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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 04/ 8/2010

Teaching the Civil War: Debate still alive

By Valerie Strauss

The controversy over Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month--first without mentioning slavery and then adding it after an uproar--revealed a continuing debate about how to teach the Civil War.

First the governor said he left it out because he had focused on those issues “I thought were most significant for Virginia,” and, apparently he didn’t think slavery was one of them. Obviously someone explained history to the governor, and he later issued a mea culpa and a strong statement about slavery’s role in the Civil War.

But the apology cannot gloss over the fact that the issue is still alive. While there is little disagreement among professional historians that slavery was the central reason for the secession of 11 Southern states from the union and the eruption of the war, it is still taught as only one of the issues in many Southern schools.

I’m posting an article I wrote last year for The Post's Education page about how teachers in different regions approach the subject.

Here it is:

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Civil War began 148 years ago this month with the assault on Fort Sumter and ended when rebel forces surrendered in 1865, but the battle over how to teach the conflict to new generations of Americans has never stopped.

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.

As students across the region begin springtime Civil War lessons, historians say the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president offers an unprecedented opportunity to break through stereotypes and view the era in broader ways.

''His election means we can be more honest. We can stop giving one-word answers," said Edward L. Ayers, a Civil War scholar who is president of the University of Richmond, in the city that became the capital of the Confederacy.

Obama’s ascent, historians say, has opened the door to a national discussion about race. There is renewed relevance to issues surrounding the country’s racial past, including the origins and aftermath of its deadliest conflict, said Randall Miller, professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

"This doesn’t mean the subject will be any less controversial," Miller said, "but it does mean that we are again talking about issues such as slavery, freedom, race and fundamental identities.

"Debate over teaching the conflict traces back to the late 1800s, when Confederate supporters propagated the "Lost Cause" view of Civil War history, according to Ed Bonekemper, an adjunct professor at Muhlenberg College and author of several books on the war.

This pro-Confederate interpretation held that slavery did not cause the war and that the South fought heroically despite having no chance of winning. Many historians nowadays say the outcome was not, in fact, inevitable.

There is little disagreement among professional historians that the South’s effort to maintain the institution of slavery was the central reason that 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and civil war erupted.

Today’s textbooks have largely caught up with this view. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the classroom.

"The way courses are taught depends on the teacher, and changes in textbooks can only go so far," said prominent historian James M. McPherson, a Princeton University professor emeritus.

Les Albers, a history teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, agreed: "The Civil War is taught in Alaska a whole lot different than the way it is taught in Tennessee."

Teacher Sharon Drow at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County said she teaches her sixth-graders that the war was fought over states’ rights.

One of her teaching teammates, Kevin Bartell, said students come into sixth grade thinking that the war was caused by "hands-down, 100 percent slavery," but he teaches a more nuanced view: that slavery was the common thread that ran through other equally important causes, political and economic.

Ron Richards, a veteran social studies teacher at Broad Run High School in Loudoun, said he teaches students that "the war was about power, whether the power should be centralized or fragmented."

Ayers said there has been so much evasion and argument over the years about the war’s causes and the role of slavery that many people wind up giving a one-word answer to something that is more complex.

This tendency has become so ingrained in the American psyche that it has been lampooned on the television show "The Simpsons," which Ayers cites in his book "What Caused the Civil War?"

In that scene, a South Asian immigrant is asked on his U.S. citizenship quiz, "What was the cause of the Civil War?"

After launching into a complicated answer about abolitionism and economic factors, he is interrupted by the official, who tells him: "Just say slavery." When he does, he becomes a citizen.

Albers, too, likes to recount that episode. "I tell the kids it’s a very simplistic answer," he said.

Albers said he is a living example of the regional mentalities over the war. He grew up in New York, where, he said, he learned "the Northern philosophy" of the war, which was: "The war didn’t hit us. We won the war, so get over it. . .Northerners don’t really think about it. There’s a monument here or there, but that’s about it."

Then he joined the Army and trained in the South, where he got a whole different perspective: "The South lost and was occupied. The entire economic system was turned upside down. That gets to the point about how the war was about political power."

Ayers said it is time for both sides to face facts.

"We do understand the centrality of race and slavery in all of American history," Ayers said. "But we also understand that the stereotypes about the war are not accurate. The North did not go to war to bring slavery to an end . . . and without slavery there would have been no Confederacy.

"This means everybody needs to give up something. The self-righteousness of the North and the defensiveness of the white South. It’s time."


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 8, 2010; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  causes of civil war, mcpherson and civil war, obama, obama and civil war, obama and history, slavery as cause of civil war, teaching the civil war, virginia gov. civil war, virginia politics  
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I went to a bilingual elementary school in Mexico where we got taught in Spanish in the morning and in English in the afternoon. One thing that continues to stick out in my mind to this day is the widely divergent presentation of the attack at Pearl Harbor. The Mexican textbook mentioned how the Japanese for months openly announced their plans to attack Pearl Harbor, and how the best ships in the fleet were moved away from Pearl Harbor just before the attack. Those facts appeared nowhere in the English textbook.

The version of history you get depends on who you're getting it from.

Posted by: menaman | April 8, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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