Coming Soon…A Focus on History.

I will be updating my blog soon with a focus on history. Specifically, I will be preserving my own family history in these blogs as well as writing on historical topics of personal interest that I have researched.

In essence, there will be two new categories in my blog. The first category will be the “Family History” category. In this category, I will attempt to chronicle my personal family history as I gather information on the subject. I hope this information will be useful and interesting to my family members and my descendants.

The second category will be the “General History” category. This category will contain my own research into historical topics of personal interest. The first of these focuses will be on the American Civil Rights Movement, a topic that I am currently researching.

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College Fail 101

One of the touted benefits of attending a college is that we are supposed to learn how to think critically. Yet colleges as a whole usually fail to aid us in this regard. Many students are probably under the impression that they have learned to think critically, perhaps because once they are in college they begin to question the worldviews that they were brought up under. But is questioning previous norms the same thing as thinking critically? Students likely are questioning previous worldviews because once in college they are presented with powerful arguments against some of the philosophies they knew.

Students usually come to college with a preconceived notion as to how the world works, and college professors present them with alternative views, and then college students believe they have learned how to think critically. Maybe some have. But I would venture that many have simply learned how to think more like their professors. Students may discard some of their prior beliefs, or they may discard all of them, or they may do some or none of the above. But in reality, critical thinking requires more than questioning prior beliefs and/or forming new beliefs.

Critical thinking requires the formation of at least three skills. Firstly, it requires the ability for one to be able to examine any argument, no matter how airtight it may or may not seem, and deconstruct it, noting the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. Secondly, critical thinking requires the ability to understand the various ways in which language is used, interpreting the linguistic and grammatical underpinnings in the said argument. Thirdly, the best realization of critical thinking would be one that formulates a student who possesses the ability to think independently and creatively. It requires a much higher force of intellect to create a substantial, innovative argument then it does to deconstruct a previously held argument. So, while the ability to deconstruct arguments is one benchmark of critical thinking, the ability to form visionary arguments reaches to even higher levels of critical thinking. In sum, the student’s intellect can and should be developed, especially toward the realms of creativity.

As you can see, our colleges have a long way to go in molding students of this nature. Undoubtedly, there are several reasons as to why this isn’t happening. But the reasons aren’t as important as the path toward solution. There must be some professors who have learned critical thinking. If they exist then they care about free expression and the examining of ideas even more than they care about a platform to propagate their own agenda. At least that is the hope. These professors are the ones most valuable for a democracy, an entity that thrives quite largely on the debating of ideas. In closing, we need to happily reward the experts who postulate critical thinking and forcefully deny the soapbox professors who only wish to proselytize in the classroom. But, of course, this is open for debate.

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Instruction in Information Criticism is Crucial

In an age of overwhelming information, Social Studies literacy education needs a heavy emphasis on teaching students critical consumption of information. Let’s face it; we are all bombarded with ideas on a daily basis and in just about every activity we engage. Our kids are constantly moving from one information overload to another without having the time to think about what they are thinking about. The leaders of tomorrow need to be well informed and this requires having the cognitive tools to sift through the informational mayhem. Social Studies teachers have a perfect platform to help them do this.

In, A Critical Literacy Perspective for Teaching Social Studies, Soares and Wood point out the important fact that not all voices are equal in the creation of social studies content. Essentially, the victors and often the affluent are the ones who write history. Being aware of this is a great start to begin critically examining historical perspectives.

Clearly one of the more dominant forms of information that young people encounter in our society comes through media outlets including the Internet, movies, and television. Do our kids have the skills or even the awareness to sort through all of this information with a critical eye?

We can teach the proper use of technology and the Internet by getting students to begin thinking about where information comes from. The Internet isn’t going away; it is becoming more and more a part of our lives. As teachers then, it is critical that we trade some traditional methods of teaching for methods that incorporate the world that is around us, including the Internet. Essentially, we are in the classroom partly to guide students through this world with a learned and analytical eye.

Social injustices are still all around us and our classroom is the perfect place to address these issues. We can examine the messages in the media by aiding students in developing both traditional literacy skills such as word meanings, and also modern critical literacy consumption, such as investigating sources of Internet information.

Hopefully students will begin to understand at least three things. The first is that social studies knowledge is a network of information written from a particular viewpoint. The second is that not everyone’s voice may be expressed and so we only have a microcosm of the story. The third is that the key to information consumption is being aware of the dynamics involved in information creation, such as the authorship bias, the purpose of the information, the structure of the information and so on. Simply making students aware of these three concepts will go a long way in developing a meaningful and relevant social studies education.

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Believe in Your Game

“Heinz is going to try and run over Staszko and Staszko is going to not let Heinz do so.” –Poker Legend Antonio Esfandiari

No, this isn’t a story about a messy, runaway, Ketchup delivery truck. This is about the final two players at the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Not since the players mentioned in my last poker blog post have we seen such a talented group of individuals in Poker’s November Nine. It was also a delightfully diverse field with seven countries represented.

