Archive for the ‘“Golden Age, Schm-olden Age”’ Category

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

As we start another quarter at RMU, I as a history teacher try once again to inculcate students to the importance of historical understanding.  In each of my courses I usually provide the students on the first day of class with a description of what history is, and why it matters. Simply put, I try to justify taking history courses to non-history majors.

This is old-hat for me. I have been justifying studying history long before teaching at RMU.  Ever since my days as an undergrad  I have been hounded by friends, peers and random acquaintances’ parents regarding the ‘value’ of a history degree.  With a smirk on their collective faces, I would hear the banal, unthinking question, ‘what are you gonna do with a BA in history?’  It was obvious to me long before entering the working world that in American society, the utility of a degree, meaning the amount of money to be made from having it, is the most important thing for a lot of people.

Of course, not everyone is so materialistically utilitarian. Some people simply don’t like history. Since I was a freshman, I i love historyoften gained unsolicited opinions such as, ‘history is my least favorite subject’; or ‘I can’t understand what you would find enjoyable about studying such a boring topic.’

This is a much more difficult challenge to face.  For paycheck-concerned-parents, I can always point to all sorts of studies that show that employers are looking for the skills taught by the liberal arts.  But, how do you answer those people who think your subject is a snoozefest? How do you change their minds?

You do the only thing you can do: Prove to those naysayers, whether they be friends, students, or whoever, that history is amazingly interesting and human. You point to Arlette Farge, the great historian of 18th century French, who beautifully stated that ‘It is a rare and precious feeling to suddenly come upon so many forgotten lives, haphazard and full, juxtaposing and entangling the close with the distant, the departed.’ For me, this statement encapsulates the study of history.

But, there is more. Those lives Farge ‘comes upon’ are often weird. They are often funny. Their lifestyles are often salacious.  Their worlds are often disgusting.  In other words, Farge’s lives illustrate that the past is achingly, tragically, amazingly human. You can discover all sorts of strange surprises in these lives.

teeth02For instance, a couple weeks ago I picked up Professor Colin Jones’ new book on 18th century French culture called The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris.  Jones investigated a seemingly ahistorical subject: human smiles. But, as he fascinatingly points out, emotions, and their physiological manifestations (smiles), have faced different cultural receptions throughout history. According to Jones, in France, open mouth smiling was frowned upon (sorry about the pun) starting in the reign of Louis XIV.  Open mouthed guffawing was considered to be low class. Why was this so?  Well, as Jones points out, this probably had much to do with the fact that people living in the 18th century had horrendous teeth. Here is Jones describing the sad, but common dental experience of the philosophe Abbe Galiani:

“In a gloomy countdown, he recorded that he still had fourteen (teeth) remaining in June 1770, but only eight in August 1771. By then, any untoward movement of his tongue while he was talking led to his teeth springing out of his mouth. His conversation, he complained, had become a mixture of unintelligible mumbling and inadvertent whistling which baffled his friends. He began to have dreams in which his teeth grew back. …By mid 1772 all his teeth were gone; he was in his early forties.”

Can you imagine this? I can. History makes me imagine.

Simply put, learning about such topics in history makes me feel like Bill Murray’s character in the Royal Tenenbaums, when he says:

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.


In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline.  A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure.  Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world.  Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology.  Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another.  It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.

The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology.  I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’.  In this belief, they are by no means alone.  It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy!   Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.

And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.


Two elderly couples reading newspapers

Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs?  I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions.  These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct?  The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors  seems relaxing, and romantic.  The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura.   Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades.  What could be more traditional; what could be more human?

These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?

Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones?  The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case.  Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.

And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different.  But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming?  When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.

But, wait!  Books are a technology as well.   The written word itself, is a technology.  Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old.  The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements.   But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result.  Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,

will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am writing this on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  All month long, NPR has been running stories about the ‘March on Washington’ and King’s timeless speech to commemorate, and investigate what happened that week in 1963, and to ask how far we as a nation and people have come in the fifty years since.  This 7 minute radio interview that was aired a couple weeks ago is an enthralling example NPR’s coverage.  It is the tale of Robert Avery, who at 15 hitchhiked from Alabama to DC in order to be a part of the March.  Take some time, and listen to his incredible story.

Robert Avery.  Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

Robert Avery. Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

What an experience! Two poor, country kids with big dreams and determination make their way across a rapidly changing nation, meeting on the way some wonderful Americans, all the while getting a glimpse of American racial hatred. Sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood script. But, it is a real tale; one I plan to use this week in my American History course as we are just beginning to investigate the Civil Rights movement.


