Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Are We Still Fighting the Civil War? If So, What Do We Teach our Children?

One of my favorite quotes is William Faulkner's unforgettable words that "The past is never dead.  It is not even the past."  Nowhere is this more evident lately than in the educational issues that arise with the Civil War Sesquicentennial--the marking of the fact that earlier this month was the 150th Anniversary of the Southern takeover of Fort Sumter, usually hailed as the official opening of the American Civil War.

But dealing with the Civil War is tough for us as a nation.  To use another iconic quote, I think the American Civil War was truly for us the period in our history where "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  It was a time when our commitment to our founding ideals of freedom and equality were really put the test, and ultimately prevailed.  But it was also a time where we had to face how our country had ignored those ideals for the cause of economic profits, both in the North and in the South.  It was a horribly sad time, destructive of land and of a generation of young people, and still the bloodiest and most deadly war in which the US has ever engaged.  But it also laid the foundations for an American dream that was even broader and more inclusive than the founding fathers ever imagined...even if it has taken decades of progress to achieve it.

I think probably all nations have a civic mythology of their historic greatness that endows them with power and respect (see Hugh Grant's wonderful "England may be a small nation, but we're a great one, too" speech from one of my favorite movies ever, Love Actually, as one example).   Maybe it is because we are such a relatively young nation, and one that was gifted with incredible natural resources, but I think this idea of our past as inherently blessed and outstanding--our historic belief in America as "the city on the hill" and our Manifest Destiny--has an even stronger hold on our civic identity than it does on most countries.

So that is why I think it is so hard for us as a country to deal with this time in our history honestly and openly and in an unvarnished way.  It exposes some of our ugliest truths, and few of us like to acknowledge those.  Therefore, both sides like to romanticize their cause.  For the North, it is presented as a fight for the liberation of African Americans.  Except, really, it wasn't.  As Lincoln wrote towards the beginning of the war, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it," (although he personally was in favor of the abolitionist cause).  At least at the beginning, the fight for the North was keeping the country together, not securing rights for black people.  Eventually Lincoln, and other Northern leaders, realized that slavery had to be abolished to secure a united nation, but even so, few Northerners envisioned African Americans being given equal political and economic benefits to white people.

For the South, the argument has grown that it was not really an issue of slavery per se, but rather of states' rights of self determination.  Except, again, really, it wasn't....at least according to almost all legitimate historians of our times.  The investment in slaves at the time of the Civil War has been estimated to be about $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars.  As a share of the Gross National Product at the time, that would compare to almost $10 TRILLION in modern money.  People had more money invested in slaves than they did in railroads, factories, banks, and ships combined.  The cotton produced by slave labor was the driving economic product for the entire nation, both from cotton-selling states in the South and textile-producing states in the North.  It was not something that South plantation owners, who were the political powerhouses in the South, could even conceive of giving up voluntarily.  And while it is true that the majority of Southerners, especially those who actually fought in the war, owned no slave themselves, most were fueled by their horror and fear of what would happen to their communities if African Americans, whom they believed to be sub-human, were not kept under control via the institution of slavery.

However, we don't like admitting that our greed and economic tunnel vision led us to go against our founding principles and to have treated people as inhumanly as we did.  So not long after the war came to an end, the South began to glorify its role in the Civil War as an advocate for states' rights, lovingly couched as the romantic "Lost Cause," rather than seeing their support for slavery for the morally indefensible position that it truly is.  An article in the April 18th edition of Time magazine entitled "The Civil War: 150 Years After Fort Sumter:  Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War" by David von Drehle does a great job  of explaining how the South sold this vision to the country; you can read the article as a PDF by clicking here.

But though the states' rights argument is largely a face-saving myth, it has been powerfully effective (largely, I believe, because we want to see our 19th century ancestors with the same aura of wisdom and moral vision that we ascribe to our 18th century founders).  A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 48% of people believed that states' rights was the main cause of the Civil War compared to 38% who thought it was mostly about slavery (with 9% saying the two causes were equally important).  A Harris poll confirmed this finding, with 54% responding that states' rights was the primary motivation for the South's split from the US, compared to 46% attributing it to an attempt to preserve slavery.

So it is really interesting to see that the majority of Americans do not know what almost all professional historian agree was the root cause of the American Civil War.    Is that an indication that we are continuing to fight the Civil War--if not with each other, then with our ideals about how we would like our history to be?

A liberal (actually, he's a social democrat) columnist in the Washington Post recently wrote another interesting article about the Civil War still being waged in modern times.  In his April 12 column, "150 years later, we're still fighting," Harold Meyerson argues that the North and the South have continued the labor patterns of the pre-Civil War US, with the South's tradition of low-wage and few or no worker benefits or rights (epitomized by the Arkansas-based Wal-Mart) battling the North's support for organized, unionized, and better paid labor battling for dominance out West (cough cough WISCONSIN cough) and in the nation at large.   I found his article to be interesting reading, and looking over only a few of the 270 comments to date show that it has definitely generated some debate.

Another article I would recommend is an NBC/CNN post on April 11 by John Blake called "Four ways we're still fighting the Civil War."  Blake picks out four ways that today's politics are similar to those of the Civil War era:

  1. A lack of the political center (You agree with us or you are the evil enemy, with no room for compromise)
  2. Arguments over the role of the federal government (Some of the Tea Party leaders sound like antebellum Southerners)
  3. Underestimating the extent of war once begun (Both North and South were convinced the conflict would be over within a few weeks because they underestimated the strength of the opposition....sound familiar?)
  4. Presidents overstepping their bounds (I don't really agree that Obama's support of health care is comparable to Lincoln's suspension of Constitutional rights, but I guess there are some that are arguing that...)

So, like I said....it is not like the Civil War is really over.

But where does that leave us as parents and as educators?  What should we be teaching students when this event that they think of as ancient history is still so much in flux today?

Personally, I think it is a good thing that we are still unsettled as a nation about the meaning, the outcomes, and even the causes of the Civil War.  I think students will find history more interesting when they see it is not something cut and dried and in the past, but a study that is still being debated, still being questioned, still being fleshed, and DEFINITELY still relevant to the choices we are making about our future.  I believe it is wonderful for the students to consider that the Civil War is still not really "done," and that it may be their generation who will be the ones who "settle" it (or not....)

Other than that, I say that we need to tell them the truth.  I was raised in the "Great Man" presentation of history, where all these wonderful things happened thanks to our national demi-Gods like George Washington and company.  But I don't think that really serves our students.  First of all, it isn't true.    Not to disparage our Founding Fathers and other major figures of history, but sometimes....maybe a lot of the time...they were able to accomplish what they did because they were lucky, or happened to be in the right place at the right time, or were merely the manifestation of the mores of their times rather than the causal agent.  Secondly, when we set up these figures on a pedestal, how can our children ever hope to emulate them?   Showing them as humans, flawed with strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us, is, I believe, a more powerful place to develop our heroes and leaders of the future.  Third, we hate to look at our failings and our ugly parts and the times we didn't live up to our ideals.  But without truth, there can not be forgiveness and redemption and ultimately, reconciliation.

And if there is anything we need in our political sphere these days, I think reconciliation is way up there. 

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