The Role Of The History Documentary In The Classroom

One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction.  I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:

Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."

I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink.  They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about.  There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction.  Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home. 

If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long.  Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach.  I try to break up my classes into segments.  The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion.  If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan.  For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union.  The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study. 

I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students.  If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions.  The other issue is preparation.  What will the students have read to prepare them for this video?  This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember. 

As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video.  Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues.   I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level.  Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.


Thirteenth Amendment

Why is it that as a nation we don’t do more to remember that on this day in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed?  We remember every little trivial fact about the most obscure battles and yet we pay no attention to the most significant result of our Civil War.  I managed to find a short reference to it in a South African news source.

What a sad commentary.

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Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

Today my AP classes started Reconstruction.  I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends.  On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents.  We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners.  The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past.  Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.

Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom.  For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States.  I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate.  Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation.  Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.

The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or  the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans.  As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South.  Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850’s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation.  All of this comes out in Nast’s later work.  Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state.  Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?

Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used.  Let me know what you do.


Fred Barnes Reviews Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads

Executive editor of the Weekly Standard Fred Barnes recently reviewed Jennifer Weber’s new book Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  He provides a very thorough overview of the history of the Copperheads and Weber’s argument.  As I was reading I was waiting for the analogies with Democratic opposition to the war in Iraq.  Barnes doesn’t disappoint as he makes the standard argument at the very end of his review.

Weber draws no analogy with Democrats today. She sticks to history. But I think the analogy is inescapable–not that Democrats are unpatriotic or treasonous. But like the Copperheads, antiwar Democrats have grown in numbers as victory in the war–in Iraq now–has faded from sight. They’ve weakened the president’s tools in combating terrorists and made that effort more difficult. And Democrats today have offered no real alternative, merely a seemingly irresistible impulse to retreat from Iraq.

Something similar was true with the Copperheads. "They never offered a coherent alternative to Lincoln’s plan–war–nor did they ever acknowledge the Confederates’ own resolve to gain independence," writes Weber. On that last point–the South’s rejoining the Union–talks with the South would have been worthless since Southern leaders were insistent on secession. So, too, I suspect, would be one-on-one talks (favored by Demo crats) with America’s enemies now, such as North Korea and Iran.

I have one quibble with Weber’s otherwise wonderful book. She labels the Copperheads "conservatives." But were they? They were soft on slavery. They were not patriotic. They fomented violent protests. They interpreted the Constitution in a way that would have crippled a wartime president. They hated the war more than they loved the Union.

Does that qualify them as conservative? I think not.

First, I have little patience with comparing Democrats with those who opposed Lincoln’s policies.  There is political opposition in every war and in a democracy it is absolutely necessary.  Barnes’s comments raises the question of under what conditions is opposition justified during wartime.  Was Lincoln’s own strong opposition ("Spot Resolutions") to American aggression against Mexico justified?  It seems to me that there has actually been very little "opposition" to the war among Democrats; there has been, however, a great deal of questions surrounding the president’s rationale for the war and especially the handling of the situation on the ground in Iraq.  If Barnes is being critical of Democrats he is certainly mild in tone, which I suspect has much to do with the fact that he acknowledges that the opposition to the war is justified.  As to the criticism that the Democrats have not offered a viable alternative to the president’s "policy", all I can say is that perhaps there is no alternative.  The incoming secretary of defense and Colin Powell have recently alluded to that possibility. 


Will The Real Abraham Lincoln Please Stand Up

Internet access to the nation’s census reports is just another way in which the lives of researchers are being made easier.  A fellow historian recently shared the results of a search in the 1870 census for children born after 1860 who were named after prominent political and military leaders from the Civil War.  In 1870 there were 82 boys given the name Abraham Lincoln and 84 boys given the name Jefferson Davis.  While the numbers are close the children tend to live in the region in which the name was associated.  There were just under 100 boys named Ulysses S. Grant, which reflects his popularity after the war.  Grant’s postwar popularity and eventual decline is the subject of Joan Waugh’s latest manuscript which should be published some time in 2007.  There were roughly 108 Robert E. Lee’s by 1870.  I was surprised to learn that 25 were named after Phil Sheridan and another 21 after Wade Hampton.  One boy was named after Ben Butler and please don’t comment that his nickname was "spoons."  Finally seven boys were named after George McClellan.  From what I hear they were all very good baseball players, but never willing to steal a base.


The Fundamentalists’ Civil War

I was browsing through the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine when I came across Jeff Sharlett’s essay, "Through A Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History" (December 2006).  Sharlett includes a brief reference to Stonewall Jackson’s place in fundamentalist history:

In the pantheon of fundamentalist history, the man revered above all others
is General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant
military commander in American history and certainly the most pious. “United
States History for Christian Schools”  devotes more space to Jackson, "Soldier
of the Cross," and the revivals he led among his troops in the midst of the
Civil War, than to either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant; “Practical
Homeschooling” magazine offers instructions for making Stonewall costumes out of
gray sweatsuits with schooling "fun day." The Vision Forum catalogue offers for
men a military biography and for the ladies a collection of Jackson’s letters to
his wife; both books extol his strategic and romantic achievements as
corollaries to his unparalleled love of God.

