The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many. Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line. They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced. As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once. Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.
Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.
They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.
Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes. During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas. England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes. England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices. In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun. Homespun was rough and not very fashionable. Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them. But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause. Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.
Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher. In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand. It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton. To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster. The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day. With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”
It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website. On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history. After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness. Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.
we should behave like one. By now most of you are aware that the new administration has lifted the ban on photographing the coffins of the Iraq war dead. I agree with the general outline of the policy and never understood the Bush Administration’s position. It seemed to me to fall in line with everything else they did to hide the realities of war from the general public, from the president telling us to express our patriotism by going shopping to their failure to include the financial cost of war in their budgets. One of the things that gives the Civil War its lasting significance is the memory of its dead. It prevents many of us from looking away and it is the photographs that constitute that visceral connection. The same can be said for other wars such as WWII and Vietnam. I fear that in future years we will look past the sacrifices of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead because those connections were not allowed to properly develop in a free society.
In today’s New York Times Opinion Page, Maira Kalman brings her artistic gifts [love her New Yorker covers] to bear on her relationship with Abraham Lincoln. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I love the way Kalman balances what appears to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of Lincoln’s life and legacy with the innocence of the illustrations and child-like penmanship. At one point Kalman imagines bringing Lincoln into “my world,” which includes meeting Frida Kahlo, viewing an exhibit of Fred Sandback’s sculptures, and a baked potato. What do you think?
This has been an extremely busy week for me. We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week. Luckily, the following week is spring break. My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past. I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues. One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.
On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week. Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history. This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous. In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops. First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing. It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history. Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels. That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject. It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.
In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject. They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor. One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me. I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence. They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell. One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school. I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question. He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile. The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached. Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.
Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers. I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students. The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year. We don’t live in a society that values its teachers. If we did a great deal would be different.
I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education. The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.