David Turnoy: American Tales

Oct 22, 2014 by

american tales

An Interview with David Turnoy: American Tales

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) David, first of all, tell us about yourself, your education and experience.

I grew up in California’s Bay Area, attended UC Santa Barbara and UCLA where I majored in history, then attended law school for a couple of years. Personal challenges directed me away from law school and into a truck driving/sales/delivery job for the next 12 years, and eventually a back injury led me to education to become a teacher.

I earned my MA in teaching and a teaching credential at Lewis and Clark College, then taught mostly fifth grade for the next 20 years in the Portland, Oregon, area. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, especially the interaction with young minds and the opportunity to have a positive impact on those minds. My wife and I retired from teaching three years ago and moved to Orcas Island in the San Juans, our two grown children remaining in the Portland area. I currently volunteer and sub at the local elementary school, and I also do some tutoring. I am anxious to begin the second volume of my series of books on American history for children.

2) Now what got you interested in American history?

I was interested in history in general from the earliest age I can remember. I recall reading biographies of famous Americans in elementary school; I think I read the biography of Ulysses Grant four times. I went to high school during the Vietnam War, and I can remember doing a term paper about US involvement in the war. That was 1968, the year a lot of Americans turned against our involvement, and this was the first time I came to realize that our government might be wrong in its actions. Until that point, like most Americans, I had believed in America’s exceptionalism, that our country only did things for the most noble reasons. From that point on, I began to question the actions of our government, not only in foreign policy but in all matters. Upon going to college and being introduced to all kinds of new ideas, especially in my history classes, my questioning developed further. Later I would read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which was another step in my personal development as a student of history.

Until that point, one of the reasons I had studied history was the famous dictum that he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it. Professor Zinn, with his enthusiastic outlook on life and his belief in the eventual triumph of justice, turned that negative presumption into a positive one, i.e., that we must study history to understand how today’s circumstances came to be, so that we can more intelligently create a better tomorrow. When I finally became a teacher, I made it a point to bring in the other points of view I had been exposed to in order that my students might also become critical thinkers and questioners.

3) There are always two sides to every coin – and many historians who agree to disagree about important events. What stance do you take in your book?

First of all, I would say there are generally more than two sides to any event. The background and perspective of any observer informs his/her “side” or interpretation. During the American Revolution, for instance, you had Loyalists who wanted to stay with Britain, you had Rebels who wanted to break away from England, and you had a large percentage of people who simply wanted to be left alone to make a living and go about their business. In addition, you had enslaved people for whom the outcome really didn’t matter, and you had Native Americans who generally sided with the British because of a belief that a British victory would be better for Native Americans due to the 1763 British proclamation intended to keep colonists out of the Ohio River Valley.

When it comes to writing history, our traditional point of view is generally the great white man point of view; certainly this is not the only perspective to take, but it is the one that has predominated. My book presents the traditional points of view in class discussions, but then the enrichment class travels back in time to the actual historical event in question and witnesses events that are not often portrayed in traditional textbooks. Witnessing these events causes the students to critically think about the traditional presentation and come up with a viewpoint that is more nuanced and more honest. The teacher never preaches to the students, rather the students’ own reasoning and discussion brings them to a place of being able to analyze if something is just or not.

4) I used to study primary documents, and have been to Washington to see the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc But these documents reveal little about the people who wrote them. What should be added about the people behind the documents ?

A very important piece of investigation should be the economic background of these various individuals. For instance, the 55 people who got together to write the Constitution were all very wealthy white men, many of them slave owners. As a result, slavery was allowed, and only white men owning property were allowed to vote by the original Constitution. Other aspects of the background of these authors are informative as well. For example, most if not all of the leaders at the time of the Revolution and Constitution were deists, i.e., they believed in a greater power but weren’t very tied to any particular denomination of organized religion. As a result, our Bill of Rights provides for freedom of religion.

5) Now your book transforms some students to different time frames. How did you come up with this idea?

I wanted a way for students to observe important historical events for themselves instead of being told about them. So many of our people today, especially our leaders, are full of pronouncements about important subjects with which they have no firsthand experience. Once they actually observe for themselves, their viewpoints are often completely altered. So I thought it was important for students to experience for themselves rather than simply be preached to, and students reading my book are able to experience right along with the students in the book. Also, during my years of teaching elementary school, the couch in the back of my room was always a much sought-after spot for silent reading, often leading to some jockeying for position. So, I figured it would be fun to have a couch that had the ability to travel back in time, and as a result that is the vehicle for transporting students back into the past.

6) During World War II, America dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima….To my knowledge, no other nation has, in war, dropped an atomic or nuclear device. Do you discuss these kinds of issues in your book?

I won’t get to discussing the dropping of the bomb until a later volume, but at that point this topic will certainly be discussed. The traditional viewpoint is that the dropping of the bomb was necessary to avoid a million American casualties that would result from an invasion of Japan. In actuality, our intelligence forces had broken the Japanese code and had learned that Japan was willing to surrender if only their emperor would be left in place. But the US refused to allow any conditions, so the bomb was dropped.