Fundamentalists even celebrate the Confederate hero as an early civil rights
visionary, dedicated to teaching slaves to read so that they could learn their
Bible lessons. For fundamentalist admirers, that is enough; this fall saw the
publication of “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend,” by Richard G.
Williams, a regular contributor to the conservative Washington Times. Jackson
fought not to defend slavery, argues another biographer, but for religious
freedom; he believed the North had usurped the moral jurisdiction of God. "The
North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures,” writes James I.
Robertson Jr. "Such activity flew in the face of God’s preordained notion of
what America should be."

Jackson’s popularity with fundamentalists represents the triumph of the
Christian history that Rousas John Rushdoony dreamed of when he discovered,
during the early 1960s, the forgotten works of the theologian Robert Lewis
Dabney. including “Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson
(Stonewall Jackson).  Dabney had served under Jackson, but more important he was
a theologian in the tradition of John Calvin – that is, he believed deeply in a
God who worked through chosen individuals – and he wrote the general’s life in
biblical terms. Rushdoony imagined the story as transcending its Confederate
origins, and so helped make it a founding text of the nascent homeschooling

In 2003, Vision Forum sponsored a national essay contest and awarded first
prize to a pretty,  freckle-faced young woman named Amanda Freeborn for her
essay, "How Stonewall Jack- son Demonstrated a Biblical Vision of Manhood."
"There is a name," writes Freeborn, “that casts upon the screen of our
imaginations the image of the personification of godly manhood.  That name is
Stonewall Jackson… His life was a testimony to the world of what God can do
through a man consecrated to his purposes…

…Civil War buffs study his military maneuvers and wonder whether, had he
not been mistaken for a Yankee and shot by his own men in 1863, he might have
outflanked the Union Army and fought the North to a standstill. But Freeborn
chooses as case study not a Civil War battle but his first victory as a lowly
lieutenant out of West Point. Sent to the Mexican War, he defied an order to
retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, won, and was
promoted, later commended by General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S.
forces, for "the way in which [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans."

Many of the poor Mexicans Jackson slaughtered were civilians.  After his
small victory had helped clear the way for the American advance, Jackson
received orders to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the
oncoming U.S. army. He did so without hesitation – mowing them down as they
sought to surrender.

What are we to make of this murder? Secular historians attribute this
atrocity to Jackson’s military discipline – he simply obeyed orders. But
fundamentalists see in that discipline, that willingness to kill innocents,
confirmation of Romans 13:1; "For there is no power but of God: the powers that
be are ordained of God." Obeying one’s superiors, according to this logic, is an
act of devotion to the God above them.

But wait – fundamentalists also praise the heroism that resulted from his
defiance of orders to retreat, his rout of the Mexican cavalry so miraculous –
it’s said that a cannonball bounced between his legs as he stood fast – that it
seems to fundamentalist biographers proof that he was anointed by God.  Is this
hypocrisy on the part of his fans?  Not exactly.

Key men always obey orders, but they follow the command of the highest
authority. Jackson’s    amazing victory is taken as evidence that God was with
him – that God overrode the orders of his earthly commanders. And yet the
civilian dead that resulted from Jackson’s subsequent obedience of those very
same earthly commanders are  also signs of God’s guiding hand. The providential
God sees everything; that such a tragedy was allowed to occur must be evidence
of a greater plan. One of fundamentalist history’s favorite proofs comes not
from Scripture itself but from Ben Franklin’s paraphrase at the Constitutional
Convention: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is
it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”   

To put it in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson –
rebellion and reverence, rage and order – results in the synthesis of
self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism.

I’m not sure I agree with lumping James I. Robertson in with the rest of the gang.  His enthusiasm for the movie Gods and Generals leaves something to be desired.  And I know that some people believe that his more recent scholarship betrays a disturbing sympathy with Lost Cause ideology; for example see Alan Nolan’s review of Robertson’s Jackson biography in the Washington Times [reprinted in "Rally Once Again!": Selected Civil War Writings of Alan T. Nolan, pp. 269-72].  I am not a huge fan of Nolan’s work, but I cite it simply as an example. 

Interpreting history in a way that merely confirms a religious worldview is not to do history at all.  I should point out that I get just as frustrated when secularists attempt to generalize about the Founding Fathers – the typical point being that they were all deists or admirers of Locke, Hutcheson and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment.   They do this to counter the fundamentalist interpretation that God worked through these men during the founding period.  Both positions betray an unwillingness to admit of a complexity that defines many of our important historical figures. 

In my most honest moments I can easily admit to myself that I am still learning how to research the past.  One of the most difficult challenges in conducting research is in placing prior assumptions in check.  And this is a challenge that both seasoned scholars and novices must continually face.  I like to think that I am beyond the naive epistemology of the "noble dream" of objectivity; however, that does not mean that we cannot strive to get the story right.  In doing so we would do well to remember that the story to be told is not our story.