSalle. For information, go to http://www.lasallecanalboat.org/.

From April 24 to Oct. 15, you can even take a ride on a replica canal boat at LaSalle towed by a mule. For information, go to http://www.lasallecanalboat.org/.

However, the canal had the bad luck to be finished just as railroad construction began in Illinois, and so the I&M Canal’s heyday was to be very brief in duration, but not in impact. And even though railroads soon stole much of the canal’s business, the idea of shipping goods by water—which was and is much cheaper than by rail—did catch on. It was especially a boon for the region’s farmers, since the canal opened markets from New York to New Orleans. Soon, most of the region’s grain was flowing to Chicago via the canal where newly developed grain elevators loaded freighters headed east. That not only boosted Chicago but it marginalized once-booming river ports to the south including St. Louis.

Eventually the I&M was superseded by the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois Waterway, which still carry millions of tons of goods. As the huge tugs push giant tows up and down the river, the old I&M Canal still slumbers right beside the newer, much larger waterway.

Today, the I&M Canal has become a destination for nature lovers and those interested in the state’s early history. Cycling and hiking along the canal’s former towpaths, picnicking, wildlife watching, and even canoing along some sections draw thousands of visitors every year.

 

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