Lecture #1: That Was Then, This is Now … for Now
Time to get out your camera – the first day of school is here (for us, it’s next Tuesday). Here’s what I do after rolling through the syllabus and addressing any “crashers” – the name we have for students who want to add a class that is already fully enrolled; I’ve decided upon a firm policy – no crashers, no questions. If you’re a senior and you haven’t had time for this survey class by now, then tough luck. Oh, and by the way, there are other sections available; you don’t want to take any of them … sorry Charlie).
- Then, the United States had just over thirty million people (and this doesn’t include Native Americans) in 33 states; now, it has about 300,000,000 in 50 states.
- Then, about four million people were owned by other people, and that 4 million equaled the size of the nation’s largest state: New York. Now, California is the largest state with 36 million people (it had 380,000 citizens in 1861) and estimates suggest that there are 11 million individuals in the country illegally.
- In 1861, the largest city was New York with 800,000 residents; New York City’s still the largest, but it has more than 8 million residents.
- Then, fewer than 8% of American citizens lived West of the Mississippi. Now, more than 40% of the population lives West of the Mississippi River.
- Then, “whites” accounted for more than 85% of the population; blacks about 13%; and Asian Americans about 1%. Now, whites make up 65%; Hispanic Americans comprise 16% of the population, black Americans hang at 12% and Asian Americans make up 4.5% of the population.
- Then, you could expect to die in your 40s (if a southerner fighting in the Civil War – much, much, much younger); today, average life span is past the 70s.
- Then, the main occupation was farming; now, retail sales are the number one employer in the nation. Then, there were 151 actors in California; now, well … a lot more!
- Then, there were about 2.5 million Catholics (8% of the population) and at most 200,000 Jews (less than 1%). What everyone else was, including slaves, is difficult to determine, but it seems that Protestants dominated numerically. Now, Catholics make up about 20% of the population; there are slightly under 9 million Jews and Muslims and Buddhists stand at about 1.3 million.
- In 1861, there were two presidents in the land we call today the “United States” and both were committed to keeping slavery where it was. Now, the President is married to a descendant of slaves and is considered black (here, a picture of Obama as Lincoln is shown; I expect someone, anyone, to laugh; no one does; I make a goofy comment about it hoping that someone laughs … again, silence).
- In 1861, the nation had 33,000 railroad miles; by 2010, the nation had more than 4,000,000 miles of road and rail.
- Then, most American rarely traveled more than fifty miles from home in 1860; now, many have accomplished this before 6 months old (my son Elijah is the example with cute picture here)
- Then, agricultural products dominated exports: about 75% of all of them – led by cotton and wheat. Now, according to dollar value, the main exports are civilian aircrafts, semiconductors, cars, and medical goods. For imports, we take in fuel sources and chemicals. Not counted monetarily, but transformative of the entire world, are new social media technologies like Facebook, Google, and twitter. Most Americans then made goods at home, owned only a few sets of pants, or dresses. Now, one poll has shown that the average American woman owns 19 sets of shoes.
- Then, main forms of entertainment were minstrelsy and baseball. Reading and church attendance were fun too, as was playing pranks and river travel.
- Now, television, movies, and computer games (of various iterations) dominate, and football is the most popular sport.
- I end this segment with a photograph of my young son … sporting a cute onesee. I have the class work through where his clothes came from, how they were purchased, how they are cleaned, who took the picture and with what kind of technology. Then I have them account for how the image is displayed, how they are viewing it (through glasses, contacts, and/or sunglasses) so they can think about how the entire material world has changed.
- For this, I show images – drawings and black-and-white photographs from the 1860s and then images from the twenty-first century, including those taken from outer space and those taken with digital cameras. At this point, I take a picture of the class, upload it, and put it on the screen. The point here isn’t just how much bigger the buildings are or the stores, how racially diverse the people are, but also the speed, colors, and distances from which they’re taken. The United States looks profoundly different and how it looks at itself has changed.
- The last slide is of the class itself under the title “Now and Future” and I use it to demonstrate how technologically things have changed so radically that in the course of seconds I can incorporate the image of them into the slideshow. I ask them to consider just how much life might change 20-30 years from now when they’re children may be sitting in a United States history survey class.