Friday, May 19, 2017

Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge. (Horace Mann)

A Liberal Education

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, contained ideas that are equally - if not more -  relevant today.  (In this text he uses the term “liberal” in the traditional sense of the emergence of a belief in individual rights and freedoms, a free-market economy, and representative government - liber, free a free man - and not the modern political sense, which is universally used while etymologically abused.)

Composed during the Reagan years, it was timely. It was written in response to what was, in hindsight, a key and pivotal period in public education in this country - we didn’t know it then, but this was the last time educators could have taken control of our profession and responded to the general - and, to be fair, somewhat deserved - cultural criticisms of the time (The best-known educational critique of the 1980’s was A Nation at Risk, published in 1983). Teachers of the day, a mix of very labor-oriented urban educators and baby-boomer rural and suburban first-generation professionals, did not provide a good answer.  What we did was to sow the wind, and brother, did we reap the whirlwind.

A comment by Allan Bloom on education that should fuel reflection upon our profession is his taxonomy of students by type:

Most students will be content with what our present considers relevant; others will have a spirit of enthusiasm that subsides as family and ambition provide them with other objects of interest; a small number will spend their lives in an effort to be autonomous.

It is for these last, especially, that liberal education exists. They become the models for the use of the noblest human faculties and hence are benefactors to all of us, more for what they are than for what they do. Without their presence (and, one should add, without their being respectable), no society—no matter how rich or comfortable, no matter how technically adept or full of tender sentiments—can be called civilized.

The liberal education of which all of our former educational philosophy professors spoke is simple in concept, improbable in execution. Impossible, honestly, in a society with universal public education. Nonetheless, it remains the best educational model for our democratic and compulsory system.  We seek to activate the autonomous individual: independent, self-governing, and an ethical sense which is indifferent to the fickle fevers of the mob.

The old-fashioned view of what a liberal education was contained the very ideas of the University - exposure to a broad range of general knowledge and skills, which contained the arts and sciences, business and humanities,  and an expectation that a student would be able to write competently, have an understanding of mathematics, know their history and common culture and be able to function as a leader in the general society.  A serious college would graduate a student who was prepared for higher professional success or graduate school because he or she understood their world.  To steal Hirsch’s term, they were “Culturally Literate.” They were also socially mobile, a trait which seems less valued nowadays.

In Indiana, regardless of what the state wants (which are geographic pools of “career ready” and low-wage graduates) the broader culture benefits in powerful ways when people are exposed to a variety of ideas in a safe environment.  We must teach the state standards, of course our students must read and write and compute, and know something of our culture and government, but as we do that, let us recall, that…

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education.

Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”


A thesis completed by one of my favorite short essays, ever-

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein


I do have Mr. Bloom’s book in my office if anyone would like to read it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Our Blue River Valley


Our namesake landform is really a pretty interesting patch of real estate.  It is out-of-place and quite complicated, with a fascinating history. The part of the Big Blue River course that is actually a “valley” is about 24 miles long, from Luray to Knightstown, although the most dramatic and prominent parts of it are in our district and  stretch from Luray to New Castle.  It is a flat-bottomed and high-walled feature, filled with thick organic material in the bottom and strewn with colorful  granite boulders and archaic tallgrass and woodland deciduous biomes atop the walls.


The best research work on the subject is in Dr. J.E. Potzger’s 1935 work on the valley. In it he addresses its origins: “Because the Blue River Valley was formed many millennia ago by [glacial] meltwater discharge, the valley seems very wide for the size and age of the Big Blue River running through it.”  


According to Henry Gray from the Indiana Geological Survey (1997), "This valley is part of a complex that formed along the margin of a wasting glacier [at the end of the Wisconsin Glaciation]. Intermixed slices of till and gravel mark this as the site of a group of sub-ice tunnels, or of ice-walled channels that carried meltwater from inner parts of the glacier to its margin, whence the meltwater flowed down what is now the valley of the Blue River." The broad and flat-bottomed feature may also have been an actual - but short-lived - riverbed, moving water southward as the ice retreated until other channels were available.


The southern extent of the Wisconsin episode-era glacier coverage of Indiana ran roughly along a line from Terre Haute to Brookville Reservoir, meaning that our district would have been in the southernmost 40 miles of ice coverage even at the greatest extent of the ice sheet. Ice at this boundary, at the southern edges of the glaciers would be the first ice to melt in the warming climate, and it would have transited tremendous amounts of water southward from the surfaces of this melting ice as the global climate warmed. Sub-ice tunnels left behind winding remnants of sand and gravel called eskers (see here) which are why there are substantial deposits of sand and gravel beneath our district.


