To Read

This is coming a bit late. Nonetheless, onward.

Even though I fashion myself a writer that really isn’t true. I am now and have been for many years a reader first. I read pretty much constantly. Unfortunately, I have something of a short attention span so I can fly through many articles – academic, journalistic, and otherwise – but attacking a book can be daunting. I had no problem reading enough of a book to get the gist for grad school purposes, but to really dig into a full-length monograph has never really excited me.

I started reading a little late. I came first to the sports page and the backs of baseball cards. There I practiced and eventually became quite good at reading. Starting off in those formats cast the die of my style of reading. I read for the new, that which tickles the brain as having a different angle, new insight, and just the freshness of the next game. Going over plowed ground sends me running. This, I acknowledge, is not an especially laudable cast of mind.

I think one of the best discriptions of the life of the historian was passed along by a favorite European history professor in grad school, when asked to describe what historians do, he said roughly they read and then they keep reading and read so more and then eventually they might begin to write. Good history takes the reading that comes first seriously. One of the weaknesses of history not grounded in the text is that it quickly becomes clear that the historian hasn’t done enough reading. Now, some historians fall prey to opposite temptation, they can’t stop reading and thus never create something for the public.

This question of reading seems to a real challenge for educators. It seems so obvious that if you teach a person to read and read well that it opens up nearly all areas of knowledge. If you can’t read well no amount of instruction will overcome that fundamental lack. The goal is match the student with the sort of reading that sparks the imagination and draws them further in – this rarely happens in school, sadly.

Reading isn’t just about words though. One of the most interesting small schools of historical work looks at how people read the ‘city.’ The pedestrian city (automobile cities are different) were filled with spaces dominated by words competing for attention. How the people came to make sense of that panoply of words scattered around have provided rich source material to reflect on all sorts of issues about changes in the economy, politics, and culture – at least until the rise of radio and later visual mediums that placed the viewer in a more passive relationship.

Off to consider more the place of the school in the narrative of urban crisis of the late postwar era.


To write

I have kept up a blog for many moons, but it was never really much of anything besides a list of the mildly interesting links. I’m going to try something new here. Once a week, I will actually write something of value about the world today or history or what have you.

I’m starting this in what will hopefully be my final quarter as a graduate student. I will open each week’s note with a update on my progress and by June, I hope to have the final 2 chapters mostly written and head off into the summer by putting the finishing touches on this damnable dissertation.

My plan is start on Mondays by penning a post and then get to work on the dissertation immediately following. My intention is also to read less, think more, and actually do some serious writing. Obviously, this is a little late on Monday, but better late than never.

Things I have been working on in dissertation world. I am in the middle of my chapter on the problem of public (and to a lesser extent parochial) education during Philadelphia’s urban crisis. One of the first things that jumps out is that American education has been in a continual state of crisis for most of the century. TheĀ  discussion of the system seems to presume some degree of failure to achieve the goals necessary for a successful American society.

In looking at Philadelphia’s own history, one of the seemingly glaring issues is that at the same time that the district had supposedly been a ramshackle failure in the post-war period, this was also the same moment when the city’s Jewish community had its foundest of memories of its beneficial effect on their lives. The transformation of Overbrook High School seems to be one of the more representative institutions. It had been one of central Jewish institutions in western Philadelphia, but beginning in the mid-60s it underwent a quick transition from white and Jewish to mostly African-American. In that short time, the school went from having one of the best reputations in the city and even the nation to becoming a symbol of the failures of the Phila. School District to do its job. Figuring out how that circle got squared is at the top of list of things to do this week and next.

On an entirely unrelated note, it is pretty cool that Cincinnati’s riverfront is probably being transformed more right now with the new building for Great American Insurance and the construction of foundations of a new neighborhoods at the Banks (or Roeblingville – I like the sound of it).

I wish I had more to say about Columbus and Westerville, but I haven’t been able to really get passionately involved in the culture and history of the town yet. It does seem like there is plenty space in the Columbus area for some serious history work to be done. It doesn’t really have the accessible and constantly retold narratives that Cincinnati does. It part it derives from not have reached a peak of influence only to see it drift away as the centuries float by.

The title of this blog does refer in some way to the fact the Ohio River seems to flow through my bones (and its chemicals have probably left traces all through my body). Columbus and Westerville, while not having the same intimacy with the Ohio River as Cincinnati, remain towns in the broad and beautiful Ohio Valley. Honestly, I’m not sure there as an area of the country as beautiful and diverse as the Ohio River Valley. The picture atop this blog is from the Steamwheeler Monument near Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati looking across the Ohio River to Kentucky. Below is nice picture that shows all the places that send their drops of water into the Valley of the Beatiful River.

Ohio River Drainage Basin