Civil War lessons de­pend on lo­ca­tion of the class­room

Ge­og­ra­phy plays role in how stu­dents learn about con­flict.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY'S TOP NEWS - By Will Weis­sert

The Civil War lessons taught to Amer­i­can stu­dents often de­pend on where the class­room is, with schools pre­sent­ing ac­counts of the con­flict that vary from state to state and even district to district.

Some schools em­pha­size states’ rights in ad­di­tion to slav­ery and stress how eco­nomic and cul­tural dif­fer­ences stoked ten­sions be­tween North and South. Oth­ers high­light the bat­tle­field acu­men of Con­fed­er­ate com­man­ders along­side their Union coun­ter­parts. At least one sug­gests that abo­li­tion rep­re­sented the first time the na­tion lived up to its found­ing ideals.

The dif­fer­ences don’t al­ways break down neatly along geo­graphic lines.

“You don’t know, as you speak to folks around the coun­try, what kind of as­sump­tions they have about things like the Civil War,” said Dustin Kidd, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Tem­ple Univer­sity in Philadel­phia.

Lessons on the war and its causes usu­ally be­gin in the fifth through eighth grades. That means at­ti­tudes to­ward the war may be in­flu­enced by what peo­ple learned at an age when many were choos­ing a fa­vorite color or imag­in­ing what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The ef­fect may not be ob­vi­ous un­til a re­lated is­sue is thrust into the spot­light like this month’s vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville, Va., and the re­sult­ing back­lash against Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols.

Grow­ing up in Char­lottesville, Kidd said, he was taught that “folks from the North” had put for­ward the “mis­con­cep­tion” that slav­ery was the cause of the war. The real ori­gin, he was told, could be traced to groups of colonists from Eng­land who de­spised each other long be­fore the re­bel­lion be­gan in 1861. Not un­til grad­u­ate school did he be­gin to ques­tion that premise.

Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiz­ers have long pro­moted the “Lost Cause” the­ory that the South­ern side was heroic against im­pos­si­ble odds, and that slav­ery was not the driv­ing force be­hind the war. Ed­ward Coun­try­man, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity in Dal- las, said he learned that idea grow­ing up in New York state in the 1950s.

“I re­call my fa­ther com- ing home when I was about 8 or 9 with two Civil War caps, one’s gray and one’s blue. And I wanted the gray one,” Coun­try­man said. “The be­lief, strongly, that the Civil War had been about any- thing but slav­ery was very, very pow­er­ful.”

A 2011 Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that 48 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said the Civil War was mainly about states’ rights, com­pared with 38 per- cent who said its main cause was slav­ery. Nine per­cent said both fac­tors were equal.

The di­vide in opin­ions broke down more by race than ge­og­ra­phy. Forty-eight per­cent of whites chose states’ rights over slav­ery, while 39 per­cent of blacks did. But 49 per­cent of self-de­scribed South­ern whites chose states’ rights com- pared with 48 per­cent of whites who did not con­sider them­selves South­ern.

The pres­i­dent of the Texas NAACP said find­ing “kin­der” ways to de­scribe the war’s ori­gins masks racism.

“States’ rights is about the whole idea of per­mit­ting slav- ery and al­low­ing the South to do what they do, or, after slav­ery, to al­low the South to en­gage in Jim Crow,” Gary Bled­soe said. “You can’t san­i­tize his­to­ryand have his­tory re­port that mas­ter and slave were out there singing ‘Kum- baya’ in the fields.”

Texas has 178 con­feder- ate mon­u­ments. Only Vir­ginia has more, with 223, ac­cord­ing to the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, a civil rights ad­vo­cacy group.

Demo­cratic state Rep. Eric John­son, mean­while, is de­mand­ing the re­moval of a nearly 60-year-old plaque re­ject­ing slav­ery as the Civil War’s “un­der­ly­ing cause.” Repub­li­can House Speaker Joe Straus has called for check­ing the ac­cu­racy of that plaque and nearly a dozen other Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols lo­cated around the state Capi­tol alone.

When cur­ricu­lum stan­dards were ap­proved in 2010 by Texas’ Repub­li­can-con­trolled Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, de­bate fo­cused on slav­ery be­ing a Civil War “after is­sue.”

The state’s fifth- and sev­enth-graders tak­ing Texas his­tory cour­ses, and eighth-graders tak­ing U.S. his­tory, are now asked to iden­tify the causes of the war, “in­clud­ing sec­tion­al­ism, states’ rights and slav­ery.”

Eighth-graders also com­pare ideas from Abra­ham Lin­coln’s in­au­gu­ral ad­dress with those from Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis’ in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, which did not men­tion slav­ery and in­stead en­dorsed small-gov­ern­ment val­ues still pop­u­lar with many con­ser­va­tives to­day.

The eighth-grade cur­ricu­lum also lists Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jack­son along­side Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, a 19th cen­tury abo­li­tion­ist, as ex­am­ples of “the im­por­tance of ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship in a con­sti­tu­tional repub­lic.”

Home to about 5.3 mil­lion pub­lic school stu­dents, Texas has a text­book mar­ket so large that vol­umes pub­lished for its class­rooms can be sold in other states, though that in­flu­ence has waned re­cently. Pub­lish­ers can now more eas­ily tai­lor elec­tronic ma­te­ri­als to the needs of in­di­vid­ual markets.

Still, in 2015, a pub­lisher promised to make ed­i­to­rial changes after a mother in Hous­ton com­plained that her son’s ninth-grade geog- ra­phy text­book re­ferred to African slaves as “work­ers” and im­mi­grants.”

Vir­ginia’s stan­dards of learn­ing for U.S. his­tory to 1865 in­clude “de­scrib­ing the cul­tural, eco­nomic and con­sti- tu­tional issues that di­vided the na­tion” and “ex­plain­ing how the issues of states’ rights and slav­ery in­creased sec­tional ten­sions.” Alabama fifth-graders “iden­tify causes of the Civil War from the North­ern and South­ern viewpoints.”

Con­trast that with Del- aware, where school dis­tricts set their own cur­ric- ulum but a syl­labus for the eighth grade sug­gest­ing what might be cov­ered dur­ing in­struc­tion says that aboli- tion meant that the Amer- ican peo­ple could for the first time “se­ri­ously claim to be liv­ing up to their com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ple of lib­erty rooted in the Amer­i­can state pa­pers.”

In Michi­gan, cur­ricu­lum also is de­cided lo­cally, though the state’s so­cial stud­ies stan­dards for the Civil War and Re­con­struc­tion in eighth grade in­clude the instructions: “Ex­plain the rea­sons (po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and so­cial) why South­ern states se­ceded and ex­plain the dif­fer­ences in the tim­ing of se­ces­sion in the Up­per and Lower South.”

Mas­sachusetts’ frame­work for a U.S. his­tory course asks stu­dents to “de­scribe the rapid growth of slav­ery in the South after 1800 and an­a­lyze slave life and re­sis­tance on plan­ta­tions and farms across the South.”

Ch­ester Finn, pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of the con­ser­va­tive Thomas B. Ford­ham In­sti­tute, an ed­u­ca­tional non­profit, called teach­ing his­tory and so­cial stud­ies “a real jig­saw puz­zle” since many states leave stan­dards up to school dis­tricts.

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