Perhaps I Spoke Too Soon

Yesterday I expressed some concern about how our Civil War will be remembered during the upcoming Sesquicentennial celebrations.  Perhaps there are reasons to be optimistic.  Read H.R. 687: “To establish a commission to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.”  The National Park Service has already constructed a website devoted to the event and the language is encouraging:

In preparation for the Sesquicentennial, the National Park Service-through the collective efforts of the superintendents at Civil War-related
parks-proposes to undertake a multi-faceted, multi-year, integrated program that will simultaneously transform and improve interpretation of the Civil War in our national parks while providing a national forum for the observance of the Sesquicentennial of America’s greatest national crisis.

During the preparatory period (2005-2011), this web site will present information on the events leading up to the Civil War, so that the
Sesquicentennial can be experienced as the 150th anniversary of major military events, but also of social, political, economic and cultural transformations that have changed the nation forever.

The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is set to open its doors on October 7.  Back in 2002 I took part in a conference at the University of Richmond and attended an evening session at Tredegar for a preview of their plans for the exhibits.  It’s nice to see it come to fruition.  Here is a brief description of the center’s permanent exhibit:

The Center’s permanent exhibit, In the Cause of Liberty, will be housed in the 1861 Gun Foundry, will open on Saturday, October 7, 2006. Visitors will begin their tour with Causes of the Civil War, move into the War years, and finish with Legacies.

The exhibit will present the story of the Civil War, its causes, and its legacies from the viewpoints of Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans — the war’s three main participant groups. The Center’s interpretive approach comes from a Foundation-sponsored symposium
in which Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson was asked why the Confederates fought. “The central tragedy, the great irony of the war,” he observed, “is that all three groups were fighting for the legacy of the American Revolution, but they profoundly disagreed about what that legacy was.” The war was a matter of honor and principle for all three as each acted to uphold its own vision of America. Each remembered the war differently as well, and to this day the war means different things to different people.

Our interpretation will trace all three stories and show how each group played a different role in the nation’s central drama. The presentation will weave battles and leaders, guns and saddles into the larger drama of how the war affected Northerners and Southerners, men and women, and blacks and whites. The dynamic interplay of three peoples at war changed America forever and created a vastly different country from the one that existed before the war. The exhibit will show how the war produced the basic structure and character of the United States we know today.

It’s safe to say that the majority of visitors throughout the sesquicentennial will travel to one of the many Civil War battlefields and/or museum sites.  It is encouraging that both of these institutions are taking the initiative to present a sophisticated, educational, and entertaining interpretation of the war and its legacy.

Gearing Up For Civil War Sesquicentennial

Virginia-Tech historian James I. Robertson has been appointed to Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.  It will be interesting to analyze the make-up of the commission as additional appointments are made and its subsequent plans to bring the Civil War to the general public.  As many of you know Robertson sat on the Civil War Centennial Commission back in the early 1960′s and has worked steadily to emerge as one of the more popular Civil War historians in the field. 

Robertson is a well-known figure in the field of Civil War history. He appears regularly in Civil War programs on the Arts & Entertainment Network, the History Channel, and public radio and television and has written a number of books about the Civil War period that have garnered national acclaim and numerous awards. His book Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend is considered the definitive biography of the famous general and served as the basis for the portrayal of Jackson in the movie “Gods and Generals.”

While I am pleased with Robertson’s appointment I do have some concerns.  I’ve read his biography of Stonewall Jackson and admire it a great deal for its scholarship.  At the same time I worry about his involvement in Lost Cause-tainted movies such as "Gods and Generals." I still do not understand his strong support for the movie apart from the emphasis on Jackson and the director’s reliance on Robertson’s biography.  For anyone with a minimal amount of understanding of recent Civil War historiography that movie was a major step backward.

I want to see a wide-range of appointments that will reflect the latest in scholarship without losing sight of the need to attract wide audiences.  I remain hopeful and just a little concerned.

Getting Right With Lee

Earlier this week I mentioned that I was going to explore with my Civil War class Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army following Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede.  I am interested in contrasting our popular perceptions surrounding Lee’s decisions within a richer historical context.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, Lee’s decision is typically analyzed in a vacuum without any mention of how others in a similar position decided.  So here is what I plan to do with the class today.  We are going to look at some Lost Cause images of Lee followed by a few minutes from the Ken Burns documentary.  I will ask the students to think seriously about common threads between the images and the way Burns presents Lee’s difficult decision.  Following the movie I will share some of the statistics from Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s study as a way to situate Lee among a larger group of officers who were in a similar situation, many of whom decided differently. 

