Sun Ra - Column for 7/1

The Plunge

I love history. I really do. If you have a look at the list of books that I've been reading, you'll notice that they are heavily weighted towards history books. Books with subtitles such as "France in the 1930s" and "How the corporation changed America". Long, detailed books. About people who are mostly dead. Books that only grown-ups read.

Only grown-ups like history. This may be due to having lived through some of it; you only start paying attention to current events round about high school, and it takes a decade for current events to become history. And once you accept the validity of some history, the rest of it becomes more real. At least, so goes the theory. But I think a lot of the reason only grown-up like history has to do with the way history is taught in school.

The problem with history in school is that it is taught as though it were a subject like arithmetic or writing; that is, as something that has to be crammed into students' heads so that they can function later on. Which is very much the case with mathematics or grammar - the material consists of, by and large, lots and lots of memorization, which is boring but indespensible. You have to simply know how to apply the Pythagoream Theorem or how to conjugate the verb 'to eat'. And there are many, many verbs you simply have to memorize, and mathematical operations you have to know. Memorize, memorize.

And there is a lot of history you should simply know - or, at least, that's the theory behind how history is currently taught. A year of ancient civilizations, maybe a year about the medieval period, then hup hup up to the American revolution (nothing happened in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds anyways, right?) and a year bringing you up to nineteen forty five. Everyone I know had their high school history class end with nineteen forty five. Maybe "history" extends past WWII now, I don't know. But the point is, history is taught as one broad overview after another, because the goal is to cram the students full of the information they need.

Frankly, it's the wrong way to go about it. And this is because, let's face it, history is pretty goddamn useless. Who cares that the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was passed in 1930? No high school student, ever, needed to know that. If they were ever going to be confronted with it, they'd see it in college. Ninety-nine percent of students will never need to know about it. Not when it happened, not what it was, nothing. It's irrelevant.

History is not a Science. (Not, at least, in the academic sense.) It's an Art. And it should be taught in order to enrich the intellectual lives of students, not to prepare them for the world. Yes, yes, I know that high school students care as much about intellectual enrichment as a blind man cares about getting the Spice channel. But since when have we been educating for the students? We educate them for the grown-ups they will mature into. With luck.

Thus, history really ought to be taught as an Art. Forget forcing students to learn dates and names and battles. The hell with the broad overview. Focus on the interesting bits. (And, if you are a history teacher and don't think that it's pretty much all interesting, you should change your vocation). Go into detail. Teach people. Teach stories. In fact, don't teach it at all. Tell it. Regale it. Discuss it. Why would Andrew Carnegie give away his fortune? If you were living in Louis XIV's court, how would you behave? Above all, tell it at a speed and a level of detail where the students will percieve it as it is, a story, and not as another list of things to memorize.

Who the hell cares when Washington crossed the Delaware? Don't focus on that. Instead, focus on what conditions at Valley Forge were like - the leaden gloom about the overall war, the lost battles, the Continental Congress living the high life safe in Philadelphia and the mutinous soldiers, unpaid, of whom Washington had to hang two men just to prevent mass desertion... Talk about the sneak attack in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, when the Germans - because the British weren't using their own boys as soldiers, not in America - were drunk and not expecting action. If you can, and I admit this is stretching it, get a powder rifle and blank-fire it out on the P.E. field. Show the students the smoke, the noise. Then have them picture a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand rifles going off. The panic, the confusion - and Washington seated on his horse, smoke obscuring the view, scouts coming in from all directions, having to guess what's happening and issuing orders which may or may not get back to the units....

Don't teach "American History". Teach "the American Revolution", and when you are done you may not have gotten past 1783 but by God the students will understand, at least a little, who George Washington was. Who John Adams was. Who Benedict Arnold was. And maybe even when Washington crossed the Delaware.

I've gone on a bit long, but as I mentioned, I love history. So I'm going to include another example: The Haymarket Square Riot. Most of you have never heard of it. A few of you recognize the name; and some of you may even remember that it had something to do with 19th century labor unrest, maybe that there was a bombing, that some policement were killed.

