Looks like we are once again on the ‘why don’t our teenagers know a damn thing about history’ bandwagon. Seems like it was only yesterday that we learned from a poll in England that a significant number of students concluded that Winston Churchill was a fictional character. What I find troubling is the lack of historical context as part of our evaluations of these polls. We proceed as if we have left a golden age where America’s teens soaked up historical knowledge along with the understanding that it all contributed to the maintenance of democracy and their role in it. Do teenagers today really understand less than say high schoolers in the 1950s? How about teenagers in the 1920s or 1880s? Does it even make sense to draw such comparisons? From USA Today:
Among 1,200 students surveyed:
•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.
•52% could identify the theme of 1984.
•51% knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.
In all, students earned a C in history and an F
in literature, though the survey suggests students do well on topics
schools cover. For instance, 88% knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor led
the USA into World War II, and 97% could identify Martin Luther King
Jr. as author of the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Fewer (77%) knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery a century earlier.
This is the kind of feedback one typically finds in these surveys. Rarely is there any discussion as to why these results matter. Why does an understanding of the theme of 1984 matter or the connection between McCarthy and communism? I listened to a number of interviews last night and they all followed the same script. Supposed experts discussed the poll, but not one reflected on the significance of the results beyond the standard vague references that teenagers are preoccupied with x, y, and z or that our schools have failed them or that this constitutes a threat to our democracy.
Enough with the surveys. How about focusing on the numbers of students across the country who take part in National History Day events or the number of students who are currently majoring in history in college. I don’t believe the sky is falling and I am not concerned about these surveys. Most of the adults that I know who are middle age and older are just as ignorant. Why not focus on them and leave the kids alone.
From the USA Today:
Rep. Donald Brown, a Republican from the Panhandle, introduced HB 1007 last week. It directs state officials to develop and issue tags that "contain an emblem or logo of Florida’s historic Confederate flags and facsimiles of the buttons issued to Florida Confederate units."
The $25 surcharge for these "Confederate Heritage" tags would fund educational and historical programs offered by Sons of Confederate Veterans. A spokesman for the group tells our corporate cousins at the Tallahassee Democrat that they have 30,000 people who are ready to buy the tags if they’re approved.
"We’ve done everything required of us," Bob Hurst tells the Democrat. "All we’re asking for is to be treated fairly and equally. There are 108 specialty tags now and six before the Legislature this year. I hope the governor and Legislature will play by the rules; if not, I think it speaks poorly of the Florida Legislature."
Just one question for Rep. Hurst. Do any of the other 108 specialty tags include contested images akin to the Confederate battle flag? Were any of those images carried in Florida streets as a symbol of "Massive Resistance" during the Civil Rights Movement?
What I find outrageous, however, is that the SCV supports this kind of program. After all, aren’t these the very same people who constantly refer us to the flag’s sacred qualities which they believe demand our utmost respect. And yet, they are willing to plaster the very same image on the back of a car just inches from its fuel exhaust. What a bunch of hypocrites.
Click here for an earlier post on how Confederate enthusiasts show their respect for the flag.
A relatively new reader who is currently a college undergraduate recently asked for my advice regarding graduate programs in Civil War/Southern History. I blogged about this before and in addition to my own suggestions a number of readers offered their own recommendations. I was struck by one particular section of the email and want to share it since there may be others out there who are dealing with this important question:
I e-mailed my university’s resident 19th Century American/Southern history professor – a young guy, not fresh out of his PHD research but not a grizzled vet quite – asking about advice and recommendations of schools. The gist of the e-mail I got back was: Consider not going at all, the field is unfashionable, the jobs market is terrible, avoid American Studies like the plague specifically, good teachers are not rewarded, and to reiterate, STRONGLY consider not going.
Since I am not working at the college level there isn’t much that I can offer as a response. There is information on the job market and recent trends that the American Historical Association tracks which may be available on their website. I have friends and acquaintances in the field of Civil War/Southern History – many of them graduates of the University of Virginia’s program – that have done quite well in securing positions.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I have any intention of moving on to the Ph.D and a college teaching position. The question is usually asked with an air of curiosity as to why I have not already done so as if I have not quite completed the journey. While I would love to have the time to write a dissertation under the direction of one of the many talented scholars currently working in the field I have very little interest in teaching on the college level. In fact, I am willing to wager that if I did go on the market I would take both a serious pay cut as well as have to teach students that are not as skilled as my current crop.
For any of you who are considering a career in education please consider teaching high school. We desperately need good teachers.
One of my readers passed on an interesting story that fits perfectly into my series of posts on so-called black Confederates. Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia is scheduled to declare March 5 to be “Bill Yopp Day”; the ceremony will include descendants of Yopp as well as state legislators and a number of “notable historians.” Unfortunately, there is no indication as to which historians have been included. For what it is worth the author of an upcoming work of historical fiction based on Yopp’s life has been invited. I’ve never heard of Yopp so I find this story and especially the plans to commemorate what many take to be a legitimate black Confederate to be quite interesting. The event is being advertised as part of the month-long commemoration of Confederate history. Who was Bill Yopp and why is he being commemorated? The only information I could find online comes from various Southern Heritage sites, which tend to repeat the same themes and include very little in the form of serious research. Check out the following sites:
Apparently, there are a number of newspaper articles from the turn of the century which indicate that Yopps “served” as a drummer in a regiment with his master and helped to secure Confederate pensions for the state’s veterans at the turn of the century. Yopp is apparently the only black man in the state buried in a Confederate cemetery.
What I find interesting is the decision to commemorate Yopp’s life during March rather than February which is Black History Month. The timing suggests that Yopp’s significance is to be understood in terms of how white Georgians have chosen to remember his life. Is it possible that it would have been more difficult to celebrate the Confederate connection of a black American during the month of February? It seems to me that if black and white southerners are committed to demonstrating the loyalty of large numbers of slaves to the Confederacy than they should be comfortable acknowledging this as part of Black History Month.
Beyond the newspaper articles that are available does anyone know if Yopp’s life has been analyzed by a legitimate historian? I suspect that the answer is no, but will wait to hear otherwise. If I am right I would suggest that someone take up this topic. It would make for a great case study of Civil War memory and may shed light on the postwar construction of black Confederates. Perhaps I will do it myself.
Short Additional Thought
One of the striking features of the numerous websites where you will find examples of so-called black Confederates is how little information is actually included concerning their individual lives. The value that is placed on the lives of these men is purely instrumental in terms of the extent to which they support an agenda whose goal it is to remove any discussion of race and slavery from the analysis of the history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. Their lives are reduced to their supposed “service” and “loyalty” to the Confederate cause and their masters. No attempt is made to come to terms with their lives as individuals as rooted in their own local experiences. Their presence in the army is taken for granted rather than as something that needs to be explained. In short, these men are stripped of their humanity and agency because the individuals who write about them have no use for the totality of their experiences.
A short survey of SCV websites and other organizations read as if their content were “xeroxed” (or cut and pasted) from one site to another. This stands in sharp contrast to the recent historiography of slavery which is deeply rooted in both time and place and in working to highlight the individual experiences of slaves to the extent that the available evidence permits.