California Dreamin'

When I taught American History to solipsistic high school juniors I got it half right. I had thrown out the text book - whose cover eerily presaged the opening titles of The Colbert Report, a riot of gilded eagles, stars and stripes - and replaced it with The Peoples History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Harper Collins, New York 1980. Just about mid way through the second semester when Zinn's relentless catalog of the feisty underclass's brilliantly orchestrated demonstrations of people power against their imperial masters began to pall, I introduced the class to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, J.P. Jewett, Boston 1852.

This can be construed as a primary document in the history of slavery in the United States, albeit one crafted within the comfortable confines of the ecclesiastical middle-class. It certainly fomented anti-slavery sentiment and as Lincoln remarked, "started this big war!" The book is, in its nineteenth century way, an absolute page-turner and is an effective vehicle, I believe, in which to grapple with the very emotional issues of slavery.

And the half I got wrong? I was teaching to a generation for whom books, as a medium, are largely irrelevant. But in our neck of the woods what are the opportunities for hands-on experiential learning for the student of American history?

The kind of experiential learning afforded by mid-coast California has to do with the the unique history and circumstances of this state. 'America' to most young Californians is a foreign land. The state owes its name to this concept of separateness, this island-ness. The myth was established in a novel in 1510 where the Island of California is populated by Amazonians, and was duly sought out by subsequent voyagers.

In 1705, the Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino proved that Baja California was a peninsula by walking from New Mexico to California. But the cartographic error was persistent enough to warrant Ferdinand VII of Spain issuing a formal decree that California was a part of the mainland in 1747. It remains an "Island on the land" as Carey McWilliams called it, a once and perhaps future, rump state.

In fourth grade, California mandates that school children learn the history of their state. Hands-on learning? What parent hasn't been complicit in the glorification of those damned picturesque missions through the production of scale models? (Tip: carefully separate the top layer from a corrugated board and apply red poster paint to simulate clay tile).

In truth, fourth grade maybe a little soon to introduce the darker side of our history. But given that this is the only time designated for learning about California the end result is that kids graduate with a completely false view of our past based on a romanticized view of the Spanish Imperial adventure; at best a vague awareness of the genocide that, by the mid 1860's had killed more than 90% of the states indigenous peoples; and no awareness whatsoever of the environmental degradation visited upon the state by the Iberian cattle herds introduced by the Spanish and then enshrined in a system of vast ranchos the Mexicans developed through land grants to political insiders and military veterans. By the start of the Mexican-American War, 26 million acres were controlled by just 813 ranchers. The beloved golden hillsides of alien weeds and relict oaks are the entirely unsustainable result.

The one novel that addresses many of these issues is probably not suitable for any but the most precocious of fourth graders, and as previously discussed will be spurned by many older students. Nevertheless, Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson, Roberts Brothers, Boston 1884, is truly California's Uncle Tom's Cabin and demands to be read by any serious student of our history.

The irony is that although Jackson undertook this 'Romance of the Ranchos' as a serious indictment of the treatment of mission indians and as a study in the race hierarchy of the state - and it can be still read as such - when first published it became a tool of local boosters who populated Southern California's landscape with new, Ramona-related tourist attractions and ultimately inspired another layer of the romanticized history of the state.