Archive for March, 2007


Wikipedia Is Not a Valid Source?

I don’t have much to say, but I thought I’d post a link to this very interesting piece from HNN’s “Talking About History” feature: Wikipedia is good for Academia

My personal opinion? I’d hate to see students citing Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia, for that matter)–and would grade their papers accordingly, but I use the site all the time, particularly with reference to things in which I have little background. I even use it for history info, particularly for names I’m not familiar with and dates of obscure events.

It is bookmarked, and I would bet that if I tracked how often I visited each of my bookmarks, Wikipedia would probably be at the top of the list. I think it’s a great site, and in my experience, it is usually pretty accurate. But would I cite in an academic paper? No.


Toss Your Textbooks

One of my favorite bloggers, Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory, posted today about the possibility of discontinuing the use of textbooks in his 11th grade U.S. history class. (For those of you unfamiliar with Civil War Memory, I recommend that you check it out.) Of his textbook of choice, he writes:

While it is brief it is an absolutely boring read and my students are at their wits ends. … The text is difficulty to follow and it seems to me that it doesn’t have to be. It’s as if the writers of these books intentionally write in a way that will alienate or bore their readers. Why can’t I use books that are informative and entertaining to read?

He continues by saying that for next year, he’s considering replacing the text with several books, each of which will cover a specific period of American history, which will hopefully “push a deeper more meaningful understanding of the historical method as well as content.”

For me, this is both refreshing and incredibly encouraging. I should say at the outset, the ability to do this sort of thing is one reason I plan to teach in a private school setting. I loathe standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing, and I hate the fact that too often history education becomes a mindless string of names, dates, and facts. For history classes taught in that way (as several of my high school history classes were), I’m not sure I could provide a satisfactory answer to the inevitable student question: “Why does this matter?”

I’m much more interested in teaching students about the complexity of history. Too often (even in graduate-level classes) I hear the tired old Santayana phrase: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not so much wrong as it is misleading. It gives the impression that there are a set of absolute lessons we can draw from the study of history as we continue on our merry way along an enlightened path toward even greater heights.

As the present (which is, after all, tomorrow’s past) continues to show in a variety of ways, that is simply not true. We could master all the history there is to master, and we would inevitably make the same mistakes that someone has made in the past. History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?

Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches. I, for one, applaud Kevin’s decision to shoot for a deeper understanding of history and of the method of history, and I think it is very much in line with the recent report of the AHA on “The Next Generation of History Teachers.”

I’ve actually thought quite a bit about this, and while I won’t say that textbooks have no use, I do believe they’re a crutch. I also won’t say that I’ll never use a textbook in my future classes, but I do hope to organize my classes in much the same way that Kevin describes: an emphasis on acknowledging historiography (at the very least, pointing out that it exists!), on using primary sources and doing history, and on understanding the complexity of the past and its relation to the present. Textbooks are not completely useless, but I say: if they’re expensive, boring, and not all that well-suited for your purposes anyway, why not toss them out? At the very least, set them aside.

Like Kevin, I welcome any and all responses. I’d love to hear other perspectives.


A Tobacco Row

Most of you have have probably heard that the United States National Slavery Museum is currently under construction in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a former resident who still visits often, I am excited about the museum, which is currently scheduled to open in 2008 (pushed back from 2007 already). Of course, I could rant at length about the decision to construct the museum an hour south of Washington, D.C. while other museums find a prominent place on the National Mall, but I won’t.

Nevertheless, trouble is brewing. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported on March 3 that the Museum, which has been beset by financial difficulties (hence, the delayed opening), accepted a $200,000 gift from tobacco giant Philip Morris. Since then, there have been two separate calls on the editorial page criticizing the museum for accepting the money.

The first came from Peter H. Fisher, vice-president of state issues for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who stated that, “The museum, which wants to help educate children about the ravages of slavery, is joining forces with a company that continues to target children for another form of slavery–addiction to tobacco” [“Slavery museum, give back Philip Morris gift,” March 12].

