I am not a big fan of using history videos in my classroom. Most are poorly produced and fail to add anything of substance to the various activities that I employ. If I use video at all they are in short clips of historical footage such as a speech, parade, etc. pulled from YouTube. At the beginning of the year History Channel mailed me a copy of their recent series, America: The Story of Us. It sat on my shelf and I really had no plans to use it after having viewed a few segments. However, as a way to get their intellectual juices flowing again after their Thanksgiving break I decided to show them the section on westward expansion through the 1850s as a way to introduce them to the next textbook chapter. I wasn’t so concerned about the content; rather, I asked students to evaluate the narrative, along with the visuals, choice of talking heads, and the intended audience.
The video clearly kept their attention long after the point where you begin to see eyes glaze over or heads hitting the table. They were impressed with the visual effects, especially the panoramic shots that helped them to conceptualize the pace of expansion. We especially enjoyed the segment on the construction of the Erie Canal. What they did not like at all was the choice of commentators. They understood early on that the video was meant to attract the audience, but the choice of Michael Douglas, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg did not impress them at all. A few students asked me to explain their qualifications for discussing American history. Even more surprising was their reaction when John Legend, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Martha Stewart appeared. One of my students thought it was appropriate that Stewart was dressed in orange, but for the most part my students just laughed. A few of them were visibly confused as to why the producers of this video would ask these people to offer commentary about specific historical events.
Keep in mind that I didn’t anticipate their responses, but after thinking about I have to say that I am encouraged by it. I think they acknowledged the video’s usefulness, but their reaction to seeing high profile public figures as well as entertainers that many of them identify with suggests that our students are more sophisticated than we sometimes give them credit for. I think what they are saying is go ahead and entertain us, but don’t assume that the only people we listen to and value are entertainers.
Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?
As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes. I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers. My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it. I usually feel like an impostor when doing so. There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy. I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes. Is it simply entertainment? Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent? And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”
This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs. The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter. My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph. As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course. Even that level of understanding must be student driven. And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole. Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all. My students were certainly not engaged.
But isn’t that the danger here? As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?
Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.
Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester. Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years. The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film. This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial. I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years. One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.
I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations. Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website. Let’s get to the important stuff. I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going. This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:
My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.
I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing. Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with. Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war. This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels. I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.
Every year as I prepare my classes I rediscover my love for the history of the American Revolution. Like the Civil War, the Revolution enjoys a wide range of talented scholars and popular writers, who continue to crank out thought-provoking studies many of which I end up incorporating into my class lectures. This year was no different. Here is a list of the books that I’ve read over the past few months or hope to complete at some point soon. I know many of you have an interest in the period so I am curious as to what you’ve read recently or are looking forward to reading.
Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I am just about finished with this book and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Carp does an outstanding job of placing the event within the context of the British Empire as a whole. He analyzes the local social and political scene in Boston as well as the choice of disguise and the consequences of the act.
Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I love books that force you to take a new perspective on familiar people and events. I recently heard that David McCullough’s next book will attempt something along the same lines.
Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009). Holton goes furthest in exploring Abigail’s role as the caretaker of the family’s finances during John’s many absences. I know that Joseph Ellis recently published a book on John and Abigail, but the reviews have not been good.
This week my AP classes are tackling the various reform movements of the Antebellum Period. It should come as no surprise that we spend a great deal of time on the Abolitionist Movement and William Lloyd Garrison in particular. This morning I began class with a fairly vague question to get the ball rolling that asked students to assess Garrison’s philosophy and goals. Their responses are fairly typical and express a collective belief that Garrison ought to be admired for his perseverance and that his goals were laudable. There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a response, but we should not pass up the opportunity to work to understand Garrison’s place both within the broader anti-slavery community and the society as a whole. We do this by first sketching out the goals of the American Colonization Society, which united a broad swath of the population as well as notable political figures from around the country. I then asked students to think about the implications of their goals of gradual abolition followed by colonization; what do these goals tell us about how Americans viewed slavery and race. Most of the students were able to see that the program was intended to cause the least amount of harm to slaveowners while colonization suggests that many Americans were unable to imagine a racially integrated society. This is the context in which to understand Garrison:
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
This broader picture allows students to move beyond their own narrow interpretation of Garrison’s words and actions to a clearer understanding of the extent to which his understanding of race challenged the very foundations of American society. This move from the personal to the historical is the bread and butter of historical inquiry and it is important, but it should not constitute the end of any classroom discussion about Garrison and the radical abolitionists. Continue reading “Coming To Terms With Garrison and Radicalism”→