Honoring CHM: Questioning Your Education

27Apr10

Coates has managed to take advantage of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to honor Confederate History Month by dedicating a series of posts to the true legacy of the Confederacy. I remember a while back when Andrew Sullivan did the “It’s so Personal” posts on abortion, the Atlantic put all of the posts under one link. In the case of TNC, I think it’d be wise for the Atlantic to put out a pamphlet or book with all of the Honoring CHM posts bound, along with some of the better comments. I can say that last part with no hint of arrogance, because I know none of my comments would make it. And that’s kinda the point of this post.

Maryland was always going to be a unique state to learn the Civil War. Because of the geography and demographics of the state, we were half-slave, half-free, much a microcosm of the country itself. The industrial revolution had hit Baltimore by the time of the Civil War, sure, but there were still plantations where slaves worked along the Eastern shore, and other more rural areas. I remember during one of the first conversations I had with Laura, I let slip something about going to a plantation style restaurant, at which point she immediately recoiled in disgust. I wondered why, and then she said something along the lines of “there were slaves there?” and I said no, and then realized, oh yeah, at one point, there probably was. Of course, this idea never really occurred to me before I discussed the war outside of Maryland, and why would it? Maryland could cling to some claim of decency. We could all say we would have been the ones on the right side, even though the actual odds were more like 50/50. At this moment, I’m wondering if my liberal demeanor would have been enough to push me to the Union. It’s a moot point, as my ancestors arrived after the War. But here I am, already making excuses.

I proceed to the next part with some hesitation–you see, there’s an alumni reunion for my high school tomorrow in the Boston area, and I likely won’t be attending. This has more to do with a general social awkwardness amplified by the fact that the only person with a “maybe attending” just so happens to have been on the last season of the Real World. And I thought I was invisible the first time around! This post was actually conceived days ago, and I hope it’s clear that this is not an explanation for why I’m not going to the reunion.

The best way to start is probably to talk about my senior year Civil War class. For the sake of not telling the same story too many different times, I’m just going to refer you to my comment on one of TNC’s threads

I have a rather depressing story to share. I graduated from high school in 2005, from a solid school in MD. I took a Civil War class taught by a lovable socialist that was challenging, but still considered fun mostly because it was co-ed (I went to an all-boys school that was close to two girls schools–this class allowed students from all three).

A week into the class, we were told that we were going to have to write a 20+ page narrative of the Civil War and some of Reconstruction. The texts for this class included books by authors such as Eric Foner, a great American historian who, among the others we read, accepted the obvious, that the cause of the Civil War was slavery above all else.

Well, about that narrative. My teacher said that we’d have to construct it with either a “Northern” or “Southern” perspective (the southern perspective based around the idea that the federal government has overstepped its bounds). I kinda thought it was a joke. Well, when the teacher asked how many people wanted to write it from a “Northern” perspective, I raised my hand, along with half of the class. I thought some people were unsure, or like me, thought it was a joke.

Then, the other half of the class raised their hand when asked who was going to write it from a Southern perspective. I was shocked. My teacher, who had taught the class for years, was not. It became clear that for all of them, this was not merely an intellectual challenge, but what they actually believed.

This really sucked. It was funny, because the class actually seemed to get along quite well, but this is a major philosophical problem.

I’m going on memory exclusively, so forgive me if this is vague. I can’t help but think more could have been done by my teacher to really dispel any legitimacy to the claims of the Lost Cause. Yes, we were asked at the beginning of the class from which perspective we wanted to write our narrative. I guess you could make the claim that some people could have pleaded ignorance. That said, we are literally talking about 18 year olds, adults, who couldn’t seem to come to terms with the fact some of their classmates could still be enslaved to this day if the South were righteous, let alone had they won the war. What is wrong with these people?

Well, let’s address that. First, let’s make no mistake about what Gilman is. There is a large base of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, many whose families have been in the school for years. This demographic is skewed partially because of the abundance of Catholic schools in the city. These families have a lot of power in the school; they are on the board of directors, are major donors, etc. These are people who belong to country clubs that remind Italians they aren’t quite white. These are people who often take racial humor to levels of “what did you just say?” They are privileged, even in the white sense of the word. They tell you that the black quarterback is dating the blonde as a trophy of his success. It’s quite conceivable that many of them owned slaves, though you’d never get far investigating this assumption. They wrap themselves in opaque concepts like honor and tradition. They are Republicans, mostly for economic reasons, and have been for years.

As an outsider, it’s easy to resent them before race even enters the discussion. I knew when I got into a debate about whether one’s family having two houses was considered extravagant. I lost resoundingly. They were twelve and thirteen, and yet they seemed far less mature than their public school counterparts. I would discover in another class years later that I was the only person without a cleaning lady (Spanish, ironically).

And I can’t help but think their parents might have pushed a curriculum that taught me that Grant, a thoughtful man of great intelligence, was a mere drunk who had the great fortune of the Union’s limitless resources and Stonewall Jackson’s death. This was the same curriculum that embraced the idea that the Union didn’t care about slavery (a fair point in a way) yet gave equal weight to both slavery and tariffs respectively, as the cause of the war. I learned that Andrew Johnson was a reasonable man impeached by Radicals who were going to separate the Union again. I did not learn very extensively of Jim Crow–I knew it was there, that it was bad, but not much on specifics–much less the attempt to systematically destroy the black middle class in many parts of the country.

That’s not to say we didn’t learn of Bleeding Kansas, or John Brown, or Nat Turner, or even that Indiana was taken over by the KKK at one point. We did, but it all seems now, sort of, out of proportion. It feels like there was constantly an effort to concede some ground to the Lost Cause. I can tell you pretty definitively that I never learned how explicitly the CSA was formed on the concept of white supremacy. I didn’t learn anything about “the natural condition” of African-Americans, and I didn’t know that their constitution guaranteed slavery explicitly. There was always some perception that the South would have come around soon enough.

So when I say “they” above, I want to note that “they” aren’t even the majority at my school. I wouldn’t put them at any more than a third of the population. Still, the school was formed in their image, by them. Also, I should note that I didn’t emphasize all of the accurate things I learned about the Civil War. There really seemed to be an ideological struggle going on even in the curriculum; it was all pieced together in the most non-offensive way.

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