The Lost Cause view of a struggling Lee is brilliantly captured in D.S. Freeman’s biography — always a great place to start when analyzing our popular assumptions about the Confederacy and the war:

His resignation was not prompted by passion, nor did it carry with it resentment against the Union he left. On the contrary, if there was any resentment, it was against the authors, Northern and Southern, of the consummate wickedness of bringing about division within the Union. There was a pang and a heartache at the separation from brother officers whose patriotism he had seen vindicated in the hardships of campaigning and in the dangers of battle. He was willing to defend Virginia, whatever her allegiance, but he did not desire to fight against the flag under which he had served. If he must see the Union wrecked by men who would not forbear and plead for justice through constitutional means, if he must tear himself from the service of a nation of which he had been proud, then the hope of his heart was that he might never again be called to draw a sword which only Virginia could command. It was in this spirit that he wrote farewell to General Scott, that loyal old friend, who had admired him, taught him, and advanced him.

I may even share some recent thoughts about Lee’s character such as the following from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

Lee did not "break his oath and abandon his duty when he joined the Confederate cause." He resigned his commission.  President Lincoln had declared a blockade of southern ports on April 19, and Lee knew what was coming next: an unconstitutional invasion of the states to overthrow elected state governments.   As the saying goes, "When you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding."   When one is asked to violate one’s oath to the Constitution, the honorable thing to do is resign the office.  If you cannot do the king’s bidding, you cannot take the king’s shilling. This is what honorable men do.  Perhaps Mr. Withrow thinks that officers should obey every government order, even unconstitutional ones.   More’s the pity. The soldiers who guarded the walls at Auschwitz felt much the same way.  Lee’s conduct is exactly what should be held up as an example of what honorable men do when faced with orders that violate their solemn oaths to the Constitution.

Here is another one from the same paper.

Any person of Christian values would know that Robert E. Lee (unlike some of his Northern counterparts) was one of the finest Christian men who ever lived.  If Mr. Withrow knew his history, he would know that Robert E. Lee stood for, and believed in, the words of the Constitution of this country, as much as or more than anyone before or after.   This was a Constitution, I might add, that was hanging by a thread under the Lincoln administration.   As for other Confederate leaders, Mr. Withrow might be surprised to know how many military bases in America today are named after Confederate generals.  There is no shame connected, in even the slightest amount, to the name of Robert E. Lee; the shame is on Mr. Withrow for writing such words.   There is nothing but honor to be given to the men who fought for the Confederate states, and honor in the flags they fought under.

I post these last two more for their comedic qualities rather than as anything worth serious analysis.  My goal today is not to praise or blame Lee for the decision he made, but to try to come to terms with what it meant apart from the tendency to praise regardless of what went into the decision.  In addition I am interested in how we’ve chosen to remember this particular moment in his life.  I want my students to begin to think seriously about memory and how certain interpretations become ingrained in our collective memories, and that it is reasonable to question those interpretations. 

Great History Teachers: Part 2

My previous post on this theme honored the career of Mr. Hand who taught history at Ridgemont High in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I hope you enjoyed that little stroll down memory lane.  Today we move to the campus of Northwestern College Great Lakes University and the classroom of Professor Turgeson who teaches Contemporary American History.  I hope there are a few of you who remember Professor Turgeson who was played by the late Sam Kinison in the movie Back to School.  The movie starred the late Rodney Dangerfield who played Thornton Melon, a successful businessman who decides to go back to school to encourage his struggling son.   This scene is set on the first day of class in Turgeson’s classroom.

Professor Turgeson: Welcome to Contemporary American history. I know a lot of people think history is just facts… just information about the past, but not me. I hold history very sacred. Sacred. The way a farmer looks at the Earth and holds it sacred. The way a Christian takes the Bible… and he holds it sacred. The way a lot of people hold their marriage sacred. That’s how I feel about it. So why don’t we dive right in… by interpreting one of the easiest events… in the last twenty years of American history. Now, can someone tell me… why, in 1975 we pulled our troops out of Vietnam?

Student: The failure of Vietnamization to win popular support… caused an ongoing erosion of confidence… in the various American… but illegal… Saigon regimes.

Professor Turgeson: Is she right? ‘Cause I know that’s the popular version… of what went on there. I know a lot of people like to believe that. I wish I could, but I was there. I wasn’t here in a classroom… hoping I was right, thinking about it. I was up to my knees in rice paddies… with guns that didn’t work, going up against Charlie… slugging it out with him, while pussies like you… were back here partyin’, puttin’ headbands on… doin’ drugs, listening to the goddamn Beatle albums!

Thornton Melon
: Hey, Professor, take it easy, will ya? These kids were in grade school at the time. And me… I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.

Professor Turgeson: Well, I didn’t know you wanted to get involved… with the discussion, Mr. Helper. But since you want to help, maybe you can help me, OK? You remember that thing we had about thirty years ago… called the Korean conflict? Yeah. Where we failed to achieve victory. How come we didn’t cross the   th parallel… and push those rice-eaters back to the Great Wall of China… and take it apart brick by brick… and nuke them back into the fuckin’ stone age forever? How come? Tell me? Why? Say it! Say it!

Thornton Melon: All right, I’ll say it. ‘Cause Truman was too much of a pussy wimp… to let MacArthur go in and blow out those commie bastards!

