A Liberal Art Education

Walk into any Starbucks across the country, and you will encounter a highly educated college graduate whose degree in interpretative dance, Zulu, or what-have-you seems to translate into immediate hiring at any coffee shop, effective immediately after graduation. Unfortunately for millions of college students, a bachelors degree no longer guarantees a high paying position. Instead, highly intelligent graduates are stuck working multiple jobs as baristas and busboys in a never-ending race to pay back insurmountable student loans. It is not enough to simply graduate with a degree; instead, students need to be able to think, to question, to innovate, and do so better and more uniquely than any of their similarly educated peers. In other words, an impossible task. A critic of the current higher education system, William Deresiewicz, laments recent graduates’ inability to connect with the common man, and failure to gain a comprehensive understanding of the world. He claims students know “more and more about less and less,” decreasing their employability. ((Deresiewicz, William in “Habits of Mind: Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers.” The American Scholar Winter 2015.)) However, the authors of “Habits of Mind,” Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, suggest students should be highly specialized, in order to switch from a “passive observer” to a “creator” and to become an independent, self-reliant thinker ((Grafton, Anthony and James Grossman. “Habits of Mind: Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers.” The American Scholar Winter 2015.)). But liberal arts schools combine both views. Students are well-rounded and well-informed, while still specializing in an area that teaches them the skills that Grafton and Grossman revere; they possess the ability to hold conversations with plumbers and with highly educated colleagues in multiple languages. Grafton and Grossman seem to suggest that it is impossible to be both synoptic and analytic; however, every student that walks down the steps of Old West provide evidence to the contrary.

Are children raised by nations?

My task for class tomorrow is to lead a discussion on the relationship between the “nation” and the child, and so I will begin that discussion in this post. After reading Stearns book “Childhood in World History” I walked away with two major conclusions, and many minor ones.

Although I already suspected this, I concluded that the nation (meaning, for the most part, the government) has an incredible influence on the concept of childhood within its borders. Stearns outlines several shifts in global history that heavily impacted childhood across the globe, and I think that governments were responsible for many of these shifts. Industrialization, for instance, was the reason that in the 19th Century  children began working jobs just like adults, and industrialization was strongly supported by governments.  So too were further technological advancements in mechanization, which resulted in machines displacing children from the work place. And so childhood shifted yet again to emphasize school rather than labor. Governments had a huge role ushering in this new age of childhood that focused on schooling. Japan created a mandatory education system by the turn of the 20th Century. The Japanese government believed that their population would be of no value if it was illiterate, therefore the future wealth of the country depended on the education of children. Governments also sought to control how adults conducted “parenting,” especially because these cultures believe in the innocence of children at birth. The corruption of a child comes from ill-treatment at the hands of adult and bad societal influences.

My second conclusion is this: because of the influence a government has on childhood within a nation, it is only logical that the concept of childhood differs from country to country. In some cases, like amongst Western countries, these differences may be slight, however I am certain they exist. This ties back to readings from last week that highlighted geography as a key determinant of childhood. Each government, backed by cultural traditions, has tried to maintain some aspects of their traditional way of life or their ideological thinking that they believe is important for society to keep, and these cultural nuances are different everywhere. For the Soviet Union, they wanted to stress Marxism in the classrooms and instill a sense of duty towards the collective good, meaning the state. China, Japan and the Soviet Union all, to a certain degree, stressed a sense of loyalty or duty to the state, however in Japan it was more in line with nationalism than with Communist ideology.

The role of the state with regards to the development of childhood should not be overlooked; in fact, I think the answers to many “whys?” and “hows?” can be found by looking towards the nation.

Stearns on Education

Education is a major theme dispersed throughout Stearns full length book, Childhood in World History. Though mentioned sporadically through different sections of his book, I think what Stearns is trying to get at with education boils down to three main chronological themes. Firstly, how religion sparked the rise of importance of education. Secondly, the idea that children are the future led to the shift of children moving from the workplace into the classroom. Thirdly, stemming from the previous two revelations, a newfound obligation was born for parents to promote academic achievement and thus provide a solid, well-rounded education for their children.

Religion and Education

In Stearns chapter regarding childhood in the classical civilizations, he brings up how religion, Confucianism in specific, began to place an emphasis on education. At the time education was accessible largely by the upper class rather than the lower class, though in some special cases certain talented boys or girls may have received training from “an upper-class sponsor.” Regardless of class, Confucianism made it “clear that moral as well as academic instruction was essential.”

World religions began to push for a more formal religious education. This religious “surge,” as Stearns calls it, was unprecedented. The result was “a redefinition of what education was about” and “an impulse to spread elements of education more widely that had been the case in the classical centuries.” World religions attempted to bridge the gap between children and their spirituality while simultaneously promoting literacy and the importance of education.