All these people were heroes.

I have a feeling that the hardest hitting moment in Avery’s story will probably be the most incomprehensible to my 18 year old students.  In actuality, as a 37 year old historian, I have a hard time grasping it as well.  My students and I live in the post-Civil Rights era; an epoch created by Americans such as Avery. We have only experienced a nation in which the vast majority of citizens, even obvious racists, distance themselves from racism as a concept.  Thus, the outspoken racism that Avery faced in 1963 takes us aback.  It is shocking that fifty years ago many Americans openly accepted racism; or that for some, racism was a worldview held with pride.  Avery illustrates this world with his recollections of 1963 Virginia.  He matter-of-factly remembered that as he and the African-American family he was riding with neared DC, and,

…drove through the mountains, they saw black effigies hanging outside service stations. “You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags … hanging from light posts and whatever,” Avery recalls. “That wasn’t sending a signal, that was sending a strong message … So they went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can’t stop here and buy gas.”

If you listen to the interview, you can hear Michele Norris stop Avery, with a bit of shock in her voice, and ask him to explain what he means by “effigies hanging outside of gas stations.”  Avery calmly answers her question, providing evidence that such symbols of hatred were normal in the days of Jim Crow.  This was a society that was staunchly racist; justice was by no means blind.  Avery’s attendance at the March on Washington fell on the wrong side of the law.  Actually, the ideas shared during the March would have been illegal in  Jim Crow Mississippi, where,

Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Racist notions that are rarely mentioned in polite private company today, were often spoken in public with no embarrassment in 1963 America. The infamous words of the Virginia trial judge that found Richard and Mildred Loving guilty of interracial marriage prove the point. In reading the verdict against the husband and wife, Judge Leon Bazile stated that,

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.

These words sound like they come from the distant past. In reality, the sentence against the Lovings was passed in 1959.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

These few examples (and there are countless more) illustrate how pernicious American racism was within recent, living memory.  Luckily for myself, and my students, this is not our personal memory. These events are a part of history books; these ideas are depicted in movies.  We are lucky for that, but we should be cautious. Many Americans today rely on self-delusion, ludicrously claiming we live in some utopian, post-racial society. They paint the March on Washington with the brushstrokes of the ancient past.  It is my job, and all of our jobs, to correct this misconception. In a blink of an eye, 50 years have passed; the memories have faded for many, but the scars of that era are still quite fresh. Luckily we have men such as Robert Avery to remind us.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

A few days ago, I ran across this classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:


I think there could be two interpretations here: One, Calvin always has a bit of the restless genius about him, and he understands that graffiti is an art-form with theory and technique, though the square librarians don’t agree.  Or, two, Calvin loves to break the rules, and he is too young to understand why others don’t help him.  He is the epitome of a destructive kid who has no real respect for other peoples’ mindsets, mores or properties.  His open interest in graffiti, that purportedly most rebellious of destructive activities, proves the point.


Banksy is amazing.

The City of Chicago would likely view Calvin’s interest in graffiti as the first sign of juvenile delinquency. The official website of the city defines graffiti as “vandalism” that “scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes…quality of life.”  Though these are pretty harsh words, I believe that most people would agree with this statement.  The works of Banksy and Basquiat aside, few people see high art in everyday graffiti.  Graffiti is associated with youth; with urban culture; with spray-painting nihilists. Chicago leaders want to punish these kids, and perhaps even punish their parents.  Maybe that will solve the problem.

Maybe not. What ex-Mayor Richard Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel ignore is the historical ubiquity of graffiti.  This is not a Chicago problem.  This is not a modern problem.  Tagging is a human tradition, and if anything, it seems to be diminishing.  Look at the Ancient Romans. Their cities had graffiti everywhere.  Nowhere is this more memorable  than in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Both these Roman towns have been preserved in a time capsule of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption of 79AD.  Under blankets of ash, archaeologists have discovered perfectly preserved physical artifacts: jewelry, statues, money, religious idols, and artwork.  Some of these artifacts are unforgettable for their beauty; some for their lewdness (Pompeiians seemed to have had a bit of an obsession with the male sexual organ.)

