Warning: Hide Your Children, the President of the United States is About to Speak

ME/Sachs-obI apologize beforehand, but I can’t help but comment on the controversy surrounding President Obama’s planned address to the nation’s student body this coming Tuesday.  I got a taste of the strong opinions on both sides this morning when I updated my Facebook profile with a quick word of approval for the planned speech.

As a high school history teacher how could I not voice approval for the fact that our highest elected official has decided to take a few minutes from what must be a busy schedule to address the future of this country.  Instead what I was shocked to find was a deep-seated paranoia over what such an address may lead to.  One comment included the suggestion that since Obama is losing popularity with adults that he might be trying to make up for it by rallying children to his support.  Others actually believe that his goal is to brainwash or “indoctrinate” our children.  You can find such sentiments all over the Web.  What is one to make of all of this and what does it say about our country now that there is a significant portion of the population that actually believes that our students ought to be afraid of the president?

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“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

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Confederate Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Promise of a New Football Season

With the new college football season upon us it might be worthwhile to reflect on the cultural connections with the Civil War and defeat and the Lost Cause.  While the enthusiasm here in Charlottesville, Virginia probably doesn’t match the anticipation found elsewhere around the South [I lived in Alabama for two years.] the talk seems to be all about UVA’s prospects and even who will start at the quarterback position.  Apparently, this is a serious matter for many.  I’ve never been a big college football fan and I have even more trouble understanding how it is possible to get so excited about playing William and Mary as a season opener.  Perhaps UVA fans no all too well that the rest of the season is likely to be a real bummer.  For those of you who are college football fans and Civil War enthusiasts I offer you the following for your reading pleasure.  The first is a journal article, titled, “From Lost Cause to Third-and-Long: College Football and the Civil Religion of the South, which appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion.  Additional commentary can be found here and here.  And I almost forgot, GO TERPS!!!

From the Bain-Selbo essay:

A particularly moving moment occurs at the end of a game. In this video, we see such a moment after a hard-fought Mississippi loss to Alabama in the fall of 2005. While some fans leave the stadium, a large portion (particularly the student section near where the band sits) stays for a final playing of the medley. It begins slowly, mournfully (particularly appropriate after a tough loss)—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” gently mixing together. One feels a sense of longing— longing for a past more ideal than real. Midway through, the tempo picks up, hands are clapping, and the parts that include the fans singing (particularly the chorus of “Dixie”) are louder and more boisterous. This all culminates with a yell, a hope, a declaration of defiance rising from all—”The South will rise again!”

Should Fredericksburg Lecture Orange County on Historic Preservation?

No surprise that The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg decided to comment on this past weeks decision in Orange County to allow Walmart to build just off of the Wilderness Battlefield.  The editorial comes down hard on both the four Orange County supervisors who voted in favor of Walmart as well as Walmart’s business practices.  The editor accuses the supervisors of engaging in “ornery provincialism against the forces of decent compromise” and characterizes Walmart as motivated by an “insatiable hunger for world retail conquest” as well as other corrupt business practices.

What I fail to see is how such an editorial is even possible given the reality of commercial development and urban sprawl that can be found all along Rt. 3, outside Fredericksburg. Does Fredericksburg really have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to developing historically significant ground?  More importantly, what I would like to know is how many of those large outlets on Rt. 3 contain commercial chains whose business practices rival or even outpace those of Walmart’s.   It seems to me that the values that led to the decision of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to grant Walmart its petition are the very same that can be found along Rt. 3 in Fredericksburg.  In fact, one could easily argue that it is the people of Fredericksburg who paved the way for Walmart.

Civil War Memory Class Goes Digital

The new school year is off and running and after having met with all my classes on the first day I couldn’t be more pleased with my group of students.  This trimester I am teaching two sections of Civil War history, which include roughly 9 students in each class.  They seem eager to get started and somehow we already managed to touch on the question of what caused the Civil War.  Today I will hand out a few documents and ask them to debate the question of whether the Civil War was inevitable.

Most of these students will go on to take my course on Civil War memory next trimester.  I had a wonderful experience with both sections of this class last year.  We covered a great deal of material between both primary and secondary sources and we capped it off with a memorable trip to Richmond.  This year I’ve decided to approach the course from a completely different angle.  I plan on having both sections create a website that will explore Civil War memory here in Charlottesville. The major sites in the city and county include the soldier statue on Courthouse Square, the soldiers cemetery at the University of Virginia, and Lee and Jackson parks, which are located just off of the downtown mall.  The course will include background readings in a few essential secondary sources and students will have access to archival material at UVA and the local historical society.

I am still debating the kind of platform that will be used for the project, but at this point I am leaning toward Moodle.  It isn’t the sexiest site, but it can easily accommodate the wide range of social media tools that will be included in this project.  Luckily, I have a few students who are competent with HTML and CSS.

Students will create videos and upload them to Vimeo and/or YouTube as well as podcasts.  They will also create their own radio show using blogtalkradio and interview area historians on the significance of the sites.  Photographs can easily be uploaded and described on Flickr and PowerPoint presentations can be narrated and uploaded to the Web using Slideshare.  I am also playing with the idea of a blog component that will allow students to reflect on the entire process throughout the trimester.  A companion page on Facebook may be useful and during our visits to the site students will be able to use Twitter.

I am learing that the biggest hazard in utilizing social media is not having a clear sense of its purpose and how it fits into a department’s broader philosophy.  This is a discussion that I hope to continue throughout the year in my department meetings.  To me, it speaks to the sharp transition from students simply consuming what they hear in class and read in books to producing their own interpretation for broad public consumption.  This project will put students in a position of having to think critically, not simply about what they are learning, but how to present it to others.

Let me know what you think.

Battlefield Preservation, WalMart, and Me

I think all of you are well aware that I greatly appreciate the time you take out of your day to comment on my posts.  In many cases you spend a significant amount of time to insure that your comments are clear and to the point.  By far my favorite comments are those that challenge me to rethink specific issues or to work harder to clarify my position.  In response to yesterday’s post on the Wilderness and WalMart, however, I can’t tell whether my readers are having difficulty following my thinking on this issue over time or my commitment to battlefield preservation itself.  I am getting the sense that it more of the latter.

It’s difficult to know what more I could say to satisfy some of you.  If I woke up yesterday morning and had posted a simple condemnation of WalMart, like everyone else in the Civil War blogosphere, all would be fine, but because I fail to toe the party line there is a lingering doubt.  Dimitri Rotov’s recent post also deviates from the standard line of thought, but I don’t doubt for a minute his commitment to preserving our Civil War battlefields.

Let me remind all of you of a few things that have apparently been so easily forgotten.  From the beginning of the life of this blog I have maintained a strong commitment to the mission of the National Park Service.  While others condemned Gettysburg Superintendent, John Latschar for every problem under the sun, I made it a point to remind my readers of his commitment to restoring some of the battlefield’s most important view sheds.  In addition, I can’t think of anyone else in the blogosphere or elsewhere for that matter who has gone further in supporting the NPS’s commitment to properly interpreting Civil War battlefields.  This past December I was asked by Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Superintendent, John Hennessy, to deliver the keynote address for the 146th anniversary of the battle.  In my talk I discussed the importance of these battlefields to our civic life as well as their importance as educational tools.  Every year I bring students to one of Virginia’s battlefields.  All of them walk away with a unique and invaluable perspective and a few of them are truly moved by what they experienced.  Finally, I signed the CWPT’s petition that was sent to WalMart back in October.  What more can I say about my position on battlefield preservation?

May I be so bold as to suggest that compared to many of you who are having difficulty with my position, I’ve done much more to insure the continued life of these important historic sites.