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150 years later, Civil War still a delicate subject for schools

The American Civil War is a touchy subject for educators, who must help children understand issues that continue to divide Americans 150 years after the war's outset.

By Erik W. RobelenEducation Week / April 18, 2011

Members of Sons of Confederate Veterans, from left, Phillip Davis, portraying Judge Cobb; Paul Bergeron, portraying Alex Stevens; Tyrone Crowley, portraying Jefferson Davis; and Lee Millar, portraying Thomas Hunt, wait to re-enact the 1861 swearing-in ceremony of Confederate States of America provisional President Jefferson Davis on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. on Feb. 19.

Kevin Glackmeyer/AP/File

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You don’t have to look far for examples of how the Civil War stirs public debate 150 years after it began.

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A private “secession ball” in Charleston, S.C., pegged to the anniversary in February of the state’s declared exit from the Union, sparked a protest from the local NAACP chapter. In Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, got into trouble last year for issuing a proclamation on Confederate History Month without ever mentioning slavery.

Experts say schools can play a powerful role—and hold an important responsibility—in helping young people make sense of a complex conflict whose meaning continues to be hotly disputed in the public sphere. That debate is sure to be amplified, given the prominent attention the war is getting as the sesquicentennial begins this month.

“One hundred and fifty years later, we’re still fighting with many of the same questions,” said Andrew T. Mink, the director of outreach and education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, who has administered a series of federal Teaching American History grants. “People bring a certain cultural understanding of the Civil War, of the Confederacy, of the Union. ... If teachers don’t address that, it gets addressed somewhere else.”

Recent polling suggests that Americans remain divided in their views of issues tied to the Civil War. The very idea of designating a Confederate History Month, for instance, which Gov. McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors declined to do, split those surveyed. Just more than half of U.S. adults said they oppose such a remembrance, according to the poll by Harris Interactive.

Meanwhile, 54 percent of respondents said they believe the South was mainly fighting to preserve slavery, compared with 46 percent who believe the South was mainly fighting for states’ rights. (The poll did not offer further alternatives.)

Slavery’s Role

To be sure, the nation has come a long way. For decades, historians say, slavery had been largely removed from the public conversation about the war and its origins, as had such topics as the role of African-Americans in fighting for the Union. Today, they get much more attention in schools, museums, and planned commemorations of the anniversary.

Most mainstream historians now agree that slavery was the leading reason driving the conflict.

“Slavery is the major cause of the Civil War,” said James I. Robertson, a Civil War historian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg. “There are people ... who will argue to the sky that slavery was just a byproduct, but without slavery, there was no cause for the North and the South to start killing each other.”

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