Whose Heroes?: A Response To William J. Bennett

William Bennett’s recent online piece in the National Review has me feeling just a little defensive.  There is nothing really new in the article.  Bennett begins with the standard observation about the state of history education:

This year’s National Assessment of Education Progress (our “Nation’s Report Card”) revealed that over 50-percent of our nation’s high-school students — our population reaching voting age — are functionally illiterate in their knowledge of U.S. History. Tragically, students do not begin their education careers in ignorance: if you track education progress in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades with the Nation’s Report Card, you will see students know more in the 4th grade, less in the 8th grade, and are failing by the time they are high-school seniors. Relative to what they should know at their grade level, the longer they live and grow up in America, the less they know about it. How did this happen? Why is knowledge of and about the greatest political story ever told so dim?

There is no serious attempt to examine the long-term trends in education or whether high school students are any more or less "functionally illiterate" than they were 50 or 100 years ago.  No surprise as that is not Bennett’s intended target.  Rather Bennett mourns the apparent displacement or loss of a heroic story of American history that at one time reigned supreme in textbooks and in the minds of students across the country.  According to Bennett, we are in need of a heroic vision of our nation’s past to combat a palpable national feeling of self-doubt owing to the war in Iraq and distrust of public officials.  On this view, the teaching of history is therapeutic and offers Americans a clear vision of their mission:

If we rededicate ourselves to studying our history and our people rightly, if we take the time to look at the entirety of our firmament, we will see what our Founders saw we could be, what foreigners who came here saw all along, and what we ourselves can — even today — see once again: that we have something precious here. That something is called America, where young men and women sign up to protect her each and every day in the uniform of our armed services. And it is worth the time of every young man and every young woman in our nation’s classrooms to study why.

First, I do agree that the study of history can lead to the type of national outlook that Bennett desires.  Passionate teachers do indeed have the potential to stir students into action or to cause them to broaden their perspectives in various ways.  My problem with Bennett’s charge is not in terms of what can result from the study of history, but in reference to my responsibilities as a history teacher.  In short, I do not believe that it is my job to teach heroes.  Or to put it another way, I do not present historic individuals as heroes or villains.  History teachers need to provide students with the tools to make those decisions themselves.  I want my students to engage in critical thinking that goes beyond the overly simplistic categories of heroes and villains; they need to be able to sift through contradictory evidence and learn to draw conclusions based on that evidence.  Let me give two examples that may help elucidate my point.

First, students in my survey course in American history just completed essays that examine Thomas Jefferson’s views on freedom and slavery.  Students have read through the Declaration of Independence and other public documents in which Jefferson spoke out against slavery as well as accounts from Notes on the State of Virginia and other correspondence regarding his slaves and race.  I am not asking them to take a stand for or against Jefferson or to decide between the extremes of condemnation and acceptance.  What I want them to do is to make as much sense of Jefferson’s views of freedom and slavery as possible.  My students tend to struggle through this exercise because they are naturally drawn to one side or the other.  What would be the point of such an exercise if I started this lesson by introducing Jefferson or any of the Founders as heroes?  Students come to the full range of conclusions by the end, but they must be able to support their conclusions through interpretation and not in spite of it.  Most of them end up with a fairly sophisticated view of Jefferson that steers clear of the extremes on both sides.  Some of them even get to a point where they can acknowledge the need for additional time in order to arrive at a more sophisticated conclusion.

In my course on Lincoln and the Civil War students have read a great deal about his views on slavery and attitudes regarding race and equality.  The Lincoln that I introduce to my students is not Lerone Bennett’s  or Thomas DiLorenzo’s "tyrant" or Carl Sandburg’s "great emancipator".  Again, my students must understand the evolution of Lincoln’s views along with his various roles as lawyer, politician, and president.  Lincoln clearly evolved in certain respects and this adds another dimension to his character; the extent of that evolution can be debated endlessly.  Right now we are examining Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass with a particular focus on the latter’s influence.  At no time do I use terms such as hero and villain in discussing Lincoln.  Our goal is to better understand Lincoln and not to praise or demonize.  What would be the point since you don’t even need a history class in order to accomplish such a goal.