As in the 2008 championship, the final two players were from Europe. Those two players happened to be Martin Saszko from the Czech Republic and Pius Heinz from Germany.

Once WSOP player of the year, Ben Lamb, was eliminated in third place, it came down to the two Europeans. They are complete opposites. As noted in the quote by commentator Esfandiari, Heinz is a very aggressive player who does not give up easily and loves to take risks. Staszko, on the other hand, is a more conservative and mathematical player. He was a chess expert before he decided to play poker. It was a showdown of the Irresistible Force (Heinz) against the Immoveable Object (Staszko).

Heinz finally won out after an epic battle of over two hours between two worthy opponents. He was down as much as four to one in chips but never gave up, stuck with the game style that he believed in, and kept the heat on Staszko. As a result, he ended the match 8.7 million dollars richer and brought the first World Series Main Event championship home to Germany.

Every player at the final table possessed a high level of talent and they were a pleasure to watch in action this year.

Some life lessons to take from the players? Never give up on your dreams, always believe in your game, and continually keep the heat on.

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Phoenix

Rumpled and torn

I gather myself from the dust

Of the storm

I stand and I brush

Myself off

I peer ahead and gather

My loins into cloth

I stand straight

I walk straight into the sun

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A History of a Hike: The Zion Narrows

Zion has always been known as the city of God.

Zion is secondarily famous for being a national park in Utah. Through Zion National Park runs the Virgin River. This river, over centuries, has carved out a slot canyon, called the Narrows. The canyon truly is narrow and slot-like, with immense walls rising hundreds of feet on both sides of a hiker. Often, a hiker finds it necessary to wade through the river, as there is nothing but the water splashing against the walls on either side of him, and no dry land in his immediate sight.

And this is where I found myself on the days of August 14th and 15th, 2010. I was hiking through the Narrows with my two friends, Michael and Ryan. Ryan is about six foot two, with long, spindly legs, and an unforgiving gait. Michael is closer to my size, but admittedly faster than me, at least on this particular stroll.  And so it happened that we hiked basically in the order of our God-given lengths. As a result, destiny had basically forced Ryan to take on the role of lab rat, guinea pig, trinity explosion, or whatever you would like to dub it. He was usually the first to experience everything.

As would seem likely, Native Americans were the first to inhabit the Zion National Park area. It wasn’t called Zion National Park back then of course. That would come much later. But it was home to the Paiute tribes of the southwest.  Essentially, human activity, in all its glory and gore, had been a part of Zion for about two thousand years or so.  Fast forward to 1858, and you will notice some zealous Mormons discovering the canyons of Zion and soon beginning to settle in and around them.

The grandeur of Zion actually managed to remain a secret to all but a relative few for about forty years between the days of the first Mormon discoveries until the early twentieth century. It wasn’t until the United States decided to do a land survey that the park finally came to national attention. I guess when you happen to be as vast as the United States the busy bureaucrats can’t always keep up.

The hike wasn’t too difficult. That is, if you don’t mind being wet all the time. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous hike, and it was truly beautiful. I know folks say that all the time, but this time it’s really true. We had special water shoes, rented for some obscene price, probably like one hundred dollars an hour or something close to that. We also had a walking stick which was vital to the success of fording through the Virgin River. The walking stick was only about an additional fifty dollars every half hour or so, but totally worth it. When you are hiking in a river the biggest challenge is not being able to see what you are stepping on. That is where the overpriced shoes and the let’s-conspire-to- gouge-the-tourist walking stick come into play. If you step on a sharp rock Dorothy’s magical shoes will protect you. If you step on a slippery rock, Gandalf’s secret staff will release angels and hopefully keep you from dashing your other foot against a stone. My shoes and staff worked wonders. I managed to go the entire hike without sustaining even a mere scratch.

We have already learned that the first European settlers of Zion were zealous Mormon pioneers. Supposedly, a Mormon corn famer by the name of Issac Behunin settled the floor of the canyon in 1863. Clearly, Brother Behunin quickly noticed the raw beauty of the area, and apparently the first thing that came to his mind was heaven. And so, being a Mormon, Behunin named the place “Zion”. Later on however, God’s spokesman for the Mormons, Brigham Young, decided that no place on this present earth could actually be given the sacred name of Zion. Even after visiting the area and concurring that it was indeed a glorious place, the Prophet stuck to his guns. Zion clearly wasn’t the real Zion, and so it shouldn’t be referred to as “Zion”.

Unfortunately for Young, the name had sort of caught on and Mormon settlers in and around the area weren’t really flowing with the Prophet’s vibe on this one. So they skirted around on a technicality and began calling the place “Little Zion.”

Since Ryan was nearly always in the front of the line, he was sort of the trailblazer if you will. Like I said before, when you are hiking through a river, you can’t always anticipate what your next step is going to be like. It’s sort of like walking by faith. The Mormons could probably have appreciated that. In any case, Ryan was undoubtedly the most faithful; or maybe just the most credulous. He was also the tallest, and so I knew that if the water was coming up to his neck, it was likely that I would be going for a short swim not long thereafter. That didn’t happen of course because I would usually wait until Ryan or Michael would search out the shallowest ground on which to keep moving forward. I would simply sit back let them moved ahead of me like two unsuspecting lab rats in an experimental maze.