Professor Turgeson
: Good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think. I’m gonna be watching you.

Thornton Melon
: Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what, I have no idea.

I’m not sure this is the best way to start a class discussion on the first day of the new semester.  What do you think?

Rethinking Your Teaching Options

In the latest issue of Perspectives, which is published by the American Historical Association, there is a very disturbing letter from a woman who is close to finishing her PhD, but is concerned about locating a teaching position.  Here is a short excerpt from her letter:

I have come to the conclusion, now that I am almost ready to defend my dissertation and enter the academic job market, that this may be a very poor career-path choice. The overall impression I have derived from the various articles is that unless I am a white male graduate of a top-ten school, working in a currently "hot" field, and under the age of 35, my chances of finding secure and long-term employment in a teaching position are slim to none. And should I actually be lucky enough to make it through a job-search experience that is almost universally panned, even by those who completed it successfully, I can anticipate a quite low starting salary in comparison to professions with similar or lesser credentialing requirements. I am forced to ask myself: Why bother?

Now I don’t want to debate the merits of any gender or age bias in the academy because I don’t operate in that environment.  What I do know is that I’ve read and listened to a great deal of commentary about the state of the job market and other concerns that go into landing that first job that would make all of the hard work worthwhile.  I’ve heard way too many stories of disappointment in connection with those massive job fairs that take place at the annual meeting of the AHA or the statistics that have 150 candidates applying for one job.  I can certainly sympathize with the anxieties that go into a job search. 

Given all of this, what I don’t understand is why graduate programs in history have not done more to highlight the possibilities of teaching in a private school.  Of course part of the answer is obvious: One does not struggle through a PhD program to end up anywhere but in a college setting where there is time to pontificate and publish.  There is a stigma attached with settling for anything other than a 4-year institution or a sense that one has ultimately failed.  But is this narrow view justified given the state of the job market and other relevant factors?  In other words, perhaps it can be argued that this condescending attitude is keeping young PhD’s from pursuing a career that could prove to be incredibly rewarding. 

Let me use myself as an example of someone who has learned to balance the demands of the classroom with a fairly successful record of scholarship and service.  Please keep in mind that I do not have a PhD, but much of my activity has come to mirror the life of a professor. 

I should start out with the challenges that all private school teachers deal with in various degrees.  The teaching loads are heavy.  I teach five sections (not all on the same day) and have three preps.  This amounts to around 70 students, which means meetings, conferences, parents, etc.  In short, its not easy.  Many private schools also place an emphasis on coaching one of the three sports seasons.  The responsibilities vary across the board. 

As challenging as the life of a private school teacher is there is much to recommend it, even for newly-minted PhD’s.  Most classes are small in size; my largest section is 16 students.  Private school students are a fairly obedient breed, which means they can be taught and they will actually do their work.  They tend to be motivated even if tends to be focused simply on getting into the right college.  Most importantly, as a group they tend to be fairly bright and curious.  All of this makes for productive classes with a surprising amount of original thought and dialogue.  For those of you out there who abhor the prospects of having to publish a certain amount for tenure and who actually enjoy the dynamics of the classroom the private school world may be for you.  If colleges and universities are serious about instilling good teaching habits in their graduate students it stands to reason that a career that concentrates on the classroom should be seen as a serious option following graduation. 

But even if you have publishing aspirations there may be a home for you in a private school.  Output will certainly be lower than what you will find in the college world, but I assume that many people would be happy being able to publish a few things within a life of teaching.  This is where I fall.  I’ve managed to publish a number of pieces in academic journals, popular magazines, and one edited collection.  There is even the possibility of working on larger projects if you are able to successfully budget the required time.  Beyond publishing I’ve been able to attend and present at numerous academic conferences and have served as a referee for three academic journals.  My school allows me to miss classes to attend conferences and has even financially supported some of these trips.  In fact, I’ve been encouraged to attend conferences since it involves positive publicity for the school. 

I am not simply trying to toot my own horn here.  The life of a private school teacher can in fact accommodate much of what goes into a university position even if aspects of it are curtailed.  Again, I imagine that many graduate students would be happy in a position where they were able to engage in a minimal amount of scholarship in exchange for the joys of the classroom.  They should at least be introduced to it as a serious option. 

I am not aware of any organized effort on the part of the AHA or OAH in this regard.  This is odd given the amount of attention on bridging the gap between professional scholarship and the introduction of that material in the high school classroom.  The OAH has made a list of professors available for visits to schools and both organizations have published numerous pamphlets and magazines written for the high school classroom.  Finally, high school teachers can attend summer conferences such as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute which are led by some of the brightest minds in the academy.  If the AHA and OAH are really interested in bridging the divide between these two worlds than it stands to reason that they would promote the life of a high school history teacher as a viable option.  If professional historians can write the curricula material than they should be able to teach it.

I have a feeling that the tendency to ignore the private school route is denying plenty of young scholars/teachers a fulfilling and meaningful career.