If we take on the complete study of our country again — the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly — we will realize that for every anti-hero that we can be criticized for, there are hundreds of heroes; for every dark moment, there are thousands of rays of light to be seen through the passing clouds.

Bennett may be correct on this point, but it is not my job to steer them in any one direction.  My students are intelligent enough to arrive at their own conclusions.

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Why the Emancipationist Legacy of the Civil War Matters

[Hat-Tip to John Hennessy and David Blight]

Update: Click here for Hennessy’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article on John Washington.

The recent discovery of John Washington’s slave narrative along with next week’s event in Fredericksburg, which will include a number of his descendants, serves to remind us of just how important the Civil War is to the history of this nation.  More to the point, the fact that his descendants had no idea of this document’s existence nor the rich history of John Washington reinforces the extent to which the theme of emancipation has been lost to our modern memory of the war.  In the minds of all too many people the memory of the war is distorted to include talk of tens of thousands of loyal black Confederates and benevolent-champions of "enslaved black men and women" such as "Stonewall" Jackson.  Such talk only reinforces dangerous generalizations about the kindness of slaveowners and content slaves.  It’s as if Gone With the Wind premiered just yesterday.

Luckily we don’t have to wait for individual narratives to surface (they are quite rare for the obvious reasons) to understand how black Americans contributed to the emancipation moment.  This talk of benevolent slaveowners and black Confederates fails to stand up even against a cursory perusal of the relevant evidence.  We have the letters and diaries of white southerners on the home front and in the armies who wrote about the loss of slave labor along with the recruitment of tens of thousands into the Union armies.  We have the letters and diaries of thousands of Union soldiers who passed fugitives on the march and who interacted with them in camp.  Finally, we have the military records of the USCTs themselves which reveal the bravery of the men who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom even as the recent decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford failed to acknowledge black Americans as citizens. 

The price of this collective amnesia and distortion can be discerned in next week’s event.  I already mentioned that Washington’s descendants were unaware of this document, but to what extent do black Americans generally know about an ancestor’s possible flight to freedom.  Are they even aware of the question itself?  This past summer I took a few weeks to interview a number of black Americans who are somehow connected by their interest in the Civil War.  What stood out during those interviews was the almost complete absence of an early education that emphasized the centrality of black history to the Civil War.  No one remembered learning about the contributions of USCTs or they way in which the lives of fugitive slaves impacted the course of the war.  On the flip side we have the likes of H.K. Edgerton whose treks across the south with his Confederate flag and uniform reflect a desire to feel connected to a past even if it is a fantasy.

Next week’s event has meaning on a number of different levels.  A select few will walk away with an important piece of their family history as well as the history of this nation.  Residents of Fredericksburg with an interest in the Civil War will learn about the history of a section of the community that for much too long has been ignored and/or distorted.  Finally, David Blight and John Hennessy will be reminded of why their respective crafts (public and scholarly history) are so important.

p.s. Isn’t this a wonderful example of southern heritage at its best?

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The Civil War is a Strange Place

While attending the SHA in Richmond last weekend I took in three panels on various topics connected to the Civil War and the nineteenth-century South.  Panels ranged from discussions of Unionist activity in North Carolina to the marketing of Confederate nationalism to northern tourists throughout the postwar period. 

If you can actually sit through three 20-minute presentations than you can hopefully look forward to spirited exchanges between panelists and commentator along with the audience.  Not once did I hear someone ask where a panelist was from, whether he had a Union or Confederate ancestor or their political persuasion.  In addition, I don’t remember at any time hearing a question regarding an individual’s "loyalties"; no one asked whether a speaker was "anti-South", "anti-North" or anti – pro anything.  In short, no one asked anything personal as an explanation as to why one’s individual research project led to a certain set of conclusions.  I assume the panelists included liberals, conservatives, northerners, as well as southerners.  Some of them no doubt can trace their family histories back to certain places in the north as well as south and so on and so forth.  Now, why is it that the blogosphere is filled with these types of questions, accusations, and suspicions? 

