I brought my digital camera to school on Friday for a field trip with my Civil War class to a Confederate cemetery over at the University of Virgina. [A post on that trip will be forthcoming shortly.] Here are a couple of pictures of my classroom which I thought I might share given the amount of time I spend here during the school year. I’ve worked hard on my room over the past few years trying to create an environment that is both welcoming and pleasant to learn in. My desks are arranged in such a way that allows each student to see everyone else and allows me to move easily from side to side. It also works well for lecturing as well as directing a student-led discussion. My room contains numerous book shelves. Students are of course welcome to sign-out any title, but their presence is also intended to send a message about the importance of serious study and learning. The projector which sits in the middle of the room is used on a daily basis. I can connect my laptop and project any kind of image on the white board which is ideal as it allows the teacher or student to mark important objects or words on the board with an erasable marker. I am notorious for taking famous images of people and coloring their faces with sharp eyebrows and other markings; you can do wonders with Ben Franklin’s face. In the photo to the right you will notice a cabinet which contains 16 laptop computers. They were ordered last year for my Civil War research seminar but are now being used in all my classes. Finally, there is my office. It is a spacious setting which allows for student meetings and more importantly provides a nice quiet space when I am not teaching. As you can see I’ve got just a few Troiani prints hanging on the wall.
I treated today like any other school day. Over the weekend I thought seriously about introducing a lesson on some aspect of 9-11. I spent some time on the Internet looking for ideas and did come across an interesting site on public memory and memorials at Facing History. Late Sunday I decided to stick to my original game plan and just continue with each class where we left off on Friday. I was worried that focusing on the events of 9-11 would leave me emotionally drained, and I was not prepared to deal with that. Whether or not this was a good reason I can’t help but feel just a little guilty that I lost an opportunity to do something interesting and meaningful. I never thought I would use history to hide behind.
[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]
Over the weekend I received an email from a concerned parent about the textbook that I am currently using in my AP course in American History. As I mentioned before the textbook is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! The parent noted that Eric Foner has a reputation as a "neo-Marxist" and was worried that the textbook presented a radically biased interpretation. Nowhere in the email did this person point out a specific shortcoming or bias. In closing the parent expressed the hope that his child would be introduced to a range of interpretations and would not be penalized for adopting a view that challenged Foner.
Let me start by saying that I have no problem with concerns of this type. In fact, in my response I applauded this parent’s concern and interest in what his child is reading. I wish more parents were this vigilant. I indicated that my students will be reading a wide-range of both primary and secondary sources. In the latter camp they read short articles by Howard Zinn, Paul Johnson, Gordon Wood, David Blight, Ed Ayers, and Alan Taylor, to name just a few. I want my students to think for themselves and work on developing their own understanding of the American past to the best of their ability and based on everything they’ve read. At their age they are in no position to dismiss out of hand any one view simply based on a political label. We’ve seen very clearly the consequences of this on the evening news and on the various interview/entertainment shows on Fox and MSNBC.
There are, however, a number of issues that are worth exploring in greater detail. At this point I am going to simply raise the issues and come back later. First, the degree to which history has become politicized over the past few years is troubling. While Eric Foner’s politics and public statements clearly place him in the "liberal" camp I want my students to judge his interpretation on its own merits. In other words, Foner’s interpretation should stand or fall based on his handling of the relevant evidence and in the context of competing interpretations. My students should be able to separate out Foner’s politics from his scholarship if the issue is even raised. Is this possible? On the face of it there seems to be no reason that it is not. That he is a liberal does not constitute a sufficient reason to dismiss him as a historian. This is the fundamental mistake made by David Horowitz in his inclusion of Foner as one of the most dangerous professors on college campuses today. Even if we assume that he is "dangerous" we have said nothing about any specific historical theory or interpretation. Again, let the work speak for itself. I pointed out in my response that Foner’s study of Reconstruction is considered by many to be the standard history of the subject; one would be hard pressed to conclude that his interpretation reflects a commitment to "radical" social or political views. I would not suggest for a minute that Foner should refrain from making certain statements, but he hopefully does or should understand the price he pays in the broader public discourse.
I use Foner’s book because it presents a sophisticated narrative of American history from multiple perspectives. It forces students to look beyond the narrow interpretation that was taught in grade school and in its place appreciate the often contradictory ways in which different groups defined freedom and their place within the citizenry.
