Confessions of an AP History Dropout

Leave it to a high school junior to sum up my own feelings about the AP American history curriculum:

The overriding goal is to crack the AP test. That means taking a lot of practice tests — week after week, filling in those bubbles in class. It means researching past AP exams to predict what will be on the test. It means answering model AP essay questions for homework. It means brute memorization. My classmates ask: Will there be more questions on the American Revolution or World War I? What do we really have to know about mercantilism? Their unspoken question is: If I blow the AP test, can I still get into a good college?

In class, we cannot stray from the AP regimen. A few weeks ago, we were rushing through the 1960s with lightning speed. The Vietnam War is a fog. Somehow the New Frontier turned into the Great Society, which I always confuse with the New Freedom, the New Nationalism and the New Federalism. And what does CORE stand for?

Today is my last day with my AP students before tomorrow’s test.  I hope they do well on it, but I have to admit to feeling ambivalent about the "big day."  The level of tension among many of my students has gradually increased over the past few weeks and it has become much more difficult to engage in serious dialog.  They’ve entered the "just the facts please" mode which leaves little room for the bigger questions and debates.  What I dread most of all is that my students will evaluate their progress in this course based on their AP score which usually arrives in July.  I also get to see the grades, but to be completely honest I don’t place much stock in them.  The final grade that I give each student is based on a much richer body of information that the AP Test cannot measure.  I don’t feel much excitement about having come to the end of the year; what I find myself contemplating is whether all the work put into the year has been nothing more than preparation for a standardized test created by people who have no idea what went on in my class. 

On a more personal level, I thoroughly dislike the way the course ends.  Most of my students are taking other AP courses, which means that during the week of exams I never have a full class.  There is little opportunity to bring the class to a close with final thoughts or to introduce some kind of lesson that allows my students to think about the year as a whole.  Unlike other schools we do not meet as a class after the AP Test.  I think this is unfortunate as I have grown quite attached to my students.

I recently completed work on a committee here at school set up to evaluate our AP program.  We had some very interesting discussions and our final report will hopefully lead to some changes.  I look forward to the day when I can add my name to the growing list of AP dropouts.

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What Would An Obama Presidency Mean To Civil War Memory?

This post originally ran in April 2007.  Given last night’s primary results in Indiana and North Carolina I thought it might be an opportune moment to share it once again.

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

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Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

My students and I are thoroughly enjoying our study of the civil rights movement.  We are reading an excellent book by Harvard Sitkoff and my choice of additional primary and secondary sources has hopefully added to the complexity of their understanding.  I do my best to get beyond the high-profile figures that dominate our memory of the movement.  We spend time analyzing the make-up and structure of organizations such as SNCC, CORE, as well as the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam.  I also challenge some of our gender assumptions regarding the leadership of these organizations.  My ultimate goal is to give my students the necessary background to better understand the frustrations and challenges that black Americans faced in Jim Crow America as well as the reasons why various individuals and groups approached the challenges differently.  Today we discussed an interesting article by Claiborne Carson on the difficulties that King faced in balancing his support of non-violence and the more aggressive strategies of SNCC and CORE.

In doing so I introduce my classes to individuals who typically fall through the cracks, but without whom the movement would have stagnated.  Many of these individuals fall into the age range of my own students.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my students complain about some public issue, but are unable to imagine a way to stand up for their position or challenge a perceived injustice simply because they cannot vote.  It is difficult for students to maintain this outlook after I’ve shown them photographs of high school- and college – age kids who  integrated southern schools.  While most of us are no doubt aware of the “Little Rock Nine” (pictured above) it is important to share with students that across the country young black kids were putting it all on the line by integrating the schools.  I give the class some background to understand these images, but my goal is to give them an opportunity to identify with their fellow students across time.  I sometimes ask if they can imagine going to school under these conditions or whether they could muster the necessary courage to do so.  Consider the image to the right of the desegregation of a school in Chilton, Tennessee in 1956.  Can you conceive of a more uninviting scene on the steps of a school?  By far my favorite image is of Geraldine Counts who attended Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina.  When this image was taken she was 15 yrs old (younger than the students in my classes).  I can’t help but be impressed by her dignity and her courage in the face of such hatred and aggression.

