Monthly Archives: July 2015

A few anecdotes on what my students knew about the Civil War

From the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2014, I taught a Civil War themed composition course at the University of Missouri. My thematic approach varied over the semesters as the course covered the legacy of the Civil War, the memory of the war, and representations of the war on social media and online. Regardless of minor thrusts in the course’s focus, students wrote conventional papers, blogs, posted to Twitter, and wrote a variety of pieces in class. The main course text was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

I found Horwitz’s book, though a little dated, to be an excellent choice for the class and students often gravitated to parts of the book in surprising ways. However, Confederates in the Attic can be a difficult teaching text because Horwitz frequently steps back from his content, especially in the case of writing about the people that he meets, and he lets the legacy of the Civil War play out in front of readers in a seemingly unmediated way. Navigating Confederates in the Attic is also difficult because of students’ tendencies to latch on to the personal opinions of the many compelling and interesting figures encountered by Horwitz. Horwitz’s style of presentation means students need to learn how to engage and read a text that seems to just happen. In other words, students must become accustomed to understanding that Horwitz’s quotations of other works and dialogue aren’t “facts,” but opinions that sit out there for the readers to see in often naked absurdity. Aiding students in navigating Confederates in the Attic requires helping students unpack not only what they know and don’t know about the Civil War, but also the how and why of what they know and don’t know.

In light of an article I read recently, along with some recent Twitter conversations, I wanted to share some of my impressions about what students, at least my students, knew about the Civil War. Granted these are anecdotal observations about contemporary education in the United Sates regarding the Civil War and come from my experience at the University of Missouri. However, I would point out that I was Mizzou for a long time and encountered students representing a wide geographic distribution from a variety of public and private schools, both large and small.

Talking to my students I learned that many of them had at some point learned about the Civil War. For the majority of students, their Civil War education was centered during their time in middle school, generally around the 8th grade. I did encounter a few exceptions to learning about the Civil War in middle school. A few students learned about the Civil War in elementary school, while others encountered the Civil War in high school. Regardless of when students learned about the Civil War during their schooling, once it happened, then that was generally it. There was never any follow up on it or a building upon that education. There were some exceptions to this educational exposure to the Civil War, most notably for students from Illinois that were exposed the Abraham Lincoln frequently through school or youth activities like the Boy or Girl Scouts.

I’m unsure about the exact curriculum details students encountered during their studies of the Civil War, but one nugget of knowledge that often remained was that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. I found this hard to believe for many reasons. I had figured that any curriculum on the Civil War would be based around the ultimate goal of testing; and what would be easier to test for than the one word answer of slavery? I think I was also surprised by my own assumptions created by the intellectual circles that I’ve operated in since the days of my teenage interest in the Civil War. I was most surprised by the frequently occurring and earnest belief among many of my black students that the Civil War was about states’ rights exclusively. In class, we spent a considerable amount of time working through the issue of states’ rights by parsing Horwitz’s text and examining historical documents. I’m unsure of how effective this unpacking was, but I take some satisfaction in the nearly every semester phenomenon of a student interjecting in class discussion that the Civil War was about states’ rights… to have slaves. I often felt such moments had the potential to be a watershed moment in class. I hope that was the case for many of my students, too.

Another aspect of what my students “knew” about the Civil War was a troubling belief in the myth of black confederates. As I spent more time with my course this was a subject that I spent more time on because Horwitz seemingly passes off the idea of black confederates as truth. The persistent belief in black confederates was difficult for me to fathom for many reasons. First, I’m unsure of where students encountered this myth for the first time. Second, even though we spent a great deal of time on evaluating sources, especially online sources, I know this myth was partly furthered by dubious online sources. Third, I was troubled by the persistence of this myth throughout the semester because I knew several of my students followed Kevin Levin on Twitter and kept up with his blog where black confederates were frequently covered in detail.

I was disturbed by the persistence of the black confederate myth amongst my students, but especially in the case of many of my black students. I’ve tried to figure out why this was the case, but I’m not sure I have an explanation. I sensed a strong resistance to pushing back against the myth of black confederates. I think my pushing back against the black confederates, especially in the context of my classroom authority, is perceived not as countering a myth, but as a marginalization of African-American history. I had the sense that for some students black confederates represented a history in need of recovery, but here I was trying to bury it again. I’m not sure if my thoughts can explain this issue totally, but it is the best that I can come up with at this time.

There are certainly a few other examples that I could add about what my students know/knew about the Civil War, but the above are the broad strokes that have stuck with me in the wake of teaching my Civil War course. Feel free to share any thoughts or responses.

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