Vic Henningsen


Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

From my college days, I vividly recall a professor of modern European history chastising students for seeking universal truths in the study of the past. “History is an endless debate,” he proclaimed, “Our understanding of the past is always changing. Nothing stands still.”

I once heard an environmental scientist describe her work as “documenting the decline.” At the time, I thought her overly pessimistic. Now I’m not so sure. Three recent developments should command our attention.

The ice is only just out in the 30,000 islands of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, the world’s largest fresh-water archipelago. The channel markers aren’t up yet, so the boat trip that ends two days’ travel to the family island takes longer than usual. Here we join a dozen or so of my wife’s far-flung relatives for three days of opening camp.

"[H]ere,” said the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “ it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” For many that’s not fantasy – that’s life. And we try to escape it in long walks or silent retreats - anything to slow down. Recently I discovered that international travel offers a similar haven.

As they consider the current house bill mandating school district consolidation many Vermonters seem wary of both intended and unintended consequences. They’re right.

In 1972, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution’s effect on world history, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En Lai responded, “Too soon to tell.”

A long view, to be sure, but many historians prefer it. Only time provides the perspective necessary for genuine understanding.

For five hundred years, beginning in the 10th century, China was the world’s greatest economic power: trading across the southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean, into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Thomas Jefferson supposedly called Town Meeting the "wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government and for its preservation." That’s something to cling to if tempers rise and snarky comments fly. Too often, this annual gathering can feel more like an old-fashioned witch hunt.

People don’t vaccinate their children for many reasons: they worry about what’s in vaccines, don’t trust corporations that make them; fear long-term effects; believe government shouldn’t interfere with personal choice; and think their kids are protected if most others are vaccinated.

From Alan Turing single-handedly defeating the U-Boat menace in The Imitation Game to Stephen Hawking redefining space and time in The Theory of Everything, this year’s best picture nominees exemplify a time-honored Hollywood tradition – the over-the-top historical biography.

Sometime during the third week of January we mark the “turn of winter.” Days have been lengthening since the Winter Solstice, in December, but increasing sunlight doesn’t really dent Vermont’s cold for another month. Starting now we should experience a gradual rise in the normal mean temperature.

To meet challenges of a new era, the animals created a school. To make it fair, and easier to oversee, all animals took the same subjects.

The duck was an ace swimmer, a good flier, but a hopeless runner. The rabbit was a fabulous runner, but fell behind in swimming. The squirrel climbed well, but struggled with the flying curriculum, which mandated starting from the bottom up, rather than from the treetop down. The eagle was a good climber, but insisted on his own way of doing it.

This is, the song tells us, “the most wonderful time of the year.” Chestnuts roasting... Sleighbells jingling... Peace on Earth...

It’s a shame, then, that in fulfilling pledges to be home for the holidays and spread Goodwill to men, so many of us end up behaving so badly. From competitive shopping to fighting for space in overhead compartments, this is a season that’s not for the faint of heart.

Curriculum reform can work, but it requires the right conditions. I’m reminded of a school whose history department developed a 9th grade world history course. Research and planning took two years. Would they follow a narrative or go by topic? What readings would work for their students? What historical skills to stress? How would they assess?

They field tested in Year Three: introducing segments of the proposed course into the existing 9 th grade course. Planners got regular feedback from students and teachers, which led to further analysis, discussion, and revision.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, when “duck-and-cover” air raid drills occurred in school as often as fire drills, the Berlin Wall was the symbol of what John Kennedy called “a long twilight struggle.” On one side beckoned the Free World; on the other, Communism imprisoned millions.  The wall’s solidity reflected the reality of a bi-polar world, a seemingly permanent stalemate. So for most people, the sudden demolition of the Wall and the later collapse of the Soviet Union came as shocks.

When the First Continental Congress adjourned on this date in 1774, America was in chaos. What might happen next was anyone’s guess.

Responding to the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament imposed the “Intolerable Acts”, harsh laws intended to punish Massachusetts and force the rest of the colonies into submission. They had the opposite effect, provoking widespread defiance, including calls for an inter-colonial congress.

Our founding fathers cared deeply about education. George Washington proposed creation of a national university; John Adams’s draft of the Massachusetts Constitution made it a state duty to encourage the development of knowledge; Thomas Jefferson tried to create America’s first public school system and on his tombstone listed founding the University of Virginia as one of his three major accomplishments; Ira Allen persuaded Vermonters to found UVM. But their concern was less with schooling than with what schooling would produce.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “place” lately and what it means to be “placed”: not just to locate ourselves on specific coordinates of space and time, but to feel an organic connection to a particular piece of ground. It could be a stretch of river or a mountain trail, a small neighborhood on a dead-end road, a farm that’s been in a family for generations; it might be, as a newcomer observed, “a house – it’s not a home yet, but we’re working on it.”

Last month I took a trip down — or up and down — memory lane to Mount Mansfield, where in 1974 I was a ranger-naturalist for Vermont’s department of forests and parks. The day, August 8th, was an anniversary: on that afternoon forty years ago, rangers gathered hikers on the summit to announce that come noon the following day, President Richard Nixon would resign. The peak rang with cheers.

Back in June our Volunteer Fire Department cancelled the annual parade and barbeque that highlight Thetford’s Labor Day weekend. In July we learned that hours at our small post offices would be shortened, apparently an interim measure prior to closing one or more of them. And, at candidate forums before the August primary, we heard citizens express deep anxiety about possible school district consolidation and the potential closing of small schools. In every case, the real issue was about the changing nature of our community.