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the challenge

By the middle of the second week of Young Scholars activities, Scott was more certain than ever that he wanted to become a professional historian. Already he had been active in evaluating raw historical documents, tutoring a fellow student in Native American culture, lecturing before a group of his peers, and earning the congratulations for his scholarly expertise from Dr. Sargon.

It didn’t take long for his fellow students to recognize that Scott was getting much more from the program than many of them. For several students, this was irksome. A degree of resentment emerged among them, and it soon affected their attitude toward the young historian.

Of course they didn’t speak directly about the favoritism they detected in Scott’s opportunities. As Jay Hesdorffer of Young R.O.T.C. said mockingly to the others, “Nobody asked me to speak to Young Physics about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Why should Tennyson be telling any of us what to think? Where I come from we have a name for this situation: it’s called teacher’s pet.”

“Or worse than that,” added another discontent, Jack Fishman of Young Social Studies. “But I have an idea on how to bring him down a peg or two.”

The others grew more attentive as Jack’s rhetoric suggested a way to fix Scott Tennyson for being such a smart guy. “Here’s my plan,” Jack announced, “and I think it’ll work. First, if you’re like me, you’re fed up with Tennyson and his history-this and history-that all the time. With him everything is history. History is the center of the universe, and we’re just floating around on the perimeter of his galaxy like so many lost planets.”

“That’s right,” agreed Jay. “Our disciplines are always subordinate to him and his history. History rules! History rules!”

“Wait a minute, let Fishman continued,” interrupted Clare Cooper of Young Literature. “He may be on to something. What do you have in mind?” she asked.

Jack continued outlining his scheme. “OK, let me explain,” he said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think history is crucial to what I’m studying here and what I want to study in the years to come. If you feel that way, too, then let’s call his bluff. Let’s make him prove to us that history is that central to our fields. We’re not going to beat him up, physically. But if enough of us stand up to him and force his hand, I bet he falls apart.

“I bet you’re right, Fishman,” added the Young Biology student, Charlie Schwartz. “Tennyson can’t take the pressure. He’ll crumble. He’ll be intellectually whipped and socially embarrassed.”

“That’s right,” Clare chimed in. “There must be someone in literature who once said that ‘embarrassment is worse than a beating, it’s total destruction.’ If not, then I’m saying it now!”

The group laughed at Clare’s jest. “Sounds like an appropriate quote, even if you’re that someone in literature who said it,” remarked the fifth member of this posse, Declan Smith of Young Mathematics.

Jack quickly brought the group back to his scheme. “We don’t have much time left. The Young Scholars program ends on Saturday morning after commencement,” he said. “That’s only two days away. But if we can confront Scott at lunch today, we can put the plan into operation immediately.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Declan. The others concurred.

“OK, then whoever can meet me at lunch in the dorm cafeteria, be there at 12:30,” Jack demanded. “We’ll go after Scott History and fix him for good.”

As with many conspiracies against power, when the time to act arrived not all the plotter arrived to participate. Jack Fishman learned this truism when only three other Young Scholars showed up at 12:30. Declan Smith was a no-show.

“Well, four people is better than no people,” Jack said as he rallied his intellectual warriors. “Let’s do it now.”

Scott was finishing a tuna sandwich when the four students—Clare Cooper, Jay Hesdorffer, and Charlie Schwartz, and Jack—walked toward his table. “Just a minute, Tennyson,” commanded Jack. “We’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

“What are you talking about?” Scott replied in amazement. “I barely know any of you, and you have a problem with me?”

“That’s right,” replied Jay. “We’ve heard a lot about you tutoring Eddie Fastwolf and lecturing to Young Art. But we don’t think you’re that good.”

“Jay’s right,” interrupted Charlie. “In fact, we don’t think this history message you’ve been delivering isn't all it’s supposed to be. I’m with Young Biology, and I don’t think studying history would do me much good. I want to be a doctor, not a historian—whatever one of them really is.”

“I’m studying in the Reserve Officers Training Program, R.O.T.C.,” said Jay. “I plan to go to college and then into the military as a commissioned officer. How is history going to help me fight for my country?”

