Teaching the Civil War

A few months ago I was asked to put together a panel on teaching the Civil War for the Society of Civil War Historian’s June 2008 conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Today I was notified that the panel will indeed be included in the conference program.

Session Title: "Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom"

Chair: Professor Joan Waugh, UCLA

Commentator: Ronald Maggiano, West Springfield High School and George Mason University

Session Description: Between 2011 and 2015 much of the country will have an opportunity to mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Questions about slavery, secession, emancipation, and the outcome of military engagements will be hotly debated within both the scholarly community and general public.  The shape of these debates will tell us much about how the general public continues to choose to remember some of the most salient aspects of the war years and beyond.  This panel will address ways to introduce questions of memory and the selective uses of history into the high school classroom. The presenters seek to provide high school students with the analytical skills that can be used to uncover and better understand how memory of the war has been constructed and how it continues to be reinforced in film and in public spaces. Levin’s presentation examines the popular film documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns and its continued influence on our collective beliefs surrounding Robert E. Lee, Lincoln and emancipation, and reunion at Appomattox Court House. Percoco’s presentation explores the ways that Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience and public memory.


Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s – Belfeild School

Title: "Using Ken Burns’s The Civil War in the Classroom"

Abstract: When it aired in 1990 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted by the powerful images, sounds, and narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote and other noteworthy Civil War scholars – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be used in history courses on the high school level. All too often the film is presented as historical fact rather than interpretation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaged in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the sights and sounds come together to tell a coherent story. More importantly, students fail to see the film as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular culture and often guarded as sacred. This presentation will focus on ways in which Burns’ film can be utilized, alongside other primary and secondary sources, to engage history students in critical thought. In doing so this presentation will focus on three moments in the film, including Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army and align himself with Virginia in April 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Utilizing The Civil War in a comparative fashion highlights for students both the film’s interpretive strengths and shortcomings as historical narrative. More importantly, it engages students in broader questions of how our Civil War has been remembered and why.

James Percoco, West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia

Title: "Monumental Memories of the Sixteenth President"

Abstract: There are more statues to Abraham Lincoln in the United States than any other secular figure. A recent survey of the Inventory of American Sculpture, Smithsonian Institution list 600 monuments to American presidents found on the national landscape, of that number one-third are erected to the memory of the Sixteenth President. Many of them are competent works of art, while others are out and out duds, but a handful of these Lincoln’s in marble and bronze are important works of art meriting a place in American cultural and social history. These handful of monuments shaped part of Lincoln’s legacy serving not only physical constructs of portraiture, but also as devices which interpret the life of Abraham Lincoln, within the context of the time in which they were created and dedicated. Seven specific monuments erected between 1876 and 1932 speak to various phases and themes of Lincoln iconography; the Great Emancipator, the Great Statesman, Man of Sorrows and Compassion, and the Common Man. All of them were created by America’s foremost sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Gutzon Borglum, George Grey Barnard, James Earle Fraser, Paul Manship, and Thomas Ball. Huge and elaborate dedication ceremonies were held for each monument, bringing together, in some instances, veterans of the Blue and the Gray, as well as giants of American Arts and Letters. Jim Percoco will demonstrate how these Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience, public memory, American civil religion, historical interpretation, and the selective uses of history, within the context Abraham Lincoln.


House Approves Emancipation Hall Bill

From The Hill:

The House on Tuesday approved renaming the Capitol Visitor Center’s (CVC) main hall Emancipation Hall. Supporters said the name would memorialize the country’s struggle against slavery and honor slaves who helped build the Capitol.

“It is really the right thing to do and the right time in history,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), the bill’s sponsor. “It really speaks to freedom. When slaves were emancipated it was a defining moment in our history. It also honors slaves that built the Capitol.”  The measure was approved in a 398-6 roll call vote requested by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). She made the request after the measure initially was approved by voice vote.

Very good.


Nomination for Cliopatria Award

For the second year Civil War Memory has been nominated for a Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog.  Thanks to Tim Lacy of History and Education: Past and Present:

What I like about Mr. Levin’s work is that, in addition to being on target with regard to Civil War and memory, he also ranges into teaching issues, popular culture, and philosophical issues about the field. While not possessing a doctorate in history (so far as I know), he acts like a doctorate in that he thinks philosophically about his topic.

Let’s encourage Kevin to maintain his high quality blogging by giving him this award.

There is always a great deal of competition for the various awards so just being nominated is an honor.


A Short Follow-Up on Bennett and American History

According to Bennett, American history is knowable as a set of facts that point to a progressive or whiggish view of this nation’s past.  Included in this story is a short list of heroes that exemplify or embody the moral characteristics of the broader interpretation.  Notice the reductionist approach implied in this view:  Whereas I would argue that moral conclusions are not historical in form, Bennett fails to acknowledge a distinction.  In other words, moral facts are objective and discernible through historical study.  But are they?

As I mentioned last week my American history classes are currently reading Masur’s 1831 which begins with Nat Turner’s insurrection.  We read a number of primary sources including sections of The Confessions of Nat Turner.  At one point I asked my class whether they considered Turner to be a hero.  The class was split over a number of issues which they debated.  The central issue was whether the scale of violence disqualified Turner from such a status.  Some students argued that the fact that Turner’s followers killed "innocent" women and children could not be ignored while others suggested that the concept of innocence could not be understood within the slave system.  One student argued that the institution of slavery was maintained through violence and intimidation which itself rendered the idea of innocence untenable.  A few of my African-American students had little trouble identifying Turner as a "freedom fighter."  My point is that I didn’t end the class by suggesting some fact of the matter as to Turner’s moral status.  As I stated yesterday that’s not my job.  My job as a teacher is to train my students to interpret the evidence and arrive at their own conclusions. 


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.