Category Archives: Teaching

Why Political History is Really, Really Important

My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Occupation Safety & Health Administration
  • National Transportation & Safety Board
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children
  • Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation

I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies.  No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal.  When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own.  What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda.  Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism.  No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.

At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican.  Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.

I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources.  Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory.  Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.

The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter.  On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party.  Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well.  History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.

The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context.  We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades.  When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties.  Perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Just a thought.

Even More Liberal Lies About America

Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course.  It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s.  Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at.  According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students.  I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)

As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism.  The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988.  Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,”  “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.”  The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick.  Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others.  The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)

Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:

The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition.  It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so.  Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.

Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century.  Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom.  Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?”  Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment.  The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty.  The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)

That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history.  It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.

On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:

The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base.  Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished.  Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality.  They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion.  (p. 1050)

As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.

Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history?  Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author.  Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians.  I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.

Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology. :D

Calling All Civil War Memory Enthusiasts

I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory.  While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers.  Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic.  Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project.  Thanks everyone.

I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.

As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.

I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.

A Few Minutes With David Blight

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship.  Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site.  Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater.  This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance.  After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.

[Click here for Part 2]

Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, and Civil War Memory

This post originally ran in April 2007.  I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month.  I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war?  Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

We shall see.