The latest issue of North and South has a hilarious little story about Jim Limber and the Davis family written by Chuck Lyons. Check out some of these references
“Jim was soon treated as a part of the Davis family, a precious part.”
“Joe’ s death led the Davises’ to cling strongly to little Jim.”
Wonderful stuff Chuck – whoever you are.
All good history teachers work to bring the past alive for their students. Yes, it wreaks of cliche, but there is a grain of truth in the attempt to broaden our students’ perspective, to help them to see themselves as part of a broader narrative. In working toward this end we introduce students to a wide range of experiences from traditional primary sources to the sights and smells of the past. Some of the most meaningful lessons are those that provide an opportunity for students to make a personal connection with the past and that connection is often couched in emotion. This is not easy to do, and I don’t mind admitting that I tend to steer clear of these types of lessons, not because of any skepticism regarding the value of emotional identification, but owing to its potential to become a distraction from the historical reference itself. At the same time I believe that the history classroom can be an ideal setting in which students can exercise their other-regarding emotions such as empathy and sympathy. Again, my concern is that it be done carefully and with an understanding that up to a certain age students are self-centered and self-conscious.
With this in mind consider the lesson plan of Haverstraw Middle School teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who, in an attempt to teach the horrors of the slave trade chose to bind the hands and feet of her students and have them crouch under their desks. Her goal was to impress upon them the cramped quarters of a slave ship. As you can imagine some of the parents were very upset with the teacher’s decision after their children came home visibly upset. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information to gauge how the teacher used this simulation in class. How did she hope to translate the emotion of the simulation where hands and feet are tied and turn it into a history lesson? What questions were the children being asked to consider?
Now I don’t teach middle school-aged kids, but it seems to me that given their emotional maturity it is going to be difficult for the teacher to redirect that emotion from self to other. In other words, how is it possible to get the student to look beyond his/her own feelings and anxiety to consider something historical or remote? Perhaps it is possible as in the famous case of the teacher who, in an attempt to demonstrate the hideousness of racism, divided her class to give the students a sense of what it is like to be discriminated against. However, even if the psychological leap is possible in such a situation, does this simulation have anything at all to do with the life of a slave? Does this in any way assist children in recreating in their minds the reality of the “Middle Passage”?
The teacher in question has apologized for causing any problems with her students, but refuses to apologize for using the simulation in class. I’m just waiting for the next story where the teacher asks her Jewish students to simulate “Sophie’s Choice” upon entering a mock Concentration Camp.
Tonight my wife and I will be driving to Fredericksburg for a “Gala Reception” in celebration of the grand opening of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. The museum opens tomorrow and includes a a schedule of talks and other activities throughout the day. Our good friend Sara Poore, who is the director of education for the museum, has been working tirelessly over the past year to get the program up and running as well as the exhibits. We are looking forward to helping her and the rest of the staff celebrate this joyous occasion. The weather should be nice this weekend so if you live in the Fredericksburg area make sure you pay the museum a visit.
Click here for a news item in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.
Note: Next week I will be back in Fredericksburg to deliver the keynote address for the NPS’s commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.
This year I was asked to serve as a judge for the 2008 Peter Seaborg Award, which is given yearly by The George Tyler Moore Center For the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University. You can assume, based on the other finalists for the award, that the committee’s decision was not easy. It goes without saying that all of these books are must reads for the serious student of the Civil War. Congratulations to Professor Morgan and the other finalists. From the official announcement:
Dr. Jo-Ann Morgan, Associate Professor at Western Illinois University, received the award for her book entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture. Published by University of Missouri Press, Morgan’s work reveals how prints and paintings of Uncle Tom and other characters in the novel shaped public perceptions and how this visual culture offered the country a means of both representing and reinventing its slave past. Morgan is currently working on a journal article, “Topsy and Eva: Race, Place, and the Bipolarity of Black and White in Images of Children,” as part of a larger book project on the representation of African American women in the 19th century.
Other finalists for the Peter Seaborg Award were: Beleaguered Winchester: A Virginia Community at War 1861-1865 written by Richard R. Duncan and published by Louisiana State University Press; Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility written by Jason Philips and published by University of Georgia Press; The Road to Disunion: Volume II, Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 written by William H. Freehling and published by Oxford University Press; and Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign written by Scott C. Patchan and published by University of Nebraska Press.
One of my readers has informed me that the Virginia Military Institute’s entire Corps of cadets will march in Barack Obama’s inaugural parade. Why is this significant? The Corps, along with Thomas J. Jackson were present at the execution of John Brown in 1859. Most notably, the Corps took part in the Battle of New Market in 1864, in a war whose purpose was the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy. Even as other military schools transitioned to admitting African Americans into their programs, VMI remained steadfast in refusing to do so until 1968. Perhaps it’s just another sign of how far we’ve come as a nation.