This talk was presented today in Philadelphia at the 2008 Meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians. The panel was titled, “Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom” and included, James Percoco, Ronald Maggiano, and Andy Slap.
When it aired in 1989 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted to the powerful images and sounds as well as the narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be utilized in history courses on the high school level.1 All too often the film is used as a launching pad to other classroom activities or simply shown with little student preparation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaging them in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the various elements come together to tell a coherent story.2 More importantly, students fail to see the film itself as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular imagination and often guarded as sacred. The beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011 will provide a unique opportunity to introduce questions of memory and interpretation in our high school history classes. In the time that I have today I would like to talk briefly about how I engage my students with questions of memory and interpretation through a careful viewing of Burns’s The Civil War.
Continue reading →