How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom

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If you teach the history of the American Civil War to students anywhere in the United States, you will almost certainly teach at least a few students who have absorbed Lost Cause mythology. In many parts of the country—and not only in the southern states—most of your white students (or at least their families) will believe in at least part of the Lost Cause story. Indeed, many of them will have received this view from their teachers.

Tackling the mythology head-on will often be wise. But there are also subtler ways we reinforce or challenge the pro-Confederate pattern of thinking, usually without realizing it, and we should address those too.

(This post began as a Twitter thread that became popular yesterday. You may want to read the responses of the many teachers and writers who engaged with it directly.)

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Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

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