Clare jumped into the battle, herself. “I’m a writer. I’m editor of my school paper, and after I finish college as an English major, I want to write novels and essays. History is irrelevant to me,” she asserted.

Scott was astounded. It was almost like a fist fight, except these students were hurling verbal challenges with insulting overtones. He had not anticipated such a confrontation. Nothing like this had ever happened to him at Kennedy High School.

“I’m probably the most skeptical of all of us,” added Jack. “I’m in Young Social Studies. “I want to become an anthropologist and study the way people live, now, not a century ago. I’m with Clare. Your field is irrelevant to us. I study sociology and psychology, not the history of Zanzibar, Malabar, or Hershey bar.”

Scott regathered his cool. “Well, if I can take my last bite of this sandwich, I’ll tell you something you may not want to hear,” Scott fired back. Then, chewing the remainder of his lunch, he threw down the gauntlet. “I can see clearly now that you’re all scared. That’s it, you’re all afraid of what lies outside your fields of study. You may have to learn something other than Social Studies, English, Biology, and Military Studies. You’re scared of complexity, scared of the new.”

Scott continued his response. “You’re not going to challenge me because I’m challenging you, all of you. I dare you guys to meet me in two hours in the Museum of History and Culture where I’ll show you how wrong you all are. Or, are you all still afraid?”

This wasn’t the response the conspirators anticipated. Scott did not crumble. In fact, his reaction so rattled his critics they fumblingly agree to meet him in two hours.

“And bring your notebooks and pens with out,” Scott added with a verbal flourish. “There will be some learning taking place, and you four won’t want to miss a word.”

When the dissidents arrived at the archive it was exactly 2:30 in the afternoon. The young historian greeted them less defiantly than he had received their vocal assault during lunch. “Hello, come in. Welcome to my world,” said Scott. “Or, I should say, welcome to our worlds because your fields of study are here, too. In the films, the paper materials, the radio tapes—in all of these historical artifacts you’ll find your worlds.”

Just seeing the immense number of films and tapes and cabinets drawers with old papers, books, and magazines diminished some to the resentment the foursome had when they arrived. “Wow, this is outstanding, Scott, just look at all this stuff,” Clare remarked as she assessed the mountains of film cans and other materials. “And you even have ancient newspapers. I didn’t think anyone would collect old newspapers, but they look fascinating.”

“Well, scholars,” Scott began, “here’s what I would like to do for you today. If you’ve heard about my presentation last week to Young Art, then you know that by confronting the skeptics with historical artifacts I was able to convince them that art and history were intertwined, that history was integral to their field of study because that field was influential throughout history.

“I’d like to offer you guys the same kind of orientation,” he continued, “Of course, only with your permission.”

As he finished, Scott reached down and removed a pamphlet from his desktop. “While I get ready and shuffle a few stacks of film, Jay, would you please hold this booklet for me. I’ll explain in a minute,” he said, handing the pamphlet to Jay Hesdorffer. “I’ll be only a minute or two.”

“What do you have there?” asked Charlie. “Looks like a pretty thick booklet.”

Jay glanced at the cover of the 100-page pamphlet. “Wow, this is an Army Service Forces Manual from October 1944. But look at that title, Leadership and the Negro Soldier. Man, I’d sure like to read this book. And look at some of the chapter titles: ‘Adjustment of Negro Soldiers to the Army,’ ‘Health of the Negro Soldier,’ “Rumor, Fact and News,” ‘The Negro Soldier in American History.’ This could be really interesting.”

As Jay and his friends were inspecting the unusual Army publication, Scott returned. “Oh, excuse me,” he said, extending his hand. “May I have the pamphlet? I need to return it to the proper file cabinet.”

“Wait a minute, Scott,” Jay exclaimed. “I think this would be interesting to read. Can I borrow it? I’ll bring it back tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jay,” explained Scott, “It wouldn’t interest you, not really. It’s so old and outdated. It’s too passť for you. Especially that last chapter I heard you describing. I think you called it ‘The Negro Solider in American….” Now, what was that final word you used? Ah, yes, History—‘The Negro Soldier in American History.’”

