August 12, 2017 was a troubling day. A group of protesters, in Charlottesville, VA opposed to a Unite the Right Rally saw a man drive a car into their assembly—killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Questions over removal of Charlottesville’s monument to Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park had led the Unite the Right effort to protest in the community, and placed squarely in the American psyche an ongoing debate over protests and race in America, through the lens of the Civil War.
History classes, particularly at the college level, tend to have a variety of stereotypes. Focused singularly on dead white guys and wars, or—an overtly political platform for the instructor. In recent years, historians teaching in higher education have sought to challenge those kinds of interpretations of the historical classroom. Inspired by incidents and events like Charlottesville, no longer can the history classroom be a place for passive learning, singularly devoted to an inactive lecture environment. To combat those impressions of our classrooms, history faculty have started to reinvigorate their curriculum. History is a discipline well positioned to let students use new educational resources to facilitate critical conversations over how the past has come to shape their lived experiences both in and out of the classroom. Additionally, history is amongst many disciplines capable to provide students with an understanding of information literacy and its challengers.
One of those challengers is the “Lost Cause” movement, created by former Confederates in the aftermath of the Civil War. Begun at the war’s end, the movement has tried to reshape the national understanding of the south, it’s war objectives, and what importance race and slavery held in the former Confederacy. Typically using the communication tools of the late 19th century; the movement supported speakers, curriculum, festivals, candidates, monuments, and overall led a discourse that heralded the Confederacy as righteous, and slavery as little connected to their state or the war overall. Monuments to Confederate Generals and leaders emerged in places like Charlottesville, reshaping the physical space and cultural experiences of many communities. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I looked at the assignments and curriculum in my American History I survey and created a new project with corresponding lectures a few semesters ago.
First, I developed an active lecture that thoroughly grounded students in the lost cause, including small group and class discussions on the meaning of ‘monuments’ and the difference between ‘glorification’ and ‘acknowledgement.’ From there, we did source analysis in class—updated to examine how films like Gods and Generals and the continuing Gone with the Wind fandom serve the mission and themes of the lost cause. Lastly, I assigned a short project where students selected a Confederate monument, researching its development and installation. This allowed students to research the movement independently, use their in class work, and produce projects that allowed them to engage with concepts that many have encountered in their daily lives.
The context of race and slavery and the discourse of the Lost Cause movement and the Charlottesville tragedy meant as a teacher I could craft curriculum and a project whereby students could engage in a discussion of real life issues. While these issues may not be fully applicable to each discipline, always look within your own curriculum to see how it may be reassessed with current issues in mind. From in class discussions, short responses to larger projects—’real life’ should always be looked at as an opportunity for all faculty to foster critical thinking and continue the development of their classrooms.
Resource: The short project referenced in the post.
Josh Fulton is an Associate Professor of History. If you’d like to contact Josh, please contact the CTL and we will forward your message to Josh. Be sure to reference this post in your message.