Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

I had a difficult encounter a few semesters ago, which I am not sure I handled well.

My policy for the past few years has been to let -- well, to force -- my students to write on topics which matter to them, which have to do with their majors if possible, and which are small, small topics. You can't write about global warming, I exhort them, because you can't solve global warming. Pick a topic you yourself can do something about. I then tell them the story of my Oklahoma student, an Engineering major, who had an issue with his road and his ditch -- how the road got graded badly by the county, so that it kept washing out the ditch, which made his fence keep falling over, so that his cattle kept getting out on the road. This was a problem he could fix. He wrote about that problem. "You want a problem like that," I tell them. "Find some problem like that to describe for me."

Generally these papers work very well.

However. This student was a History Education major -- going to teach History in the local high schools -- and what he wanted to write about, it developed, though he didn't pitch it to me this way, was how the Civil War was mis-taught in Southern High schools.

What he meant was: he wanted high school history teachers to teach students that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about the right of states to govern themselves. His argument was that by teaching that the Southern States had fought the war in defense of slavery, we were making Southern children feel bad about themselves and their heritage.

Okay, I told him. Except, first, have you done any research? The war was fought over slavery. So if you argue it was not, you're teaching something that isn't true. And second, have you considered that every child you teach is not a white child?

Many people, I told him, fought in that war on the right side -- against slavery, I mean. You're ignoring everything those people did

And for what? So you can argue some false pride for kids today? Why not teach them the truth? Some bad people in the past made bad arguments, which led to some bad decisions on the part of some other people, which nearly destroyed our country?

Which it did, I pointed out to him -- I asked him if he realized how close the Civil War came to destroying our nation. I asked if he had talked to any of our history professors about this theory of his? (Which he had picked up from a local high school professor, of course.) I told him to go talk to some of them, to see what they said.

He asked whether I was going to let my opinion influence the way I graded his paper.

"I just don't want to get an F because you disagree with me," he said.

This is probably the saddest I have ever been after a conference, I have to say.


Bardiac said...

Ugh. I'm sorry.

I try to get students to take on something they care about, but also that they don't already know "the answer" to. If they already "know" that the Civil War was fought over X, then they can't write about that, because they aren't going to learn anything new. It's really hard for many students, but the ones who change their minds about things make me happy!

Anonymous said...

This sick young man disagrees with the facts and prefers an ideology that suits his religious and political beliefs. He's been trained to believe things that aren't true from birth, and you can't fix that in the course of a semester. The only beam of hope is that he'll mature and possibly grow his own sense of self separate from what his parents made of him. Or not. It's on him, not you. So sorry. I can imagine how discouraging this must be. --L

Ms. Crazy Pants said...

Wars rarely start over just one thing, and often have years of built up issues that precede the war. There is evidence for both that the war was to end slavery and to protect states' rights. There were several other factors that lead to the civil war as well, but I don't recall them off the top of my head.

The problem with what the student chose for a topic is that he first has to prove that the states' rights had more to do with the war than slavery. That all by itself could take years to prove. That would be better tackled in a master's thesis if he still believes it by then.

Are you required to accept what they want to accomplish? I would suggest the student pick something else rather than such a huge undertaking. If the student insists on that topic, then he needs to realize that he has to prove that what he wants to change needs changing.

Maybe instead he should ask that other reasons behind the civil war be given some time as well in history classes and not just the slavery aspect, and he can then explore more of the complexities that aren't being taught. That would allow him to learn as well as potentially improve the education of others as well.

delagar said...

I do have to approve their topics; but he didn't give me this as his topic. I never would have accepted it if he had! As I recall, his topic was something having to do with textbooks used in junior high school history classrooms.

Also, he didn't want to prove that the war started over state's rights; he just wanted that to be *taught* as *the* cause of the war, because otherwise the self-esteem of Southern students would be damaged.

But yeah, even that was too much for such a short paper. Even worse was that he didn't have much/any research to support his claim. (I imagine there is some research out there to support such a claim.) Mainly he was doing ad hominem attacks on Lincoln and on citizens of the North -- saying that they, too, had been racists in the 19th century.

As for whether the war started to protect states' rights, I am not a history professor, but is it not the case that it was over the states' rights to have slaves? And the states' rights to not pay huge tariffs on goods grown by slave labor? (Which enabled them to compete unfairly with free labor in other parts of the world?)

It is true this is a bit simplistic, since (from what I understand) the main reason abolition became popular was that England found a cheaper form of (soi-disant)free labor in India, so that they wanted to do away wit the (more expensive by contrast)slave labor in the American hemispheres, but nonetheless the notion that the South just wanted to rule itself, nothing to do with slavery, is, as far as I know, not actually the case.