“Unteaching the Civil War”

Posted on March 12, 2008 by


I wish I could claim to be the originator of the string of words in the title of this blog, but I have to say that I borrowed them. While attending The College of William & Mary last spring, I was a student in Dr. Carol Sheriff’s doctoral Civil War seminar, and “unteaching the Civil War” was presented (briefly – but it was a line of thought that I latched onto) as something that professors have to deal with by the time students reach the college level. An image of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1853 edition.However, let me make something clear. The need to unteach the Civil War is something that can be applied to many different people from many different places. Unteaching the Civil War entails (and this is the way that I interpret it…) dismantling the Civil War mythology that many of us are brought up on – whether the source be in the materials taught us in the elementary, middle and high school classroom or something that was embedded in us in our younger years by family members (or, dare I say?… the way that we teach ourselves and develop sympathies to one side of the other). There are many misperceptions whether they be from the modern Southern viewpoint (such as something akin to “All Southerners were “good and loyal to Dixie” Confederates and all Yankees were ‘BAD’… no, I mean ‘REALLY BAD!'”… did I say “BAD?”) or from the Northern point of view (such that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the perfect example of how life was in the South, no matter where one would have traveled). (OK, let me stop and throw in a disclaimer here… not all people of the South and North think in the way that I show above, but I have encountered a fair number who do). In the 145 plus years since the Civil War, myths have been created, legends have been made, and embellishments beyond belief continue to flourish (and be developed – e.g., “reinventing Civil War memory”).

It’s really incredible to think about the obstacles that face college professors in teaching (unteaching, reteaching, etc.) the Civil War. How can one teach objectivity in historical studies when so much has been pre-programmed in the minds of students by the time they reach the college level? Obviously, and Dr. Sheriff pointed this out, a good deal of caution needs to be applied to instruction as not to offend, or else a professor may end up with a student that simply shuts down in that class, thinking the professor is “grinding an ax.” To that, some professors might say, “no big deal, the student just ends up getting a “F” for the course,” but that isn’t teaching anything (and is a great example of what I refer to as “student herding” in and out of a class, a program and a school) and does an overall disservice to the nature of the position of a professor and the institution at which they teach. History professors, especially when it comes to Civil War “memory,” have a lot to deal with and it would be interesting to see somebody develop a work that examines Civil War “memory” and how teachers deal with it in the classroom.

On a sidenote… in the course of looking for an image of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for this posting, I ran across a great page from the University of Virginia on which images of the book’s covers (between 1852 and 1930) are shown. Very nice!