A textbook would tell you the following: The Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago erupted over labor-management-union disputes, including the demand for an 8-hour workday. The ensuing confrontation, bomb explosion and shootings killed several police. Nine were accused and 4 hung without substantial evidence.

Just the facts, ma'am. And not exactly those, either. Sounds like there was a riot. There wasn't. Nor were there shootings - at least, not fatal ones. And what does it mean, "without substantial evidence"?

Sorry, students, just memorize that. 1886, riot, labor dispute. That's all that'll be on the test.

Instead, let's not move on to the next chapter.

What happened, more exactly, was this.

In 1886, Chicago was the second largest city in the nation, a sprawling, dirty place built on the railroads and the food processing industry - when the wind occasionally blew from the west, instead of off Lake Michigan, the whole city reeked of the slaughterhouses. Immigrants, mostly Germans and Eastern Europeans, worked twelve hour days six days a week in the factories and packing plants. To the north, those that the growth of the city had made rich lived in mansions on Lake Shore drive. For all the seamy side of the city, it was an exciting, vibrant place, with horse-drawn carriages packing the streets and newsboys shouting from the corners. All the men wore hats, all the women corsets. At least, those who were not slaving in the factories, who had one pair of socks and perhaps two pair of pants.

Factory workers had, effectively, no rights. Their wages and hours were set for them by management, and if they didn't like them they could quit. As George Pullman (owner of the Pullman sleeping car company) said, "the workers have nothing to do with the wages they recieve. That is solely the business of the company." And the government, well, it was on the side of the owners. When workers took the only option they had to protest wage cuts or increased hours or beatings by their supervisors, which was to strike, they were either ignored by the authorities or attacked by police. Nonetheless, strikes were becoming larger and more frequent.

On May third, workers who were striking at the McCormick Harvester plant (as part of a nation-wide strike demanding an 8-hour workday) were charged and fired on by police, killing one striker and wounding several others. A protest rally was then scheduled for the following evening, May the fourth, where speakers would harangue the crowd about the plight of the working man and the crowd, planned to be twenty thousand people, could demonstrate their solidarity with the striking workers. The location was Haymarket Square.

As it turned out, May fourth was cold and rainy, and only about a thousand two hundred people showed up. The mayor appeared, not to speak (never!), but to ensure that the assembly stayed peaceful. And it did. As the last speaker was winding up his remarks, and the crowd was starting to go home, the mayor left again.

At that point, the police - who the mayor had forbidden to come to the square - showed up. 180 of them. They began to charge the already dispersing crowd.

Then, from an upstairs window facing the square, someone - he was never caught - threw a homemade bomb at the police. It landed in the middle of them, exploded, and killed seven men.

The city - the nation - went berserk. The newspapers and the clergy cried for the blood of those who would kill policemen, the guardians of law, order, and property. Editorial after editorial, letter after letter, sermon after sermon condemned the murderous behaviour of the workers, and the climate of anarchy and violence they obviously created.

Eight men were arrested, all of whom were associated with the rally - the speakers and organizers. None of them were charged with throwing the bomb, or even knowing who threw it. How could they? They had been up on the platform. Nonetheless, they were charged with the murders.

All of the accused were found guilty. The judge ruled that "In consequence of their advice, in pursuance of that advice, and influenced by that advice, somebody, not known, did throw that bomb".

Seven of the eight men were sentenced to death.

Of those seven, one man hung himself. Two had their sentences commuted to life in prison. And four were hung.

As a side effect, the revulsion of the nation towards those who would throw bombs at police killed the 8-hour workday movement. For half a century, ten and twelve hour days remained the norm. Only in 1938 did Congress pass a law making 8 hours the legal length of the workday.

There was no evidence even that the actual killer - never caught, remember - had even bothered to listen to them. The upright citizens of Chicago demanded blood for the murder of their policemen, and these men were chosen to pay that blood.

How different a world was it, where five men died for speaking their minds?


- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra