Representative Tommy Benton of Georgia Lectures on Black Confederates

This video is from the Georgia state assembly on April 20, 2007.  I assume that it is part of the overall discussion concerning a state proclamation that would acknowledge and apologize for the state’s role in slavery.  Rep. Benton estimates that 65,000 blacks fought for the Confederacy.  He compares their service with the large numbers of blacks who fought with the colonies against Britain during the Revolution.  At one point he makes the claim that blacks would never have thought about joining ranks with the British.  I guess he never heard of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation.  Anyway, enjoy the silliness.


Do Historians Need Philosophy?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent and Progressive Historians]

Rachel, over at A Historian’s Craft, blogged recently about some concerns surrounding the nature of language and the problem of reference.   She worries specifically about the ramifications for her ongoing research project of not being able to break down simple concepts into necessary and sufficient conditions:

I mean to say, I am wary about nouns & their ability to coherently refer to things. Example: when we call something a cup, we do not refer to the space inside the handle of the cup as part of the cup, nor even the shadow cast by the cup, even though there’s no real reason not to. The word ‘cup’ also reifies the concept of a cup: one might, for example, call a box a cup if it were small enough. The idea of a noun is pure convention, or convenience.

While I have absolutely no problem with asking such questions I wonder whether concerns about abstract philosophical topics such as objectivity, causality, and language should matter to the historian working historian.  Rachel raises an issue that has attracted the attention of philosophers and linguists going back to before the Greeks.  In the modern era this questions begins with Frege and winds its way through Quine and Kripke; the question now sits at the intersection of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience or what is called cognitive science.  Whether we can reduce our concepts to simple definitions that are self-contained or whether they are in fact conventions along the lines of what Wittgenstein argued will no doubt continue.  Such concerns about language and reality have seeped into classes in historiography over the past few decades; graduate students in history are now talking about metahistory and the latest in postmodern theory as if the ability to do history somehow hinges on being able to provide answers to these abstract issues.  Does our language "mirror" a historical past?  Can we even makes sense of a historical past?  What does it mean to know something about the past?  Such questions are incredibly seductive and are no doubt important.  Unfortunately, when historians do it they usually fail.  And they fail because in the end historians are rarely qualified to address the issues and are unable to show why answers to such questions ought to matter to working historians. 

Consider Joyce Appleby’s, Lynn Hunt’s and Margaret Jacob’s Telling the Truth About History (1995) which essentially called on historians to address the philosophical foundations of their discipline.  The authors are all notable historians in their own right, and there is something admirable in wanting to tackle the kind of relativism that has eaten away at the social sciences in recent years by arguing for the possibility of a meaningful notion of historical objectivity and explanation.  The book provides a solid overview of the rise of so-called scientific history and more recent challenges to the epistemology of historical studies.  The problem these authors face (and it is a problem that any historian wishing to tackle these issues must deal with) is that to understand the outlines of the intellectual landscape of objectivity and epistemology requires abandoning historical studies.  In looking for a philosophical underpinning for historical studies the authors argue for what is called "practical realism" which was introduced and defended by Hilary Putnam.  The authors are no doubt on strong philosophical ground, but they are hardly out of the woods given that Putnam’s theory is one among many.  Putnam’s realism does allow the authors to make philosophical sense of historical studies as stating claims about a past, but that is a far cry from justifying the theory. 

This is wonderful example of doing philosophy of history from the top-down or conceptually.  At no point do the authors inquire as to how Putnam’s theory actually connects to the learning of and critical evaluation of historical studies.  This top-down approach is not new.  The positivist philosophers of science between the 1920s and 1940s criticized historians for their employment of the concept of causation.  The positivists described historical narratives that included references to causation as "pseudo-explanations" since their understanding of the concept did not conform to the deductive-nomological or general law model.   Rachel mentioned R.G. Collingwood in one of her comments and he is no doubt worth reading, but not as someone who has his feet in the muddy world of the historian. Collingwood is best known for his claim that historical knowledge is the result of a mental process which involves rethinking the thoughts of the historical actor.  It is worth noting that Collingwood was responding to criticisims of history fro the positivist camp.  Interestingly, at no point does Collingwood or the positivists seriously inquire into how historians actually go about doing history.  I fear that much of what is coming out of Critical or Postmodern Theory and that is passing for serious philosophy of history has the same fundamental flaw.

