Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.
I’ve grown tired of the bitter debate over what our students know or don’t know about American history. Yes, we want them to know when the Civil War took place, be able to identify key historical terms, people and places. All too often these discussions function under the assumption that our parents and grandparents somehow knew more than our students today. I have no idea where this assumption comes from, but I’ve not seen much evidence to support it; in fact, I would put my money on this generation knowing much more about a wider array of subjects than any previous generation.
We can cram them full of facts in our history classes like a sponge or we can emphasize that the content of our course is only as meaningful and significant as the questions posed beforehand. Today in class I was reminded of just how important it is to teach our students how to ask questions. This week we started looking at the introduction and evolution of slavery in British North America. By the end of the less students will write their first thesis-driven essay on why slavery thrived particularly in the Southern colonies. To that end we are looking at a wide selection of primary and secondary sources, including a short selection from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. […oh and have I said how much I love being back in the classroom?]
I had no idea that there is now a chapter of Flaggers in North Carolina. It would be a stretch to draw any type of formal connection with the Flaggers in Virginia. It’s the same inane rhetoric about a subject they apparently know very little about. In this case, it’s a new exhibit about Lincoln on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. These people have nothing to say about the actual exhibit beyond vague accusations of Lincoln as a war criminal. Kirk Lyons (misspelled by the media as Lion) and H.K. Edgerton were in attendance, but all they can manage is the same old dog and pony show that has become their trademark.
It looks like some of the students had a good laugh at their expense.
Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment. Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics. This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.