Getting to Know Virginia’s SOL’s

For a couple reasons that I will not go into I’ve been exploring Virginia’s SOL’s for the survey course in American history.  My specific focus has been the period between 1850 and 1880, though I did spend a little time exploring the late colonial period through the Revolution.  I tend to think that the SOL’s are more a reflection of a lack of talented history teachers in the public schools rather than an external set of standards imposed.  This is unfortunate for those history teachers trained in the field and quite capable of developing their own curriculum that have the potential of going beyond the basic requirements of the SOL’s. That said, after perusing the outline for the American history course I have to admit that it’s not all a disaster.  For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia’s SOL’s you should first know that the outline of the course is divided into four columns which are headed from right to left: "Essential Understandings" (EU), "Essential Questions" (EQ), Essential Knowledge" (EK), and "Essential Skills" (ES).  I like the progression from the abstract in the far left column to concrete skill-based requirements which ideally will demonstrate some mastery of an abstract idea and essential facts.  Essential skills tend to revolve around geography, sequencing events, and analysis of primary and secondary sources, and the appreciation of multiple perspectives in history.   This is essentially my course in a nutshell.

Where my course differs, however, is in the content.  I can’t help but think that some of the SOL content is politically motivated or simply the result of compromises made between various interest groups.  The result is a confused overview of the Civil War era that, if followed carefully, must leave some teachers (and students) confused.  Here are a few examples that I find particularly troubling.  One of the things that struck me is the extent to which the SOL’s bounce back and forth between citing regional differences over the proper interpretation of the Constitution or states rights v. federal government, and slavery.  Both positions are expressed but there is never a point in the outline where a coherent statement is expressed.  As EK students are to acknowledge that "Northerners believed that slavery should be abolished for moral reasons."  More interesting is the choice to use Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as examples of differing views on the respective powers of the states and federal government.  Why Lee is chosen is beyond me given that he was not a political thinker or responsible for a cogent statement about this nature of the federal government.  One of the EQ’s asks students to explain, "How Lincoln’s view of the nature of the Union differ[ed] from Lee’s."  Why not use Jefferson Davis or some other southern politician?  When did Lee become a significant commentator on the nature of the constitution? 

Moving to the war years students must be able to identify the following leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas.  While I have little quarrel with the list I do wonder why Jackson is elevated to the level of Douglas, Davis, and Lincoln.  I am not denying that it is not worth studying the life of Jackson, but is he that important to understanding the evolution of the war in Virginia and elsewhere?  Yes, the teacher can mention that he performed extremely well in battle and that he was a religious zealot, but how exactly does that get him to the top of the heap?  I don’t get it.  During the two weeks my AP classes have spent on the Civil War I may have mentioned Jackson twice and both time briefly.  There are way more important people that need to be understood.  Under EK Jackson is described as a "talented" Confederate general.

Given my recent emphasis on black Confederates you will be happy to know that "African Americans fought in both the Union and Confederate armies."  This has to be one of the most confused set of bullet points that I’ve even seen.  There is no explanation beyond this which is incredibly disturbing.  I have to wonder what your average teacher does with this information without any familiarity with the literature on the subject.  One has to imagine that in classes throughout Virginia students are finishing the year with the belief that the experiences of blacks in both armies was comparable.  It then goes on to say that "The Confederacy often used slaves as naval crew members and soldiers."  One of the bullet points notes that "African American soldiers were discriminated against and served in segregated units under the command of white officers."  Unfortunately, given the earlier bullet point that blacks served as soldiers in both armies it is impossible to know which army is being cited.  Perhaps they were fully integrated in Confederate armies and years ahead of the U.S. Army. (LOL) [While we’re at it let’s go ahead and teach Intelligent Design in their biology classes and get it over with.]

Finally, Virginia’s students learn that "Reconstruction policies were harsh and created problems in the South."  By what standards are federal policies to be considered harsh?  And for whom were they harsh?  Did 4 million black southerners respond to federal policies as their white neighbors?  Well, I think that’s about enough for now.

A Great Day in Richmond

Tredegar_005We had a great time in Richmond today and I couldn’t be prouder of the way my students conducted themselves while at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  A few of my students came dressed as tourists which you can see in the photos I took.  We spent about 90 minutes walking through the exhibit and discussing its key interpretive points.  They thought carefully about how Lincoln is interpreted within the overall narrative while at the same time keeping a sharp focus on the overall interpretive theme of the museum which is to tell the story of the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives.  I used to think that the museum is too small, but today I realized that it is ideal for student groups; within 60 – 90 minutes you can complete the exhibit with a fairly sophisticated understanding of the war years and beyond.  What I am most pleased with is that the assignment forced my students to critique the exhibit.  Towards the end we gathered in a spot and spent a few minutes sharing observations about the overall effect of the museum.  Most of my students were positive, but a few had criticisms about the amount of attention on the Union perspective and the spike-like rods that can be pulled to reveal various statistics and other pieces of information.  I am not a big fan of these rods, but I just realized that the sound they emit is something you would have heard in a foundry which is where the exhibit is located.    Ilook forward to reading my student’s final papers which will synthesize what they observed at Tredegar with their other reading assignments. 