“Well, maybe I was a bit hasty,” Jay admitted. “But, why would the Army issue a Service Forces Manual specifically on leadership and black troops during in World War II? Was there something special about African-American soldiers?”

“The answer,” explained Scott, is found in history. The U.S. Army was segregated during World War II. Black troops fought for freedom and democracy in all-black units—except for the white officers who commanded them. You see, Jay, this pamphlet was intended solely for Caucasian Army officers.

“And as you’ll notice at the bottom of the cover, this Manual was further restricted to ‘any person known to be in the service of the United States and to persons of undoubted loyalty and discretion.’ But it was off limits to the press and the public. As it says, it ‘will not be communicated to the public or the press except by authorized military public relations agencies.’”

“Wait a minute,” Clare interrupted, “you mean this manual couldn’t be released to journalists? The public wasn’t allowed to see it, either? I mean, we’re not talking about top-secret plans for the atomic bomb, are we?”

“True. There are no A-Bomb plans described in the book,” Scott remarked. “But in an apartheid society like the U.S. in the 1940s, this is important information for white officers. Many of these officers came from sections of society where black people were nonexistent or even legally barred. This pamphlet was a guidebook for them. It instructed them on how to command the thousands of African-American troops now being told to defend American democracy.

“And there was so much to learn. Here, let me read this short section to you. It’s telling the Caucasian leaders to respect state laws that segregate the races.

Discrimination by state or local governments is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The state or local government either has to let Negroes share in the same public benefits accorded white citizens, or else provide Negroes with substantially equal but separate facilities. Speaking generally, the established practice in the South is separation of the races in public accommodations including public parks, municipal auditoriums and stadiums. But the local patterns differ and an officer should consult the nearest United States attorney or county attorney before attempting to advise his men of their rights.

“The Field Manual goes on to specify areas where black soldiers might break local laws,” Scott continued. “The white people who controlled the world around Army bases, especially in the South, created a world-apart for African-Americans. These include separate hotels, theaters, restaurants, taxicabs, and waiting rooms. They even had separate entrances to bus and railroad stations. There were also all-black wards in the hospitals.”

“You mean this Army Service Forces Manual is telling white commanders to advise their black troops to obey these Jim Crow laws?” said a passionate Jay. “These guys were being asked to fight and kill and possibly die for freedom. And yet they were legally not free at home. Unbelievable,” he concluded.

“That’s right,” replied Scott. “And the irony of it all is that this booklet spends much of its space explaining how normal, how American, these black soldiers are.

“What would happen, Clare, if you decided to write your first novel about an officer leading black troops in 1944?” Scott asked rhetorically. “I’ll bet you’d do a lot of research first, historical research to discover what life was like and, consequently, what situations your fictional characters might encounter.

“I’ll bet that you’d be reading this pamphlet, maybe some old magazines, and newspaper stories from the 1940s. And you’d be looking at movies, going through old radio shows, and listening to phonograph records from the period, even searching for surviving veterans who might agree to be interviewed.”

“I suppose so,” acknowledged Clare. “Background information is strategic to good writing. But, you’re turning me into a historian in order to become a novelist. Who knows, maybe you’re right.”

“Maybe he’s right in your case, but not mine,” Charlie interjected. “I’m going to study biology in college and then go to medical school. I want to be a doctor with the latest medicines and techniques. Why waste my time with something that’s immaterial to my profession? I want to know how to recognize and treat diseases nowadays, not the way it was done decades ago.”

“You’re right, Charlie,” Scott conceded. “There is no place for history in the medical profession. Looking backwards in time would only confuse the contemporary doctor, I guess. There’s nothing interesting in assessing the accomplishments of medical researchers such as Louis Pasteur who discovered so many ways to combat germs, Emil von Behring who defeated diphtheria, or Joseph Lister who developed the principles of antiseptic surgery.