There was this one particular spot in which we came upon a large boulder. The river was moving on either side of it. One side looked particularly muddy and dirty, with sticks, slit, and stagnant, slow-moving water. The other side was clean and sparkly, with water gushing easily around the rock. We all naturally meandered toward the prettier side of the boulder. It just appeared to be better for our overall health.

Actually it wasn’t.

Ryan stepped in and quickly began sinking deeper and deeper until his feet stopped touching mud. He then began swimming, and exclaimed to us that we should try passing on the other side of the boulder.

Ryan swam back around the rock and met with us at the dirtier, less pleasant crossing. One by one, we lifted our packs over our heads and moved across. Ryan went first and the water came up to his chest at the deepest point. So I knew at worst I might be forced to take a sludgy drink. We all managed to make it across the short stretch without any real harm. A couple of young men who had been hiking behind us took one brief look at our plight and decided it was time for them to head back to the hotels, steakhouses, and civilization; or at least back to dry land and away from the crazies.

The famous American explorer, soldier, and geology professor, John Wesley Powell, was the first one-armed European to pass through the Grand Canyon. Actually, he was the first European of any sort to pass through the Grand Canyon, so he managed to set two world records at once. Clearly he was on a roll and when in the area, he also happened to make his way through Zion Canyon. He was an ambitious guy to be sure.

When Powell passed through Zion Canyon, he christened it “Mukuntuweap” (sacred cliffs), apparently thinking this was the Paiute Indian name for it. At the very least, we can give credit to Powell for attempting to give the Natives back their naming rights.

In 1908, the bureaucrats had locked in on the Zion area and in 1909 President Taft designated the main canyon in Zion as a national monument. For some reason, someone in the government decided that the name of the new national monument should be “Mukuntuweap”, taking precedent from John Wesley Powell. I think that we can safely assume that our Mormon brothers and sisters weren’t consulted on the official name change.

The name, not surprisingly, was unpopular with the local folks (probably Mormons) and in 1917, the director of the new National Park Service recommended changing the name to Zion National Monument. Clearly flowing syllables have always been much more popular. Who would’a thunk?

The hike through the Narrows was much shorter then we had anticipated. After many crossings and wading through the river, with some stretches on land, we came to our campsite after only about six hours of hiking. It was two in the afternoon. We had nothing to do but lay out our tents, make up silly games that involved throwing rocks (back to the basics), cook our dinner, and soak in the glory. And when darkness finally descended upon us, we were greeted by the blotting of bright, unadulterated starlight. Then we woke up the next morning and did it all over again. This time, in reverse.

In 1919, The Congress added more land to the park and President Wilson upgraded the area to a National Park. More recently, in 2009, President Obama put 124,000 additional acreage of surrounding land under federal protection; the Zion Wilderness Area.

The legacy of Zion has seen a long and steady growth toward prestige and prominence. Only a clip of that history has been listed in this short account. And on August 14th and 15th, 2010, three young explorers, armed with gear, staffs, shoes, and a bit of magic, found their own way through the Narrows and subsequently stumbled into the pages of Zion’s epic and eternal saga.

Maybe someday you should go and add to the history of one of our great national parks. Civilization will still be there waiting for you when you are finished. It’s ok to be a little bit crazy.

Sources:

www.travelwest.net

www.wikipedia.org

www.zionnational-park.com

www.desertusa.com

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Journey

Somewhere, undoubtedly, there are two people who are sitting at the same social gathering, perhaps in the same room, perhaps only fifteen feet from one another, and they are texting back and forth on their personal cell phones. Or maybe they are sitting in the same room on a couch and watching a scripted play of someone else’s existence, while their own life flickers away in desperate disconnection.

Me?

I am among the trees of the forest.

My calves are straining and sweat is smothering my brow. The sun is permeating my skin with golden beams. I am walking up a mountain with a heavy pack, and my friends are behind me. Our day has proved strenuous, but lively blood pressure reminds us that we are indeed… alive. This morning we crossed a rushing stream on our way to the sunny ledges.

We accomplished several hills today and we are almost to camp, where we will finally rest. We will start a fire and rummage through our packs for some sustenance.  We will converse with one another. We will not communicate like the couple at the social gathering. We will not languish like those on the couch. Instead, we will look into the face of the person with whom we are speaking. We will feel the energy of their words, and understand the idiosyncrasies of their expressions. Our spirits will shake with exchanged emotion and we may even reach a point of common understanding.  One thing is for sure. We will always remember this day.

Connection is possible in our world. It is a world without fabrication.

Finally, with the sun seeking its resting place, and the moon rising to prominence, we will close our weary eyes under the blanket of a speckled, silver sky.

We will breathe the cool, New England air as our spirits mellow with a most indulgent high.

And together, we will dream of the journey to come.

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