Fisher makes an excellent (if exaggerated) point, but in my opinion, the second letter to the editor is more interesting and nuanced. Pearl Duncan, a New Yorker who claims to have traced her ancestry back to both slaves and Fredericksburg tobacco traders of the 18th century, writes in response to Fisher [“Big tobacco owes slavery museum much more,” March 15]:

I agree that the National Slavery Museum has done itself a disservice by accepting $200,000 from Philip Morris, but I agree for a very different and very ironic reason.

When I read the news on March 3 [“Slavery museum getting big gift”], I wondered why the museum had accepted such a small gift from a company that has its roots in the product that was the mainstay of the area in Colonial times.

Just as it took a lot of years and effort to even propose a museum to mark this eventful era in American history, so it will take effort and understanding to accept the history that is portrayed.

Slavery flourished in Virginia, in part because of the lucrative industry, free labor, and vast profits made from tobacco. So it is only just that a major company with vast tobacco profits support a slavery museum.

Philip Morris and other tobacco companies should make a much larger donation to this museum.

I couldn’t agree more. Philip Morris should receive some credit for donating to the USNSM, but how much? A quick Internet search reveals that Altria (PM’s parent company) had $70.3 billion in revenue for 2006. Duncan’s point is valid. The tobacco industry, like much of this nation, was built on the backs of slaves. One would hope they could donate a bit more than 0.0002%.

I think it’s unfair to ask the Museum to turn down $200,000. “Tainted” or not, that money will go a long way toward achieving the Museum’s ultimate goal, which is to tell the “complete story” of slavery. But certainly more can be done. I personally would like to see a long-term relationship between Philip Morris (and other tobacco companies) and the Museum, acknowledging the role of slavery in building the tobacco industry and building a sort of trust for the museum to provide those types of exhibits.


Presentist History?

Please forgive my infrequent posting of late–I have been out of town on a quasi-vacation and my internet access has been spotty. I realize I’m a bit behind the ball on this topic, as a flurry of posts popped up last week, but given the focus of this blog, I felt the need to throw my hat into the ring.

As many of you are no doubt aware, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times stirred up quite a hornet’s nest last week when he lamented the passing of the nation’s “last great public historian,” Arthur Schlesinger. Although some historians have taken offense, Tanenhaus nevertheless has some important things to say about the profession. Chief among them is his claim that historians today, unlike Schlesinger and his contemporaries (most notably Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward), fail to write with any sort of relevance for the present. He acknowledges the popularity of historians like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, but states that:

in truth Mr. McCullough and others as talented, or nearly so, don’t command the broad cultural authority that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did. Nor, for that matter, do academic historians like Gordon S. Wood and James M. McPherson, though their books resonate beyond the university.

The problem is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach. Mr. Wood’s “Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a major contribution to our understanding of its subject, and Mr. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” enthralled readers. But neither work can be said to have affected how many of us think about current issues.

This is even truer of the many popular books on America’s founding founders, from Washington and Adams to Jefferson and Hamilton, and on the lesser figures from the period now being exhumed.

These are books that, for all their merits, seem not only about the past but also, to some extent, mired in it. They are archival. And that may be the problem.

Most critics of Tanenhaus (that I’ve read) have launched a two-prong response. First, Tanenhaus is overly “nostalgic” in his praise of Schlesinger and ignores Schlesinger’s failure to acknowledge the “genocidal side of Jackson’s career.” Furthermore, historians today should aspire to be more “archival,” not less. Both criticisms are fair, but neither negates the general sentiment of Tanenhaus’ article.

Historians in the twenty-first century do have less cultural authority than did their predecessors of fifty years ago. However, that does not have to be the case. The great question that Tanenhaus raises for me is: Can historians contribute anything meaningful to the present and future, or do we simply “live in the past,” studying history for history’s sake?

I’m reminded of the great Thoreau line: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Given our reliance on cell phones, PDAs, iPods, and the like, it applies to American society as a whole in 2007, and I wonder to what extent it applies to historians as well. Certainly we should not abandon archival research, but I sometimes wonder if such a strict reliance on professional methodology limits our cultural influence.

I’m interested to hear what others think: can we “step beyond the sources” and say something about the present as well as the past, or does that move too far outside the realm of “history?”