This is a week where historical memory, personal reflection, and profound sadness merge as I remember my cousin, Alisha Levin. Alisha was one of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Like many of you I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was at school in the middle of a class when one of my colleagues pulled me aside to give me the news. For some reason I went back into my classroom and continued with the lesson. After a few minutes I stopped in my tracks and tried to convey to my students what I had just been told. Once the class was dismissed I walked into a classroom with a television and sat transfixed as I watched the re-runs of the initial impact an then the live coverage of the second plane hitting the South Tower. I should have known immediately what the impact of the second plane meant for my family. Once the first plane hit Alisha left a message on her parent’s phone to let them know that she was unharmed. That was the last that anyone heard from her. [Alisha's library card was eventually returned to her parents.] I am almost ashamed to admit that I did not make the connection between the collapse of the towers and my cousin until late afternoon even as I watched a continuous loop of those horrific images. It wasn’t until my parents called. My wife picked up the phone and for some reason just from the look on her face I finally realized what I had inexplicably overlooked. The next few days were incredibly difficult as family and friends posted messages on various internet message boards and posters around Lower Manhattan. I went back to school and tried to place the day’s events into some context. My students had plenty of questions, but unfortunately I had no answers.
Alisha was 33 and worked as a vice-president of human resources for Fuji Bank which was located on the 82nd floor of the South Tower. She absolutely loved living and working in New York City. Alisha was very close to her sister Mindy and her two sons, Jacob and Alex. Though Alisha worked very hard she regularly took the train home to Philadelphia on weekends to spend time with family. She also loved to travel and was planning a trip to Italy the following summer. Click here and here for articles about Alisha that appeared in the Northeast Times on the one-year anniversary of 9-11.
When I was younger I loved spending time with Alisha and her sister Mindy along with the rest of the family in Philadelphia over the holidays. Alisha and I were one year apart so we always had a great deal to talk about. We debated whether The Who or Led Zeppelin was the better Rock Band and we talked generally about what was going on in our lives. It was not uncommon for the two us to find a place on the steps overlooking the rest of the family to talk or make fun of my brother. What stands out in my memory is her laugh. Alisha had a laugh that simply filled up the room; it was one of those laughs that came from deep within.
Alisha attended Hofstra and Columbia University. I did my undergraduate work just outside the city and made it a point to meet up with Alisha on a few occasions. I remember one particular visit where we walked what seemed to be the entire downtown area around NYU and the Village. Alisha had a way of making you feel special so just sitting in a cafe was one of the most pleasant ways to pass the time with her. My only regret now is that I didn’t make it a point to spend more time with Alisha. She had a big heart and cared deeply about family and friends. [Click here for a memorial album that includes some very touching thoughts from friends and even strangers.]
Alisha’s death has left a deep hole in my family. At times it has been very difficult for the family to come together as there have been disagreements about the best way to remember Alisha. Fortunately those disagreements are in the past and my family seems to be coming back together. While I care deeply about the way New York city will choose to remember the victims and re-shape “Ground Zero” I find it difficult to think about the issue without becoming distracted by my personal connection to the event.
I miss you very much.
So far I am really enjoying my Civil War class. While this is only the fourth day of class we are now right in the middle of an interesting discussion about the causes of the war and secession. We are working our way through James McPherson’s North and South Magazine article titled, "What Caused the Civil War" [Vol. 4, No. 1: pp. 12-22]. The students must write a 2-page thesis summary of the article. After our next article by William Freehling each student will have to choose an article from a list and lead the class discussion on that particular day. The idea is to create something close to a college seminar.
The McPherson article is ideal as it is well written and the argument builds in a way that is easy to follow if read with a critical eye. Anyway, today we were trying to explain the apparent shift in the content of the speeches of both Davis and Stephens in reference to the role of slavery as a cause of secession. While Davis and Stephens elevate the role of slavery above all other conditions in their speeches in 1860-61 they retreat to the states’ rights position following the war. Between McPherson’s argument which places slavery historically at the center of the antebellum political debates and by asking the students to think of why white Southerners like Davis and Stephens would have an interest in ignoring the issue, they were able to begin to see the broader problem of why Americans have chosen to ignore the importance of slavery.
Towards the end of the class one of my new students pointed out that she had been taught U.S. and Virginia history at least four times in recent years. I should note that this is a new student who transferred from a local public school this year to finish her senior year. She is extremely bright and apparently had taken all of the AP course that were offered at her old school. At no point was slavery raised as a salient factor in explaining secession and Civil War in those previous classes. She said it with just a hint of confusion as if something important had been kept from her. It was nice to see a student step back and consider the history of what she had been taught about a specific subject. Hopefully this will translate into a healthy skepticism that will involve more questioning of the people who appear as authorities in the classroom — INCLUDING YOURS TRULY!