Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Screening America, Vol. 1, No. 1

The Return of Roots

     In 1977 one of the most powerful miniseries ever made was televised in the United States. Up until the airing of the show most Americans were under the impression that slavery in the antebellum era was benign and not very bad. Roots exposed the horrors of captivity, the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and the harsh treatment of slaves by white Europeans and Americans. For eight consecutive nights Americans watched the saga of an American family unfold. It was an eyeopening experience for many and it led to a questioning of slavery in American history.

     Last night, nearly forty years after the original presentation of Roots on television, a remake of the show began to air on a few channels. Once again, the powerful story of slavery is on our screens. This time, most Americans are aware that slavery was a negative force in American history. Some few disagree, but they tend to reject facts and support racism. For historians, this is a time to explain how slavery played a pivotal role in the development of this nation as well as to explain how the slavery that existed in the American colonies led directly to the racial problems of today. 

    There are those that will deny this is true, but they do not study history. They prefer a fictional past that never existed. Those people also perpetuate the problems that exist and have existed for centuries. Their denial of reality condemns them to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. It also affects the rest of us who are trying to move forward.

 Film is a medium in which history has often been exploited and mangled in order to develop a story to present to the public. The story which unfolds in this show is a mixture of fiction and fact. The author, Alex Haley, did some good research, but also added details which some have used to attack the accuracy of both the novel and miniseries. The 2016 remake hopefully is addressing some of this. Rather than go into great depth on this, I want to allow students who watch this show to do some research of their own. That's what I do with the film class. Students take apart the films and examine the history depicted in them. The results help them learn more about history in the process. 

Here is the website for the 2016 remake of Roots: Roots Website

Keep in mind that the History Channel is not perfect when it comes to the delivering of history as it is driven by the need to turn a profit and therefore get viewers. On the other hand, the History Channel is fairly good with its website in pointing people to sources. It is just like watching a movie. Never take anything at face value and always check sources. Passive viewing of films and television shows can never take the place of active learning.

Also, the Organization of American Historians has a blog and today's post was about Roots. Process Blog - Roots

PBS has a great documentary on slavery. PBS - Slavery and the Making of America

Take the time to watch the show and to do some investigation. I think you will begin to find just how important slavery was in our past and what impact it is having on our present. Knowledge or ignorance of slavery will shape our future.

Monday, May 30, 2016

According to Jim, Vol. II, No. 1

                                                         The Origins of Memorial Day

     Memorial Day is a national holiday celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. This holiday exists to honor those who have fallen serving the United States in the military service. What is the history behind this holiday? When did it begin? Why? (My students will see three of the five W's of history right there)!

     In the middle of the 19th century, the United States engaged in a civil war over the issue of slavery. Until very recently, more men were killed in that war than all of the rest of our wars combined. The death toll was incredibly high considering the population at that time. Many more men were wounded and maimed. The nation survived the conflict, but was forever changed by it. People wanted to remember the men who fell in that conflict. They did so in different ways at different times, and the result of these remembrances became Memorial Day.

No one knows when the first memorial day celebration took place. Many local legends exist and the documentation is scanty and often purposely altered to put the local story in a prominent place. However, it definitely was tied to the Civil War and quickly spread throughout both the North and South following the conflict. Some such as David Blight think it stemmed from an event that took place in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. Others see widows of Confederate dead honoring their deceased men in 1866. By 1868 the Grand Army of the Republic began to officially celebrate honoring Union war dead in May.

Rather than repeat what so many of my historian friends are saying, I think I will link to their blogs and let my readers and students visit them and learn more. Most of the posts for Memorial Day are reposts of earlier ones they made years ago.

Andy Hall - Dead Confederates https://deadconfederates.com/2016/05/30/frederick-douglass-on-decoration-day-1871-6/
Decoration Day at Arlington, 1871

Brooks Simpson - Crossroads  Memorial Day, 2016: Americans in Europe

Al Mackey - Student of the Civil War Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Memorial Day

Kevin Levin - Civil War Memory Remembering Southern Unionism on Memorial Day

David Blight - David W. Blight The First Decoration Day

USMemorialday.org US Memorial Day

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Art of Teaching History, Vol. II, No. 1 - Why Secondary Sources Matter

                                                Why Secondary Sources Matter

     Recently there was a discussion in a FaceBook historical society page where someone said that primary sources were all that mattered and that secondary sources had no value in historical research. As a historian and educator, I am appalled that someone would say that. Both primary and secondary sources must be used in conjunction with each other in order to develop a sound historical interpretation.

      Those of you who already have your MA in History know that you will be writing a literature review and it involves secondary sources (Expect to spend a long time on this at the doctorate level). There is no way to develop and sustain a historical interpretation without studying secondary sources. Woe to anyone who tries that because they will be torn apart in the peer review process should they make it that far.

Speaking of peer review, it is worth noting that there are people who avoid peer review and oddly enough, secondary sources as well. One only has to mention David Barton or Thomas DiLorenzo to see two people (neither of whom hold a degree in history) who fail to be taken seriously by historians. As a result, these two avoid peer review at all costs. It is also interesting to note that in most cases the people who challenge historians have no historical training whatsoever. Yet, they seem to think they are experts.


      Here in Lauren Anderson's article on the US Intellectual History Blog we see several myths discussed. As a historian and educator I have experience in encountering those myths. I teach history at a community college and use primary sources. Most of the students have no idea what these sources are. If they are handed nothing but primary sources, they will not learn much if anything about the subject. They have no training in using the sources, nor do they understand the setting the sources were written (or developed. Not all primary sources are written documents) or the context involved in their creation.

      An experience I had in this involved Thomas Jefferson's "Fire Bell in the Night" letter to John Holmes. I put the letter on the screen and had the students read it. I then asked them what it meant. This was the American History to 1865 survey course, so we were past the halfway point of the semester. They had handled multiple primary sources and had been taught how to use them. None of them understood that it was about slavery. Yet, we know that Jefferson was discussing slavery in this letter.

      They vaguely understood that the document involved Missouri. They lacked contextual understanding until I explained the history involved and what was taking place in 1820. One student asked me how I got slavery from the document. I went through it line by line and explained the history involved. At the end of the lesson, they understood what the document was about. I then pointed them to other sourc
es, both primary and secondary, to develop a better understanding of what was taking place then.

      It was important to do that. They needed to understand that it was not my opinion alone that determined what the document was about, but rather the collective body of historians over time's opinions. Also, it was important that they understand how our interpretations of history change over time. That's where historiography comes into play.

      The lesson involving this source was one that can be done with a lot of primary sources. However, do not expect students to learn history from primary sources alone. They will not. It takes a good foundation of historical learning or analytical skill development in conjunction with historical learning to be able to use primary sources in great numbers. Even then that foundation requires using secondary sources. Why would anyone think students would not need secondary sources? They do need them. They need a good textbook for reference as well although that can take many forms.

       Good instructors understand the need for developing course content from multiple types of sources as well as understanding their role in helping students learn history. To rely on primary sources alone is to fail to teach students. To rely on a textbook alone will result in a failure to engage students in developing critical thinking skills along historical content. Primary and secondary sources are both of critical value in the successful instruction of students.