Sunday, December 10, 2006

Popular History or No History?

Over at The History Enthusiast, Ph.D. candidate Kristen recounts the abysmal ignorance or confusion of even one of her brighter students:

"I had another student who confused most of the facts presented in her paper. For instance, she thought that Northerners wanted Texas to become a slave state because this would trick Southerners into gaining control over Congress, allowing Southerners to defeat Lincoln in the presidential election of 1844. No, those are not typos. Needless to say, my response in the margin was a rather lengthy one. I was really surprised by her paper because she had talked to me about it after class and seemed to be heading in the right direction. My teaching mentor has been really pleased with my lecture style, and our textbook is very clear and concise, so I'm not sure how she got so mixed up. Hopefully, for her sake, her final essay (due Tuesday) stays more on track."

Yikes! I am not, and have never been, a teacher, but this certainly is in accord with anecdotal evidence I have inadvertently collected -- the bright and well-educated teenager who looked at me blankly when I asked her when World War I took place, for example. (She was hazy about World War II as well.)

Incidents such as these make it hard for me to get too excited about issues that make some people upset or angry. Kevin Levin at
Civil War Memory, for example, is frequently disappointed that many Civil War buffs regard the Civil War as entertainment or a celebration of the Lost Cause rather than contemplate its racial implications. Dmiti Rotov at Civil War Bookshelf seems to be outraged that Doris Kearns Goodwin gets prizes because she's a popularizer (and notwithstanding some ethical issues).

As for me, I'm delighted when I see that someone under the age of, say, thirty, knows anything about American history. If Doris Kearns Goodwin inspires 100 or 1,000 people to become interested in the Civil War or Lincoln, I say she can have her award. Ditto for James McPherson and Ken Burns. In an age when teenagers have never heard of World War I and aren't sure when World War II took place (much less between whom), I say that popular history is better than no history at all.


  1. Thanks for the link! And I do agree...we need people to popularize history and make it, for lack of a better word, fun. Although, when I teach I do try to help my students distinguish between myths in the American memory (frequently reproduced in movies) and historical reality. If I were a postmodernist I would say, "what reality?"...but you get what I'm trying to say ;). And, I do show Ken Burn's when teaching the Civil War, even if, as Kevin Levin says, Shelby Foote tells too many silly stories. My students think its great that Foote manages to crack himself up repeatedly in each episode.

  2. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Your reference to Kevin Levin should also point out his anti-southern bias and flawed logic. Examples range from dodging questions to knowingly providing false information.

    Kevin is unable to accept and reveal the northern states complicity in slavery and racial discrimination mainly because it does not allow that section of the country to play the role of moral crusader. Southern social policy and landscape such as Confederate monuments, memorials, and memory would be dictated by one region's contempt for another, and one race's contempt for another. His seemingly benign posts always end on these notes if one follows his arguments.


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