From the Workplace to the Classroom

Stearns identifies three fundamental changes that have contributed to what we now know as modern childhood. His first and most essential change “involves the conversion of childhood from work to schooling.” In earlier western societies that were more agriculturally centered, the child was looked at to work and help provide for his or her family. Children receiving an education began to gain increasing value. A proper and well-rounded education was deemed necessary in order to be a positive contributor to society. Children were no longer children; they were future adults. They were viewed as the future. “The child is the object of state upbringing.” The amount of children attending school all across the globe skyrocketed. Not only were children going to school, but they were going to school longer, through high school and even college. “This was a real conversion: childhood now meant schooling, above all.”

A Parent’s Obligation

As the role of education changed and gained increasing prominence, the natural responsibilities of being a parent changed as well. Education evolved from being a luxury enjoyed by the upper-class to a universally acknowledged necessity. Slowly but surely, “growing numbers of middle- and even lower-middle-class parents began to send children to at least a year or two of secondary school.” In the West, the education of females became more common due to the notion that, “in a modern society, mothers must be educated in order to raise their children properly.” As children began to be looked at as the keys to the future rather than simple emotionless objects, education became a fundamental and essential part of life.



Escaping the “Adult Gaze”

Maynes, Mintz, and Stearns

The first three readings seem to collectively address how contemporary society has been able to shape how childhood and its’ history is looked at. Maynes begins emphasizing the importance of first-hand life stories and accounts in the history of childhood (and in her case women, too). So few sources actually come from children that it leaves their stories up to be subjectively told. Maynes then leads nicely into the Mintz reading by describing how the forming of one’s identity is “rooted” in childhood. In one of the most eye-opening passages of the three articles, Maynes quotes Kath Weston in regards to gender on page 21:”Talk to someone in the United States about gender for more than twenty minutes and you’re likely to walk away with a childhood story.” This quote complements the Mintz reading nicely because Mintz essentially compares and contrasts age and gender as categories of history. What is masculine or feminine? What should a child’s responsibilities entail at a certain age? The answers to these questions are culturally and socially constructed and defined–simply unnatural as Mintz argues. Stearns finally delves into one of these norms that have been built up by society over the years–“the innocent child” and the idea that all children should be happy. Is this notion of happiness the lone and most construed aspect of childhood? No; Stearns concludes that parents being morally obligated to make their child’s childhood one of happiness is “only one among many factors shaping childhood in recent decades, and a challenge for further analysis is to figure out how it interacts with other influences.” Most of said influences being formed not by the children of the time period, but by the culture engulfing them.

Wilson and Pascoe

Wilson and Pascoe set out to critique the past historiography on children and childhood. Wilson specifically dealing with Philippe Aries and Pascoe centering on the more recent work on the children of Australia. The biggest problem Wilson has with Aries is his “present centeredness” approach, “the condition of viewing the past exclusively from the point of view of the present.” Through all his scrutiny, Wilson does not condemn Aries, but simply states that his argument is not false, but falsely conceived. After all, Wilson and Pascoe seem to agree, Aries book was essentially the first stage in the study of a new field. Wilson’s views on Aries’ “present-centeredness” poses a question. Isn’t every single human being naturally present-centered in some capacity? I understand where Wilson is coming from, but no matter what he writes, he did in fact write in the present.

Pascoe has different causes for concern with the historiography of children. He mentions the lack of sources authored by children themselves; a theme eminent throughout our entire week’s readings. He also describes the tendency amongst adult authors to romanticize children, and even get sentimental in their writing. All adults, historians included, tend to look back on childhood happily, and it hinders their writing. What solution, if any, does Pascoe recommend? He proposes “that we can enrich our historical research by borrowing insights from other disciplines,” chiefly material culture, archaeology, folklore, geography, and oral history. Pascoe writes my favorite quote in the reading when stating the utilization of these outside, yet similar, disciplines will lead to “the recovery of children from the scrapheap of the past.”

Davin and Rhodes

Davin and Rhodes provide a nice conclusion for this week’s readings. They both discuss useful sources for the study of childhood, but each author emphasizes a different variety. Davin delves into concrete sources–four in specific. These sources are school records, voices of authority (the privileged), voices of the working class, and her “jigsaw strategy.” Her jigsaw strategy kind of ties in with the Pascoe reading in that the jigsaw strategy pieces together clues from different sources, casting “a wide net.” This allows for the “steady accumulation of snippets, anecdotes, references, and examples; the piling up of details, which allows closer understanding.”

