Today I had a wonderful discussion with Andy Mink who is the Director of Outreach and Education at the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History. Andy asked me to help out with a workshop for public school teachers in Southside Virginia on the legacy of the Civil War, which I was happy to agree to do. We touched on the difficulties surrounding the teaching of controversial events and issues, and at one point Andy asked if this is the first time that a crucial moment in American history (meaning the November election) could be predicted. What a great question. It is true that much of our analysis of what constitutes a momentous event in history is premised or made possible by hindsight. So, this may be the first time where we can objectively state that this coming November will be one of the most important elections (events) in American history, regardless of whether Barack Obama emerges victorious. Of course, if he wins the moment will be elevated to a different level altogether.
I’ve written a bit about how an Obama presidency might transform our understanding of Civil War history, but I have not given much thought to the question of how we as teachers need to begin to think about how to prepare our students to understand the importance of this event. On the face of it, this seems like a unique opportunity. A few weeks ago I made the decision to begin the new year with the Civil Rights Movement and Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle For Black Equality as a way to integrate or bridge the gap between history and current events. I also hope to take advantage of the opportunity to emphasize the 50th anniversary of the closing of Lane High School and Venable Elementary School here in Charlottesville. The closing of schools as a component of “Massive Resistance” represents one of the low points in recent American history while this election highlights the noticeable progress made in race relations. Perhaps Obama’s candidacy and potential election will help to frame classroom discussions around a more progressive narrative that does not lose sight of the complexity and tragic quality of the subject. I don’t claim to have any hard answers as to how to achieve this balance. Before we can do so a number of questions must be addressed about how Obama specifically fits into our history of race. Of course, it is just these types of questions that make for excellent classroom discussions.
Those of you who work with Essential Questions can easily organize the year around a question which forces students to think about why a black presidential candidate is possible now as opposed to ten years ago or even earlier. I like the idea of beginning with the Civil Rights Movement and then jumping back to colonization and moving forward. The book that we are using begins with Jim Crow, but it is easy to imagine classes accumulating questions that emerge, which will serve to guide us throughout the remainder of the year as we explore earlier moments in American history. Questions will no doubt cover a wide swath from straight-forward historical questions to the deciphering of political cartoons. Consider the recent controversy surrounding the cover of the German publication Der Spiegel, which featured the White House and above it the phrase, “Onkel Barack’s Hutta”. It would have been nice if Spiegel had waited until the start of the new school year to publish such a cover, but I suspect that there will be no shortage of such references as the general election heats up. The point is that such moments will serve to inform our consideration of other moments in American history, in this case, the 1850s and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I haven’t even finished with our end-of-the-year faculty meetings and I am already thinking about September. It’s why I love this profession.