Today students in my Lincoln course were treated to a visit by William W. Freehling. [Shame on you if you haven’t yet read his second volume of Road to Disunion.] Professor Freehling joined us to discuss one of his own articles on Virginia’s “reluctant” decision to secede from the Union. The article in question was published a few years ago in North and South magazine which means that it has a solid scholarly foundation and is accessible to a wide audience. I assigned the article to my students because I wanted them to have a deeper understanding of how white southerners in different parts of the South responded to Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 and, in the case of Virginia, his decision to reinforce Fort Sumter and subsequent decision to call for 75,000 soldiers. We have a tendency to think of the South as monolithic which obscures the fact that white southerners were anything but unified in their response to the events between the presidential election and Lincoln’s call for soldiers to put “down the rebellion.”
Professor Freehling steered the class through a number of questions addressed in the article and asked students to think and respond to his own questions. If there was any nervousness among the students it quickly dissipated as a result of Professor Freehling’s sharp wit and sincere curiosity about their understanding of the issues. Those students that I’ve had a chance to talk to had nothing but praise for Professor Freehling. They learned a great deal and had a good time interacting with him. I want my students to meet people who work in the field of history and to think of the life of the mind as a viable career choice.
One of the goals I’ve been working towards in my elective courses is in finding ways to bridge this artificial divide between the way history is taught in high schools as opposed to an upper-level history course on the college level. On college campuses instructors expect students to come to grips with the analytical process of historical argumentation and the ways in which interpretations evolve over time (historiography). High school history is still stuck in the rut of the textbook approach, which views the subject as a collection of facts that need to be memorized. The textbook reinforces a static view of the past that is neatly divided into little sections and sub-sections with their own little headings.
I have a feeling that a few dinner conversations will touch on today’s class.