“Students Should Feel Free To Criticize”

Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation.  They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state.  There is much that I like about the contest.  On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.”  They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson.  Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all.  Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:

  • General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
  • Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
  • Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
  • Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.

There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above.  They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.

6 comments… add one

  • MississippiLawyer Sep 23, 2010

    Not surprising since it IS the “Lee-Jackson” scholarship fund.

    I’d expect the same type of questions with a similar disclaimer to “feel free to criticize” if it were a “Lincoln scholarship” or a “MLK Jr. Scholarship fund”.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2010

      You might be right about that.

      • MississippiLawyer Sep 23, 2010

        Yeah, I just don’t see this as an egregious example of lost cause mythology.

        Look at the suggestions the students are given. They cover: their personality, their religion, their lives before the war, their lives during the war, Lee after the war, and the effect of Jackson’s death. That covers quite a lot and so I don’t think the “suggestions” are nefarious or indicative of lost cause mythology.

        Last year’s winning essay was about Lee’s romantic life before the war and the author states that he/she is writing in an effort to humanize Lee and says that he needs to be seen as “completely flawed” and “completely mortal”.

        I don’t get the sense that the people behind this scholarship are the rootin’-tootin’ SCV types that we enjoy teasing so often on this site.

        I could be VERY wrong though…

        • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2010

          I tend to agree with you. It’s definitely not the extreme of Lost Cause silliness, but at the same time the suggestions are quite suggestive. :D

        • Woodrowfan Sep 24, 2010

          I think the winning essay will be telling. Will they be balanced or total hero-worship?

          • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2010

            There is a link to last year’s essay, which focused on the relationship between Lee and his wife. It is framed around the assumption that the relationship, and Lee in particular, have been mythologized.

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