Over the past few days additional information has come to light surrounding the recent school trip to Gettysburg in which two students from East Chapel Hill High School were photographed waving Confederate flags on the battlefield. Much of the public discussion has focused on the two girls, but there has been little discussion about the tour itself. While I don’t claim to have all of the relevant information, enough has surfaced to give us a clearer understanding of the goals of the trip and the photograph.
This is a trip that takes place annually and is an extension of an Honors Civil War/American West course.
This is an honors course for students interested in two of the most crucial and romanticized periods of American history: the Civil War and the exploration and settlement of the American West in the 1800s. The course provides an in-depth look at the major causes of each; the events that took place; the people and groups that participated; the influence of personalities; and the lasting impact and legacy that the Civil War and American West have on the history of the US. In this honors course, the materials are taught with greater complexity, novelty and acceleration.
As part of their tour of Pickett’s Charge students stage a reenactment of the attack. It’s unclear where exactly this lesson takes place. I suspect that the organizers of this lesson believe that they are providing their students with a deeper understanding of the battlefield. At the outset students are given numbers, which instruct them on a specific action such as falling on the ground wounded or dead. Two students are handed school-owned Confederate battle flags. In the event that they fall during the charge two additional students are assigned the task of pickup up the flags and continuing the mock attack. The two students features in the controversial photograph were the final flag bearers.
It should come as no surprise that I find these kinds of exercises to be utterly useless. There is no deeper understanding of a battle that is attained by lying on the ground or assuming a number. Soldiers didn’t go into battle following such an assignment. In fact, these types of activities are incredibly disrespectful to the men who fought and bled on both sides, especially when done on the actual battlefield.
During my recent school trip to Gettysburg, students explored a wide range of questions connected to the battle, its memory and its broader significance. We started by exploring the face of battle as represented by the North Carolina monument. Students interpreted the monument for its understanding of how soldiers went into battle and the virtues that they were expected to uphold. From there we walked through Spangler Woods to follow the path of Pickett’s division. Along the way I had students read excerpts from soldiers letters and we reflected on the distance between the ideal of martial manhood and the reality of battle. Finally, we discussed the importance of terrain in this particular charge. It represents just one approach to taking a battlefield seriously and providing a robust learning experience for students.
Now it is quite possible that the group did take the time to read letters and diaries and take a more serious approach, but I fail to see what pretending to be dead or wounded or carrying a flag does for your understanding of any battle.
The two students were caught in a moment that was choreographed by the teachers on this trip. To focus on the students exclusively misses the salient problems with a lesson that was organized by the teachers. It was the teachers who chose to bring the Confederate flags on the trip and have students utilize them during the activity. Once that decision was made they ran the risk of having the intention and context stripped with the posting of an online photograph. What makes matters worse is that it doesn’t appear that the students even understand the history of the flags they were carrying.
Consider the immediate apology from the student who originally posted the photograph.
We were reenacting Pickett’s charge in which the South lost 85% of their soldiers. These aren’t the Confederate flags in fact, they’re the North Carolina regimental flags. I’m proud to be a part of my state and I’m sorry my photo was so offensive but I find it appropriate in that I’m honoring heroes that fought to protect their home and families.
Is this the explanation that teachers provided? I certainly hope not, but according to Ron Creatore, the father of one of the students, East Chapel Hill H.S. allowed a photo of the Confederate flag and the article entitled “The Confederate Flag is a Symbol of Heritage, Not Hate,” to be displayed on its website since December 2012. While I can say nothing more about this curious addition to its website, it does appear that the school has failed to provide students with a more nuanced understanding of the history and legacy of the Confederate flag.
In an interview with a local radio station, Mr. Creatore suggested that the class in question needs to do a much better job of providing students with a more mature interpretation of the flag and the phrase, “The South Shall Rise.” I certainly agree.
It is sufficiently clear that these two students did not intend to offend anyone. They were photographed on a school trip engaged in an activity organized by the school’s teachers. Their behavior is their product and it is the school community that needs to take responsibility. Interested parties can continue to make these students the center of the debate or they can work together with the school to improved its curriculum.