Glory in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 2.11.10 PMAs far as Civil War films go, this one is about as good as it gets. Why? For starters, the film addresses something that had gone more or less unnoticed in cinema until 1989 – but mainly because it gets the important stuff right. I have been using this film as a teaching tool since, well…I have been teaching.

The film has come under fire – primarily because it tells the story of Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 2.10.17 PMthe 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all black regiment, from the perspective of a white protagonist – the unit’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. I was concerned less with that than its treatment of Shaw, who comes across as more of a crusader than a whiny privileged twit , which is probably more of an accurate assessment (read his letters…you’ll know what I mean). But I will let that one go – I mean, Ferris Bueller did look like Shaw and after all, the other stuff is so much more important.

The “other stuff” to which I refer is the unequal treatment of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union cause – how they suffered the indignities of racist United States policy, received less pay, were assigned mainly manual tasks, how they risked execution if captured by the Confederates, and how despite all of this, they fought and died for the Union cause (to be fair to Shaw…he risked much as well and was killed leading his troops in combat).

In the end, we challenge how the United States could ever limit the rights of individuals (as it clearly did…) of those who put on the federal uniform, took up arms, and risked their lives to preserve the Union. The film never fails to leave my students asking this very question. As such – this motion picture did its job in splendid fashion…and continues to do so twenty-six years after it first premiered.

With compliments,

Keith

High School History Students and the Federalists

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 4.53.20 PMGreetings all – while it would be cool if all I did all day was bang out Tweets and post pics to Instagram, I do have to earn a living. And…since I do not see eye to eye with the powers that be in the Ivory Tower (and they don’t see eye to eye with me…) I teach AP US History (and other stuff) privately here in Los Angeles. I answer to no one and I don’t give a shit about tenure. It’s good work if you can get it.

Here’s something I have noticed. High school kids really relate to the Early Republic Federalists. At first this struck me as odd…I mean, in general, they seem so…government. I would expect them to gravitate toward the idealism of Thomas Jefferson. But no. Centralization? Check. National Bank? Check, Internal Improvements? Check. Tariffs? Check.

I asked around about this and what I found is that perhaps the kids are latching on to the idea of stability, logic, and rationality – on clear ideas: solutions to problems, when their own futures are pretty uncertain. I’m not entirely convinced that any movement or faction can take the credit for any of these things, including the Federalists. But it just seems that this is how kids understand and make sense of the Federalists in the most general way.

This is just an observation…what do you all think? I am especially interested in hearing from other high school history teachers.

With compliments,

Keith

I Disagree With Some of the Best Books Ever

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.28.20 AMA former student recently asked me to comment on David W. Blight’s  Race and Reunion. I said it was a great book…but one with which I disagree. And I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory – maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight’s (and others’) “reconciliation premise” – paraphrased from my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, on the subject of veterans, commemoration, and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm (see what I did there?)  only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought over…on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always – I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.

With compliments,

Keith

Teach WWI

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Hi all…in the spirit of sharing cool things that I find when browsing through the Interwebs, I direct your attention to these teaching resources offered by the World War One Centennial Commission. Included are lesson plans and various other resources that will help illuminate the many facets of this conflict in the classroom. Dang, there are even video games. Now isn’t that clever.

You can find out more about what resources are available HERE.

With compliments,

Keith