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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/ 7/2009

SPOTLIGHT: U-Richmond President Edward Ayers Is On a Civil War Mission

By Valerie Strauss

There is, it turns out, a “great untold story” of the Civil War and Edward Ayers is determined to teach it to you and your children.

Ayers is one of the nation’s leading Civil War scholars, who, two years ago, serendipitously became president of a school in what was the capital of the Confederacy.

He leads the University of Richmond, a highly selective school that doesn’t get much press but that does well in various school rankings (which The Answer Sheet opposes) and that is attracting increasing numbers of applicants.

Ayers is intent on using the gift of location and the approaching 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2011-2015) to spark a public discussion on the Civil War that sounds very different than past conversations.

Celebrations marking the 100th anniversary in the 1960s, for example, were staged mostly by and for a generation of white Americans who saw the war through the prism of state’s rights.

Ayers wants to bring together different narratives and perspectives, and lead people to talk in a new way about how 4 million slaves became free virtually overnight.

“It is the great untold story--slave emancipation,” he said, “the way African Americans made themselves free.”

It is refreshing to see a university president leading an intellectual endeavor in an era when many school leaders spend virtually all of their time worry about and raising money.
But what Ayers is trying to do comes with risks.

The Civil War began 148 years ago with the April assault on Fort Sumter and ended when rebel forces surrendered in 1865, but even now, tensions remain over the war and how to teach it.

Ask Northerners the cause of the war, and the answer often is a single word: slavery. In many places in the South, the answers can vary: states’ rights, freedom, political and economic power. Still, today, some teachers in Virginia call the nation’s deadliest conflict “The War Between the States.” Some contend that the South actually won the war because it was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in which blacks won voting and other rights.

Ayers disagrees. “There is a big difference between slavery and freedom,” he said.

Ayers said the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president may have helped pave the way for the kind of discussion he seeks.

“If we can have a civil conversation about the most electric event in American history for generations, maybe we’ve won more in this last election than we think we did,” he said.

Ayers seems perfectly suited to mediate this conversation. Coming to Richmond in 2007 after serving as dean of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, he is obsessed--in a good way--with history, and wants to ignite that passion in everyone.

“What if history wasn’t a bunch of junk to be memorized but something that came alive?” he said.

At 55 years old, his intellect and boyish good looks cause history teachers to swoon (a response The Answer Sheet has actually witnessed). He writes and edits books (10), teaches Richmond students, and participates in a prize-winning public radio show with two colleagues called “BackStory--With The American History Guys.”

On the show Ayers and historians Peter Onuf and Brian Balough talk to callers, other historians and people in the news as they take a news story and go back to understand how it happened.

He has also designed two detailed websites to help history teachers; one that examines the evolution of voting patterns in presidential elections, and the other called “The Valley of the Shadow,” which describes life in a Northern and Southern town during the war, complete with original documents for students to investigate.

Ayers, along with leaders from Virginia Union and Virginia Commonwealth universities, late last month brought people together cultural and historic organizations in Richmond to start talking about how to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil War and the end of slavery.

Last April, he led a three-day conference in which many of the country’s leading Civil war historians came together to discuss what was happening in the country in 1859--and participants had to pretend they did not know anything about the subsequent events.

(Here is a link to a webpage that is keeping track of other commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.)

Ayers is convinced the country is ready to talk in a serious and interesting way about the Civil War.

“This is the moment,” he said. “If we are going to do it, it’s now.”

By Valerie Strauss  | October 7, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education, Higher Education  | Tags:  Civil War, President Edward Ayers, University of Richmond  
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