The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, however, if faced with courage, need not be lived again."...  ...Maya Angelou.

Commentary of the Day - June 26, 2009:  Education's New Angle.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Education experts have spent the past forty years fighting about curriculum, which cutting through the usual jargon means the stuff we're trying to teach kids.  From whole language to new math, American students have been casualties in wars over every discipline, including social studies, the generalized, watered-down, content-light alias that educators bestowed on what we used to call history, geography, and civics.  For those same forty years officials, parents, and employers have bemoaned the decline in American students' knowledge of history, geography, and civics.

Now The Washington Post reports that President Obama's election has brought a promising "new angle to teaching the Civil War."  According to a string of enthused history professors and public school educators, we're finally free to be "more honest" about the war's causes and once "again talking about issues such slavery" and "freedom."

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to believe that very many U.S. history teachers have been skipping slavery and freedom.  I also wasn't aware that I've been under some pressure not to be honest.  I've always taught my students that nations are like people, and that even the best do wrong sometimes.  And I'm not sure why having a black President is more relevant to teaching about the Civil War than having a Southern President, which is what the last two Oval Office alumni were.

Anyway, newly freed to talk about slavery, the Post’s experts reject the "pro-Confederate" view that the war was fought over states' rights.  They concur that "slavery was the central reason" the Southern states seceded.

Confederate?  States' rights?  Secede?  Do these guys have any idea how little most American students know?

It's true that the founders made the conscious choice to establish the nation first and leave resolving the ugly paradox of slavery in the land of the free to their children and grandchildren.  It's also undeniable that slavery was one of the longstanding issues that drove eleven Southern states to secede and galvanized the Confederacy.

But you don't have to be "pro-Confederate" to believe that slavery wasn't the war's central issue.  I know this because Abraham Lincoln, not known for his pro-Confederate views, said so.  While he considered slavery a "social, political, and moral evil," he saw the war as a struggle between the assertion of states' rights and the preservation the Union.  He made it clear as a candidate and as President-elect that he wouldn't end slavery in the South.  In a letter explaining the Emancipation Proclamation, he said that to win the war and save the country he'd be willing to free all, none, or some slaves, whatever it took.

You can't discuss the reasons we fought the Civil War without knowing that.  It's also helpful to know the history of secession and states' rights, that the first rumblings about states nullifying the federal government's authority did come from two Virginians -- James Madison, the "father" of the federal Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson, then the sitting Vice President -- but that they were protesting the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.  New England actually threatened to secede first, once over Mr. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and later during Mr. Madison's War of 1812.  Then in 1832 Tennessean Andrew Jackson announced his intention to mobilize troops and hang his own Vice President, Carolinian John Calhoun, when South Carolina threatened to secede over import tariffs, a lackluster topic to introduce to eighth graders but very nearly the cause of a tax-incited civil war when Abe Lincoln was still stocking shelves in an Illinois general store.

We can debate whether President Obama's election frees us to talk about slavery as the cause of the Civil War, or whether it frees us to acknowledge that the Civil War was about more than race and slavery.  We can even consider the possibility that the "Obama Era" is irrelevant to how schools should teach about the Civil War.  But if we're concerned about how best to teach history and how abysmally little most American high school graduates know about it, that debate simultaneously misses the point and illustrates the problem.

It misses the point because our problem isn't that American students are inhibited when it comes to voicing their opinions or that they've lacked the freedom to "talk about the issues."  The problem is they don't know what the issues are.  And they don't know what the issues are because they don't know what the facts are.

They don’t know what the facts are in part because they don't care what the facts are, a perilous apathy itself worth investigating, and in part because for nearly forty years education reformers have disparaged knowledge and content as "mere facts."  That's how the debate illustrates the problem.  The high-powered Partnership for 21st Century Skills still preaches this same doctrine, euphemistically arguing that we need to "emphasize deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge."

Unfortunately, without deep knowledge, the best you can have is a shallow understanding.  Without any knowledge, meaning facts, any understanding you think you have is illusory, baseless, and void.  The "new angle" on teaching continues the bankrupt reform tradition of replacing specific content knowledge with vague attitudinal goals, where social studies curricula are more concerned with how students feel about history than what they know about it.

Before you can understand and have feelings about what caused the Civil War, you have to know the causes.  That means knowing about everything from the Constitutional Convention and the tenth amendment to Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, and Fort Sumter.  It's at that point of knowledge that American students' grasp of their history has broken down.

Yes, it's well worth noting our one hundred fifty year progress from Dred Scott to Homer Plessy to Linda Brown to Barack Obama.  But first you have to know who those people are.

You can't attain understanding without knowledge, and you can't acquire knowledge without mastering facts.  You can't skip the grunt work, even if it's often dull and painstaking.  That's true in any discipline.  Our children need to realize and accept this.  So do the experts who mastermind our schools.  So do we all.  That's the new angle on teaching and learning that we desperately need.  More gimmicks won’t help.

True, grappling with facts and turning them into knowledge can be hard work.

But reckoning with ignorance is even harder.

2009, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages sent to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP generally agrees with Poor Elijah's comments on the the Civil War; however, he also remembers that very little was said in his K-12 history courses about the history of slavery itself in the United States.  Perhaps now might be the time focus more on the threads that led to the Civil War rather than on the war itself.


Return to main commentary.

© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
Technocrati tag(s):