I‘m behind in my APUS History classes which has forced me to move quickly through the Civil War. You can imagine how frustrating that is given my interests. Regardless, I am very particular about the language I use to describe the past and I expect my students to be attentive to such matters as well. It matters how we refer or describe individuals and events, especially when discussing our Civil War. I’ve already mentioned my preference for consistently referring to the United States rather than the Union or the North.
In my discussions today I noticed a couple of students looking at me funny whenever I referred to a Confederate invasion of the United States. Of course, I was referring specifically to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Gettysburg Campaign the following summer. [We could also throw in Jubal Early's little foray in 1864 in as well.] I inquired into their strange stares and one of the students admitted that he was not used to thinking of the Confederate army as an invading army. Not surprisingly, this same student had no difficulty coming to terms with an invasion of the South or Confederacy. A few students embraced Lincoln’s fairly consistent belief that the southern states were in rebellion and therefore still a part of the nation, but they had no qualms with the idea of an invasion.
I guess this has everything to do with the assumption that the Confederacy was simply fighting a defensive war. But it also goes to some of our more cherished beliefs that draw a sharp distinction between Confederate and United States armies. For the latter, we immediately think of Grant and Sherman, who did, in fact, engage in aggressive offensives throughout the war. On the other hand, we do have difficulty acknowledging the same aggressive tendencies in Confederate commanders. We would rather remember them as leading a gallant defensive effort against overwhelming resources rather than as engaged in a war that would hopefully lead to independence for all slave holding states. Invasions are carried out by generals like Grant and Sherman, not by Lee and Jackson. I suspect that my students are dealing with this baggage. If I had more time or if that comment had come in my elective course on the Civil War I could have utilized any number of primary and secondary sources that shed light on this subject.
Today is the first day of the new trimester and I am once again teaching a course on Civil War Memory. I have two sections with a total of 12 students. Hopefully, the small sections will make for even more interesting discussions. This is a reference sheet that I put together for one of my Teaching American History talks from a few months back. It includes a few of the scholarly materials that I’ve utilized as well as some ideas for the classroom. Let me know if you try out any of my proposed classroom projects and please feel free to share what you do in your own courses. Continue reading
I know, I know, I know…you don’t want to hear any more about Richard Dreyfuss. [see here and here] Well, this will probably be it.
There seems to be a generational divide regarding Dreyfuss’s speeches. While Dreyfuss himself has admitted that he has had difficulty reaching out to high school kids an older generation seems to be lapping up his doomsday scenarios about the future of this nation and the supposed incompetence of our youth. But isn’t that the way it always is?: “Every generation thinks it;s the end of the world.” [Wilco] Dreyfuss received a standing ovation earlier this week in Gettysburg after speaking at the annual commemoration of Lincoln’s address. Geez, what a surprise given the profile of his audience. I would love to know how many in the audience attended these same exercises when they were in high school? More to the point, Dreyfuss’s perception of our youth clearly reflects no interaction with the very people that he claims to be so concerned about:
Tell Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to help us create games that make us more thoughtful and able to think things through instead of wasting the computer power that sent us to the moon and back on the blood-splatter of gangster video games.
And there you have it. Continue reading
One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.” He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed. For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given. I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian. By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.
The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts. We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature. The issue is not one of a lack of explanation. What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention. I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle. At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it. It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents. I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period. For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation. Continue reading
Yesterday I accepted a very kind offer to take part in the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Teacher Institute in July 2010. I’ve been following their programs over the past few years and have to say that I am very impressed. This year the institute will be held in Hagerstown, MD July 16 – 18th, 2010. The battlefield we will be touring on Saturday is Gettysburg, the tours will be led by the National Park Service (Scott Hartwig & team) and Garry Adelman (doing a then and now photography tour). There is a limit of 200 teachers so you may want to register sooner than later. This is a free professional development opportunity, teachers only cover their travel and lodging; however, there are scholarships to cover even those costs. This sounds like a great deal and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to talk about something that is so important to me. I will be taking part in a panel discussion during the Saturday evening banquet to discuss the teaching of the Civil War with Web2.0 technology.