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.
(Page 2 of 4)
That said, Mr. Robertson and others stress that it was by no means the only factor propelling the war, which involved a web of issues, including differences in the Northern and Southern economies, and disputes over the nature of the Union, the role of the federal government, and states’ rights.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Civil War reenactors
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
History educators say one of the biggest challenges for schools in promoting an accurate and deep understanding of the conflict may well be time. At the secondary level, the topic may be part of a yearlong course that covers the full sweep of American history; a lucky teacher might get two years.
“Teachers often find their time extremely limited to get in-depth with the Civil War,” said Anthony Napoli, the director of education at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in New York City. “The biggest question is what to cover and what to leave out.”
A fundamental understanding of the Civil War is widely seen by historians and history educators as vital for Americans. They call it a defining moment in U.S. history that still has many ramifications and lessons a century and a half later.
“So many of the crucial issues that were connected to the Civil War, its origins and consequences, are still with us today,” said Bernard E. Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. “You only have to think about the question of race.”
“But it’s not just that,” he said, citing, for instance, states’ rights.
“The political problem still manifests itself today,” he said, pointing to recent debates over health-care policy. “Can the federal government require people to buy health insurance?”
And how schools teach the Civil War flares up from time to time. One recent example concerned a textbook on Virginia history found in many of that state’s public elementary schools. It came under fire last fall, after a parent complained about the book’s contention, widely disputed by historians, that thousands of blacks served as soldiers for the Confederacy.
A review by a panel of historians of Our Virginia: Past and Present and another text from the same publisher, Five Fronds Press, led the state board of education last month to withdraw approval of both and to overhaul its textbook-review process.
When asked whether current teaching on the war reveals regional biases, most history educators interviewed said that if there are differences, they are far more rare than in the past, and less pronounced.
“I have no doubt you’re going to find pockets [of the South] where ... this ‘Lost Cause’ view is present [in the classroom], but I’ll tell you, I think it’s much too easy to draw overly simplistic regional distinctions,” said Kevin M. Levin, the history department chairman at the private St. Anne’s-Belfield School, in Charlottesville, Va., who has led workshops to help teachers with the subject. “I don’t think you can draw the same regional distinctions that were drawn a few decades ago.”
“I definitely have sat in on a classroom or two that maybe shocked me with an old school, Old South version of the Civil War or the causes,” said Donald Stewart, the project director for a grant in South Carolina under the federal Teaching American History program.
But he said that, in his experience, this is the rare exception.