Category Archives: Teaching

A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That's not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

Do You Want Richard Dreyfuss Teaching Your Kids?

It’s hard to take issue with someone who is passionate about the teaching of civics and American history in our classrooms.  Apparently, actor-turned activist, Richard Dreyfuss even took a few years away from his acting career to study at Oxford in preparation for his non-profit campaign.  Dreyfuss is working on a video series that pulls together lectures from various scholars on civics and government as well as our responsibilities as citizens.  To promote this campaign Dreyfuss has hit the talk show circuit and has recently been interviewed by the likes of Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee.

Let me say again that I have nothing but the highest respect for this man’s commitment, but there are a few things that I am having difficulty with.  First, Dreyfuss seems to be driven by something akin to a savior complex.  You can see this in the videos news articles:

In May 2006, Dreyfuss had lunch with an old friend, Bob Tankard, an all-island school committee member and former school principal. “We’ve known each other for more than 20 years,” says Tankard. “We always talked about changing the world. Years ago I told Richard that he should give up acting and go into education or politics, but he said he needed to pay the bills.” Over lunch the two men caught up on each other’s lives and discussed modern democracy. They agreed that the role of civics had been forgotten and that schools needed to reinstate a civics curriculum from kindergarten through high school. “That’s when Richard reminded me that I had urged him to change professions,” Tankard says. “He told me he was ready to make the leap.”

I have no doubt that Dreyfuss has been warmly welcomed by the teaching community, but do we really need him to promote civics education in our schools?  Do we need to be saved by Dreyfuss and his video series?  And if we do, from what exactly?  I can’t help but think that we’ve returned to the old argument that this generation of students is fundamentally different from previous generations.  Supposedly, they know and care less than their parents and far less than their grandparents about government and history.  Something along these lines is implied in Dreyfuss’s justification for a renewed civics education.  At times he sounds like one of these conservative broken records who laments on the loss of civil discourse or a point in American history that was pre-partisan – a golden age of American democracy.

The notion that this generation of students knows less than their elders or that the state of history education has been in free fall for the last few decades is absolute nonsense.  Contrary to Dreyfuss, our politicians have rarely, if ever, risen above political partisanship and I suspect that our citizenry is just as gullible and ignorant as in any other time in the past.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to send these people back in time to the 1790s for that heavy dose of civil discourse that they so dearly crave?  Until then, I recommend that Dreyfuss read Joanne Freeman’s Affiars of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2002).  Perhaps Dreyfuss has played one too many sleazy politican or perhaps he has spent too many hours watching MSNBC, FOX, etc., which masquerade as serious news channels that pretend to engage in civil discourse.  Actually, I don’t even think they pretend.

Dreyfuss is right about one thing.  We do need to teach our students how to think critically and ecourage them to become what I prefer to call healthy skeptics.  We want our students to think through complex questions not simply as Republicans or Democrats or as participants in some reality show, but as “thinking beings.”  I’ve always thought that my most important responsibility is to teach my students to think – the content is secondary.  Let’s face it, most of my students will forget much of what they are taught, but they can use the analytical skills throughout their lives.

So, welcome aboard Mr. Dreyfuss.  You’ve put your finger on one of the fundamental challenges facing history/civics teachers.  Now take a seat, breathe, and notice that we’ve been at this for a long time now.  Best of luck to you.

A Few Thoughts About The AP Test

515ehdjjjqlNo surprise that the most popular search engine query this week has to do with the AP US History Test which is scheduled for Friday.  I’ve received a number of emails from students asking for tips on studying as well as from fellow teachers who are desperately trying to figure out what the DBQ will be.  I can’t tell you how depressing all of this is.  My students are visibly worried about the test and the more I focus on preparation the more anxious they become.  Part of me hopes they do well and the other part honestly has no care in the world.  It’s a strange position to be in, but one that reflects my deep antipathy for the AP curriculum.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been in a rat race to ensure that I finish the textbook before Friday.  I’ve had to run rough shod over aspects of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the end of the Cold War to do it and it has made me depressed as hell.  Oh and that last chapter on the post-9/11 period…well…make sure you peruse that chapter when you have some free time.  Even worse, is the acknowledgment that the last major assessment of their experience in my classroom will be a standardized test that I had no hand in crafting. There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.  My two sections have been absent half the usual number since many of my students take more than one AP Test.  This means that I am unable to bring the course to a close since the class doesn’t meet again after Friday.  Yes, it will be nice to have two weeks with a reduced schedule, but this is no way to end what has been a very intense and challenging experience for many.

I’ve tried my best to introduce my students to the study of history as well as the complexity that is U.S. History.  At the same time I’ve tried to impress upon them the extent and myriad ways in which the past continues to shape our individual perceptions and belief structure as well as the obligations we have as citizens.  Unfortunately, they are not thinking about that; rather, they are sweating over a standardized test.

So, if you are student looking for tips for Friday, all I can say is do your best and remember that any assessment of the past year ought to be about more than Friday’s results.  And, if you are a teacher looking for clues about the DBQ try to remember why we teach this subject.

This is my least favorite week of the entire school year.

“The History Boys”

the_history_boysLast night I made my acting debut in the Tony Award winning play, “The History Boys.”  It’s the story of a small group of pupils in a British school who are being groomed for admission to Oxford and Cambridge.  The story follows this small group as they navigate through two very different teaching philosophies as well as their own sexuality.  Those of you who have seen the movie are aware of the mature content and may even be surprised that a high school has allowed it to be performed at all.  I am proud to say that I work in a school that strives to address controversial material in a mature and educational manner.  Needless to say, the weeks rehearsing have been challenging given the dialog between student and teacher, though in the end I think we’ve all learned something from one another about this thing called education.

Two scenes in particular stand out to me given my interest in historical memory.  The first takes place in a full classroom and the second between a teacher and student:

Scene 1

Scripps: But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it?  What has that got to do with anything?  Let’s go back to 1914 and I’ll put you a different case.  Try this for size.  Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it.  Though there’s no reason why we should want war.  Nothing in it for us.  Better stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings.  These are facts.  Why do we not care to acknowledge them?  The cattle, the body count.  We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died.  A photograph on every mantelpiece.  And all this mourning has veiled the truth.  It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember.  Because you should realise that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something that by commemorating it.

Scene 2

Posner: Hodge?

Hector: Mmm – the important thing is that he has a name.  Say Hardy is writing about the Zulu Wars or later the Boer War possibly, these were the first campaigns when soldiers…or common soldiers…were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.  Before this, soldiers…private soldiers anyway, were all unknown soldiers, and so far from being revered there was a firm in the nineteenth century, in Yorkshire of course, which swept up their bones from the battlefield of Europe in order to grind them into fertiliser.  So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer boy.  Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name.

Spring Is In the Air

I can always tell when the school year is beginning to wind down by looking around campus.  The campus explodes with an array of colors.  The flowers are beginning to bloom, students spend more time outside and you are likely to find one or more classes taking advantage of the large trees that dot the school grounds.  This is truly one of the more beautiful high school campuses in central Virginia.  Tomorrow we will hold our second annual outdoor chapel, followed by live music and the weather should be delightful.  Today is just one of those days that serves to remind me of how much I enjoy teaching at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School.