Some Initial Thoughts on the Future of Civil War History

I have been brainstorming some ideas about Civil War history in preparation for the Gettysburg conference. I’ll be arriving tomorrow via flight to Baltimore/rental car to Gettysburg. I’ve had some extremely interesting and fruitful conversations via email with my fellow panelists and the general nature of our discussion has definitely shaped the following essay. Any feedback is greatly appreciated:

When I first began writing out my ideas regarding the future of Civil War history, I focused the bulk of my thoughts and ideas on how teachers could find ways to make the American Civil War a more integral part of the American history curriculum for k-12 education. Further discussion with my co-panelists, however, has demonstrated to me that for many history teachers throughout the country–especially ones working in public schools–the real problem goes much further. It seems that history teachers must now cope with an unfortunate reality. The lifeblood and future of the study of history is imperiled, and my thoughts have now focused on how teachers can find ways to make history a more integral part of the entire educational curriculum of many schools. Teachers have observed that No Child Left Behind places an added emphasis on English and Math in the curriculum, while in the state of Tennessee all Social Studies assessments will be suspended for the 2013-2014 academic year because their standards were so poorly written. Stiff budget crunches have also prevented teachers from investing in digital technology and primary source material that could enhance classroom instruction.

Before engaging in a collective pity-party, however, history teachers would do well to consider the plight of our fellow historians working in the various museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, and National Park Service sites. The federal government–along with many state governments–has drastically cut funding to the humanities. Many sites like the Benjamin Harrison home in Indianapolis, Indiana, are dealing with decreased attendance numbers and are struggling to stay afloat. The situation has become so tenuous that Cary Carson, Former Vice President of the Research Division of the Colonial Williamsburg, has suggested that we begin to start thinking about the end of history museums and the beginning of “Plan B.”

It seems to me that the future of history–whether in an academic or public setting–is dependent upon historians collaborating together in creating projects that blend, modify, and manipulate the mission statements of local historical institutions to better meet the needs of classroom educators and the common core standards many states have adopted. If everyone is struggling, shouldn’t everyone work harder to facilitate a spirit of collaboration and idea-sharing? Indeed, institutions such as the Indiana Historical Society have now embraced outreach projects that actively seek the input of teachers and schools throughout the state. At times the IHS has even driven to schools to present “hands-on activities, first-person interpreter[s], and community art space[s]” for schools that are unable to visit IHS in person.

When thinking about collaborative projects that have the potential to create an interest in history for students, what better place to start than with the American Civil War? The legacy of this terrible war remains in our society today, and the abundance of primary sources from the period offers us a chance to better understand the challenges of the past and perhaps make us more humane citizens today. Letters, diaries, newspapers, personal memoirs, uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts from the war hold the power to portray history as a method of critical thinking and asking questions of the past, something our history textbooks don’t always succeed in conveying.

I envision the future of Civil War history as one of collaboration and transparency between teachers, students, archivists, museum educators, librarians, and other public historians. I see museums and archival repositories going to schools to share primary sources and exhibits that are cultivated and co-created by teachers and public historians. I see students accessing archival records and museum exhibits online and creating WordPress websites about local Civil War history, whether about battlefields, emancipation, the home front, or Civil War memories. Finally, I envision a lively community of historians who work together rather than separately. Archivists, librarians, and museums educators will all become classroom teachers. Teachers will become archivists and preservationists. Most importantly, students will become lifelong learners with an insatiable curiosity for history. An integration of classroom instruction and institutional resources will help us motivate students to become stakeholders in preserving the past and shaping the future. This represents not only the future of Civil War history, but the future of the entire field of history.