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.
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“I’m still waiting to come across the teacher ... who believes that slavery was a side issue [in the Civil War],” said Paul C. Anderson, an associate professor of history at Clemson University, in South Carolina, who also has worked with many K-12 educators. “I have the exact opposite problem. If I get a question, it’s that a teacher considers the war to be a moral crusade [by the North], and it was not that way.Skip to next paragraph
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“You have to understand that slavery,” he added, “was sectional, but racism was national.”
Meanwhile, Kimberley Warrick, a curriculum specialist for a set of Georgia school districts and a former history teacher in Montana and Ohio, said she’s encountered that mind-set. She said she has perceived some misconceptions from teachers and students who don’t live in the South, including that all whites in the antebellum South owned plantations and slaves, and that all Southern whites were, and still are, racist.
“I believe some students may have these misconceptions because time typically does not allow teachers to explore many of the issues deeply,” she said.
“This is not just ‘the North is great, the South is wrong’, but everybody was involved,” she said. “Our Northern textile mills, for example, depended on Southern cotton, and [many] slave ships were owned by Rhode Island-based companies.”
Indeed, historians caution against assuming that Union soldiers were typically motivated by a desire to liberate slaves.
Slavery’s prominence in causing the war “doesn’t mean the North was full of abolitionists, because it wasn’t,” Mr. Powers of the College of Charleston said. “These people were not chomping at the bit to go liberating black folks.”
Analysts say textbooks generally do a reasonable job of providing a fair and accurate look at the Civil War, though that was not always so.
“For the longest time, the Civil War was kind of the dividing line,” said Kyle R. Ward, the director of social studies education at St. Cloud State University, in Minnesota, who has examined U.S. history textbooks from different eras. “You could tell fairly quickly if a textbook was published for a Southern state or a Northern state.”
But he doesn’t see such differences in textbooks now.
“They usually do a pretty good job of laying out the arguments as to what may have caused the war, and the major issues,” Mr. Ward said.
Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit research group based in New York City, echoes that sentiment.
“Happily, the Civil War is an area of American history that is not only covered in depth, but is covered adequately or better,” he said.
State standards provide some indication of how schools teach the war, though one analyst suggests that in many places they offer little, if any, guidance.
“Apart from mentioning in passing that the Civil War happened, that’s about all you get in many states, regardless of region,” said Jeremy A. Stern, a history scholar who co-wrote a recent report by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute that graded state history standards.