Use “War Between the States”

Today I received a letter for an essay contest sponsored by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy here in Charlottesville.  I have to say that I got a kick out of it.  The contest offers students in three different grade levels the opportunity to compete for a prize of $50.  Students in grades 4-6 must write a 1,000 word essay on Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury; students in grades 7-9 will write about the life of Judah P. Benjamin; and high school students in grades 10-12 get to explore the important contributions of Stand Waite.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why Stand Waite was chosen.

The guidelines are quite telling.  My favorite is the following:

Use “War Between the States” rather than “Civil War” unless quoting directly from a source.

The UDC also offers the following observation concerning sources:

The internet plays  such an important role in education today that books are no longer being used.  Please encourage students to use at least one book as a source for their information.

Guess what ladies, you can actually find books on this thing called the internet.

[Image: Mrs. Homer S. (Jane) Durden III, President General, 2008–2010]
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If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism…

do I also need to test for it as well?  In other words, do I need to test my students to ensure that they leave my class understanding that the United States is an exceptional nation?  Would I need to fail a student who vehemently disagrees and arrives at her own conclusions? What do I do with students who arrive at opposing ideas of what is exceptional about American history?  Do I need to continue?

The more I listen to members of the Texas Board and other proponents of this nutty view the more disgusted I become.  Do we really think so little of our students to believe that they need to be told what to think?  What exactly is the point of education if we don’t even trust them to think through difficult questions about their own history?  Perhaps I am missing something fundamental, but the thought that as a teacher I should intentionally work to steer my students to believe a set agenda is morally repugnant to me.  This is called indoctrination, not education.

Honestly, I don’t care at all what my students believe about the broad sweep of American history.  I am as indifferent to a student who believes that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world as I am with a student who believes the exact opposite.  What I care about is whether they can articulate reasons for their preferred view.  I care about whether they can utilize the tools of a historian that I do my best to teach year after year.

I can’t help but think that this agenda reflects a deep-seated insecurity on the part of those who believe that this is a history teacher’s responsibility.  It stems from an inability to accept that free thinking people can, should, and must arrive at different conclusions about complex historical questions.

That feels better. :D

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Siskel and Ebert Review Gettysburg

and for Tim Abbott:

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South Carolina Rejects Secession Monument

Update: “The board of the Patriots Point Development Authority on Tuesday split 3-3 on whether to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to place an 11 1/2-foot granite monument to the ordinance signers at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The tie vote meant the idea failed.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is hoping to erect a monument commemorating the 170 South Carolinians who signed the ordnance of secession in December 1860. The South Carolina division is proposing to install an 11 1/2-foot-tall stone memorial as the centerpiece of a 40-foot by 40-foot landscaped plaza at Patriots Point. According to the news article:

The name of each of the signers and the wording of the secession document would be among the text and images engraved on each side of the monument. Albert Jackson, chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ monument committee, called the secession debate and the subsequent unanimous approval of the ordinance “a significant action” for South Carolina. Most people are not aware of the history behind it, he said.

Mr. Jackson is no doubt correct that “most people are not aware of the history behind” South Carolina’s decision to secede from the Union within weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Here is South Carolina’s Ordnance of Secession:

AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the “United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

[click to continue…]

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Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls

Like many of you I’ve been following the ongoing saga down in Texas concerning the recent proposed changes to the state’s social studies curriculum.  My response as a historian has been one of surprise and disappointment given the committee’s decisions regarding Thomas Jefferson as well as broader interpretive changes to the curriculum.  The committee members are clearly unqualified to make decisions about anything having to do with how to understand American history and how that material is taught in the classroom.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but think that the reaction to the committee’s work misses something fundamental about history education today and the place of the textbook within that process.  And we are missing it because the debate is being carried out, in large part, by people who are not history teachers.  Essentially, the public discourse is little more than an extension of the divide on the Texas Board.  Right wing commentators probably look on more favorably at the Board’s work while Left wing folks think it’s a complete disaster.  What just about everyone has missed is the fact that the textbook no longer occupies the same place in the history curriculum that it did just a few short years ago.  Before the Internet the textbook was the beginning and end of the study of history.  History was taught as a collection of facts contained in a cohesive narrative that functioned to connect individual students with the collective narrative of the United States.  In the Digital Age textbooks represent one among many avenues of exploration into this nation’s rich past.  In my own Advanced Placement classes the textbook is little more than an anchor with which to allow my students to investigate on their own.  They are taught not to see their book as the last word regarding any topic; in fact, I discuss with them the nature of textbook writing at the beginning of the course so they understand why it is important to consider multiple sources.

What troubles me about the reaction to the Texas Board is that the two sides fail to understand that the essential question is not about whether to include Jefferson or the NRA in the book, but the purpose of a history education itself.  Surely it involves more than what kind of sponge we hope to turn our kids into.  If you haven’t noticed the Internet has revolutionized the way history is and should be taught.  We have literally tens of thousands of websites at our fingertips that take us beyond the watered down and mind numbingly boring content found in most textbooks.  We need to be teaching our students how to navigate through this dense thicket of information, how to evaluate this information, and help them to construct their own understanding of America’s past.  It’s not easy and I admit to having a great deal of difficulty as I make this transition.

Not only can the piecing together of American history be much more dynamic and interesting than a textbook, but the development of Web2.0 technologies now allows students to contribute to that body of knowledge as well as the ongoing dialog concerning every aspect of American culture including its past.  They can blog, tweet, make videos, organize a wide range of activities and broadcast via live streaming, and the list goes on.  Again, it comes down to the question of whether our subject is essentially a collection of facts and stories that students absorb or is it about a way of thinking and understanding.  If it is essentially the latter than the textbook is probably much less important to you.  The Texas debate is essentially about controlling content, but what we need to understand is that it is impossible to control what our students learn.  The information is at their fingertips.  What we can do is function as guides through the study of the past, introduce them to the broad outline of American history and teach them how to gather and evaluate information.

The only class that I currently use a traditional textbook in is my AP course.  Our regular survey course now uses individual secondary texts that cover different periods in American history and a pilot program in American Studies that will be offered next year will be largely digital.  My electives rely almost entirely on digital sources.   As far as I am concerned traditional textbooks are on a straight path to extinction.

Finally, I have a feeling that the textbook companies enjoy this kind of controversy because it avoids some of the lingering problems such as the cost and size of these books.  I can’t tell you the pleasure I get when a publisher representative calls me at work and I get to say that we no longer use textbooks.  Textbook publishers can play a role in this digital age, but as long as we remain mired in political questions about textbook content nothing is going to change and we will continue to turn off students to the importance of the past.

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