Harvard Ends Early Admissions (and I couldn’t be happier)

Yesterday Harvard University announced that it would end its policy of early admissions.  The primary reason has to do with the advantage that the policy gives to certain socio-economic groups.  From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

With its announcement, Harvard joined a host of critics who have long claimed
that early admissions work to the disadvantage of lower-income students, who are
seen as less likely to be familiar with the often-arcane requirements of
applying early.

If in fact the studies are true then this for me would constitute a sufficient reason to end the policy.  That said, I am pleased to see Harvard making this move for another reason.  I’ve been teaching high school for the past eight years and during that time I’ve watched as students have become much more paranoid and fearful about the college admissions process.  Now I should say that this is coming from someone who was not overly obsessed in any way about college.  In fact, I spent the first two years after high school in a local community college, which turned out to be the appropriate decision. 

College admission has become much more competitive over the past few years and this has translated into a great deal of stress for my students.  Junior year can be a miserable experience if the student is feeling pressure from home or elsewhere to see college or admission to a specific college as the final goal.  Please understand that I am not suggesting that students should not take college admission seriously and I am not even suggesting that they should not care about the process; my concern is that we have placed too much weight on getting in and not enough on the intrinsic value of a high school education.   

Early admission only adds to this problem.  I have students at the beginning of their junior year who are already missing class for college visits.  Are you kidding me? I wrote around ten recommendation letters towards the end of the spring semester and at least five more called me at home over the summer. The most disturbing part is that for the first time I am hearing freshman talking about the process and stressing about the importance of getting into the right school.  There is something about all of this that really rubs me the wrong way.   I wish we would take better care of our youth.

Connecting With Confederate Dead

Last Friday I took my Civil War class on a little field trip over to a cemetery at the University of Virginia.  The cemetery contains the remains of roughly 1,900 Confederate soldiers who died in one of the hospitals here In Charlottesville during the war.  It was a perfect day for a walk.  The cemetery contains a statue of a Confederate soldier that sits atop a pedestal which includes the names of the men by state and regiment.  The cemetery itself is a bit deceiving as there are only a small number of headstones spread around the field.  It is difficult to explain why specific stones were placed, but my guess is that at some point after the war either individual families or organizations raised the funds for the marker.  The funds for the statue (which was forged in New York) and pedestal were raised by the Ladies Memorial Association and dedicated in 1893.

I gathered the class around the statue, provided a bit of background of the site and then passed out a sheet with a few questions.  Students were expected to spend some time to think about each question and choose an individual marker for further reflection.

Question 1. In your opinion, what was the intention of the sculptor of the monument; what message was he trying to convey?  Do you think he was successful?  Why or why not?  What features of the monument stand out?  Be specific.  Student Response: “He was trying to give the Confederate soldiers their own share of glory. Fate he said, did not grant them victory – it is a distinction between ‘they gave up on their cause, their side’ and ‘they were beaten honorably’ – he succeeds in giving the confederates honor, from the inscription to the proud soldier on top of the monument.

2. What name would you give to this monument?  Explain. Student Response: “Eternal Glory,” “Courageous Confederate,” “Honorable Confederate,” “The Last Stand”

3. Find one of the smaller grave markers.  Based on the information given, what can you infer about the indivudial buried?  What additional questions would you like to have answered?  Student Response: (1)”John Barlow died at age 33.  At that age he probably had a family. I wonder if is family has ever visited him.” (2) “He was clearly an old man when he died, and his old age may have contributed to the injuries he sustained on the battlefield.  I would be interested to know why he fought at such an old age.” [Thomas Jefferson Caulley was 60 when he died]

4. How do you feel about what you have seen? Student Response: (1) “Conflict between feeling really reverent for the dead soldiers and knowing that they fought for the Confederacy. Most of the soldiers are so young.” (2) “I feel like I have alot more respect for those who fought bravely for what they believed in.” (3) “Kind of weird that I am standing on hundreds of people who died in the Civil War.  I caught myself picturing the people.”  (4) “It makes the war really come to life.  Many people died for the cause.”

My hope is that this exercise at least presents an opportunity for students to empathize with some aspect of the site.  At one point I asked the students to join me in one corner of the cemetery to talk about one particular gravestone.  It is the marker for Private John L. Lanford who served in Co. K, 5th South Carolina Infantry.  He was only 16 when he was wounded at First Bull Run and brought to Charlottesville.  The age is significant given that most of my students are older.  We spent some time thinking about this young man’s life and they shared their own thoughts about what it might have been like to be alone and far from home.

The last question above is meant to force students to feel as oppose to thinking about the past.  I don’t think we emphasize the emotions enough in the classroom, including our ability to sympathize and empathize.  [Hugo Schwyzer blogged about the place of the emotions in his classroom.]  Part of this is the strict distinction that many maintain between the emotions and reason.  The emotions tend to be downplayed as states that happen to us rather than something we control.  On my view this is a false dichotomy, at least that is what cognitive scientists have been telling us in recent years  The emotions include significant content and provide relevant information for serious reflection about the past.

Providing these experiences for students is important as it is more likely to lead to a long-term interest in the subject compared with life in the classroom.  It also allows them to build an emotional connection to the past.  And its a pretty cool way to spend time with a bunch of interesting kids.

My Classroom

Cimg0081_1I 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.  Cimg0080I’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 Cimg0082teacher 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.   

Today

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.

A Dangerous Textbook?

[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.