￼One of the greatest challenges I face teaching history is students’ dogged insistence–not always consciously held or explicitly articulated–that history is the story of progress. It’s an article of faith for most of them that, sure, things were bad ‘back then,’ but through luck, pluck, and hard work, THINGS ARE BETTER NOW YOU GUYS AND IT’S SO AWESOME THAT WE LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE EVERYONE IS EQUAL. And, at least in my experience, it’s the whole spectrum of students who’ve embraced this history-as-progress teleology: immigrant or native, across racial and ethnic lines, often straddling class boundaries.
And my reaction, of course, is to want to scream IT’S NOT UNICORNS AND RAINBOWS, IT’S HISTORY, and that means it’s mostly people doing awful things to other people! But I don’t, and that’s because disrupting students’ assumptions is best done carefully, and not flippantly. There needs to be a class environment and a relationship built where they feel safe to abandon ship intellectually and swim out to parts unknown.
And once that’s in place, it’s time to problematize! We put those assumptions on the table by identifying them explicitly, figuring out where they came from (Ken Burns’ “Civil War” is a serial offender), and begin to unpack them. And this is where it gets tough, because it’s confusing. It takes implicit assumptions and renders them problematic. No one likes having their worldview challenged, especially when a sense of ‘how history works’ is part of the identity they’ve constructed (‘proud to be American,’ ‘we’re the land of opportunity’). One has to confront some tough questions. Why am I uncomfortable-maybe resentful-that someone would call this proposition into question? Why do I need this particular thing to be true?
But the process of answering those questions is where the genuine critical thinking and reflective learning happens– and it’s awesome when it does.
This semester, I’m teaching my Civil War & Reconstruction course, which is absolutely jammed with opportunities to confuse–and that brings me to my title’s admittedly provocative claim. When we really look at the evidence, we know the Civil War did not end slavery. It ended a nation-building project predicated upon slavery. It ended a certain set of legal and political protections for chattel slavery. It produced an amendment that stipulated slavery and involuntary servitude were no longer legally-recognized statuses and conditions. It created a political framework (theoretically) no longer based upon complexion. But it did not end slavery. There was a chasm between theory and practice. Sure, there were different names (convict labor comes readily to mind), and the scale and scope of slavery were diminished. But laws and amendments are not self-enforcing. And elite white Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not interested in enforcing them either. So in practice, slavery continued in the US–altered and without certain formal protections it once enjoyed–but it most assuredly continued. Anti-human trafficking organizations remind us more and more frequently that it exists still.
And this realization, as it creeps into my students’ awareness when we discuss the uneven and problematic nature of emancipation, FREAKS THEM OUT. It is a dramatic illustration of how history is most certainly not a steady arc of progress. Their image of the Civil War is a lot like the last episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on the conflict–once the carnage ended, everyone was somehow very sorry, yet humbled and honored to be a part of such a rebirth of freedom, and as the poignant strains of Ashoka Farewell echo in the background, everyone goes home, hugs their family, starts over, and then America is free. Cut. That’s a Wrap.*
So problematizing the notion that the war ended slavery also problematizes that tidy narrative and the assumptions upon which it is based. And the first step in meaningful critical thinking is for students to start “hunting assumptions” (to use Stephen Brookfield’s phrase).** They have to ask those hard questions: why did I need for that narrative to be true? Why am I upset/saddened/confused that the story was more complicated (and less happy) than what I had previously thought? For some students, it’s why am I resisting this new set of insights and clinging to the old ones? Hunting out assumptions and confronting them explicitly, for the first time, is where the genuine learning starts. It’s a metacognitive process as much as it is a content-based exercise. And it wouldn’t be happening if they hadn’t been confused as hell about an initial proposition that opened the door in the first place. The more I try and bring students to a place where they think like historians, where they do history, where they are reflective learners and critical thinkers, the more I have come to embrace confusion as the key to doing so.
Sometimes the best learning starts when students have to cast off what they’ve learned.
*I do like Ken Burns’s The Civil War, for the most part, but its lack of a critical examination of the ambiguities of race and emancipation, and its non-engagement with the category of class, make it an easy target when I make points about our society’s shallow memory of the Civil War.
Despite that, I adore the soundtrack. Don’t judge.
**Stephen D. Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
[NOTE: No unicorns or rainbows were harmed in the making of this blog post. The damage is completely figurative.]