“Still, I have this short film here that might interest you. It’s called Man against Microbe. It’s all about the researchers who found cures for some of our worst diseases such as diphtheria, anthrax and cholera. But, it’s a film from 1932. It’s too old and certainly wouldn’t interest you, Charlie.”

“Hang on, Scott, that movie actually sounds intriguing. I’ve run across these names in my biology textbooks. I’d love to see it. Is there a way I can view it?”

“Of course, I’d be happy to put it on the projector,” Scott responded. “It’s a little choppy in places, but we can all watch it on the screen. But are sure you want to take time away from modern biology to consider the history of medicine?”

“OK, OK. Maybe I was a bit hasty, like Clare and Jay,” admitted Charlie. But can we look at the film now?”

“Your wish is my command,” Scott replied, as he walked to the projector and began preparing to show the film. He started the projector and all eyes were immediately glued on the screen. “They’re more interested than a group of historians would be,” Scott thought to himself.

When the film ended, Charlie was elated. He explained his new perspective to his friends. “These medical scientists were only names in a book, until I saw this film. Medicine really has had an effect of history,” he said. “Sometimes it’s lack of proper medicines or failure to understand the chemistry of diseases that leads to widespread death. Always, however, it’s proper medicines and appropriate knowledge that conquer disease and save lives.”

“Then medicine makes history, too,” added Clare.

“That’s correct,” agreed Charlie. “But in either case, the lives of human beings are involved, and humans make history. So, if I’m for saving lives, then I must be for history.”

“And then there was one,” Scott declared mockingly. “Only one critic left. It’s you, Jack Fishman. And you know what? Your case is the easiest one to rebut. That’s because your field of interest, Young Social Studies—or more specifically, anthropology—is very dependent upon a knowledge of history.”

“Why is that?’ asked Jack somewhat defensively.

“It’s because the contemporary people you study—from New Yorkers to Ethiopians—are the way they are because of their histories. How can you know the people of a place like New York City without knowing what over the centuries brought them all to the same place? And if you were studying the people of Ethiopia today, you’d need to know how they reached their contemporary condition. Where there once were powerful people, there is now privation. What accounts for the rise and decline of the vitality of their civilization? To know a contemporary society, you must understand its history.

“Let me show you two short films to prove my point. These are terrific little movies. They are rare films of expeditions from the early 1920 that explored Abyssinia, the old name for Ethiopia. Today, the country has a reputation for famine and political unrest. But, that is not the impression you take from watching Abyssinian Expedition, a silent film from the Field Museum-Chicago Daily News Abyssinian Expedition in 1926-1927.

“The second short is Ra-Mu, and it delivers a similar message. It was photographed in 1922 by Captain Edward A. Salisbury as part of the Salisbury Round the World Expedition. I dare you to watch these shorts and then tell me that knowing the history of a society is irrelevant to understanding that society as it exists today.

When Ra-Mu ended Jack was the first of the critical students to speak. “I have to apologize, Scott. What I’ve seen here this afternoon has convinced me that I’ve been really shortsighted. I don’t know about Clare, Charlie, and Jay, but I want to say that I acted like an idiot. I am sorry for being so stupid. Please accept my apology.”

The others expressed agreement and offered their handshakes to Scott. “I think we’ve all learned something,” said Jay. “History really is all encompassing. Everything has a history and everything is, therefore, about history. You can’t escape it.”

“He’s right,” said Clare, “Literature is a wonderful pursuit by itself. But it doesn’t stand alone. Writers lived in a historical time and could not escape its influences. And their literary products had historical impact in their times—and on the times thereafter. You can’t extract anything from its history and from history in general.”

“Good points,” Scott responded. “There is no human subject that’s independent of history. You might argue that the laws of physics are beyond history. They would be the same if man exists or not. But what is historical is the evolution in our understanding of those laws. History is about everything human. It’s our story. And no matter what field you study, that discipline is part of history.”

As the visitors began to move toward the stairs, Charlie summed up their feelings. “Thanks for tolerating us,” he said. “Friends?” “Yeah, of course, friends,” answered Scott.

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