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?
Thanks to the staff at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar as well as the University of Richmond for hosting what was by any measure a first-rate conference. Special thanks go out to Mark Howell who organized the sessions and for inviting me to take part in the conference. It was a true honor to be included in such a fine list of Lincoln scholars and Southern historians. I am not going to try to summarize the entire conference in one post; instead, I am going to take the time to think about some of the things I heard and offer reflections in the coming weeks. I do hope, however, to offer a summary of Ed Ayers’s keynote address, which included a new digital project that Ayers and others are now working on at the University of Richmond.
The most enjoyable parts of these gatherings is the opportunity to interact with talented scholars. For me it was a chance to finally meet James McPherson. Although I only spoke with him briefly it was nice to shake the hand of a man whose scholarship helped to fuel my interest in the subject and continues to frame many of the questions that drive my own research. I can explain to you just how important his body of scholarship is to the field, but you don’t really get a feel for it until you attend one of these conferences. Throughout the weekend speakers acknowledged McPherson’s role in shaping their own thinking on various topics as well as his generosity and encouragement. You also get a sense of just how many historians were trained by McPherson and who went on to respectable careers in their own right. I also spent time talking with historian and fellow blogger, Brian Dirck. Brian is a hell of a nice guy and his presentation was particularly interesting and one that I will comment on at some point soon. Sorry for sounding a bit over the top, but some people get excited about sports personalities while others get excited about historians.
My teaching session yesterday morning went well. We had a small group of educators and we spent the time talking about how we go about teaching Lincoln and the difficulties involved in moving beyond some of our own biases that may have been learned early on in our own lives. It was a nice change of pace from the conference proceedings and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my own teaching. Thanks to everyone who attended.
On a different note, I noticed that the average number of visitors per day has topped 1,000. I don’t know what this means relative to other Civil War/history blogs; perhaps I am being blown out of the water in this regard. Still, it seems fitting to use it as an excuse to thank each and every one of you for making Civil War Memory part of your daily routine.
Banner for the 22th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops, by David Bustill Bowser. Organized at Philadelphia in January 1864, the 22nd U. S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment lost 217 men during the last year of the Civil War. David Bustill Bowser was a self-taught black artis; he designed regimental flags for eleven African-American units and also painted portraits of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.
Bowswer sent the 127th and 3rd regiments off to war carrying banners reading “We will prove ourselves men” and “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves.” The 45th’s banner, proclaimed “One Cause, One Country,” while the 24th’s banner depicts a black soldier ascending a hill, his arms outstretched in prayer, beneath the words “Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace.”
What I find interesting about this particular image is that Bowser utilized the Virginia state motto before Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. We almost automatically associate this phrase with Booth’s deed. The Confederate has tossed aside his sword and flag and must await his fate, which is now in the hands of what I assume to be a former slave. The tables are now turned and both the future of this Confederate soldier and of the South rest in the hands of those who were once oppressed. This is a very powerful example of the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War.
Note: Assuming that the soldier is a former slave than this is also an interesting example of The South v. The South theme.
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.