History is Local – Tennessee Style

30 Apr

Another academic year is coming to a close, and, over the past few days, I have been reflecting upon it. Things have gone decently, but this is the first year that I have wondered if anyone is listening. As usual, there have been some engaged students and some who would probably rather be somewhere else. However, I have gotten more frustrated this time than ever before.

At our university, all students are required to take two semesters of History, and I realize that most of them are taking it because they have to take it. They are not planning on being historians, museum curators, lawyers or any other of the great professions you can get with a History degree. Still, it would be nice if they did not stare out of the windows or sneakily play with their phones. Heck, it would be even nice if some of them brought paper and pencil to class.

Honestly, it gets frustrating. I may not get them to love the subject, but I want them to get something out of it. To accomplish this, I sprinkle some local history in with the American history. They may not be interested in the millworks of New England, but they may be interested in the millworks of our town. Simply, not all history takes place far away. Some of it takes place right around the corner in places they pass everyday.

That is why I throw as much Tennessee history into the mix as I can. This might perk them up, and it might help them realize that this state has played an important role in our nation’s past.Tennessee Flag

We cover the three Tennessee presidents – Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson – because presidents are important. Did you know that Polk is the president that brought California into the United States? Yep, a guy from Columbia, Tennessee did that.

However, I like to go deeper than that and talk about people who they may have never heard of.

Peter Burnett, a Tennessee native, was the first governor of California.

Grantland Rice, perhaps the greatest sportswriter to sit behind a typewriter, was from Murfreesboro. He wrote about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a line that goes like this:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost –

But how you played the game.

Cordell Hull, a graduate of Cumberland University (where I work), was known as the “Father of the United Nations” and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on that organization.

David Crockett, defender of the Alamo and hero to millions of kids in the 1950s, was a Tennessean.

Sam Houston, who led the rebel forces in the fight for Texas independence, had his first law office here in Lebanon.

W.E.B. DuBois graduated from Fisk University and taught school in Wilson County before going on to create the NAACP.

George Rappelyea thought of a publicity stunt to draw attention to his town of Dayton. They arrested John Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution and hosted the Scopes Monkey Trial, one of the many “Trials of the Century.” It sparked a debate that continues to this day.

John Butler, the legislator who sponsored the anti-evolution bill, represented the neighboring counties of Sumner, Trousdale and Macon.

Oak Ridge is a small town that came to prominence as one of the sites of the Manhattan Project, which brought us into the atomic age.

In 1920, legislative leaders met at the Hermitage Hotel to discuss voting for or against the 19th Amendment. It is a long story, but they eventually approved it. That made Tennessee the decisive state in women getting the right to vote.

John Chisum was born in Tennessee but gained notoriety as the “King of the Pecos”, one of the most successful cattlemen in the West.

I could name others, but these are a few that I can think of. I really think mentioning local people helps students learn a little more about American history. At least, I hope it does.

18 Responses to “History is Local – Tennessee Style”

  1. El Guapo April 30, 2014 at 17:19 #

    Hell, I’ve never been to Tennessee, and I found that historical sketch fascinating!

    • Rick April 30, 2014 at 17:21 #

      Thanks. You should drop in sometime. There is a lot of cool stuff to see and do.

  2. Marilyn Armstrong April 30, 2014 at 18:56 #

    I share both your frustration and your fascination with history. When Garry was teaching, he showed them movies … like “Inherit the Wind” which is a pretty good recreation of the Scopes trial … they used much of the transcript of the actual trial as dialogue in the movie. Movies grabbed them when nothing else seemed to get their attention. I think kids — now and in the past — don’t understand that history is still impacting us today. It’s not just over and dead, it’s happening. History isn’t a thing, it’s a process and a way of looking at events in time.

    I suppose the old Disney “Davy Crockett” shows would be a little “young” for them. Either that or they’d all want coonskin caps and start singing the ballad 🙂

    • Rick April 30, 2014 at 19:28 #

      I thought about showing Davy Crockett. It would probably be about right. It’s been a long time since I watched Inherit the Wind.

      • Marilyn Armstrong April 30, 2014 at 19:31 #

        Inherit the Wind, the original, is still one of the best movies ever made.

  3. Marilyn Armstrong April 30, 2014 at 19:17 #

  4. Andrew Petcher April 30, 2014 at 20:34 #

    It’s a sad fact that teaching, learning and enjoying history seems to have become an unpopular subject.

    • Rick April 30, 2014 at 21:27 #

      It’s a struggle sometimes.

  5. satanicpanic May 1, 2014 at 04:34 #

    I’ve said this before, but I feel like high school killed American History for me for a lot of years. I was a Classical Studies major in college so I took at least a dozen history courses… none of them related to the US. Now I’m finally catching up on national history and even working on some California history. I feel like it’s helping me answer a lot of questions about how things are today. And some of the stories are just fun in their own right. (Some are obviously not fun, but good to know about). I don’t want to be totally down on high school teachers either- there is a lot to cover, especially since some of students will never go on to college. It’s got to be tough. But after high school, American History just sounded boring to me.

    • Marilyn Armstrong May 1, 2014 at 04:36 #

      A lot of what they teach in high school, renamed “social studies,” is not only badly taught. It’s also bullshit.

      • satanicpanic May 1, 2014 at 04:41 #

        Too much “view from nowhere”- “war broke out in Europe…”- why? Who started it? Those are things I wanted to know.

      • Marilyn Armstrong May 1, 2014 at 04:45 #

        And a lot of it is straight out NOT TRUE. Especially American history.

      • satanicpanic May 1, 2014 at 14:01 #

        That too! Nothing like finding out later that things you took for granted were just pulled out of thin air.

      • Rick May 1, 2014 at 15:49 #

        One problem is that it is impossible to be totally unbiased as a history teacher. We all bring our own views into the room. That is one of the reasons we can never really get to the “truth” of history. We strive to get as close as we can.

      • Rick May 1, 2014 at 15:47 #

        A lot of people get caught up in remembering dates, troop movements and stuff like that. I want to know the “why” and “how”.

      • Rick May 1, 2014 at 15:46 #

        That is true, too. Of course, my students may say the same thing about what I teach.

    • Rick May 1, 2014 at 15:46 #

      There are a lot of good teachers out there. However, there are a lot of teachers that do a good job of making history boring.

      • satanicpanic May 2, 2014 at 04:12 #

        Yeah, it’s a tough job- probably the toughest, because most other subjects are fairly uncontroversial (science being another exception). I’m pretty OK with teachers being biased as long as they allow for discussion and are up front with students about where they’re coming from. High school students are better able to handle that than people give them credit for. Their parents, on the other hand, probably are less able.

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