Bibles in the Classroom

The Bible is “not just ‘The Good Book.’ It’s a good book.” So says Tommie Williams, Majority Leader of the Georgia State Senate. As reported by AP, Williams sponsored a bill that will make Georgia the first state to fund Bible classes in public schools. According to the article, “The Bible already is incorporated into some classes in Georgia and other states, but some critics say the board’s move, which makes the Bible the classes’ main text, treads into dangerous turf. The U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion is often interpreted as implying a separation of church and state.”

Although I consider myself something of a skeptic, I feel compelled to respond: on the face of it, I have no major problem with this. During my senior year of high school, my English teacher had us read selections from the Bible, as well as from Greek and Roman mythology, in order to identify the allusions frequent in other literary works. I didn’t feel that my rights were infringed upon. Honestly, it was an informative and generally enjoyable set of lessons. These days, I don’t read my Bible very often, but I think Williams is right: it is a good book.

As a graduate of Thomas Jefferson’s University, I don’t see that this violates the separation of church and state, provided that it is taught in an “objective and non-devotional manner.” To be honest, I would like to see classes on the Koran and the Torah as well. (I’d like to think that Mr. Jefferson—we refer to him as though he were still alive—would agree with me on this.) Whether or not a bill that offered such classes would pass might say something about the state of politics today, but I’ll leave that for another place and time.

I will grant that the “temptation” for proselytism by teachers exists, but religious supporters of the bill might argue that it is no different for biology teachers who teach the “theory” of evolution. Let’s remember that the evolution v. creationism debate is very much alive, particularly in the public school systems of the South. Nevertheless, these are courses that should be taught very carefully.

One final disclaimer: the article does not make clear whether or not these courses would be electives, but I will assume that they are. If my assumption is wrong, this entire post can be disregarded.


The Next Generation

The American Historical Association (AHA) recently released a report entitled “The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and University.” I highly recommend reading it.

As a future teacher, I found it very stimulating, and I agreed with almost everything I read. Among the highlights (at least in my opinion):

“Specialists in history education now describe a vision for lower grades very much in keeping with what happens in our best college classrooms. Content and pedagogy are fused. Students actively engage the substance of history by doing history: analyzing primary sources, juxtaposing perspectives, exploring the reasons some historical accounts seem more compelling at some times than at others.”

“As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated.”

Both of these are exactly in line with my teaching philosophy. In fact, I’m not sure I could have worded it any better myself.

Some of the practical suggestions offered include “special classes for future teachers” and “department workshops dedicated to teaching.” Both of these I think would be extremely helpful for undergraduate (or even graduate) students. Too often historians (scholars in all fields, I suppose) get a bad rap for being more interested in their research than their teaching. Perhaps this is because they simply have more experience with it. Familiarity breeds comfort.


Case Closed

There is a great AP article about the (presumably) final chapter of the Emmett Till case. The title sums it up quite nicely, I think: “End of Till case draws mixed response.”

To some, the Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to return an indictment in the case following an exhaustive three-year federal investigation was a sign that not much has changed in Mississippi in the last 52 years.

But others, including the prosecutor herself, felt it showed the opposite — a maturing of racial justice in this part of the South.

I’m not sure I agree completely with either of those stances, but I suppose I lean toward the latter. While I wouldn’t claim that racial injustice no longer exists in Mississippi, the prosecutor makes a compelling argument. (The prosecutor, it should be noted, is a black woman who grew up on the banks of the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found.)

“It would have been very easy for that grand jury to have returned a true bill based solely on emotion and the rage they felt. And I commend them for not doing that,” says Joyce Chiles, the black district attorney who directed the case in which the grand jury declined to charge 73-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham — the object of Till’s infamous wolf whistle.

If the grand jurors had acted on the basis of hate, not evidence, Chiles says, that would have been more like the Jim Crow justice of 1955.

“We are justice seekers and not head hunters,” Chiles says. “And If I were to follow the law and the evidence as it was presented, I would have had to have returned a no bill.”

Generally, I believe that re-opening these sorts of cases is a good thing, and I was happy when I read two years ago that the Justice Department was investigating the Till murder. Those who committed crimes should be held accountable, no matter how long ago their act took place. I don’t accept the claim, inevitably voiced by opponents of prosecution, that “It’s all in the past” or that “We should let sleeping dogs lie.” Given the apparent lack of hard evidence in this case, however, I think Chiles has a point.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain