Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 5: Final Thoughts

Other posts on the conference: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

I could go on and on about what was discussed and what I learned at the Gettysburg conference, but with so many other things worth sharing and discussing, I am going to make this my last post on the conference, at least for now. Here are some concluding thoughts:

1. Earl Hess (one of my favorite military historians) pointed out that there are four types of Civil War learners:

(1.) Professional Academics (2.) Non-Professionals who are “deeply dedicated” (3.) Slightly dedicated (4.) Casual audience

Hess argued that the first audience is the most important because they write the books and set the classroom curriculum. That’s true, but I’d argue that if we don’t work towards molding many of the people in groups three and four into the second group, there will be many dusty, unread books, empty classrooms, and unemployed Park Rangers.

2. David Blight on memory: History is different from memory. The job of the historian is to strive towards finding a “meeting place” between the facts of history and the interpretations and memories that emerge from those facts. Memory is “emotional furniture,” and people don’t like having the furniture moved around. 

Memory is tricky. What we remember about the past changes as time moves on, but as we get older, we attach ourselves even more firmly to our memories and we work that much harder to assert the primacy of our memories over others. When contested memories vie for public spaces such as monuments, statues, plaques, or parades, certain memories are bound to be removed from the popular culture in which these memories were created. They eventually disappear. Historians should follow John Bodnar’s example and strive to understand both the “official memories” of a culture (promoted by civic leaders who support “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo”), the “vernacular memories” (promoted in a multitude of ways by various interests that support “restating views of reality derived from firsthand experience in small-scale communities” such as immigrants or veterans), and how these two groups merged together to create public memories of past events. And of course we should strive to remember the memories of those whose voices have been lost.

Furthermore, Leonard Lanier pointed out that the concept and study of memory has not necessarily grabbed the public’s attention. How do we integrate the study of memory into the classroom? I agree with Kevin Levin that one effective method is to talk with students about the memories of contemporary events such as 9/11 to start the discussion on Civil War memory.

3. Most public historians are white women. 

It was suggested by another conference attendee who I spoke with afterwords that the reason there are more women in public history than academic history is because academic historians have created an institutional structure in which women are unwelcome in academia. Public history is looked down upon by academics as an easier sub-field of history that is more appropriate for women who want to pursue a career in history, supposedly. Yet I’m wondering how much validity this argument has. Are there more women in public history because of institutional barriers, or is it because they are actually interested in public history more than academic history? (and keep in mind that equal opportunity and equal interest are two separate things) Or, is it a little bit of both? I’m inclined to believe the latter.

4. Mark Smith and Stephen Berry gave eloquent speeches calling for the historicizing of perceptions in wartime, particularly how someone would have smelled war.

I think this could be something effectively and quickly integrated into a battlefield interpretation with a little more research. Given my interest in music and sound, I am particularly interested in learning more about how the sounds of battle shaped one’s perceptions (and how many pension applications filled out by Union veterans after the war claimed deafness as their justification for a new pension or an increased pension from the government).

5. Most schools, especially those in the public realm, have always struggled with having enough money, and some teachers throughout history have always feared that the newest generation of students will be the ones who are going to lead the world to hell in a handbasket.

The kids are alright. Whether in the classroom, with the National Park Service, or in my current job as a tour guide at the Indiana State House, I am continually impressed with the quality of students I’ve had the privilege of educating. Are they all geniuses? Do they always behave well? No to both. But the vast majority of kids are just fine in my book, even if they got left behind by No Child Left Behind legislation. Keep in mind that I’m a product of NCLB (2006 High School grad) and I turned out okay (hopefully!).

Sure, we as teachers have serious problems to address. Where will the funds come for technological upgrades? How much freedom will we have to create unique lessons if we’re increasingly relying on standardized testing for the meager funds we already receive from the government? (for public schools). There are no easy answers, but we as teachers should remember that we’re not alone in this fight. Collaborate with local historical institutions. Give your students tools to help them critically analyze the world around them. Get kids writing and sharing their thoughts online through blogging or interactive projects. Be enthusiastic about teaching your topic and, more importantly, be enthusiastic about your students. Teaching might be your job, but we’re dealing with lives here. Always remember that it could be worse.

6. History is an ongoing conversation, always up for revision and new questioning of the past. Edward Linenthal hilariously pointed out that doctors are always revising their medical practices, and that no one ever complains about a “revisionist doctor,” so why should we be critical of “revisionist historians?” Embrace new ideas and contribute your voice to the conversation.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

7. There are no National Parks from the Reconstruction Era of American History (1865-1877)

This is profound. It shows that Reconstruction is perhaps the most misunderstood time period of our history, and it suggests to me that our collective consciousness has not allowed for a more responsible and nuanced discussion about this critical time period. Where would we start? What would be an appropriate location for a National Park dedicated to Reconstruction-era history? How would we get the funds from Congress to establish the National Park? Should we begin redefining what years actually encompass what we have traditionally considered to be the Civil War (1861-1865) to include the Reconstruction years as well?

8. There were no state or national legislators at the conference.

And that’s a problem. The people who have the most power to shape the legislation that affects our schools were absent from the discussion.

9. Peter Carmichael forcefully argued that interpretations of the Civil War should lead our audiences to confusion and more questions than answers, but John Hennessy argued with equal force that no matter what educational programs are undertaken by historians, we must always ask, “does the public respond?” 

Finding a balanced interpretation of the American Civil War is tough. Like writing a 400 page book-type tough. We can be academic, complex, nuanced, and factual, but we also have to be empathetic, sympathetic, and inspiring to our audiences. If we can do this, we can hopefully create life long learners who become active stakeholders in preserving the past and promoting civic engagement today.

Let’s get to work.