Deerfield Magazine Spring 2014
By Jessica Day
It wasn’t so much a “Eureka!” moment as a steady progression of ideas forwarded over lunches in the Parker Room, chats on the sidelines, and meetings in the library, when Tom Heise and Michael Cary came to the conclusion that Honors US History and English III students would benefit if their classes were coordinated. That was three years ago. Today, students clamor to sign up, and they produce work like this:
Frederick Douglass’s famous Fourth of July speech was given in 1852. But while Douglass’s political discourse was eloquent, the more decisive antislavery argument of the year came in the form of a novel: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This
one volume moved more than 300,000 northerners to tears for the sake of a black man, and in retrospect, it becomes clear that the
key to Stowe’s unparalleled success was her full understanding of her audience. Both Stowe and Douglass faced the challenge of
converting the same demographic of the American population, white northern moderates, to abolitionism. But while Douglass
(an escaped slave himself) could at best evoke sympathy in his listeners, Stowe had the capability to create bonds of empathy
between her targeted readership and her white characters. The channel of emotion our author establishes between her audience
and her white protagonists inspires her readers both to feel and, ultimately, to act.—Garam Noh ’15
Not bad for a junior in high school, and the thing is, in “American Frontiers,” it’s not unusual, either.
A New Frontier
By the spring of 2011, Mr. Cary and Mr. Heise had a proposal for the head of school and the dean of faculty. Some things had changed at Deerfield over the years, they pointed out; for instance, the dreaded Junior Year History Term Paper was no more, and in its place were three shorter research papers, spread throughout the year, but in many ways requiring three times the research skills; English Lit still focused on the classics, but there was also a greater need to teach juniors to be comfortable writing 650-word essays—the length required on most college applications. And the Academy’s strategic plan, which Mr. Heise had played a key role in developing, was calling for some innovative teaching. So how to meet all these needs?
“We discovered that our courses often accidentally dovetailed,” says Mr. Heise. “In history, for example, conversations about the frontier conditions that prevailed in the 19th century connected beautifully with students’ informed observations about Henry David Thoreau, Francis Parkman, and Jack London—all writers they encountered in their English III class. Students who had read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in English III enlivened discussions in Honors US History about the urban frontier. We wanted to make those moments less accidental and more intentional.”
“My class demands an expansive definition of the word ‘frontier,’” Mr. Cary points out. “Common to both history and myth is the notion of boundary; in American literature that boundary can be, broadly speaking, the stage on which a drama of test or contest unfolds.”
In their proposal Mr. Heise explained, “Both of us have long believed that students’ understanding of this country and its culture requires a thorough grounding in the American setting: its geography, its power to shape the way people have thought and acted, and its insinuation in some of the most important issues we face today.” They envisioned back-to-back classes that drew upon works of fiction and non-fiction, art, film, and primary sources; “There is no end of great material for students to consider,” they said, and American Frontiers moved forward.
Refinement and rewrites are a ubiquitous part of the writing process, and the same might be said for coordinating two similar yet disparate disciplines, not to mention specific classes with specific goals (in Honors History: prepare students to take the Advanced Placement exam in the spring; in English III: get students writing as clearly and concisely as possible on those college applications). By the end of their first year of active collaboration, Mr. Cary and Mr. Heise were pleased with how things had gone, but they also saw room for improvement. Specifically, “even greater conversation” between their two classes. Simply put, they figured: More collaboration equals more learning. So they developed three closely defined areas of concentration spread over three terms.
The next fall, students focused on the cross-cultural elements of life in early colonial New England. Mr. Cary assigned an intriguing and “richly researched” contemporary novel set in colonial Massachusetts (Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks), while Mr. Heise presented two of the most renowned “captivity narratives” of the era—one of which was written by Deerfield’s own John Williams. During winter term, students’ attention was turned to the issue of American slavery, with a focus on how 19th century Americans wrestled with the morality of the South’s “peculiar institution.” And in spring, students were told, “Go West, young people!” as Mr. Cary’s class took up Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Mr. Heise’s class prepared to write their final research paper of the year. Students leapt at the opportunity to explore these new, carefully orchestrated frontiers between history and English.
Exploring the Territory
As a narrative, Uncle Tom’s Cabin could easily be summarized as a compendium of the most representative slave experiences in antebellum America. As a polemic, however, the novel is anchored in the experiences of its white protagonists, particularly those characters whose revelations would have resonated most with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s targeted readership in the 1850s.
Garam Noh wasn’t so sure about investigating American slavery. She knew it was bad, she was glad it was in the past, and that was that. But, as an avid reader, she was intrigued by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s signature classic. Garam and her classmates dove into the arguments of some of the great intellectuals of the day—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass—and started on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In history, they turned to primary sources—from abolitionists, from masters, and from slaves.
The goal, other than a mastery of information, was to get students researching, writing, and ultimately, thinking. While all these might seem like pretty obvious objectives, it is the mode of transmission that is fairly unique to Deerfield: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is just not being taught in high schools anymore,” Mr. Cary says. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s a perfect example of the power of fiction to change history.” And, it places literature in a historical context while simultaneously making the history itself more accessible.
Garam, who plans to major in English in college, agrees: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was good background for the history,” she says with a smile. “It helped me to understand how people felt—I could better understand their mindset, and then the historical facts made more sense to me.”
“I think it’s easy for students today to forget that the US was a nation of slavery for longer than it has been a nation without slavery,” she adds. “I have come to understand that sometimes, the most unfortunate and uncomfortable truths of a nation’s past are important to understanding a nation’s legacy, and a nation’s present.”
Whichever way students come to an understanding, it’s ok with Tom Heise. “It’s about learning to put yourself in a different moment,” he explains. “It’s about understanding other points of view and coming to terms with how history is constructed,” and then he says something unexpected: “It’s not something we receive as a final product—it’s active—history changes.” He offers an example from the post-Civil War era: “Historical interpretations of the Reconstruction changed after we embraced
the civil rights movement. At the turn of the 20th century, historians (typically white) argued that Reconstruction failed because it proposed changes in race relations that were too radical. Today historians more often argue that it failed because it wasn’t radical enough.”
In 1893, a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner published a now-renowned thesis on the important role of the frontier in American culture and ideology. Written soon after the US Census Bureau declared the end of a western frontier line, Turner’s paper focused on how the environment influenced American life. As the serious global impacts of climate change, pollution, and overpopulation become increasingly apparent, it is clear that American life has influenced the environment as well. In the summer of 2006, the Los Angeles Times published a series of multimedia articles collectively titled “Altered Oceans”, outlining several ways in which human pollution and activity have negatively affected Earth’s aquatic environments. The Pulitzer Prize-winning series illustrates a new frontier Americans face today: an uncertain future filled with the unavoidable consequences of our past and current treatment of natural resources. Among the images of toxic algae swells, sea bird carcasses, and skeletal coral reefs that accompany the articles of “Altered Oceans” is a picture of Los Angeles Harbor, filled with a seemingly solid island of plastic refuse that strains at a retaining boom and threatens to wash out into the Pacific. The composition, volume, and location of the garbage depicted in this photograph exemplify the issues Americans must confront in this new frontier. —Nate Lane ’14
Senior Nate Lane finds the concept of using technology to solve some of our environmental problems fascinating. In fact, he hopes to be the one wielding that technology someday, maybe as an engineer. And while multiple science classes at Deerfield have forwarded Nate’s clinical understanding of environmental issues, it was in English and history that some key pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
In Mr. Heise’s classroom, environmental issues were front and center all year long, from the moment Columbus arrived in the New World to our current struggle with global warming. “If one studies history, in part, to become a more knowledgeable and effective citizen in the present and future,” Mr. Heise says, “then it is essential to learn about the roots of our current environmental crises. For a very long time, environmental concerns rarely made it into standard US History surveys. Now, because of our concerns about climate change, the textbook I use remarks on the environmental implications of the shift to fossil fuels that took place in the 19th century, for example.”
When it was time for Nate to pick a topic for his final research paper, he highlighted the “Altered Oceans” series partly because of his fascination with the history of plastics in the US, and partly because of his fascination with the science behind the polymers. “Unfortunately,” he comments, “the rise of plastics and the rise of pollution in our oceans are pretty much simultaneous.”
Nate’s paper provides more than a simple retelling of facts, though: He has mastered the information because he is able to move beyond mere regurgitation to interpretation of those facts—this is apparent in his clear, concise prose:
The harbor photograph from. . . (the) “Altered Oceans” series captures three aspects of American culture that have driven the nation to the edge of a new frontier: a fascination with and widespread production of plastic, a climate of mass consumption and waste fueled by the accessibility and affordability of this material, and a lack of consideration for where that waste ends up. Marine pollution is only one facet of a near future in which the actions of past decades will have immediate and serious effects on American life, effects that will continue to worsen if those actions are not changed. Turner argued that one definitive aspect of the Western Frontier was its promise of opportunity, of the possibility for greater things and continued expansion. This American faith that there will always be “more” must come to terms with the pressing limits of our environment.
“There were two things in particular that I learned in Mr. Cary’s class that I keep in mind while writing,” Nate says. “Focus on a specific moment, and be conservative with words.”
And, Nate created a deep pool of resources before he even began his first draft: “I read through more articles, scientific and government records, and old newspapers than I quoted in the essay itself,” he says. “Having a larger body of knowledge and resources than I needed to actually write the paper really helped with the direction and quality of the contents in the end.”
That phrase, “a larger body of knowledge,” also happens to be an apt description of the American Frontiers classes themselves; two classes, pooling their intellectual resources to enable students with a deeper understanding of the material. There’s a ripple effect, too—remember, Nate’s history paper had a distinctly scientific bent.
“What we’re working toward is integrative thinking,” Mr. Cary says. “It’s a major part of our class coordination.” For those in American Frontiers, it’s already pretty familiar territory. ••