Thursday, September 8, 2011

When history is too hot to handle

I don't think anybody in our school is doing anything about 9/11, in class that is.  One explanation might be that it's not part of the state standards.  My explanation--for me-- is that it's too difficult for me to imagine doing what I think really needs to be done (would take much more than a couple of one hour class sessions).  Too difficult without invoking significant risks of covering it in a way that bothers somebody.  And I don't want to cover it in a way that ends up bothering me--for the brevity and incompleteness.

Too petty of me, you say?  It all happened last spring in my school....

Our social studies teachers were close to securing a small Civil War Re-enactment group for our school when "risk management" intervened. They said no guns, no explosives, no horses.

Fine enough...the ever-trumping "safety issues" come into play with these factors.

But then they suggested that we "may also want to think about how [we] will address the issue of allowing the civil war troops bringing Confederate flag on your property as it could (as it has done in other sites) cause issue w/ local NAACP, etc."

This apparently--I don't know for sure, as we get very abbreviated summaries of the decision, but not the thinking--set in motion some anxiety at the 'district level.'

The leadership decided no guns, no explosives, no horses, no Confederate flag.

This touched off disappointed response from the history teachers. It looked like this....

Colleague 1
I totally understand on the no horse, no live ammo and actual firing. I totally understand that those are safety issues. But the part I have a big issue with is the Confederate flags part. Is having the Confederate flag for historical presentations against board policy? If not, I think we should allow it. If a confederate flag isn't acceptable at a historical presentation, why is it acceptable in the classroom? This doesn't make sense. I understand that the Confederate flag sometimes creates controversy, but only for those who don't understand history. We are not going to celebrate the Confederate flag and what it represents, but it is part of history. I shouldn't water down history to appease ignorant people. Can we all get together (administration and history department) and discuss this part.

Colleague 2
Can we mention slavery as part of the Civil War….or is that out too?

Your blogger

That's an interesting question. I remember my visit to Monticello (Jefferson's home) in 1978 included extensive discussion of slaves' lives and conduct. In my 1991 visit I don't remember hearing the word slave or slavery once.

I sincerely hope we can use the Confederate flag, as the absence of too many elements of the story leaves blanks that end up diminishing the complexity of the history. The gravity of the Civil War is partly derived from the intensity of the social, political and emotional meanings bound up in these details. For instance, Americans will likely never stop arguing over whether the war was about slavery…unless after long enough time of banishing the right symbols, ideas, images, etc., from the discussion we collectively forget those fundamental aspects of the story.

Might I suggest considering this situation in the other direction? Europeans talk a lot of remembering. 'Don't forget what things have been done.'

That's why Occupation (Soviet and Nazi) museums, Oppression (Soviet and Nazi) museums, Holocaust museums and Concentration Camp museums abound. I've visited a half dozen of these myself, from Auschwitz to the KGB prison in Vilnius, Lithuania to a two-room memorial maintained by one person as a 'labor of love' (in order to remember the Soviet genocide of Lithuanians) in a tiny town on the Baltic Sea. (Sorry, I don't think he has a web site. But there is this.)

Barring the Confederate flag may not seem like that big of a detail, but then again, it's a surrender of one more small portion of the story. Enough small cuts and you bleed to death.

Subsequently, Colleague 1 mused about whether we should discuss things like the 3/5th Compromise, which legalized the counting of slaves as only 3/5th of a person, and other such potentially offensive historical realities.

This is no fusty academic discussion. If you google "3/5 compromise," you might get an auto-filled "for kids" at the end of it. One of the first options on this list is a piece at, whose motto is "intelligent life on the web."

If you read the buzzle summary of the compromise, you'll encounter this, by an author who has "done my Post Graduation in Political Science as well as i hold a Journalism and Mass communication degree. I have worked for a Pune-based Tabloid as a reporter and copy editor for a year."

Fundamentally, although it was 'all good' and slaves did appear to be valued and held as fellow beings, the 3/5 compromise ultimately augured well for the Southern states as they started dominating the House and the governmental agencies. It had a major impact on pre American civil war politics in the USA.

The 3/5 compromise for kids, specifically, can be simply put as a method to sort the deadlock between Southern American states and Northern American states over the issue of counting slaves in connection with taxes. There! This is all I have about 3/5 compromise which now seems like a political
 gimmick to appease the slaves superficially, now what we would have called as minority. (Emphasis added)

I don't even know where to begin, so I won't.

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