A Very Special Visit: William W. Freehling

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.

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2 comments… add one

  • chris graham Sep 26, 2007

    Kevin,

    In my graduate cohort, the TAs talk frequently about undergraduates being thoroughly confused when they leave the textbook.

    Anyhow, to advance your stated desires in your last paragraph, you might consider not only a deeper understanding of history through engaging analysis and rigorous scholarship, but also by introducing students other ways history works. By that I mean how people tend to interact with history on a personal and intimate level; an acknowledgment that people’s life experiences inform their conception of the past; and most importantly that learning history should be more than just classwork, reading, and writing and can involve feeling-related as well as value-related opportunities.

    Basically, all this comes from principles of free choice learning in museums and science centers. You seem pretty above-average in getting students engaged with non-traditional methods. But it also seems that many teachers because of cirriculum requirements are trapped into teaching students that history is about class, reading, and writing when it can be so much more.

    Does this make any sense?

  • Kevin Levin Sep 26, 2007

    Chris, — You make perfect sense and I couldn’t agree more. You should check out the teaching of James Percoco who works in the public school system in northern Virginia. Jim’s approach is a hands on/public history approach to US History. He has kids work with research institutions and other projects that get students out of the classroom. I think you right on in pointing to curricular requirements as a constraint.

    I try as much as possible to shake things up during the year. I’ve had students work on oral history projects, interpretation of public monuments as well as secondary sources that promote critical thinking. We have to be willing to take chances in the classroom. The biggest change for me this year is in the decision to drop the textbook altogether. I absolutely despise textbooks and my students seem to be enjoying this alternative approach.

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