After the war, the emperor remained in place anyway. So, why was the bomb really dropped? American military leaders knew that an invasion of Japan would not cost a million casualties, and Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur opposed the use of the bomb. Rather the bomb was dropped for a number of tangential reasons. So much money and effort had been invested in the project that there was a natural inclination to use it.

Perhaps more importantly, the dropping of the bomb is often seen as the first shot of the Cold War, an effort to intimidate the Soviets in the postwar world. Also, the Soviets were poised to enter the war against Japan, and if the war could be ended before this happened, then the US would be able to administer the occupation of Japan itself and turn it into the ally it became. So this is a serious moral issue, dropping an atomic bomb on civilians when military necessity did not require it. Traditional textbooks don’t bring up the real reasons, because that would encourage questioning our leaders and our exceptionalism. You can bet this will appear in the appropriate volume of my series.

As far as the current book, are moral issues like the dropping of the bomb included? Absolutely. The students learn how Columbus and his men brutalized and virtually annihilated the natives so that they could become rich and powerful. We learn how racism came about in this land as a way to keep poor whites and blacks from getting together and threatening the wealthy white elite. In the Revolution epoch, the students find that the vast holdings of the Loyalists were not distributed to the needy at the end of the war, and that the wealthy of Boston hired a militia to keep the Rebel veterans from claiming their bonuses during Shays’ Rebellion, leading some to wonder whether the whole war had really been about freedom or whether it had simply led to the exchange of a British ruling elite for a home-grown ruling elite.

Some of the limitations of our original Constitution have already been mentioned, and there were many more that showed the lack of faith and trust by our framers in the American masses. The subsequent chapters include important moral issues as well such as Manifest Destiny, Indian Removal, and slavery.

7) Clearly, America is a fine country- but so is England, so is France, Italy, Australia and many other countries around the world. Your thoughts?

America is one of many countries in the world, certainly with high aspirations, but in practice no better or worse than other countries. There are some today who would argue that America is the “evil empire”, while there are others who still believe in American exceptionalism. I prefer to deal in reality, in what America actually does and has done. If our country is to get along with other countries and to allow them to reach their potential as independent entities, America needs to treat other countries as we would wish to be treated. It is not our business to tell other countries what to do or to foist our systems on them. We need to stop looking at ourselves as the world’s only superpower and just realize that we are merely one country among many. Again, a study of the history of other empires is instructive, because they always fall. Rome fell hard, as did the Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, the British Empire also had a decision to make, and instead of trying to hang onto their empire, they intelligently decided to pull back, recover from the war, and do their best for their people in their own country. We could do well to learn from these lessons.

8) Where can historians and teachers get your book?

My book is available on most major websites such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google books, as well as from my self-publisher iUniverse. If a reader of yours would like to look more thoroughly at the book before purchase, especially if the plan is to get more than one copy (for instance, copies for a school or district), they can email me at davidgeri@centurylink.net, and I will be happy to send a free pdf of the book. I should also mention that the electronic version is available for only 99 cents.

9) Do you have a website where people can get more information?

I do have a website that was set up for me by iUniverse: www.americantales.net. There is an excerpt from the book on the website enabling the reader to get the flavor of the book. However, I would also encourage interested parties to contact me directly at davidgeri@centurylin.net.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

I would like to be asked why I have written this book. I feel that my situation as an elementary school teacher with a healthy knowledge of American history puts me in somewhat of a unique position. As far as teachers who teach history, usually you have middle and high school history teachers who know history, or you have elementary school teachers who know how to make children feel comfortable and are good at teaching reading and writing but not necessarily history. For most elementary teachers, because they don’t have a lot of history knowledge, they will either defer to teaching from a traditional textbook, which leaves out a lot of important facts and condemns our next generation to be just as misinformed or uninformed as previous generations, or they won’t teach history at all. The latter is really regrettable, as history can be so interesting and so ripe for creating good discussions about moral issues. Therefore I have written my book, and I intend to write two more volumes to bring us up to date, so that elementary teachers can have a good resource to use either as their main text or as a counterpoint to a traditional textbook. Brain research shows that we learn by making connections to knowledge already in our brain. If we are taught a false history or a very incomplete history when we are introduced to history for the first time, it is harder to overcome this with honest history if and when the student finally encounters it. Better to teach honest history the first time around in elementary school.Why do I care so much about teaching honest history? We live in a country and a world filled with serious problems. I was hopeful during the Occupy Movement that we were finally on our way to real change. But too many of our leaders don’t really understand what is going on; they are too insulated from reality, and they have America’s tradition of exceptionalism to fall back on as an excuse for not working to remedy current problems. Once we get to a generation in power that has real knowledge of our past, of how we got to our current state, then I think there can be the possibility of real change. So my book is an effort at bringing about the start of that long, slow move toward justice through education.

Michael, thank you for the opportunity to respond to your questions. Your questions are excellent, and I have enjoyed having the chance to respond to them. If anything comes to mind that you would like to subsequently ask, or if you would like clarification of something I have written, please feel free to let me know.

Thanks again

David Turnoy

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