Category Archives: Teaching

Civil War Monuments and Virginia Politics

confederate_monument_500pxThere is an interesting article in today’s Washington Post on the place of Civil War statues in a changing Virginia political landscape.  It’s a fairly balanced look at how these sites are interpreted by different constituencies and it directly addresses the connection between political power and how our public spaces are used to remember the past.  John Coski explains that connection in pointing out that, “A monument always testifies to power — to who was in power at the time.”  The Civil War statues that dominate Monument Avenue in Richmond and the soldier statues that populate local court houses serve as a reminder of white supremacy and a commitment to imparting to the general public a memory of the war that reinforced its preferred view of the past.  Such a view worked to reinforce political dominance through much of the twentieth century.  One wonders what the landscape of memory would look like if between 1880 and 1920 black Americans were able to take part in the decisions over who and what to remember.  How might Monument Avenue appear today under such changed circumstances?

I welcome the debate about how utilize our finite public space in commemorating and remembering the past; however, I worry about the tone that it has taken and will likely take as we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  My biggest concern is the language of “tearing down” Civil War monuments that are deemed to be antiquated or even racist. Consider the recent controversy over a prominent Civil War statue in Raleigh, North Carolina involving a columnist who called for the newly-elected governor to tear it down. [Click here for the original column and here for a follow-up.]

I must remember that I approach these questions from the detached perspective of a historian interested in memory and public history and as a teacher who believes these sites need to be properly interpreted.  In other words, I understand that people are passionate about these issue.  The problem with the language of removal is that it fails to address some of the underlying issues that drive the discourse.  It’s ultimately a veiled attempt at covering up the problem rather than working to better understand it or, more importantly, working toward meaningful reconciliation over what the Civil War was about.  In the case of J. Peder Zane, however, it seems to me that all he managed to accomplish was to cause the various parties to dig in their heels even more firmly.  It leads to defensiveness and suspicion and renders it that much more difficult to engage in meaningful discourse.

3217946367_2796191d71I recently took 30 students to Richmond to explore its Civil War heritage through monuments.  This was a fairly diverse group of students who have very different opinions as to what the war was about and how it should be remembered.  As we walked around the Lee and Davis monuments in Richmond and walked through Hollywood Cemetery we discussed and analyzed the sites and tried to better understand both the time in which they were constructed and their continued place on the public landscape.  Even with a diversity of opinion not one of my students suggested that the solution was to remove them from public viewing; in fact, most of them acknowledged in one way or another that it is important for them to remain where they are.

Public spaces are not static.  To understand this point is to acknowledge that they reflect the changing dynamics of the people who must live within their midst and, in many cases, maintain their integrity through tax dollars.  If that is the starting point than it is incumbent on the community to discuss in as open and as honest a way how these sites should be maintained.  I’ve tended to support at least two approaches in those situations when a monument or other structure no longer reflects the values of a substantial portion of the local population.  The most common approach is to add to the landscape as in the case of the Arthur Ashe monument in Richmond, but the approach taken in Louisville, Kentucky is also instructive.  In 2002, the University of Louisville announced plans to add civil rights monuments around its Civil War statue as part of a new development to be called “Freedom Park”, which will include structures commemorating the Civil Rights Movement.  Another way of bridging the divide between the commemoration of a statue and the present is to place interpretive markers that educate the public about the origins of the structure.  These do not have to be overly intrusive and can go far in placing the site in its proper historical context.  What I like about this approach is that it does not prevent members of the public from attaching their own preferred interpretation or meaning to the structure.  Perhaps the best example of this approach is the placement of an interpretive marker at the Heyward Shepherd Marker at Harpers Ferry, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1931.  [Click here for an excellent overview of the history of this monument and also see Caroline Janney's recent essay in Civil War History (June 2006).]

I am not overly confident that rational discourse about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in public spaces is possible.  Our culture is much too comfortable with a language of polarization that includes “Red States v. Blue States”,  “Capitalism v. Socialism”, etc.  Ultimately, we have to want to talk to one another or perhaps we must first learn how to do so.

 

“Is This the Union That Lincoln Was Trying To Save?”

I’ve been playing around with an elective idea on conspiracy theories in American history.  It provides an opportunity to explore issues of epistemology in historical studies as well as the ease with which myth and outright lies can be disseminated and, in some cases, become part of our cultural lexicon.  One of the projects that I’ve considered assigning would allows students to develop their own conspiracy theory using video or some other social networking program.  This would allow the general public to consider it and make a decision as to its veracity or as a means to gauge some of the biases that shape those judgments.  Consider the following short video that attempts to draw a connection between Lincoln, his legal activities with the railroads in the 1850s and the supposed purpose of the American Civil War.  Of course, the individual who put this together believes the content of his video to be true:

It’s not a very convincing video, but please take notice of the comments that follow.  It suggests that for my students to create a convincing interpretation they would have to have a sufficient command of the relevant literature.  So, what would be the goal of such an exercise?  Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction.  It would also reinforce one of my top priorities, which is to encourage healthy skepticism and strong analytical skills in my students.  It may lead to some interesting psychological and/or cognitive observations concerning our ability to engage in critical analysis in a society that thrives on suspicion and distrust of power.

Of course, there are a number of ethical considerations involved in such a course/project.  Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public.  While the deception would not be carried out in the name of this school there is an obvious connection that cannot be severed or minimized.  What is paramount for students to keep in mind is that the end goal is not the deception, but what we learn about the extent to which the public can be deceived.  Consider a recent class at George Mason University where the students created a fictional character and utilized Wikipedia, blogs, and other social networking sites to test the ease with which their interpretations could be successfully filtered through the Web.

I am nowhere near proposing such a course, but it is an idea that I keep coming back to, which means that it is very likely that I will act on it at some point in the not too distant future.  What do you think?

 

Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right

It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school.  Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript.  As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.

This is not a formal presentation.  I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there.  So, here’s what I got.  In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln.  I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter.  I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory.  At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.

With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery.  We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.

Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses.  I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.”  In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races.  Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class.  What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties.  How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?

Please feel free to add your own ideas.  Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.

 

Challenges of Teaching the Civil War

n1572390066_30165665_223Next week I will be heading down to Richmond to take part in the American Civil War Museum’s 3-day conference, “Lincoln and the South.” at the University of Richmond.  It’s an all-star line-up of Civil War scholars, including William J. Cooper, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck – you get the picture.  I will be leading a discussion on Saturday morning for teachers on the challenges of teaching the Civil War and Lincoln in the classroom.  The teachers will range from kindergarten through the college level.

I am working on a set of questions for the participants to consider concerning some of the most challenging aspects of teaching the subject.   What are the most difficult aspects of the Civil War to teach and why?  What are some of the most common assumptions that students bring to the classroom regarding the war and what are some effective ways to challenge those assumptions?  Finally, what biases/assumptions do we as teachers bring to the classroom and to what extent does our own discomfort with some of the more divisive issues shape the way we teach?  Finally, I hope to introduce some strategies for teachers to employ to address some of these issues.

What do you think?

[photo of me teaching on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia]

 

Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.