Teaching the Civil War in central Virginia offers an interesting perspective on the continuing evolution of our collective memory of the war. My current course on the Civil War and historical memory includes students from the surrounding counties of Fluvanna and Greene as well as students who grew up in Charlottesville. Many of the students come from families that fit into this latter category come from other regions of the country. I spend a great deal of time listening to my students talk about their own perceptions of the war because it gives me a unique perspective on how future commemorations are likely to take shape.
What I learned today is worth sharing. As far as I can tell there is no discernible difference between the ways in which northern children are taught to understand the cause of secession and war from what can be found in southern schools. My students who are born and raised in the counties outside of Charlottesville – which we might suspect as being more traditional in focus – shared that they remember learning that slavery was the central issue driving secession. I had students who attended grade school in New England and Michigan, who remember learning that slavery was ancillary and that states rights was the central reason. The difference seems to be based on individual teachers rather than anything having to do with a sharp cultural divide between regions. That said, over the past few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my students begin their study of the Civil War on the high school level with an appreciation of the role that slavery played in the events leading up to and following Lincoln’s election.
I think this is important to keep in mind given the controversy surrounding the upcoming Secession Ball that has been planned for Charleston later this month as well as future events. If we listen too closely to the voices that populate our mainstream media we are likely to be bombarded by a language that divides rather than one that is more likely to reflect where we are in our understanding of these important historical issues. Tonight (5pm) Chris Matthews will interview the SCV’s commander-in-chief on the Secession Ball. I have no idea who he will be paired up with, but I can guarantee you that we will learn next to nothing about popular perception. Rather, we will be entertained by watching one side duke it out with another and we will be left with a facile reminder that Americans are still fighting this war. Well, that may be accurate to a certain extent, but I would suggest that it is less true than it was just a few decades ago. [Update: Looks like the interview was canceled.]
In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.
My most recent publication is now available in the new issue of the November 2010 issue of the journal, The History Teacher. The essay focuses on how I use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in class and is based on a talk I gave back in 2007 at the first biennial meeting of the Society For Civil War Historians. [Click here to read the essay (pdf file)]
One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years is the opportunity to work with fellow history teachers on how we can better teach our subject. As much as I enjoy sharing what has worked for me with others I have to say that I’ve learned just as much from my colleagues. This coming year will be incredibly busy in this regard. In January I will be leading a TAH workshop with W. Fitzhugh Brundage on the Civil War and historical memory and in April I will take part in another workshop here in Virginia that was organized in response to the recent 4th grade history textbook controversy. I am also involved in an ongoing effort to secure an NEH Grant for a workshop that will take place next summer. Finally, I am very excited to report that I recently accepted an offer from the New York Times to write an essay on the challenges of teaching the Civil War during the sesquicentennial.
As many of you know I am a big fan of the Museum of the Confederacy. In recent years the leadership of the museum as well as their staff have done an admirable job of steering the institution from one of advocacy for a traditional view of the Confederate past to one that promotes and awards the latest scholarship about the history of the Confederacy. So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that, if chosen, Edward Sebesta would refuse to accept the MOC’s Jefferson Davis Award for Civil War scholarship. You can read Sebesta’s post for yourself, but here is the letter:
I am writing you to tell you that I do not want any book of mine to be considered for any award by the Museum of the Confederacy. More specifically I don’t want “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” co-edited by Edward H. Sebesta and James Loewen, University Press of Mississippi considered for an award by the Museum of the Confederacy either for 2010, or in the future.
Not to be presumptuous that the “Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” would win any award from the Museum of the Confederacy, but if the book did win some type of award, I would reject the award publically and use the occasion to criticize the Museum of the Confederacy. Finally, I should let you know that in debate with James McPherson, noted Civil War historian, I have spoken out against the Museum of the Confederacy on Pacifica Radio Network.
The link that Sebesta provides laying out his theory of “banal white nationalism” fails to yield much of anything that addresses the Museum of the Confederacy specifically.
I have to say that I am at a loss as to why Sebesta has taken such a strong stance against the MOC. Over the past ten years I’ve visited the museum on multiple occasions. I’ve conducted research in the library and have even brought my classes to explore its impressive collection of artifacts. One of my former students is currently working as an intern in the research library. I am good friends with a number of its staff and I have nothing but the highest respect for the difficult work that they do. A few weeks ago I shared a stage with CEO, Waite Rawls, whose Confederate lineage is deep, but who understands that his role is to further historical understanding and not mythology. I would recommend any of their professional programs, including their annual Teachers Institute. It is impossible for me to imagine a more impressive line-up of scholars who have shared their knowledge in various public symposia. Finally, it is impossible for me to imagine a serious scholar, who would not be honored to join the prestigious list of previous Jefferson Davis book award winners.
I am not a big fan of using history videos in my classroom. Most are poorly produced and fail to add anything of substance to the various activities that I employ. If I use video at all they are in short clips of historical footage such as a speech, parade, etc. pulled from YouTube. At the beginning of the year History Channel mailed me a copy of their recent series, America: The Story of Us. It sat on my shelf and I really had no plans to use it after having viewed a few segments. However, as a way to get their intellectual juices flowing again after their Thanksgiving break I decided to show them the section on westward expansion through the 1850s as a way to introduce them to the next textbook chapter. I wasn’t so concerned about the content; rather, I asked students to evaluate the narrative, along with the visuals, choice of talking heads, and the intended audience.
The video clearly kept their attention long after the point where you begin to see eyes glaze over or heads hitting the table. They were impressed with the visual effects, especially the panoramic shots that helped them to conceptualize the pace of expansion. We especially enjoyed the segment on the construction of the Erie Canal. What they did not like at all was the choice of commentators. They understood early on that the video was meant to attract the audience, but the choice of Michael Douglas, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg did not impress them at all. A few students asked me to explain their qualifications for discussing American history. Even more surprising was their reaction when John Legend, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Martha Stewart appeared. One of my students thought it was appropriate that Stewart was dressed in orange, but for the most part my students just laughed. A few of them were visibly confused as to why the producers of this video would ask these people to offer commentary about specific historical events.
Keep in mind that I didn’t anticipate their responses, but after thinking about I have to say that I am encouraged by it. I think they acknowledged the video’s usefulness, but their reaction to seeing high profile public figures as well as entertainers that many of them identify with suggests that our students are more sophisticated than we sometimes give them credit for. I think what they are saying is go ahead and entertain us, but don’t assume that the only people we listen to and value are entertainers.
Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?
As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes. I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers. My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it. I usually feel like an impostor when doing so. There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy. I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes. Is it simply entertainment? Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent? And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”
This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs. The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter. My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph. As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course. Even that level of understanding must be student driven. And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole. Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all. My students were certainly not engaged.
But isn’t that the danger here? As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?
Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.