Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right
It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school. Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript. As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.
This is not a formal presentation. I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there. So, here’s what I got. In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln. I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter. I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory. At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.
With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery. We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.
Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses. I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.” In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races. Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class. What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties. How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?
Please feel free to add your own ideas. Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.