Challenges of Teaching the Civil War

n1572390066_30165665_223Next week I will be heading down to Richmond to take part in the American Civil War Museum’s 3-day conference, “Lincoln and the South.” at the University of Richmond.  It’s an all-star line-up of Civil War scholars, including William J. Cooper, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck – you get the picture.  I will be leading a discussion on Saturday morning for teachers on the challenges of teaching the Civil War and Lincoln in the classroom.  The teachers will range from kindergarten through the college level.

I am working on a set of questions for the participants to consider concerning some of the most challenging aspects of teaching the subject.   What are the most difficult aspects of the Civil War to teach and why?  What are some of the most common assumptions that students bring to the classroom regarding the war and what are some effective ways to challenge those assumptions?  Finally, what biases/assumptions do we as teachers bring to the classroom and to what extent does our own discomfort with some of the more divisive issues shape the way we teach?  Finally, I hope to introduce some strategies for teachers to employ to address some of these issues.

What do you think?

[photo of me teaching on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia]
5 comments… add one
  • Ole roy Feb 5, 2010 @ 15:42

    It is a dang burn shame to see a great Historical figure like Cleburne be used to make a buck.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2010 @ 15:53

      It is unfortunate, but I want to make it clear that I do not reduce this simply to the desire to want to make a buck. I have no doubt that the author of this graphic novel set out to write a compelling story based on history. The problem is that these stories are complex and in this case are ripe with myth and misunderstanding.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2009 @ 3:32


    Thanks for another thoughtful comment. You said, “Sadly, a lot of teachers do it and are not even aware that they are doing it.” It’s this kind of bias that I am most interested in, and I can use myself as an example. No doubt, my overuse or even abuse of the label neo-Confederate was a sign of a certain shortsightedness and inability to draw necessary distinctions. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it, but I haven’t used it on this blog (apart from a few occasions where it seemed suited) in quite some time. Further, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that the failure to maintain an open classroom often leads to a stifled discussion and even worse. My guess is that there are plenty of examples of this when teaching such a controversial subject such as the Civil War.

  • Crystal Marshall Mar 6, 2009 @ 9:19

    From the student perspective–I think another issue is not just challenging false assumptions, but balancing the different assumptions as a whole. I’m currently in a philosophy class where we have every perspective ranging from rationalists to empiricists to idealists to materialists. The challenge for my teacher is to find a way to teach the basics of philosophy while being aware of and managing all of the differing viewpoints–making sure that there’s something in the discussion for everybody, giving credit where credit is due and asking probing questions when there’s a lack of evidence or a false assumption for an idea.

    Unfortunately, I’ve also been in classes where the teachers blatantly show their biases and demean other opinions while trying to shove their view down everyone else’s throat. Sadly, a lot of teachers do it and are not even aware that they are doing it. Once again, I give kudos to my philosophy professor for the way he handles disagreeing views. He asks honest and deep questions that allow the student to really think about his or her view and reason it out to see if the view is valid or not. Rather than just coming out and criticizing a view, which can cause a student to become defensive, asking questions allows the student to really think about his or her knowledge and correct it through his or her own reasoning, which builds the student’s intellectual skills and self-confidence.

  • Herschel Sarnoff Mar 6, 2009 @ 7:54

    Although I have retired to run my PowerPoint business I Loved teaching the Civil War even thought they removed it from the calif high school curriculum. I taught the Civil War in a unique way using GIS and 1860 census data. You can see some of the projects my students did here:
    then click on one of the file formats
    Word Doc (2.2 MB) | PDF (1.4 MB) | Student Maps

    We also produce PowerPoints on U.S. and world History including 4 titles you might be interested in. They are Slavery, Causes of the Civil War, Civil War and Reconstruction. I would be happy to send you one at no cost (via the internet) if you think they would be helpful. Please take a look at the GIS site and read the objective of the project. It was so exciting to see my students create maps and concepts that had never been done before.

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