The Vocabulary of Grammar

Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.

I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.


This piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date. Photo added later.

The Most Famous Closed Trial with Secret Evidence

Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion.

The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus’ guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse.” The point wasn’t about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus’ innocence reminded observers why.

Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair’s legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

Blogging and Myth-Busting

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.


This piece originally appeared on this day on my old history blog, Clio and Me. The links have been updated.

Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Why I like the Declaration of Independence

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Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them. Continue reading “Why I like the Declaration of Independence”