Analyzing Young Man Lincoln in the Classroom

This week my Lincoln class focused on his formative years.  We read through the first chapter in William Gienapp’s biography and read Douglas L. Wilson’s essay “Young Man Lincoln” which is included in Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon.  One of the skills that I focus on in my electives is critical writing and thesis analysis.  I want my students to be able to read a text critically and be able to evaluate and summarize an author’s thesis.  To achieve this end I have them read relatively short essays and write a 2-3 page thesis summary.  While I try to assign creative projects to my classes there is nothing more important than being able to write a short analytical essay. It may not be the most exciting assignment, but the skill can be applied to any of the classes they will take in college.  I can’t tell you how many students have come back to thank me for making this a major component in my classes.

The trick is to find interesting essays that will engage students and when it comes to Lincoln’s early life there is nobody more engaging than Douglas Wilson.  He is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind one of the most important books ever written about Lincoln.  Wilson provides a philosophical/psychological framework that is ideal for classroom discussion.  He begins with Erik Erikson’s observation that “we gain a better understanding of the mature person by studying the events of his childhood and youth.”  That understanding comes from acknowledging the problem of hindsight.  According to Wilson, Lincoln’s formative years are best understood only after his later political career is removed from the picture so as to better appreciate the contingency that defined his early life.  In other words, we must appreciate the “struggles” of his early years in a way that is not influenced by the fact that he eventually became president.  We don’t want to read inevitability into the picture.  We also want to be watchful, according to Wilson, of not exaggerating Lincoln’s formative years as a story of overcoming impossible odds.  Wilson distinguishes between struggles and hardships and opts for the former concept as his framework.  Lincoln struggled with various issues, including depression, a belief in fatalism, and fear of “madness” but these do not necessarily constitute hardships.  Wilson wants his reader to see Lincoln as one among many who struggled on the frontier to make something of himself.  How Lincoln managed to do this is addressed by the posing of two questions: (1) Who am I? and (2) What am I to do?  As for the first one Wilson cites three characteristics, including his “tenderheartedness”, a deep-seated ambition, and independent thought.  As for the second question Wilson points to both the practice of law and politics.  It was Lincoln’s firm belief that he must leave his mark in history, according to Wilson, that allowed him to work through many of the well-known low points or moments of depression up through the mid-1840s.

As you might imagine the psychological thrust of this article is perfect for high school students.  One of my students came by my office to talk about the article and he remarked at one point that he could relate to the kinds of issues that Lincoln struggled with.  That was a nice moment.   During class today the students did a great job grappling with Wilson’s main points.  They questioned whether it was necessary to try to perceive Lincoln’s early years from a vantage point that ignored his later life or whether it even made sense to do so.  We spent a great deal of time trying to make sense of Wilson’s distinction between struggles and hardships.  One of the students asked whether there is a fine line between the two.  It was interesting to watch them pose questions about Wilson’s argument.  At first their questions were coupled with the expectation that I would offer some magical insight or answer.  I usually just nod my head and look for someone to respond; after some time they seem to get the message that I don’t have any answers to these questions.  Hopefully what they are learning is that the questions are worth considering without the expectation of a firm answer on my part.  Best of all the questions suggest that they are already learning how to analyze a historian’s argument.  Next week we look at an article on Lincoln’s marriage by Jean H. Baker.

If the class is this motivated so early in the semester I can hardly wait until we get to questions about his handling of the war and emancipation.  Hopefully I will be able to bring in Michael Holt, William Miller, and William Freehling at some point.

I Did Say I Wanted a New Challenge

The year has gotten off to a pretty good start.  I am enjoying all of my classes, especially the Lincoln class.  The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the new approach that I am taking in my US survey courses.  As I mentioned earlier, rather than utilizing the standard history textbook as a basic text we are reading individual secondary sources.  The first book on the list is Love and Hate in Jamestown by David Price, which we will read through the month of September.  The book is well written and the students seem to be enjoying it so far.  The challenge has been in how to use the book in class.  The textbook approach is clearly content driven and the job of the instructor is to find ways to think through or synthesize what is covered.  With a secondary source the challenge is in finding a balance between the ideas that drive the narrative and the relevant content.  I am coming to realize that we are not going to cover nearly as much content as we would with a textbook and I guess I am feeling a bit uncomfortable about that.  At the same time I am questioning why all of that lost detail really matters in the end.  Do our students remember it once the summer rolls around?  If not, perhaps we should be focusing on essential material along with critical thinking skills.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should be trying to inculcate an interest in historical studies that will outlast high school.  I actually have a few students who are more than half-way through this book.  Do any of you out there ever remember a student reading ahead in a history textbook and actually find it enjoyable?

Today we discussed the prologue.  Price introduces the reader to some of the main players and a number of themes, including the tension between a belief in a strict social hierarchy and John Smith’s more pragmatic approach to leadership.  He also spends considerable time discussing the Virginia Company of London and why it is important to understand that the primary motive for this expedition was profit.  I showed my classes some of the popular images of the Jamestown landing depict triumphant Englishmen planting the cross in the sand.  It is safe to say that most on board were simply content on getting off the boats onto solid ground.  This idea of spreading Christianity as a primary motivator for the Jamestown settlers is pure nonsense.  It will be interesting once we have an opportunity to compare Virginia with New England where religion clearly did prove to be a primary force behind colonization.  Still, my students are usually surprised when they attempt to get their hands around the Puritan concept of religious freedom, which seems alien.  We tend to think of religious freedom along Jeffersonian lines or as a negative concept.  The Puritans understood religious freedom as the freedom to practice a certain faith.  The idea that any kind of freedom could come as a result of not practicing Christianity was alien; individuals gained freedom through religion and God’s word.

While on my afternoon job I came up with what I think is a pretty cool essay assignment which should help my students make sense of Love and Hate.  The idea is to have each student write an essay from the point-of-view of the president of the Jamestown colony.  The essay will take the form of a report to the board of the Virginia Company of London in which the student must lay out a plan for carrying out the directives of the colony.  A number of issues will have to be addressed, including plans to bring profit to the company, maintain order in the fort, and peaceful relations with local Indian tribes.  The report will have to be dated with the date determining what kind of background information leading up to the report is relevant.  So, a report dated a few weeks after arriving at Jamestown in April 1607 will look very different from one written in 1610.  I have to work out some of the details, but I like the fact that this will give students room to be creative but will also demand that they deal with the history as they understand it.  What do you think?

Oh…and we are taking the entire junior class to Jamestown in October.

Two Generations of Whiteboards

Patch_026A few weeks ago I learned that my room will be used to teach one section of math.  I don’t mind admitting that at first I was horrified at the thought of my room being inhabited by those cold human calculators that reside on the floor below me.  Then I learned that a new piece of technology called a Smart Board will be installed in my classroom, which you can see in the photograph.  The board on the left is your traditional whiteboard while the smaller board on the right is the Smart Board.  Actually, it’s not a whiteboard at all, but a computer.  It is wired to a projector attached to the ceiling and a laptop.  The Smartboard is essentially an extension of the laptop.  You can project movies, graphs and other visuals onto the screen, but it also allows you to write on the screen itself with special pens.  This is why the product is so popular with math departments.  I can use this as a traditional whiteboard.  [Notice the special writing utensils for the Smartboard on the left.]  Anything written on the screen can be saved as a file.  So, I can project a painting, table, or any other image for my class to analyze, have my students point out various details which can be marked, take notes on the image itself, and then at the end save everything as a file on the computer for use later.  How cool is that?

Patch_027I am lucky to be working at a school where there is money for technology, but it is important to think through how it will be used before jumping in.  All too often teachers become seduced by the bells and whistles without considering how or whether it will enhance one’s teaching.  I am fortunate in that I will be able to experiment with the Smart Board at my own pace.  As you can see I still have my trusty "old" whiteboard within easy reach.  I’ve said it before that I consider myself to be a "meat and potatoes" kind of teacher.  Give me a historical document of some kind and a classroom filled with curious students and I will give you a decent history lesson.  Regardless of the technology it always comes back to that simple point. 

Looking Beyond Our Base: An Appeal to the SCWH

Yesterday I was asked to put together a panel for the June 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians which will take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The topic of the panel is the teaching of the Civil War in the high school classroom.  I’ve got most of the line-up worked out and it promises to be an interesting panel.  The first person I contacted was James Percoco who teaches at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia. He is one of the most innovative teachers in the field and he has published extensively on topics related to the classroom as well as public history.   His most recent book is titled My Summer With Lincoln which is forthcoming from the Fordham University Press.  I am excited about the opportunity to talk about a subject I care deeply about and just as pleased that Jim is available to take part.  That said, I do have one concern.  I have no doubt that we will receive some excellent feedback from whomever is in the audience, but more than likely it won’t be from fellow high school teachers.  The format for this conference will be familiar to those who attend academic gatherings and the participants will likely be the same faces that can be seen at the SHA, OAH, and AHA.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as academic conferences serve an important function for historians engaged in scholarly pursuits.  The OAH has done quite a bit to broaden its membership base to include high school teachers, but I wonder if the SCWH can go one step further. 

I remember some comments from Ethan Rafuse a few months back when this conference was first advertised.  He was concerned about the financial demands involved in traveling to another conference and suggested that the organization concentrate on setting up sessions at well-established venues.  Ethan has a point here, but only if the mission of the SCWH is envisioned along similar lines.  I think there is a unique opportunity to shape this conference and the organization as a whole in a way that branches off in new directions.  We work in a field that enjoys a great amount of attention and interest from the general public.  Civil War historians enjoy a notoriety that is unparalleled in the academic world of historical studies.  Many have reached out to the general public in various ways through roundtable talks, battlefield tours, and conferences such as Gary Gallagher’s battlefield tours/lectures through the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Studies and Mark Snell’s program at Shepherd University.  What these programs suggest to me is that there is a demand for a setting that fosters serious thought about a subject we are all passionate about.  My participation in Snell’s most recent conference on Civil War memory has convinced me that the interest level of the general public does extend beyond the narrow confines of battlefields and generals. 

I am not suggesting anything along the lines of radical change in the planning for our first meeting next June.  We can still set up panels that address the most obscure topics under the sun, but it is easy to imagine a fairly wide range of subjects that more general Civil War enthusiasts would find interesting.  What I am suggesting is that the SCWH begin by making sure the conference is advertised widely.  For example, readers of North and South magazine along with a few of the other glossies should know about the meeting.  Perhaps a few panels could be organized to address perceptions between the general public and the academic world.  We’ve surely seen a few of those issues heat up recently in the blogosphere.  The inclusion of a broader base could help foster closer ties between the general public and academic community.   Philadelphia includes a number of Civil War-related sites.  The SCWH could follow the AHA and organize tours of some of these sites.

I’ve been a member of the SCWH for a few years now and I couldn’t be more excited about the decision to hold a conference.  Historians talk a great deal about the importance of history in the life and identity of a country.  The SCWH is in a unique position to give substance to that mantra.  This is an opportunity to shape our organization in a way that has the broadest appeal without losing its scholarly focus and commitment to furthering our understanding of this crucial moment in our nation’s history.