At times the reaction of my students is one of shame rather than some kind of positive identification with the black youths pictured here.  Unfortunately, that reaction sometimes translates into a broader sense of shame in response to the many examples of “massive resistance” at both the level of the state and federal government and in communities across the country.  This is even after I’ve explained and shown numerous images of both white and black Americans working together to bring about change in both the Freedom Rides and Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. I do my best to discuss some of these uncomfortable feelings, though I admit it is difficult.   It is telling that a certain number are unable to easily identify with the black youths in these images.  After all, both the white and black students in these images are roughly the same age as the students in my class.

Most Americans have little difficulty celebrating the steps that the colonists took in the 1770s in dealing with a British government that was perceived to have overstepped its authority, so why shouldn’t we admire black Americans in the 1950s and 60s for doing the very same thing?  I think it’s because we still think of American history as the history of white America and the measurement of how well the country is doing morally is necessarily understood along racial lines.  When we look at the images above our tendency is to see Americans at their worst.  However, if we take that more inclusive perspective the photographs show Americans at their best and standing up in the face of oppression and discrimination – the very values that many of us hold dear.  This may seem like a subtle point, but it is important in terms of how inclusive we choose to be and how we interpret what we include in our history.

Finally, another brave American died today.  In 1958 Mildred wed Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white construction worker.  They drove 90 miles from central Virginia to be married in Washington D.C. and on their return were arrested for unlawful cohabitation.  In 1967 the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, overturned state codes banning interracial marriage.  Let’s hope that in the future additional laws banning couples from marriage are seen as equally absurd and are stricken from the legal codes.

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What Glatthaar Was Probably Not Looking At

In his somewhat obscure review of Joseph Glatthaar new book, Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, Dimitri Rotov suggests the following:

Perhaps he was looking at the succession of volumes of Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac thinking, “Why not the ANV?”

Let me suggest that Glatthaar did not have any of Beatie’s books in mind during the writing of this study, which predates Beatie’s own work. I’ve actually finished reading Glatthaar’s book, though from Dimitri’s commentary it is difficult to know whether he has read it other than the sections that have to do with the Antietam Campaign.  Glatthaar’s book is a tightly argued overview of the history of the Army of Northern Virginia.  While I do not believe that every chapter represents a new interpretive step Glatthaar does an excellent job of synthesizing much of what has been published about Lee, the ANV and the Confederate home front over the past two decades.  [Previous posts on the book can be found here and here.]The book has absolutely nothing in common with Beatie’s work and we should be thankful for that.  I tried reading through the first of his three volumes and found so many interpretive and factual mistakes that it was impossible to continue.  I wish I had read John Hennessy’s review of volume 1 in America’s Civil War before setting out.  The reconstruction of dialog and almost unquestionable use of postwar material was just too much for me.  Perhaps successive volumes are better organized and better judgment was employed in terms of what to include and what to leave out.  I just don’t see how the piling on of information without any coherent analytical/interpretive threads is helpful to the reader. 

What I can say is that Glatthaar’s book is well organized and a useful tool to understanding the ANV’s structure from the top-down and its evolution through the war.   

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No Confederate Plates in Florida

Actually, the situation is much worse:

Finally, before they hit the road, lawmakers passed only two
transportation proposals. The first will outlaw motorcyclists from
popping wheelies and increases penalties for all motorists caught
driving more than 50 miles per hour above the speed limit. The second
bans the introduction of new specialty license plates which nixes
proposals for a new Christian "I Believe" specialty license plate and a
"Confederate Heritage" specialty license plate
.

Ballnchain
So, in addition to not being able to express their Confederate heritage Floridians are also being barred from expressing their Christian faith.  It’s not all bad news however.  A bill allowing the police to ticket vehicles with replica bull testicles hanging from the rear did not make it through. 

Nice to know some things are still sacred in this country.

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