Rhodes is similar in that she emphasizes the importance of examining all varieties of sources. The difference is that for Rhodes, the sources she is referring to are experiences. Like many of the authors we we have just read, Rhodes believes that the history of childhood and the role of children in society are “too often defined by perceptions of adults.” She proposes that we, as historians, “explore the range of experiences and environments in which the child operated and engaged with in the adult world.” What I found most interesting is Rhodes’ opinions on photographs as sources. Though she admits their importance, one cannot rely that heavily on them because they are often under “adult gaze.” Photos are rarely, if at all, taken by children themselves, which reinforces the fact that the history of childhood is too often seen through the eyes of adults. I do believe that Rhodes is on to something, but I also believe studying experiences has its’ limitations. I’m sure that one would be able to find some first hand accounts, but wouldn’t that pool of sources be fairly limited? Even when analyzing these first hand accounts, wouldn’t many of the risks associated with other more subjective sources still remain? A blend between the strategies presented by both Davin and Rhodes–and all of the seven authors for that matter–is what is necessary to have any shot at recovering the history of childhood.

Disappearing Culture: Indigenous Tribes in the Noril’sk Region of Siberia

Early in the Soviet era, the government paid little attention to the indigenous tribes of Siberia and did not take into account whether their policies for modernization would have a negative effect on the native peoples. Collectivization and the push for industrialization directly affected the tribes’ economic activity, traditional lifestyle, and the environment in which they lived.  Industrialization took place across the Soviet Union, however I have chosen to focus on the city of Noril’sk, located in Krasnoyarsk Krai in northern Siberia, between the Yenisei River and the Taimyr Peninsula. Four main indigenous groups converge in the area of Noril’sk; these groups are the Dolgan, the Nenets, the Nganasan, and the Evenk people. As a result of Soviet collectivization and industrialization policies of the mid-twentieth century, the traditional culture of these indigenous groups altered or faded considerably.

Here is a map showing the geographical location of Noril’sk:

A key component of analyzing these policies and their effects on these four tribes is to consider the sustainability of these policies with regards to both the environment and the tribes’ traditional ways of life. I would like to clarify that I am defining sustainability as “long-term cultural, economic and environmental health and vitality….together with the importance of linking our social, financial and environmental well-being.” This definition comes from the organization Sustainable Seattle.[1] I argue that Soviet policy towards the indigenous tribes of Siberia in the twentieth century did not promote long-term cultural, economic or environmental vitality, and were therefore unsustainable and unsupportive for the indigenous clans of the region.

Below is a map showing the  location of Evenk, Dolgan, Nenet and Nganasan territory relative to Noril’sk and to each other:

Source: Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors.

Source: Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors.

The map above shows that Noril’sk serves as a sort of epicenter for these four groups: the Dolgans, Nenets, Nganasans, and Evenks. To learn more about a specific group please click the hyperlinks for further reading. Not only are these four clans close in proximity, but also—like many Siberian tribes—each clan has historically depended on reindeer hunting or herding for their economic livelihood. This does not mean these groups are all the same; they descend from different Eurasian or East Asian ethnic groups and each speak their own native language, among other differences. That being said, each clan experienced similar difficulties adjusting their traditional lifestyles during collectivization and industrialization. There are many ways in which the Soviet Union altered the lives of tribal people in Siberia; collectivization and industrialization are simply the two policies I have chosen to analyze.

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The “Nature” of Communism

A key aspect of the Soviet Union’s quest for true Communism was becoming waste-free and efficient. Every single resource was utilized for the common good of the state; this included people, materials, machines, and even nature. Unused land was waste, and waste had no place in the Party’s strategy.

Looking back, particularly with today’s heightened emphasis on preserving the environment, it is easy to see the ways in which these policies of brutal extraction from the land would lead to future consequences. The desiccation of the Aral Sea has not only caused serious environmental repercussions, but has also been linked to an increase in medical problems, such as cancer.

I was reading the excerpt on the Aral Sea thinking, “whew, so glad we know better now,” when I realized that thought was dead-wrong. We don’t really know any better. And the biggest environmental offender today? China, the other communist powerhouse from the 20th Century. Chinese cities have some of the worst air and water pollution ratings in the entire world, yet when it was approached with the Kyoto Protocol, which would require it to curb its actions that are so detrimental to the environment, it refused. China’s reasoning was that it was still a “developing nation” and shouldn’t be subjected to such environmental restraints—restraints that other, now-developed nations did not have to adhere to on their path to modernity. Russia would be one such example.

When using this China-parallel it would be easy to conclude that destroying the environment to the states’ benefit is a common facet among Communist states. I’m not sure I can soundly make that assertion, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two largest Communist (or near-Communist) countries have committed some of the worst atrocities towards the environment.

The Soviet Union: The “Project of the Century?”