Tredegar_003Afterwords we walked over to the Lincoln-Tad monument where we took photographs.  In class yesterday we read a few articles about the controversy surrounding the unveiling of the monument back in 2003.  It was very difficult for me to impress upon them the emotions that were generated in the days leading up to and on the day of the unveiling.  They couldn’t understand why various heritage groups would have a problem with a Lincoln statue in Richmond and they were even less impressed with some of the more outrageous claims made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and League of the South.  I found myself trying to make the best case possible for their view to keep the discussion going.  Finally, we headed on over to Hollywood Cemetery for a short walking tour.  We focused specifically on the sites off of Confederate Avenue and then walked to President’s Circle to see John Tyler and James Monroe.  Today was a perfect day for a field trip and also an wonderful way to top off what has been a challenging and fun semester course. 

Click here for additional photographs from the trip.

Interpreting Lincoln at Tredegar

As I mentioned yesterday today my Lincoln class will be traveling to Richmond to visit the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  The purpose of the trip is to explore how Lincoln has been remembered/interpreted in a museum setting.  Students will write a final essay which compares Tredegar’s interpretation of Lincoln with other sources discussed over the course of the semester.  Below is the handout.  Feel free to offer comments.

Interpreting Lincoln at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar: Final Project

Directions: Over the course of the semester we have read a great deal about the life of Abraham Lincoln and specifically his crucial role during the Civil War. Interpretations by historians such as William Gienapp, Ira Berlin, and James McPherson have given us a great deal to debate and discuss. While our main sources in this class have been primary and secondary sources, Lincoln’s life and public career has been interpreted much more widely through monuments and in other public spaces.  Museums also interpret the past and the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is one of the more recent sites to do so. The museum’s overall goal is to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives. In doing so, this museum attempts to be both inclusive and at the same time acknowledge that the war was viewed very differently depending on a number of factors such as race, place, gender, and political affiliation. The information that you collect today will serve as the foundation for your final essay in this class, which will address how the museum at Tredegar interprets Lincoln’s presidency.

1. Overall interpretive questions that you must address at the beginning of your essay: Discuss the way the exhibit interprets the three perspectives on the war. Are all three given the same weight? What are the most effective components of the exhibit? Choose three artifacts that best represent Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives.  Is the stated goal of the exhibit successful? sure you explain your answer.

While the museum is not focused narrowly on Lincoln, it does acknowledge his importance at various points in the exhibit. Your job is to explore where and how Lincoln is interpreted throughout the exhibit. Concentrate, but do not confine yourselves to three main areas of the exhibit, including the cause of the war, emancipation, and the end of the war. Use the following questions as a guide.

A. The Cause of Secession/War: Make sure you explore the interactive video on the cause of the war.

     1. Where is Lincoln first introduced in the exhibit and what does it say about him? How does the museum explain the cause of the Civil War and what is Lincoln’s role in the interpretation?

     2. As you view the interactive video on the cause of the war pay careful attention to references to Lincoln. What do the three commentators state or fail to state about Lincoln’s role in secession?

B. Emancipation: We have read quite a bit about Lincoln’s role in the “emancipation drama” this semester. Your goal here should be to think comparatively between how the historians discussed this semester explained emancipation and how the museum exhibit addresses this.

     1. How does the exhibit compare with Ira Berlin’s claim that the slaves themselves functioned as “primary movers” on the road to emancipation? Would Berlin be pleased with this section of the exhibit?

     2. Is Lincoln’s role in emancipation given sufficient attention? In thinking about this question pay careful attention to the video on the subject. [In your final essay you can compare the museum interpretation with Gienapp, Berlin, and Ken Burns.]

C. The End of the War/April 1865 and Reconstruction

     1.In what way is Lincoln’s legacy explored in the exhibit? Think about his visit to Richmond in April 1865 just after the surrender of the city as well as his vision of Reconstruction.

Three Lincoln Links

Tomorrow I am taking my Lincoln class to Richmond to visit the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  Following the visit we will walk over to the Lincoln-Tad monument and talk a bit about how Lincoln has been remembered, commemorated, and vilified since his death in April 1865.  Afterwords we will drive over to Hollywood Cemetery for a quick walk around Confederate Avenue followed by lunch.  In preparation for our visit my students will read three articles on the Lincoln statue:

New York Times article from April 6, 2003

Statement from Charles Bryan Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Historical Society

Southern Poverty Law Center article, "Lincoln Reconstructed"