Category Archives: Teaching

Ken Burns

Episode 1: Prologue

Oliver Wendell Holmes – We have shared the incommunicable experiences of war.  We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.  In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire. 

Narrator – By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough.  Two great armies were converging on his farm, in what would be the first major battle of the Civil War – Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginians farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen.  Now, Mclean had moved his family away from Manassas and south and west of Richmond – out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty crossroads called Appomattox Court House.  And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant, and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

A friend and fellow historian recently sent me the entire Ken Burns Civil War transcript.  Huh….what should I do with it?

A Long Weekend

Well I just finished calculating my final grades and completing student comments.  Apart from a few faculty meetings next week it looks like I am home free.  The end of the year typically brings that exhilarating feeling probably not unlike the one we felt when we were students.  The summer seems endless and one is given a break from having to think about lesson plans and other problems that teachers face in the course of the year.

One of my colleagues likes to think of the summer as a long weekend.  June is like Friday.  The weekend is ahead of you and for just a brief amount of time you can focus on something else.  Stay up all night if you choose.  Catch up with loved ones and other passions/interests.  Monday seems like it will never arrive.  The first half of July is like Saturday morning.  You can sleep late and think about what the afternoon will look like.  Go on the afternoon road trip and perhaps stay overnight somewhere out of town.  The second half is like Saturday night.  Your not quite sure whether you should stay up too too late as you know you will have to get up early the next day.  August is more difficult to handle as it is just like Sunday.  Should you get up later and watch the morning talk shows or get into your office and prepare lessons for the upcoming week?  The second half of August is like Sunday afternoon and evening.  "Oh shit…the new school year is upon me and there is nothing I can do about it." 

Since it’s only Friday I want to take a moment to wish my fellow teachers a safe and enjoyable summer break.  You deserve it!

An Effective Analogy: A Response

The other day I posted an analogy ("An Effective Analogy") by William Blair which tries to draw a connection between the importance of slaveholding for non-slaveholding white southerners with our own attitudes towards home ownership.  I have to admit that I was quite impressed with Blair’s analogy before I read this very thoughtful and skeptical response by Hiram Hover.  I was so impressed that I decided to post it so that more might be forced to think critically about his challenge to Blair.  Here is Hover’s response:

1. The question about homeownership is being asked of kids/young
adults, and not of a range of adult men–who are the ones who
participated in elections that involved questions of slavery and
sectionalism before the Civil War.

2. One reason the difference matters is because of the question of
future expectations. You’re asking this question about homeownership of
relatively privileged high school/college kids in a society where
homeownership is a normal and expected part of the life path for people
like them. Slaveownership was not the normative condition of adult
white men in the antebellum South. The kids of slaveowners might have
wanted and expected to follow in their parents footsteps. But esp. by
the 1850s, rising slave prices made it very hard for those who didn’t
already own slaves to break into the ranks of slaveowners–even if they
wanted to do so. That inability, in turn, could lead to frustration and
resentment that might not make a non-slaveowner into an abolitionist,
but could easily give him reason to cast a suspicious eye on political
ideas and programs designed to defend other men’s ownership of slaves.
(Here, the question isn’t whether non-home owners do or would storm the
tax office to protest the deductibility of interest on home mortgages.
The better analogy is to ask how they’d respond if homeowners proposed
to destroy the federal union after the election of a president who
supported the "ultimate extinction" of the home mortgage interest
deduction.)

3. The homeownership analogy also writes the possibility of moral
and political objections out of the picture. The premise is that of
course these kids want to become homeowners–there may be financial
obstacles to buying a home, or practical reasons it’s not advisable
(don’t buy now because of a housing bubble, or because you might leave
the area in a year or two), but there’s nothing politically or morally
objectionable about homeownership per se–it’s hard in modern America
even to imagine what those objections might be. But of course, that was
hardly the case with slaveownership in antebellum America. I’m not
suggesting that most non-slaveowning white Southerners objected on
moral or political grounds to slavery, but it seems unwise to start off
with a teaching technique that effectively excludes such possibilities
from the start.

My question is whether the analogy can still be salvaged.  Any idea?

An Effective Analogy

One of the most common retorts to the argument that slavery was central to the Southern way of life is to point out that only 1 in 4 white southerners actually owned slaves.  The argument suggests that ownership of slaves was a precondition for any decision that involved secession and even a reason to go off to war.  Recent studies of Southern society clearly show that the maintenance of the institution of slavery mattered in more ways than simple ownership.  It propped up a hierarchical society based on race and provided a means for advancement within society.  After all it took only one slave to be considered a "slave owner."  I find it difficult to make these points in class in a way that students identify with.  Luckily William Blair offers a wonderful analogy in his essay on slavery and secession which recently appeared in the new edited volume Struggle for a Vast Future. 

Imagine asking the question to a room full of primarily 18- through 21-year olds, "How many of you are homeowners?"  The predictably few hands that go up might provoke the following question: "Then does that mean you are against homeowning?"  The absurdity of the question strikes them almost immediately.  They understand that they have grown up in a society based on property owning by individuals, with homeowning as a means of measuring success.  Although listed on a census as non-homeowners, most have grown up in domiciles owned by parents and, even if they begin their independent adult lives as renters, wish to find property reflective of their social stations as soon as conditions allow.  Those who were raised in apartments admit to the power that homeowning holds on the culture.  Furthermore, while renters derive no benefit from the tax code that credits expenditures for interest rates on mortgages, few of them storm the tax office and cry for an end to the advantage, even if they grumble on tax deadline day about the lack of similar breaks for themselves.  Similar to our ancestors, we can overlook the contradictions within our society.  Many of us can walk by the homeless on the street and believe that a character flaw contributes to their condition, rather than challenge the individualism that undergirds our society or question whether we ought to accept the poverty-stricken as unfortunate, if inevitable casualties of a free-market system.

As Blair points out students can see the possibilities of a future war over the rights of homeowning and property, especially if it is couched in a broader ethical/moral language regarding a way of life. Slavery and homeowning both involve the rights of property ownership which makes this such an effective analogy.  Students can reflect on all the ways that homeowning fits into their broader economic and social world view.  What would it mean to lose this opportunity as an individual (freedom and self esteem) and a society? 

A Very Thoughtful Student

Today I received a very thoughtful gift from one of my students.  She is a rising senior who took my AP course in American history this past year.  This individual is one of the most incredibly interesting students that I’ve come across in recent years.  She is both intelligent and curious; more importantly, she is very comfortable with herself which is a rarity for high school girls.  Anyway, I thought I would share just a little of the inscription which she included in this gift.

Mr. Levin,

I know you would much rather have a gift certificate and your second option would be to return this book, but I’m writing in it so that you can’t!  But I don’t think you will want to return this because it is right along your line of research.  I haven’t actually read it, but it is about how the South remembers history and that reminded me of [David] Blight.  So, I hope you enjoy it.

The title of the book is The South Lives in History by Wendell H. Stephenson.  The book is essentially Stephenson’s Fleming Lectures which are published by the LSU Press.  This one I believe has been out-of-print for awhile so it is really nice to have a copy.  The opening chapter traces the historiography of the South up to this book’s publication in 1955.  Additional chapters cover the careers of both William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips.  I will get a great deal of use out of this one. 

What a great gift from a wonderful student — made my year.