Bill Long 8/2/06
The Way From Here
Ok, this actually is essay 2001. But it is close enough to the artificial milestone of 2000 for me to stop, look around, catch my breath and ask myself where I am going with all this writing. When Edward Gibbon, the author of the multi-volume work on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finished his 18 year-long experience with his task in the 1770s he said it felt like he was bidding adieu to a longtime friend. I have the sense as I go from here that I am focusing my interests and, in a sense, just getting started. Though hesitant to try to limn the future, here are six or seven areas that entice me as I write and study.
One of the earliest conversations I had about vocation was with a friend when I was about 16 years-old. He was an "intellectual" at school, known to be completely focused on the sciences, and he ended up pursuing a career as a wildlife biologist. One day, when we were chatting casually, he said to me, "Bill, you ought to become an historian." I think he said that because he wanted to show his true sophistication by using the word "an" before historian (rather than "a" historian. It is as if the "h" is a sort of vowel here.) His talking about "an" historian was the equivalent of my Ivy League experience later, when scholars tolding me they were studying the "Mediaeval" period. They were throwing in an extra "a" for effort, I suppose. Nevertheless, that early appellation "stuck" in my memory, even though my first pursuit (pure mathematics) and second (biblical studies) didn't focus on history. But sooner or later the history "bug" caught me. When I left biblical studies officially (that is, I no longer earned money from teaching the field, even though I wrote several books subsequently on the Bible) in the late 1980s, I became a professor of "World History" in Kansas and then, when I took up law in 1996, I tried to turn every legal problem and issue I met into a historical problem.
I actually succeeded in this, in my own mind, even though employers kind of wondered why I was writing a memo on "the history of fraud," for example, when I was simply asked to analyze whether someone had a legitimate claim for fraud against our client. But this method led to my book on the history of the Oregon death penalty (A Tortured History, 2001) being published and actually winning an award.
I think I left the field of biblical studies and took up a historical approach to things, both inside and outside of law, because I didn't think there were enough "facts" to keep me busy in biblical studies. Oh, you can surely learn a lot, which I did, but ultimately you really have no idea of how life changed in Corinth, for example, between 40 and 60 (when Paul was writing his letters), how his letters were received by the congregation, how many were in the congregation, what they believed, what intellectual and social forces influenced them, etc. That is, in biblical studies you really don't have enough information to do the kind of social, historical and even psychological analysis that I wanted to do. In short, there wasn't enough to learn.
So, that is when I decided to take on "the world" by teaching World Civilizations at Sterling College in KS. Every semester I would teach two sections of a world history overview (I had changed it from being a "Western Civ" to a "World Civ" class), and then I would focus either on periods in Western history or regions of the world (African history; history of the Islamic world). Interterms would be reserved for special projects (Augustine's City of God; memorizing poetry, etc).
But now I see that the historical work that interests me is primary text-driven and focused on more discrete historical subjects. I am not a "Civil War" fanatic, as is one of my friends, but I know enough of that conflict to keep up with him in questions. I imagine in the future I will continue writing about Oregon history, both because I am in Oregon and the Oregon History Project has tons of interesting primary texts online which should "get me started" in my Oregon history research. I already have posted several essays on the subject recently (here and here). In fact, I hope their web site and some of my essays actually stimulates a deeper and wider interest in NW history. Thus, I hope to continue writing on NW history, even though these essays, I fear, will be more of a "diversion" for me than full time occupation.
Discovering the Autism Spectrum
In the last month a new world has been opening to me, a world in which I am now gingerly and eagerly entering, and that is the world of what is now called the "autism spectrum disorders." Though many people are focusing on the question of the origin, diagnosis, treatment and narration of personal stories with respect to autism and Asperger syndrome, very little work has been done collating legal cases or legal issues relating to this population. Dennis Debbaudt has argued that people on the "spectrum," as they are known, are seven times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement personnel than the "typical" citizen. If this is the case, then, there is much to do not only in police training (as Debbaudt) is doing, but in understanding the fears of parents with respect to their child's possible involvement with the legal system, the need for lawyers, judges and other legal professionals to understand the nature of this disability and the cases that have emerged across the country where people on the "spectrum" need legal help.
In order to study this area, however, I need to do some history (knowing how the term autism emerged and the central studies that launched the field), some neuroscience (understanding how the brain works), some chemistry (learning about therapies that people say either work or don't work; learning about mercury, drugs and their effect on the body) and some law. It is a perfect opportunity for me to learn areas of life that I haven't hitherto focused on. And, of course, the principal benefit of getting into a new field of endeavor is that you have to negotiate the acronymns! I am making a catalog of some of them now, hoping some day they will roll off my tongue like nursery rhymes from the lips of a preschool teacher.
Well, I am out of space here, and I still have other things to describe.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long