At some point, roughly 10,000 years ago, a critical mass of sun-warmed meltwater had collected and pooled upon the top of our local glacier which then breached the edge of the ice and sent immeasurable tons of water southward, which scoured out a U-shaped bent- angle valley right where we are today.  As more-likely geological theories of catastrophism replace gradualism, we may imagine a small finger of  a very large lake of water atop a glacier finding and exploiting an  exit, scouring and widening it down to ground level, then exploding into the local terrain like a half-mile-wide firehose until the lake was drained.  If you have ever seen video of a dam break or removal, you can realize that the original primeval Blue River Valley may have been created in a matter of hours.


Gray also adds that from “vast volumes of meltwater that emanated from the glaciers, till [unsorted glacial sediment] is not only rather easily identified, though complex; but more important, it is associated with soils that clearly indicate its relatively recent [Wisconsin era] origin.


The valley’s widest point in our district is about three-quarters of a mile, which is found three and a half miles north of our campus, north of the large ravine that used to be where Big Blue River entered the valley and close to where Buck Creek enters it. Potzger was convinced that this bowl-like ravine east of the Blue River Valley had been the site of "an ancient lake with shore lines sharply marked by high ridges and knolls. When civilized man [European settlers] first came to Henry County, this ancient lake was a wet swamp into which numerous springs drained.” This bowl-like area is now a lake again, dammed to create Summit Lake.

The change in elevation from heights on the valley walls to the channel in the middle of the valley can be dramatic -  looking west from our high school campus the elevation difference between the high school grounds and the bed of the  Big Blue River is a full 100 feet, a drop in elevation from a bit over 1100 feet above sea level to less than 1000 feet, a drop of one vertical foot for every 43 horizontal feet. (the highest point in Henry County, at 1190 feet, is just north of our school district,  a slight rise in a field about six miles from our campus, on the northeast side of “5 points” and is only 67 vertical feet lower than Indiana’s highest point.)

The valley was so broad and sloped so shallowly that water stood there often, and a new channel for the Big Blue River was dredged down the middle of the valley in the 1890’s. In places steam shovels lowered the intended riverbed up to 19 feet to create slope enough for water to flow.  Dozens of ditches were created at the same time, many of them still visible and maintained. Prior to this, an area west of where CR 350 N intersects Hwy 103 was basically a permanent swamp, even today it slopes downward at the rate of barely 3 feet in the course of every mile. (For comparison, the nearby Whitewater River, which begins just west of Modoc, drops in elevation at an average rate of about 6 feet per mile for the entire course of its run.)

In the course of the dredging, and after much of the standing water was removed, workers found ancient remains of both cedar and tamarack in the dark anoxic sludge and peat in the bottom lands. It is recorded that the cedar was used for fence posts all over northern Henry County, and that “...farmers were amazed at the abundant cedar deposits embedded in the peat, which they would plow out after the frost had raised them in the cultivated areas. The plowers would at times strike piles of these trees which appeared as deposited in the backwash of a turbulent stream, some of the trees were sixty feet and over in length, with branch and root stubs still intact.”  In fact, there are still some of these  cedar fence posts visible in old barn lots and fields across our district if you know what you are looking for, they last for a very long time.


A sedge meadow biome seemed to follow the cedars, and the remnants of sedge and other biotic materials left a layer of rich and dark black peat that was up to 6 feet deep, and which is still visible when soil is turned in the valley. Potzger speculated that evidence suggests a significant forest fire may have also occurred at the climate point roughly transitioning from boreal forest to temperate hardwoods, and could have  been the final catalyst for the loss of the conifers and the incoming dominance of deciduous hardwoods in the area, and the well-known “Eastern Woodland” biome began to emerge.


However, even into modern times deciduous trees were unable to encroach upon several large pockets of dense and well-established tallgrass prairie on the bluffs and highlands above the valley - hence the name, Prairie Township. The 1857 Henry County Atlas describes the tallgrass biome as being very dense and wet, “...the land is chiefly prairie, too wet in its natural state for cultivating or grazing.”  All of this is drained, ditched and dammed now, resulting in many lakes and ponds all over our district.


Protected remnants of the tallgrass prairie remain in the area at Bechtelheimer Cemetary, Current Cemetery, and Rogersville Cemetery, all in northeastern Henry County, with specimens still preserved from 184 species, 138 of which are native to archaic tallgrass prairie.  All exist near or adjacent to watercourses which are associated with the Big Blue River or Buck Creek  waterways.


Some sources used:


J. E. Potzger, Post-pleistocene Fossil Records In Peat Of The Upper Blue River Valley, Henry County, Indiana, Butler University


Gray, H. H. 2000, Physiographic divisions of Indiana: Indiana Geological Survey Special Report


1857 Henry County Atlas

1875 Henry County Atlas

So, why is Henry County also called Raintree County?

For Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction. The clock in the Court House Tower on page five of the Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at nine o’clock, and it is summer and the days are long.—Ross Lockridge Jr.

Author Ross Lockridge, Jr, published his first and only novel, Raintree County in 1948. The book begins and ends on the Fourth of July, in 1892, but unfolds out of chronological order across several different years in order to structure the narrative.

The setting of the 1000+ page book is the eponymous (but fictional) Raintree County, Indiana.

It was also made into a major movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Lee Marvin. The movie is over three hours long.

Raintree County is described in the book as being smaller than Henry County and further away from Indianapolis, but it is clearly based upon Henry County (For example, it contains the ‘National Road” as a key feature), and much of it is based upon real locations right here in Prairie and Blue River Townships. Mr. Lockridge used the 1875 Henry County Atlas to define and describe his imaginary setting, and borrowed or renamed from local places to become parts of his fictional county:

Raintree County locations based upon places in (or near) our school district
Moreland - Mooreland
Danwebster - Hillsboro (original post office there was “Dan Webster”)
Beardstown - Knightstown (Charles A. Beard was well-known in the day)
Waycross - Straughn
Summit - Springport
Mt. Pleasant - Mt. Summit
Climax - Luray (I have no idea why the name…)
The Three Mounds - Earthworks at Van Nuys
Shawmucky River - a weird serpentine mix of both Big Blue River
and Little Blue River
Clay Creek - Flatrock River
Lake Paradise - Shively Park
Great Swamp - Swamp in BBR between SR 103 and 100 East
Freehaven - New Castle

The protagonist is a gentleman named John W. Shawnessy, who was a poet and Byronic Hero - a runner, war veteran, writer and schoolmaster from fictional Raintree County, Indiana. Mr. Shawnessy marries a mentally-ill southern woman (Susanna Drake) who flees to the South upon the start of the Civil War, he serves in the Union Army during the Civil War, and then he becomes a schoolmaster and marries a much-younger local girl in his old age. His lifelong friend is Garwood Jones, who later becomes a Senator, and he serves in the war with his childhood foot-racing rival, “Flash Perkins.”   Young Shawnessy is raised by his father, Dr. T. D. Shawnessy and his mother, Ellen.

Another main character is Professor (the “Perfessor’) Jerusalem Webster Stiles, who is the local intellectual. The initials JWS are found throughout the book - such as with John Wickliff Shawnessy and  Jerusalem Webster Stiles, and are formed by the upper course of the river in Lockridge’s hand-drawn map of the county.

His unfulfilled heroic quest is to find the legendary Golden Raintree, a mystic and magical tree - a tree both the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge - rumored to be hidden somewhere in the large dense swamp formed in the lowlands of the Shawmucky River, just north of the Eden-like Lake Paradise. And, as in many quests, he is foiled and distracted from it by worldly desires, conflicts and distractions, although he is, one dark night, unknowingly right upon it, only to leave it forever.

Author Ross Lockridge, Jr. Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington and did live in and visit many parts of  Indiana. It was his mother’s family which was from Henry County.  This was the only novel he ever finished. The novel had been a hugely successful “Book of the Month Club” offering, and he was negotiating with MGM for film rights. The book was rising on the best-seller lists, and some critics had declared it “The Great American Novel”.

It became the number one best-selling book in America on March 5th, 1948, and on March 6th, 1948 Mr. Lockridge went into his garage,  locked himself in his running car and killed himself by carbon monoxide asphyxiation.

He was just 33 years old.

There are now many “Raintree”-themed businesses in Henry County (Raintree Square, Raintree Inn, Raintree Insulation, Raintree Plumbing, Raintree Habitat for Humanity….)  Waycross Drive and Raintree Drive are just north of New Castle. This practice started after the release of the movie.

There is a Lockridge marker in front of the courthouse, dedicated by Mr. Lockridge's son.

The book’s protagonist, John Shawnessy, was largely based upon Lockridge’s maternal grandfather, a real-life Henry County resident named  John Wesley Shockley (died in 1907, buried in Lewisville) and John Shockley’s father,  Dr. William B Shockley, was the model for the novel’s character T.D. Shawnessy.  Both Dr. Shockley and his wife Louisa Shockley are buried in our school district, in the very out-of-the-way Messick Cemetery (Among the oldest in Henry County - with burials beginning very early in the 19th Century), tucked well off-the-road between an abandoned railroad track and a farm field. This cemetery is about 2 ¼ miles southeast of our campus.)  Dr. Shockley died in 1876, at 74 years of age, and his wife died at 67 . Also buried at Messick Cemetery is a “Susannah Duke who was John W.  Shockley’s first wife - from whom Mr. Lockridge very loosely derived the character of Susanna Drake, who was portrayed in the movie by Elizabeth Taylor.  His second wife, Emma Rhoton Shockley, is buried in Lewisville near her husband.


