Iam in the process of finalizing my elective for the next trimester, which begins after we return from Thanksgiving break. It’s a course that I am calling Civil War Memory. Last year I taught it as a straightforward readings course and this year the plan was to use it as a platform for doing some digital history. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near to being ready to teach this kind of course. I simply don’t feel comfortable enough with some of the technology necessary to make this a successful course. Hopefully I can implement it next year. This leaves me with the question of how to structure this year’s course. As successful as last year’s version of the course was, I prefer to stay away from a readings course. So, I am planning on teaching a course that emphasizes Civil War memory and popular culture through film. This way, I can still utilize the books that have been ordered, especially Blight’s Race and Reunion, along with selections from recent books by Gary Gallagher and Brian Wills.
This post was published last year at this time and since my students are preparing essays on the subject I thought I might offer it once again.
Today my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie. Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863. Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong. One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th. This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning. As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves. Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts. Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.
I talk quite a bit on this blog about why and how I teach American history on the high school level. At times I’ve engaged in some passionate debates about the proper content and the necessary skills that ought to be imparted to our students. As much as I value these exchanges and the issues they involve my first priority as a teacher has always been to engage each of my students as individuals. I try to get to know them as much as possible and I take a sincere interest in the development of each and every one. Inevitably we grow attached to those select few who make an impact on our lives in one way or the other. It’s those moments between classes, during office hours, in the cafeteria, and while playing music that we as teachers make the most meaningful connections. What I love most about teaching on the high school level is the way in which my students keep me young. I feed off their energy every day.
Last week I learned that one of my former students died. Austin Frazier was a junior at James Madison University where he studied psychology. I remember Austin as a bright-eyed young intellectual during his sophomore year. We spent quite a bit of time talking politics, but especially philosophy. He carried around a beat up copy of Friederich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and freely shared passages with me as we waked the halls between classes. The book was always held with the cover on the outside and it sort of reminded me of how I used to hold my copy of Plato’s Republic in college. In his junior year Austin took my AP US History course and he gave me a run for my money. Not a day went by that I didn’t have to respond to a thoughtful question or reflection that connected the subject to some broader philosophical issue. Many of the latter discussions had to wait until office hours or after school, but they are some of my most cherished memories of Austin. I never lost sight of the fact that Austin’s energy and insatiable drive for knowledge and understanding came with a heavy price. Of course, I will never understand Austin’s private struggles but I tried my best to make sure that he was doing his best to take care of himself. Austin had wonderful friends and his teachers cared a great deal about his well-being. The best I could do was to be there and try to direct his energies. During his senior year Austin and I read through books by Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel. The readings were difficult and the meetings were intense.
I continued to worry about Austin after he graduated and did my best to keep in touch. The thought that Austin is no longer around is incredibly sad and my heart goes out to both his family and friends. It’s hard not to feel like a tiny piece of me died last week. You can read more about Austin from those that new him here and here (on Facebook).
As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history. While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians. So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography. As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking. I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution. The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week. The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out. Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it. It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews. I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week. Wood’s book was a revelation to me. The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind. This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before. Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.
The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations. I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles. The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why. Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood. My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes. With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author. Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.
If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me. Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals. I make no apologies for that. I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.
All of this talk about nefarious academic historians has left my head spinning. The commentary reminds me of the rhetoric from the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s. Anyone and everyone is a target and no one who dares stand up in front of a classroom is safe. Watch your tongue; keep your own views locked shut; and don’t let anyone see you reading the New York Times. I want to send this post out to Chris Wehner who has done a fabulous job of exposing me for the radical that I am and to Richard Williams who, apparently, has never attended college, but has made it his life’s mission to expose the university as a bastion of anti-American ideologues. Wonderful work gentlemen.
One of my Facebook friends shared with me the following print by Jon McNaughton, titled, “One Nation Under God”. Supposedly, the image is the result of a vision the artist had during the 2008 election. Click here for the above image and run your cursor for descriptions of each individual. I will leave it to you to interpret it, but I wanted to point out “The Professor”, who is positioned on the stairs just to Jesus’s left. Notice that Satan himself is positioned close by. The Professor holds a copy of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and if you run your cursor over him the following pop-up description appears:
He holds his “Origin of Species” book by Charles Darwin. This represents the liberal lefts control of our educational system. His smug expression describes the attitude of many of the educational elite. There is no room for God in education. There is contempt for any other viewpoints. Humanism dominates the educational system of America and I believe that is wrong. Notice that he is the only one sitting on the top step. He tries to place himself on an equal footing with God, but he is still nothing next to the intelligence of the creator.
Yeah, I know plenty of people who fit this description. In fact, I can’t wait to hang out with a bunch of them next month at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Louisville. You gotta love it.
One final point. Why is the Union soldier on the left crying? Why isn’t he standing tall and proud as a symbol of the end of slavery? I assume that is part of God’s plan for America. Perhaps he could be positioned next to Frederick Douglass, who is barely visible in the back.