Most historians are not interested in philosophical speculation and that’s probably a good thing.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think critically about our discipline.  In fact, it is absolutely essential that we do so.  However, we should do it with our feet on the ground.  We need to ask questions that connect directly to the process of writing good history.  What is so interesting is that while Rachel begins her post with an abstract question of how or whether our concepts describe objects in the world by the end she comes back down to Earth and asks a very reasonable questions about her ongoing research project:

[A]nyway, my thesis argument essentially takes the problem of the mui tsai as one of definition & redefinition — it was the colonial administration’s practice of bureaucratic categorization juxtaposed against the uncertain fluidity of the term mui tsai that made its abolition so intractable, and the whole process of abolition was one of legislative redefinition — this was a conclusion I arrived at through assiduous archival beavering. but I wonder how much it was a foregone conclusion given the inbuilt premises from which I operate. How much do my personal biases shape the way I look at the archive?

I wonder whether Rachel’s descriptive claim was a "foregone conclusion" based on her philosophical questions.  After all, it is possible to just as easily gravitate towards a theory of language that makes sense of the way in which concepts reflect or represent the world.  It’s her final question that is the real gem.  Rather than asking whether objectivity is possible at all Rachel asks a descriptive question of how bias in fact shapes interpretation.  To answer this question we need to examine actual historical studies. 

What I find so interesting about Rachel’s post is the way it straddles both the abstract and empirical terrain of philosophy of history.  My own personal preference, however, would be to start with the empirical question of bias and see where it goes. A related question to ask is whether we can make sense of the notion of progress in historical studies.  If we were to look closely at a long-standing historigraphical debate could we discern patterns of progress?  Do we understand certain subjects better over time?  What does it even mean in historical studies to understand better?  Answering such questions does not stand or fall with the latest in philosophical theory.  What it does require is a close examination of actual historical studies.  And who better to explore these important questions than historians themselves? 


Politics, Race, and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

LSU Press was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of Robert Cook’s new book, Troubled Commemoration: The Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965.  This is the first book-length study of the Centennial and it provides an important framework for which to think about the upcoming Sesquicentennial which begins in 2011.  The book situates the Centennial within the politics and culture of the Cold War and explores the challenges that the Civil Rights Movement posed for organizers and participants who wished to celebrate a history that was constructed out of consensus building rather than an attempt to deal with the more divisive issues of race and class.  The narrative of the Centennial had changed little since the turn of the twentieth century; it highlighted shared values between North and South, white supremacy, and ignored or downplayed the more divisive issues of race and emancipation.

While I’ve read a number of Cook’s articles on the Centennial I am only about 20 pages into the book.  I did come across, however, a short section on the role that grassroots organizations such as Civil War Roundtables played in pushing the federal government to form a national Centennial commission.  Given the political and racial profile of members along with the profile of legislatures on the state and national levels throughout the country it is difficult to ignore the symbiotic relationship between the two.  The vision of grassroots organizations mirrored the interests of government.  More on this in a minute.

The first Civil War Roundtable was formed in Chicago in 1940.  Notable members included Avery O. Craven, Carl Sandburg, Douglass Southall Freeman, and Frank E. Vandiver.  Meetings were held monthly and attracted people from all over the country.  By 1958 there were roughly 40 groups, most of them in the South and Midwest.  The rank-and-file, according to Cook, “were predominantly urban and proved especially attractive to white male professionals, many of whom had served recently in the U.S. armed forces.” (p. 18)  The increase in Roundtables reflected a growing interest in the Civil War.  The North-South Skirmish Association was formed in 1950 and five years later Ralph Newman started the Civil War Book Club.  Within one year the club had grown to 2,142 members.  The formation of the Civil War Centennial Association in 1953 grew directly out of this increased fervor for the past.

Given the cultural and political demands of the Cold War along with the racial profile of these organizations and the “face of government” in the 1950s it is not difficult to anticipate the overall themes that would be highlighted by the start of Centennial in 1961.  In short, the discussions about what and how to remember the Civil War would be relatively easy between both private and civil organizations.  Indeed, members of federal, state, and more local Centennial Commissions would be recruited from some of the more active Roundtables.  Such a relationship worked well as politicians could use the Centennial as another weapon in the propaganda war against the Soviets and Americans more generally could remember a war of battlefield heroics and reconciliation.

Jump ahead fifty years and we see a very different dynamic between grassroots Civil War organizations and government.  Government on all levels more closely reflects a broader racial and cultural constituency while popular interest in the Civil War is still mainly confined to white Americans.  There is bound to be tension as the profiles of both sectors of society work to shape competing visions of remembrance.  The crucial component in all of this is whether various interest groups will be willing to engage in serious dialog.  Given the recent trend of slavery apologies that has recently attracted the attention of state legislatures in Alabama and Tennessee and the ensuing debates such a dialog is unlikely.  We are going to need to get beyond the overly emotional language of revisionism and racism in order to fashion something that reflects a narrative that is honest to the past and which proves attractive to large numbers of Americans from various backgrounds.  Many states have already formed Sesquicentennial Commission and have taken the initiative to staff them with individuals with a wide range of backgrounds.  Whether they can convince the politicians to support specific programs, especially given the overly sensitive way in which all things Confederate are treated will be interesting to watch.