John Wesley Shockley

Ross Lockridge, Jr.

Original Cover

Page 5 of the 1875 Henry County Atlas -
The clock in the Court House Tower on page five of the Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at nine o’clock


Lockridge’s Map of Raintree County


Original Movie Poster, 1957

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Our Land of Many Waters

Our Land of Many Waters

Our district is filled with waters, which, like all things, diverge and converge. Due to our relative elevation, waters collect into streams and rivers here, and leave our district rather than enter it. Our part of Indiana was well-described in the 1857 Henry County Atlas as “...inclined to be wet” and in the 1884 Henry County Atlas, “The land is watered by numerous streams which flow toward all points of the compass….”


Big Blue River (often unfortunately shortened to simply “Blue River” in common use -  which is a shame) runs for about 84 miles from northeast to southwest across Indiana. Its source is now technically the discharge from the dam at Summit Lake, at 40⁰ 01’ 26.79” north, and 85⁰ 19’ 35.70 west. At this source, in normal weather, the river is about 5 feet wide.  

If you went all the way back to the easternmost source before Summit Lake was built - which has been described as having been a “a powerful bubbling spring” (artesian wells are still common throughout our district) somewhere in the Summit Lake area - it could add a bit to the river’s length. But if you examine historical maps and documents, the accepted source of Big Blue River is a small creek rising at about 1100 feet above sea level which starts southeast of the intersection of Hwy 36 and CR 500 east, in Blue River Township, about 2 miles due east of our campus. Using this source, you add 4.5 miles to the length of the river from the Summit Lake dam. Big Blue River then flows west from the dam and then flows south through the bed of the Blue River Valley - a valley that predates the current river.

The Flatrock River runs for about 98 miles from northeast to southwest across Indiana. Its source is a ditch at 40⁰ 00’ 13.08” north, and 85⁰ 14’ 48.08” west, rising at about 1130 feet above sea level.  This is the ditch that runs beneath Highway 36 about a quarter of a mile east of North Broad Street in Mooreland, only  2 miles from the source of the Big Blue River.  Near Shelbyville, some 40 miles downstream, these two rivers are nearly 17 miles apart, and then begin to come together again.

Other local waterways include Sugar Creek, which runs from a ditch near where Raider Road intersects Highway 38, about 10 miles southwest of our campus, and runs for about 83 miles, and ends near Edinburgh, and nearby Fall Creek which starts as a ditch between Honey Creek and Sulphur Springs, and flows for almost 60 miles through Henry, Madison and Hamilton before entering Geist Reservoir - and then exiting Geist Reservoir -  in Marion County, continues until it enters the White River at the White Water Parkway.

Buck Creek begins as a drainage ditch and creek bed just southeast of Buck Creek Church on Buck Creek Pike.  It flows north, just barely curving into Delaware County - actually coming within 5 miles of White River -  but then it it comes back into far northern Henry County -  and our district -  and then into the the Blue River Valley above the big northern bend.  It flows west and then north for another 20 miles as it is joined by the Little Buck Creek (which begins southwest of Mt. Summit and flows through Springport) at Luray. It then flows northwesterly until it joins the White River at Yorktown. What is commonly called the “White River” in East-central Indiana is technically the “West Fork of the White River”, the formerly-named “Opeecomecah” or “Wapahani” River,  which runs for over 300 miles.

But all of these waters, after departing from our district, do all come together again.

About 70 miles southwest of here, just west of Edinburgh and a few miles north of Columbus, Big Blue River joins Sugar Creek and becomes the Driftwood River.  The Driftwood River then joins the Flatrock River just west of Columbus, and then the river becomes the “East Fork of the White River.” The East Fork then runs southwesterly for almost 200 miles - all over the place and in every direction,  to join the West Fork of the White River near Petersburg, and from there flows westerly to join the Wabash River at Mt Carmel, Illinois, where the two rivers are each about 500 feet wide, combine into a river now 1000 feet wide, and then flow south into the Ohio River.

As an aside, in the extreme southeastern part of our District, White Branch Creek very quickly departs our district and county and joins Nettle Creek near Dalton Road in Wayne County, which flows into the Whitewater River which rises near Modoc and flows through Hagerstown, Cambridge City, Brookville, crosses into Ohio south of  I-74, and then into the Great Miami River and the Ohio River near the I-275 bridge.
Truly, a region of “numerous streams which flow toward all points of the compass"…. and Big Blue River is our own.