Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom

Today during our weekly history department meeting we considered a questionnaire submitted by one of our students inquiring into our political beliefs and how our politics shapes both how we teach history and how we interpret the past. It’s incredibly encouraging to see a student take an interest in his education and express curiosity as to how his teachers think about his/her respective subject. On the other hand, the questions reflected a view of history education that has become all too common and that is that historical understanding is little more than an expression of personal politics. I almost feel as if we failed as a  department to properly convey just what is involved in thinking historically.

It is impossible to deny that our understanding of the past is influenced by our personal backgrounds and that includes our political views. But historical thinking involves much more than this. My history classroom isn’t a laboratory for competing political views. I ask my students to think like historians, which includes learning how to frame questions and how to go about searching for answers in the primary sources. It involves interpreting the evidence they uncover and trying as best they can to come to some conclusions. Those conclusions are then challenged and revised based on new questions, new ideas and new evidence. History is a process. I could inquire into how their personal backgrounds are influencing their reading of the sources, but I am not interested. My job is to assist them in working through the historical process. Right now my students are interpreting a collection of primary sources and thinking about whose vision of Reconstruction prevailed and why. Continue reading “Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom”

“Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude”

One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?

I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. Continue reading ““Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude””

A View of Emancipation From South of the Border

Emancipation MapOver the past few weeks my survey courses have been examining the political debates over the expansion of slavery in the United States as well as the experience of the slaves themselves. As part of the introduction to my Civil War unit today I tried to emphasize just how unexpected the end of slavery was in this country. Few Americans could have anticipated its abrupt end in 1860 given the continued rise in the value of slaves, the amount of wealth slave labor generated, and the extent to which it had become infused in American society.

I also shared with my students that some historians, including William Freehling, have speculated that without a war slavery could have continued into the twentieth century. This last point took them for a loop. They were unable to imagine the United States in the twentieth century with slaves. One student suggested that the system of slave labor always appeared incompatible with a modern economy. A few other students simply had trouble with the idea of the leader of the free world still holding onto slavery.

At that moment I decided to photocopy a short excerpt from Ed Baptist’s new book, which I will share tomorrow, but in the meantime I asked students to consider the image below. I wanted them to understand that even in 1865 (the year slavery ended) the United States was far from the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I found this image, but it certainly left an impression on my students.

We will continue the discussion tomorrow.

“America Is Not the Greatest Country in the World”

A couple weeks ago this short clip from the HBO series, “The Newsroom”, was posted by a couple of my Facebook friends. I’ve never seen the show so I don’t know much of anything about the storyline beyond the obvious. The topic of American Exceptionalism has come up on this blog before and it always seems to bring out emotional responses from my readers and from other bloggers, who can’t understand why I find the whole question of this nation’s exceptionalism to be uninteresting and even meaningless. Continue reading ““America Is Not the Greatest Country in the World””

“Every 3.6 Minutes”

I’ve always struggled with the way I teach the history of slavery to high school students. Pushing my students toward what I hope is a meaningful overview of slavery’s evolution and eventual demise inevitably overshadows change over time, regional differences, and even runs the risk of minimizing the horror of slavery itself. This last category is especially difficult to convey. Continue reading ““Every 3.6 Minutes””