Graffiti in Pompeii

Graffiti in Pompeii

X-rated or not, the findings at Pompeii and Herculaneum are incredible windows into the past. Vesuvius entombed first century urban Roman culture, and graffiti was evidently central to that culture. Roman citizens enjoyed recording all sorts of graffiti wherever they saw fit, and much of it did not have any of the artistic intentions of today’s taggers.  Instead, it is closer to a running record of everyday events and average citizens’ thoughts. Some of it is mundane, as when someone simply scrawled in the gladiator barracks, “On April 19th, I made bread“.  Alternatively, some graffiti is poetic, as one message within a tavern proves: “Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life“.  There are some bragging graffiti artists as well. One wrote, “If anyone does not believe in Venus, the should gaze at my girl friend“.  Then there are vulgar scribblings.   My favorite is the simple, “Secundus defecated here. Three times“. 

The vulgar graffiti is not just shocking; it is the most important graffiti for us to pay heed. Why?  Because, it provides 21st century people the opportunity to see Ancient Romans as they really were.  It illuminates that they were not all philosophers, or emperors, or senators.  They were living, breathing, defecating humans.

It may have been the Classical age, but not everything was classy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

On the first day of all my history courses, I attempt to dispel my students’  romanticization of the past. This may sound strange to people who assume that “kids today” don’t respect the past, but I don’t find that to be the case at all.  In fact, I think most Americans, college students included, respect the past, or at least the past that has been constructed for them by pop culture, the media, and politicians.  Most of the time, Hollywood, 24 hour news old-daysprograms, and US Senators portray history as romantic, simplified, and heroic. “The Good ol’ Days” are lionized as a simpler, more understandable time that has been lost.  Through this lens, history appears to move in a negative, regressive direction.  Though this stance is most often associated with conservatives, the idea that history is regressing touches all political sides.   Everyone can discover a past Golden Age that fits their modern ideologies.

Most of my students don’t necessarily think in these political terms when it comes to history, but  the vast majority believe that society is regressing.  To them, times are worst than they have ever been.  Social levels of violence are purportedly unique; human communication is disintegrating; Americans are lazier than ever.  Though young themselves, these students interestingly see historical regression most clearly in “kids these days”.   I have had 18 year old students tell me that their 12 year old siblings don’t know how to form relationships because of cell phones and video games.  Obviously, 30 somethings similarly complain about college kids.  60 somethings say the same about 30 somethings.  And on and on we go.

If history is regressing, then it only makes sense that the past must have been superior.  I believe this notion reached its apogee in the 1990’s, when the so-called baby-boomers lionized their own parents, dubbing them the  “Greatest Generation” in pop-culture and mass media outlets.  The narrative went like this: “The Greatest Generation” was superior to all who came after not only because they fought WWII, and survived the Depression, but that they did so with nary a complaint.   They were marked by determination, resilience, and stoicism. Of course, it became inevitable to ask, “What happened to those who came next?”  How could American society produce the WWII generation, and then spawn these “kids today”?  By painting with such a broad brush, the creators of the “Greatest Generation” ideal simplified and heroicized complex individuals who fought, died, and experienced WWII, while also smearing those who came after.

But, wait a minute!   My reader may be thinking, “the WWII generation was more stoic than people today.  They did face hardships, and endured them.  Plus, in many ways, the past is superior to the present.”  You are correct on all counts.  No one could believe that history has not regressed in some areas of life. That is indisputable.  But, the problem is that lionizing the past in order to compare it to a supposedly distasteful present spawns historical tunnel vision.  We miss two important truths when we do this: First, the complex continuity between the past and present events, ideas, and movements is censured by this tunnel vision.  Second, lionization spotlights regression, while ignoring progression (of course, this depends on how we define both terms).  To ignore one for the other is  disingenuous. “The Greatest Generation” was most definitely patriotic; perhaps more so than “kids these days”.  For many, this is regression. That being said, “The Greatest Generation” also largely accepted their society’s racial bigotry and misogyny with little critique.  It was up to their hippie children to fight these injustices. For most, this is progression.  Forgetting such complexities leads to the construction of a falsified past composed of simplified Utopian heroes.

“Golden Age, Schm-olden Age” then, will be a series of posts that I will come back to now and again to display the continuities of the past with the present, and to expose such wrongheaded romanticized history.  In doing so, I will not be judging the past so much as critiquing domineering attempts to gloss the past as something far superior than the present.  I don’t know how often I will write these posts, though I hope they will be entertaining.

(Next Monday, First Installment: Ancient Roman Graffiti)