How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep SouthHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, education, textbooks, Confederacy
Each year, [Chuck] Yarborough gives his students in his African American and U.S. history classes a list of people buried in [Columbus, Mississippi’s] two historic cemeteries—Sandfield and Friendship, the latter the resting place of many Confederate soldiers. Most of the people on the list have never been researched before, so students spend months poring over primary records in the town’s archives. Their final project is a performance written and directed by the students, and anywhere from 100 to 2,000 people from all over the state show up to see them.
Among the moss-covered tombstones, students give voice to white, black, Jewish, and immigrant Mississippians, who more than a century ago—much as Americans do now—argued about who deserves the right to citizenship. But rather than prioritizing the debates of powerful leaders and the outcomes of bloody battles, which is common in history curricula across the United States, these students share stories that explore how the small, daily choices and actions of Columbus residents made Mississippi—and by extension, the country—what it is today.
The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelmingly agree that slavery was the central issue.
Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”
Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.
All this has motivated Yarborough to help his students explore the historical record; focus on primary sources, not textbooks; internalize, through performance, the stories of the people who lived through these times; and share their research with the community. He likes to paraphrase his favorite quote, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in his classes: “When women and men start to think, the first step in progress is taken.”...
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