Yesterday I was asked to put together a panel for the June 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians which will take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The topic of the panel is the teaching of the Civil War in the high school classroom. I’ve got most of the line-up worked out and it promises to be an interesting panel. The first person I contacted was James Percoco who teaches at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia. He is one of the most innovative teachers in the field and he has published extensively on topics related to the classroom as well as public history. His most recent book is titled My Summer With Lincoln which is forthcoming from the Fordham University Press. I am excited about the opportunity to talk about a subject I care deeply about and just as pleased that Jim is available to take part. That said, I do have one concern. I have no doubt that we will receive some excellent feedback from whomever is in the audience, but more than likely it won’t be from fellow high school teachers. The format for this conference will be familiar to those who attend academic gatherings and the participants will likely be the same faces that can be seen at the SHA, OAH, and AHA. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as academic conferences serve an important function for historians engaged in scholarly pursuits. The OAH has done quite a bit to broaden its membership base to include high school teachers, but I wonder if the SCWH can go one step further.
I remember some comments from Ethan Rafuse a few months back when this conference was first advertised. He was concerned about the financial demands involved in traveling to another conference and suggested that the organization concentrate on setting up sessions at well-established venues. Ethan has a point here, but only if the mission of the SCWH is envisioned along similar lines. I think there is a unique opportunity to shape this conference and the organization as a whole in a way that branches off in new directions. We work in a field that enjoys a great amount of attention and interest from the general public. Civil War historians enjoy a notoriety that is unparalleled in the academic world of historical studies. Many have reached out to the general public in various ways through roundtable talks, battlefield tours, and conferences such as Gary Gallagher’s battlefield tours/lectures through the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Studies and Mark Snell’s program at Shepherd University. What these programs suggest to me is that there is a demand for a setting that fosters serious thought about a subject we are all passionate about. My participation in Snell’s most recent conference on Civil War memory has convinced me that the interest level of the general public does extend beyond the narrow confines of battlefields and generals.
I am not suggesting anything along the lines of radical change in the planning for our first meeting next June. We can still set up panels that address the most obscure topics under the sun, but it is easy to imagine a fairly wide range of subjects that more general Civil War enthusiasts would find interesting. What I am suggesting is that the SCWH begin by making sure the conference is advertised widely. For example, readers of North and South magazine along with a few of the other glossies should know about the meeting. Perhaps a few panels could be organized to address perceptions between the general public and the academic world. We’ve surely seen a few of those issues heat up recently in the blogosphere. The inclusion of a broader base could help foster closer ties between the general public and academic community. Philadelphia includes a number of Civil War-related sites. The SCWH could follow the AHA and organize tours of some of these sites.
I’ve been a member of the SCWH for a few years now and I couldn’t be more excited about the decision to hold a conference. Historians talk a great deal about the importance of history in the life and identity of a country. The SCWH is in a unique position to give substance to that mantra. This is an opportunity to shape our organization in a way that has the broadest appeal without losing its scholarly focus and commitment to furthering our understanding of this crucial moment in our nation’s history.