As 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 the 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.
A friend from graduate school (and a tenure track professor) just shared this article with me from The Atlantic and I suggest everyone read it. It seems that adjunct college professors are fed up with their current (slave) status…and they are organizing. While I agree with much of what they are saying – I fear that forming unions for better pay and benefits might get them a few dollars and a parking space – but it will not solve the longer term problem: the corporatiztion of higher education. The article hints at this fundamental issue without really hammering it home as a systemic flaw. I call for a more radical solution: a university-wide adjunct walk out and a public and very vocal denunciation of the system. Adjuncts who continue to take crap jobs and then complain about them are just as guilty as the universities. Reform is not enough. Adjuncts should quit and thus leave universities with no faculty. Only then will those in charge have to make some changes. What are your thoughts?
Keith (fight the power)
I’ve just finished reading an article in this month’s The Atlantic concerning how surreal things have gotten on college campuses concerning (among other things) potentially hurtful or offensive language in the classroom. It seems that students, in opposition to something called microaggression, have banded together to rid higher education of questionable language that could (unintentionally or not) invoke images of racism, sexism, violence, etc. Their mission is to create a “safe” environment.
The Atlantic finds this disturbing and is concerned that by caving to the hyper-sensitive demands of students we are not only homogenizing education but failing to prepare students for the real world – full of diverse, and yes…hurtful people and opinions.
All of this reassures me that I made the right decision rejecting the traditional professor path and moving on. I promise you that I would not react well to a student dictating what I said in class. I specialize in nineteenth-century United States history and guess what. People said some pretty nasty things back then. Call me crazy, but I think it is important we know exactly what those folks said – in their own words – and to whom they said it. Who knows…? Maybe we might learn something.
Back when I was at UC Riverside, I taught a class in Reconstruction Era history. On the syllabus, I mentioned – in a very short paragraph on the syllabus – that language and images would come up that most would (and should) find very disturbing. But that was it. Trust me, some things were mentioned in class, uttered or shown only in the context of the history, that I would never consider conveying outside of the classroom. And I never had a single indecent in which a student complained to the department or came to me in distress.
Of course, I was thinking of the obvious. It turns folks can construe nearly anything as offensive. So who knows what I might have said that ruffled some feathers…
To my fellow educators – what is your experience with these triggers? Are things as bad as the article makes it seem? Let’s talk…
In this brief video, my colleague and mentor, Gary W. Gallagher, discusses the importance of the battlefield as a classroom. I have toured many such battlefields with Gary and can attest to the benefits of teaching on the very spots where individuals made history. The Civil War Trust, an organization of many virtues, is engaged not only in battlefield preservation, but organizes student “field trips” with education in mind. You can donate to the CWT Field Trip fund HERE.
Alas, we have reached that time of the year when many in the teaching profession will vent their frustrations on the usual social media platforms – they will note how much they hate grading, how stupid their students are, and how they can’t wait for the term to be over. Of course, I understand that things can get a little hectic around now, but without naming names, I ask: what did you think you were getting into when you signed on to be a teacher?
With that question in mind I would like to take a moment and congratulate my many students who did exceptional work this year, who wrote insightful essays and asked probing questions, who worked beyond what was required of them because they thought they might just learn something.
Well done my young friends. It has been a pleasure being your teacher.
PS – have a bitchen’ summer and I’ll see ya next year!