One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.” He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed. For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given. I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian. By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.
The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts. We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature. The issue is not one of a lack of explanation. What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention. I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle. At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it. It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents. I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period. For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation. [click to continue…]
The following commentary by Shelby Foote comes at the tail end of Ken Burns’s The Civil War
“We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.”
Yesterday I accepted a very kind offer to take part in the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Teacher Institute in July 2010. I’ve been following their programs over the past few years and have to say that I am very impressed. This year the institute will be held in Hagerstown, MD July 16 – 18th, 2010. The battlefield we will be touring on Saturday is Gettysburg, the tours will be led by the National Park Service (Scott Hartwig & team) and Garry Adelman (doing a then and now photography tour). There is a limit of 200 teachers so you may want to register sooner than later. This is a free professional development opportunity, teachers only cover their travel and lodging; however, there are scholarships to cover even those costs. This sounds like a great deal and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to talk about something that is so important to me. I will be taking part in a panel discussion during the Saturday evening banquet to discuss the teaching of the Civil War with Web2.0 technology.
A few months ago I commented on actor Richard Drefyuss’s new crusade of working to introduce civics back into the high school curriculum. I did not know at that time that he would be speaking at my school. Well, today was the big day and I thought I might share a few observations. Let me begin by applauding Dreyfuss for his sincere interest in this issue. I support anyone who can help to shed light on those areas that need improvement in the education of young Americans. And unlike some who criticize Hollywood types for their social activism I welcome it. If it takes a high profile name to draw attention to some issue than so be it. Of course, it is incumbent on that individual to demonstrate competence in the area in question. Unfortunately, Dreyfuss falls far short of this mark.
Our school organized his visit around a panel discussion that included six students, all of whom had prepared questions for Dreyfuss. From the beginning Dreyfuss had difficulty staying on message and he alienated much of his audience when he asked for a volunteer to cite the Bill of Rights. That seemed to be sufficient reason to pound home his broader theme which is that the United States is doomed. There was actually very little talk of civics; rather he touched on what he sees as a lack of civil discourse. Well, who would disagree with that? However, if you are going to offer such a critique you must be the one to set the example. Again, he fell short. Student questions were not addressed in any substantive manner. In fact, our students should be praised for the way they managed to steer Dreyfuss back to the question at hand or to another issue. [click to continue…]
This is the final week of my survey course on the American Civil War. One of the subjects we’ve been looking at is the introduction of what Mark Grimsley describes as “Hard War” policy by the United States in 1864. The class was assigned a section of Grimsley’s book, Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which allowed us to take a much closer look at Sherman’s “March to the Sea”. Rather than see the campaign as a foreshadowing of warfare in the twentieth century, Grimsley provides a framework that situates it within the history of warfare stretching back to the Middle Ages. [It's always nice to be able to read and discuss the best in Civil War scholarship with my high school students.] He also speculates that this may account for why Grant, Sherman and the rest of the Union army did not regard the campaign as inaugurating a new kind of warfare. I’m not sure I agree with that, but nevertheless, Grimsley’s analysis does provide students of the war with a framework with which to analyze as opposed to our popular memory of Sherman and the campaign that is bogged down in strong emotions that tell us very little about the scale of violence and overall strategy. [click to continue…]