Heritage v. History: Short Commentary

I found this passage on heritage and history over at J. L. Bell’s Boston 1775:

History—the events of the past, or the study of them—is often in conflict with our society’s need for heritage—a way of looking at or recreating the past that serves current cultural or psychological needs. Heritage might tell us that, say, our group is special or that our current customs are deeply rooted in the past. David Lowenthal’s essay Fabricating Memory” explores this distinction further:

Heritage uses historical traces and tells historical tales. But these tales and traces are stitched into fables closed to critical scrutiny. Heritage is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism—not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Heritage is not a testable or even plausible version of our past; it is a declaration of faith in that past. . . .

…heritage restricts messages to an elect group whose private property it is. History tells all who will listen what has happened and how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and endurance, endowing us alone with prestige and purpose. It benefits us by being withheld from others.

Heritage is defined, controlled, and ultimately taken on faith. History continues to flop about, to seep into corners and bubble up where it’s not wanted. Heritage often comes to us in neat stories. History just keeps coming.

That "bubbling" and "flopping" about is what happens when one asks questions.  Very nice.

Civil War Odds and Ends

Check out the programs for two upcoming conferences that will focus heavily on the Civil War, the South, and Virginia history.  The first is the Second Annual Virginia Forum which is scheduled for April 13-14 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  This conference brings together scholars who focus on all areas of Virginia history.  I took part last year and had a wonderful time.  The American Civil War Center and Virginia Historical Society will host a conference titled “In The Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Values” on March 23-24.  Participants include James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber, David L. Lewis and George Rable.

HNN includes two interviews with James McPherson and Eric Foner which were taped at the recent meeting of the AHA in Atlanta.  The session was titled “Why I became a historian.”  Finally, Chandra Manning will be interviewed today on Civil War Talk Radio followed next week by Gabor Boritt.

Finally, the latest issue of the OAH Magazine of History focuses on Abraham Lincoln.  The staff is planning a few issues devoted to Lincoln over the next two years.  If you are a high school history teacher I highly recommend subscribing to this publication.  The lesson plans are all first-rate and the articles are written by some of the leading scholars in their respective fields.

For That Special Someone

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and I am willing to bet that many of my readers have yet to think about what to do for that special person in their life.  This year how about skipping the old flowers and dinner routine and go for something that will showcase your heritage.  Let me suggest heading over to Proud Rebel: Confederate Merchandise for the perfect gift. If your love life is suffering Valentine’s Day is the perfect opportunity to reignite it. Perhaps what you and your partner need is some inspiration from your favorite Confederate hero.  These bed sheets are just what Doctor Ruth ordered.  Now you can imagine yourself in bed not just with your partner, but with Lee, Jackson, Stuart and the rest of the boys.  Sheets come in Twin, Queen, and King  sizes.  For  those of you who would like to showcase your neo-Confederate princess for all the world to see how about a bathing suit?  You can also purchase an even skimpier suit, but given that Civil War Memory is a family site I decided against showing it.  For those of you looking for a more traditional gift may I suggest a choker.   You can also purchase one with spikes.  Buy two and you can put one on your dog.  Obviously you don’t need a silly holiday to do something special for the person you care about the most.  And in the end isn’t Valentine’s Day just the result of greedy northern businesses like Hallmark?

Sitting Atop The Google Search

Today I did a Google search for "Civil War Memory" and noticed that it has climbed to the #1 position.  It was stiff competition there for awhile with the UNC Press booksite for the edited collection, The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, but with your help we finally pulled ahead. 

I know this doesn’t mean a damn thing, but I thought I might announce it just the same.

Women’s History Course: A Brief Assessment

Snow Day!!!!

I am three weeks into my women’s history course and enjoying it a great deal.  I have 11 female students, all but two are seniors.  While the course is grounded in history I am trying to mix up the readings a bit to include both gender and feminist studies.  Since this is my first time teaching the course I am learning as I go.  More importantly I am learning a great deal from my students.  Teaching on the high school level leaves you with the impression that girls as a group are more mature than boys.  This class has already given me a clearer sense of just how true this is.  High School girls are able to talk more openly about certain issues and they listen more intently to one another.  What I am most pleased about is that a good number of my students are taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and research issues that are already on their mind.  It’s as if the content of the course is teasing out ideas and thoughts that are already there.

We started the first week by reading a short introduction on the language of gender and the reasoning behind a class on women’s history.  We talked about the importance of understanding how women fit into American history and what it means that for so long they were ignored.  The class explored the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and wrote a concise overview of “the problem that has no name.”  Last week we started working with the textbook, which is well written, thorough, and organized around an excellent collection of different types of primary sources.  We started with the post-Civil War period and the split of the women’s movement into the NWSA and AWSA over the 15th Amendment as well as the entrance of women into the work force by the end of the twentieth century.  I have two black students in the class so I want to make sure to address issues that touch on the roles of black women in American history.  Luckily our textbook does an excellent job of covering issues that are specific to black women. I consider myself fairly well educated in the field of American history.  I teach the AP classes and I have a pretty solid grasp of the important secondary texts.  That said, I had no idea just how much I was missing before starting this class.  Interesting people are emerging as well as important Supreme Court Cases, and the way I understand what I already know is being enriched.  What more could I ask for?

This week we started our first project.  My class is exploring the concept of masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of images of Theodore Roosevelt.  I handed out a packet of images of Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War as well as images of him in connection with the Panama Canal and his role as Trust-Buster.  As we move through Roosevelt images that highlight the importance of the “strenuous life” or extreme masculinity the students can draw comparisons with how women are depicted in the outdoors.  I found some very interesting images of  bicycle advertisements that include women as well as images of women playing tennis and other sports.  The images attempt to strike a balance between play and maintaining accepted feminine qualities.  Students are required to write a 3-page essay based on their own interpretations of the sources.  As most of them are seniors I want to give them as much latitude as possible in developing their own thesis statements.   Next week we will jump to the suffrage movement and explore the steps that led to the 19th Amendment.  I plan to show the movie Iron Jawed Angels and have the students explore other primary sources from both well known and more obscure women who took part in the movement.  I would love to hear other suggestions for movies that would be appropriate for this class.

While I have a general outline of what I want to cover in this course specific topics along with the relevant primary and secondary readings are still up in the air.  As we into the twentieth century I hope to introduce the class to a combination of historical as well as feminist studies.  Over the summer I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth along with a wonderful collection of essays by Gloria Steinem titled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.  It includes the classic essay “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”  While I’ve enjoyed these books I am having a hell of a time making my way through Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.  She offers a scathing argument against the “infertility epidemic” said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing; Faludi concludes that this is largely a media invention.  I also want to introduce the class to essays written by women that challenge the agenda of the feminist movement.

I am already thinking about what electives I might offer next year. While I am thoroughly enjoying the focus on women’s history I will probably be expected to teach the Civil War course once again.  One possibility may be to offer a Civil War course that focuses specifically on women’s experiences; the focus would be on the antebellum, war, and postwar periods.  I’ve also been playing around with a more creative approach that involves locating a diary or set of letters from a woman/sisters who lived here in Charlottesville/central Virginia during the war years.  I would focus the class on local history and have them help me prepare the archival material for publication.  Students would have their names connected to the final publication.  I know that John M. Priest utilized this approach on the high school level some years ago.  His students contributed to the editing of a unit history authored by Sergeant William H. Reylea.  It’s an interesting idea and would make for a truly unique high school experience.  For now it is enough that I am enjoying this experience and learning a great deal.