“The stagnation of BAM propaganda after its initial formulation indicated the ideological staidness that, by the early 1970s, had gripped the corpus of Soviet governance like some form of mental rigor mortis. While official representations of BAM remained stagnant, the real world around these representations did not. Perhaps this helps to explain the events of the Brezhnev era, a time during which the government refused to acknowledge reality to a greater degree than any regime before it in Soviet history.” – Christopher Ward, Brezhnev’s Folly

The excerpts we read from Brezhnev’s Folly demonstrate how the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) construction project, which Brezhnev proclaimed to be the “project of the century,” perfectly mirrored the social and political environment of the Soviet Union at the time. Social unrest and change was abundant both on BAM worksites as well as across the Union. The organization and oversight of BAM was in the hands of the Komsomol, and ultimately the youth group did not prove equal to the task. In fact, many youths who joined the BAM project did so in order to be a part of the next great product of the Soviet Union, and were sorely disappointed and therefore disillusioned.

There were several ideas behind BAM, most notably to build a transportation system that would connect Western Europe to East Asia, making Russia vital to the expanding economic systems on the two continents. A second driving factor was to spark a new “soviet” flame in the Union’s youth. Like so many of the Soviet’s plans, BAM had the near-opposite effect as officials hoped, and much of the failure can be attributed to the Party’s stubborn blindness towards the reality of the situation.

I chose the title of this post because as I repeatedly read the phrase “project of the century,” I kept asking myself: is the author talking about BAM, or about the Soviet Union? And I realized it applied to both. The idea of creating a communist state was certainly a mighty project, and as we know, a project that ultimately failed. But no one can deny that the Communist Party put forth an immense amount of human, financial and material capital in an attempt to attain their goal. Indeed, one could call their dream the “project of the century.”

The Dissident Movement in the Soviet Union

Soviet intellectuals in the late 1960s and early ’70s decided it was high time to voice their opposition to the current political situation in the Union. The movement had roots in the Khrushchev era when the state loosened controls ever so slightly, but by the time Brezhnev came to power and tried to restrict expression yet again, the movement was already taking off.

It was a period of both hope and desperation. For the dissidents, there was hope. Their public protests and demonstrations against the Soviet state system only further emboldened their radical thinking; they believed they were the “conscience of society” and had a duty to stand up and demand freedoms for the people of Russia. The dissidents sought democratic socialism and political liberalism, while condemning western ideologies that overshadowed Russian Orthodox values.

Roy Medvedev, a dissident movement leader.
Credit: www.soviethistory.org

For the Soviet authorities, desperation was in the air. Their legitimacy was being called into question and they could not afford that. Their attempts at controlling the dissidents were tried and true Soviet tactics: confiscating literature, exiling leaders, condemning offenders to prison or mental institutions, removing dissidents from their occupations, and launching propaganda campaigns to counter and delegitimize dissident ideology.

The actual number of dissidents may have been small, but their impact was disproportionately large. The Soviet’s attempts to regain control of public thought were desperate and futile, and if there is one thing I have learned from studying history, it is that desperate actions of a government mark the beginning of the end. I would not go so far as to credit the dissident movement with being the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. However, it was another blow to their ideology and power, and it is a movement that ought not to be overlooked.

Disappearing Culture: Native Tribes of Northwestern Siberia

You can find a brief section of my upcoming paper at the following link:

Disappearing Culture

In this section I address governmental policy towards indigenous groups in 19th Century as well as Soviet policy in the 20th Century. These topics will fall in the middle of my final product so bear in mind that more information will come before and after these pages.

Replanning Sevastopol

Students know of the widespread devastation that resulted from WWII, but most history lessons stop just short of how those countries, cities and towns picked up the pieces and rebuilt their homes. As this reading shows, it wasn’t an easy task. Sevastopol needed to be completely rebuilt–and not just the buildings, but social services as well. Infrastructure was close to nonexistent, public health services were failing the population and all the while, architects and city planners were attempting to “russify” the Ukrainian city with a city-wide face lift in the Russian style.

Credit: crisisboom.com

Credit: crisisboom.com

In typical Soviet Union fashion, the state wanted Sevastopol to be rebuilt in the Russian image. As Professor Qualls wrote in his article, “the perceived reversion to tradition meant a Russian ethnic identification wrapped in a Greek architectural façade, yet devoid of all hints of competing identifications.” When I read this, I was completely unfazed. Why of course the government would use this opportunity to impose Russian culture on  Sevastopol. It would be logical for the people of Sevastopol to want to rebuild their own heritage, commemorate their losses in their own fashion and construct a city of their own choosing–but this wasn’t an option under Soviet rule.

It was this “top-down” approach to reconstruction that most caught my attention in the article, but the health and safety conditions plaguing the city were of great importance as well. It took several years before disease began to decline, living conditions (such as apartments with adequate space so as not to spread disease) improved, health services (such as ambulances) were restored and the population began to rebound. Of course, the important thing is that the city did achieve this stability, but I’m sure that if compared to the reconstruction timelines of Western European nations, the case of Sevastopol look quite bad.