Robert E. Lee’s bicentennial is a case in point.  While Virginia and other states have issued formal proclamations recognizing Lee’s 200th birthday as far as I can tell there has been little in terms of formal programs that require taxpayer dollars.  [Back in January there was even protest over taxpayer dollars being used to refurbish the Lee stature on Monument Avenue in Richmond.]  Overall, it has been a fairly quiet birthday bash thus far with most of the programming being handled by universities with a direct connection such as Washington and Lee or the SCV.  In addition, there has been only one serious study of Lee published thus far this year with nothing on the burner.

Positive signs can already be seen within the National Park Service, which is of course a government agency.  The way in which individual battlefield parks gear up for the Sesquicentennial will no doubt be determined by the competence and commitment of those on the ground rather than based on any directives from the top-down – at least that’s what John Hennessy’s comments in his recent Civil War Talk Radio interview suggest. As an educator my primary concern and hope is that we use the Sesquicentennial as a teaching opportunity.  Organizations – both public and private – from around the historical landscape should use the Sesquicentennial as an opportunity to raise much-needed funds, but I will be looking for programs that utilize the best of historical scholarship.  There need be no inherent conflict between these two goals.

Before worrying about anything along these lines I think it is safe to assume that we will not see the same level of interest as the country observed at the beginning of the Centennnial before the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam took center stage.  I don’t know how I feel about that since we are now one generation further removed from the war.  My wife pointed out to me the other day that plenty of people in the mid-1950s could still claim a personal connection to the Civil War through direct acquaintance.  The generation that attended Roundtables and bought books about the Civil War grew up listening to stories from the veterans themselves.  A lack of participation this time around may tell us little about our interest in the Civil War or American history more generally.  We may simply be preoccupied with other legitimate interests.

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“Southern History” by Natasha Trethewey

This morning I picked up Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of poems titled Native Guard Poems.  It’s a very short book, but there is a great deal to ponder.  Here is a poem that touches on one of this blog’s central themes:

Southern History

Before the war, they were happy, he said.
quoting our textbook.  (This was senior-year

history class.)  The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care

I watched the words blur on the page.  No one
raised a hand, disagreed.  Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and — luckily —

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
, the teacher said, of the old South

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof — a lie
my teacher guarded.  Silent, so did I.

Here is an old post titled Creating Neo-Confederates which analyzes the influences of the Lost Cause on textbooks at the turn of the twentieth century.


Authorization From College Board: Follow-Up

A few weeks back I mentioned that the College Board is asking all Advanced Placement teachers to submit curricular materials for authorization.  This authorization will allow the school in question to continue to describe their classes as AP.  I do understand the College Board’s concern that classes described as AP meet some minimal standards, but they have gone much too far in issuing a blanket call for all teachers to submit materials.  It would have been just as easy to ask for compliance from schools with questionable scores over a period of time. 

Last week I took the time to figure out what needed to be sent in, but after an hour of going through the guidelines I decided to call College Board and take my frustrations out on one of their employees.  After waiting about 20 minutes I finally got a live one on the other end and proceeded to ask for a justification behind this move.  The woman was responsive to my questions, but she could not answer why the requests for materials was not confined to select groups.  And the reason she couldn’t answer had to do with the fact that she is not an employee of College Board.  It turns out they’ve hired out the entire program to another agency.  I guess it’s not a big deal, but I thought I was interrogating a College Board employee. 

The woman did mention that the June 1 deadline would not be strictly enforced, but I made it crystal clear that I would not take one second out of my summer break to work on this.  Following the phone call I spent roughly 30 minutes putting together materials that I thought they would find interesting and uploaded it to their site.  I wasn’t clear on exactly what materials were needed because I failed to take sufficient time to read through the exact requirements.  I expected to have my application rejected.  Keep in mind that this was last week.  Yesterday I received an email authorizing my AP class:

The College Board is pleased to announce that your United States History course is authorized to use the "AP®" designation for the 2007-08 academic year. The College Board applauds and recognizes your efforts to provide your students with the academic rigor and college-level experience that is the promise of AP. I thank you for the time and effort you put into participating in the AP Course Audit.

Apparently, my application was sent out for a thorough review that somehow managed to be completed in less than a week.  Perhaps certain schools were pushed through with few questions asked.  Of course, I can’t tell if my situation is an exception to the rule for qualified teachers, but it looks like this whole thing is more bark than bite.  On the other hand I heard today from my math colleagues that the process is indeed more rigorous. 

Luckily for me that’s the end of it.