I think the question can be explained in large part as a failure to come to terms with what the discipline of historical research involves.  That’s not an accusation, but it is telling that those who utter such claims do not seem to have any formal training in the field.  They fail to see the process of history as a conversation that takes place over time in monographs, journals, and other venues rather than a slugfest between people debating or placing significance on where your great-great grandfather lived or whether you teach in a northern institution of higher learning.  Historians work to better understand the past by challenging one another’s questions, assumptions, evidence, and conclusions drawn from a certain body of evidence.  It’s not meant to be a conversation over blame, vindication or anything else that may fall into a normative category. 

My publications and on-going research projects have nothing at all to do with a need to vindicate or vilify any one region of the country.  I have no idea what it even means to be engaged in such a project.  The terms that are thrown around such as Confederate heritage, Union heritage, anti-South, pro-North, etc. mean very little to me and do not in any way enter into my interest in American history.  The terms themselves reflect an overly simplistic way of thinking and fail in any way to track anything historically salient.  The idea that one can be pro- or anti-South assumes that the South is some kind of monolithic entity or uniform throughout.  These references have no historical validity whatsoever, but unfortunately, those who consistently refer to such things have read very little or are caught up in an overly personal attachment to some conclusion that can only be defended in such a way.  Closely related are the attempts to prop up or tear down certain individuals from the Civil War as if this has anything to do with serious scholarship.  What is even more disturbing is the implicit assumption that white southerners must hold to a certain set of beliefs simply because of their background while white northerners necessarily hold distinct views.  This is a true mark of absurdity, but in the blogosphere and the Civil War community generally its business as usual. 

History is an intellectual discipline that involves careful study and sophisticated dialog.  It demands that we put aside our emotional baggage to whatever extent possible, not to attain some vague notion of philosophical objectivity, but to keep ourselves open to learning more and understanding better. 

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An Evening With David Blight and the Memory of John Washington

Mark your calendars for Saturday, November 17.  On that day the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will be hosting a special event featuring historian David W. Blight who will be discussing his new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.  Blight’s book includes two recently uncovered emancipation narratives one of which is by John Washington who lived in Fredericksburg.  I’ve already read both accounts and they are absolutely fascinating.  Blight’s introduction places these narratives within a broader historical context which helps to explain the genre and the time and place in which they were written.

Park historian John Hennessy was kind enough to ask me to join a special tour of John Washington’s world, including a trip into the living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rappahannock where Washington went across on April 18, 1862.  The tour will include Blight as well as a few of Washington’s descendants who have only recently been contacted and were not aware of the existence of this narrative.  Blight’s work on memory has been very important for my own research so it will be a real treat to finally meet him in person. 

John Hennessy should be applauded for his hard work in organizing events such as this.  I can think of no one who has done more to further the education of visitors to our Civil War battlefields.  John has already made use of Washington’s narrative in a recent park film on civilian life in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania County area.  Click here for his assessment as well as my review of the project.  I am really looking forward to this.

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Masur’s 1831

1831 We are finished with Ellis’s Founding Brothers and have moved on to Louis Masur’s 1831: The Year of Eclipse.  The first chapter covers Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Abolitionist Movement and the debate in Virginia following Turner’s insurrection.  Other chapters explore various themes of Jacksonian Democracy, including voting, religion, and politics.  We will read various sections of the book given our time constraints. 

This is a highly readable book that does a great job of presenting various subjects from multiple perspectives.  Masur’s narrative is weighed heavily with the words of the participants themselves.  Masur’s coverage of Turner and the response of white Virginians utilizes these multiple perspectives quite effectively.  In our discussion of how white Virginians explained the violence to themselves and one another a few of the students admitted to being overwhelmed by so many voices.  I asked the class why Masur would present the story in this way and immediately one of the students responded by suggesting that the author wants his reader to understand that the participants themselves did not know how to explain it.  In a related note we touched on the difficulty involved in explaining Turner’s insurrection given the assumptions that white Virginians held to regarding their slave communities and their own paternalism.  For example, Masur presents to strands of thought surrounding the origin of the insurrection.  Some people pointed to their own slaves as the source of the problem, but just as many argued that the instigators must have been from outside Southampton County.  They understood that if the source of the problem was from outside they could maintain their beliefs about the loyalty of their own slaves.

Today we read a few pages from Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and explored the difficulty of distinguishing between the interviewer and interviewee. 

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