The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Challenge of Measuring “Success” in Free-Choice Learning Environments

A couple weeks ago Cameron McWhirter of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article portraying the Civil War Sesquicentennial as a “disappointment” to Civil War history buffs. Even though the Sesquicentennial will continue for another year to commemorate the end of the American Civil War in 1865, McWhirter has enough confidence to preemptively suggest that the nation’s awareness of the war’s influence to United States history is minimal at best. To wit:

Promoters of Civil War memorabilia, tourism and re-enactments across the country are fighting a losing battle against apathy for one of the most important periods in U.S. history—a cataclysmic event that shaped the nation and helped define its soul. Limited government funding to stage events and public unease over the divisive racial issues that the war represents are two factors for low turnout, say Civil War buffs . . . “If it’s a celebration, it’s a celebration that the public is either not aware of or not interested in,” sighs Jamie Delson, owner of the Toy Soldier Company, a mail-order business with a warehouse in Jersey City, N.J.

According to the Wall Street Journal, sluggish sales of Civil War memorabilia and poor turnouts at Civil War reenactments reflect a failed Sesquicentennial. Given the nature of the Wall Street Journal and their focus on economic issues, perhaps it is not surprising to see them deem the Sesquicentennial a failure based on economic shortcomings. This perspective is problematic, however, and I strongly disagree with it.

For one, I find it significant that no k-12 educators were included in this article (even though they were interviewed). Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia was mentioned, but he too has a problematic view of the Sesquicentennial because he places too much emphasis on the work of state commissions rather than what is happening in classrooms and public history sites. Besides the views of Gallagher, is it really fair to deem the Sesquicentennial a failure because people aren’t buying memorabilia or dressing up in Civil War clothing? What about teachers like Chris Lese who dedicate themselves to giving their students a nuanced understanding of the war through field trips, Skype conversations with teachers and students at other schools, and the use of primary source documents in classroom activities? What about the work of public historians in the National Park Service who are giving interpretations of the war on a daily basis and including important stories about race, slavery, and emancipation that were left out of NPS interpretations well into the 1990s?

The American Civil War–perhaps more than any war in history besides World War II–has been commercialized and celebrated as a “good war” rather than commemorated and contemplated as a deadly war with serious consequences for Americans today. This desire to commercialize the war through toy soldiers, clothing, teddy bears, replica rifles, and a range of other kitschy artifacts says a lot about how Americans choose to remember their Civil War. Americans in 1998 didn’t run out to buy replica designs of Teddy Roosevelt marching upon San Juan Hill, and I highly doubt that the Wall Street Journal will publish an article towards the end of the World War I centennial in 2018 decrying poor sales in Doughboy uniforms or replica mustard gas devices. Yet the Civil War seems to have always been accompanied by a culture of commercialism that turns Union and Confederate military paraphernalia into tangible memory devices for remembering the war (something I’d like to further research in the future). While that paraphernalia may indicate a person’s interest in Civil War history, it does not always represent an acquisition of knowledge or a successful learning experience, as the Wall Street Journal suggests.

So how do we measure “success” or “failure” during the Civil War Sesquicentennial? Part of the answer, of course, lies in what students are learning in a formal classroom setting, but I believe any comprehensive measurement must be connected to the experiences people are having at free-choice informal learning environments. Assessing the influence of informal learning experiences on a person’s knowledge is difficult because there are no standardized tests like those in a formal setting to measure outcomes. People come to informal learning environments like the Gettysburg National Battlefield on their own free will, and as John Falk and Lynn Dierking show us, their motivation to “learn” at these places is often secondary to a desire for social interaction with friends and family. Little Jimmy, for example, may want to visit Gettysburg to learn about the Civil War, but Mom may have no interest in the war and views the experience as a chance for Little Jimmy to interact with his Grandparents. Furthermore, it may take days, months, or years for an informal learning experience to “sink in” the mind of a visitor. Little Jimmy may never visit another Civil War battlefield again during his childhood, but his memory of the experience may help him score higher in a high school exam or inspire him to take his own children to Civil War sites when he becomes an adult. Can we consider Little Jimmy’s visit to Gettysburg a success? I’d say yes.

The finest tool for measuring informal learning that I’ve come across is Deborah L. Perry’s concept of “knowledge hierarchies.” In What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits, Perry argues that “gaining knowledge and developing understandings is not a clean, step-by-step process. Rather, it loops around, in and out, taking detours and side journeys, following myriad whims and fancies, starts and stops, dead ends and tunnels” (45). Knowledge hierarchies outline different ways of learning and acknowledge that learners engage in their own unique journey towards knowledge and understanding. Perry suggests that many learning “levels” exist within the hierarchy, and helping people move up this hierarchy should be the goal of informal learning. She outlines a brief chart of knowledge levels on page 47:

  • Level 0: I don’t know, I don’t care.
  • Level 1: I don’t know, but I’m curious and interested and would like to find out more.
  • Level 2: I think I know, but I have a very limited understanding.
  • Level 3: I have a solid but basic understanding of the main concept.
  • Level 4 and beyond: I have a sophisticated understanding of the main concept.

We should be thinking about these little yet significant learning acquisitions rather than measuring the “success” of the Civil War Sesquicentennial through dollars. One person may be at level 0 and have no interest in the Battle of Gettysburg but may leave the battlefield at level 1. Another person may have heard about the battle before visiting but left knowing that Robert E. Lee commanded Confederate forces and George Meade commanded Union forces during the three-day battle. Still another person may have read a book about Gettysburg before visiting the battlefield but left having a more nuanced understanding of Union and Confederate military strategies leading into the 1864 Overland campaign. In each of these cases, learners have experienced a change in their knowledge and have moved up the knowledge hierarchy. If the Civil War Sesquicentennial is helping people advance their learning journey, can we really deem the entire endeavor a failure?



4 thoughts on “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Challenge of Measuring “Success” in Free-Choice Learning Environments

  1. Yes, but have Civil War sites and museums seen an uptick in visitation during the anniversary?

    1. Hi James,

      A fair question to ask. Visitor Use Statistics for National Park Service sites are available at the following link: I picked out a few Civil War sites for analysis:

      – The Wall Street Journal article is slightly misleading by drawing a comparison of peak visitation at Gettysburg in 1970 (which hit nearly 7 million) and 2013 (which was around 1.2 million) to argue that visitor use is so bad at Gettysburg. The low point of visitation at Gettysburg since 1970 was actually 1979, when there were less than one million visitors to the site. So compared to 1979, visitation today is actually up 22%. It’s also important to note that the Great Recession of 2008 hurt visitation numbers for all National Park sites. Since a ten-year low of one million in 2009, park visitation to Gettysburg has risen 16.5%, although visitation has not returned to the pre-Recession levels of the early 2000s.

      – Visitation at Shiloh National Battlefield from 2010 to 2012 rose 85% from 317,046 to 587,620. That 2012 visitation number is Shiloh’s highest since 1971.

      – Fort Sumter hit a visitation record in 2011 with 857,883 visitors and continues to have more than 800,000 visitors annually.

      – Visitation at Vicksburg National Battlefield has hovered around its 2008 Recession levels with the exception of a 41.6% jump in visitation in 2011. From 1984 to 2004 visitation often hit one million, however, so their numbers are not what they used to be.

      There are many other sites that can be analyzes in and out of the National Park Service, but with regards to these sites I find most of these numbers quite encouraging.

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