Monday, April 11, 2011

Why the study of history matters: April 12, 1861

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I'd like to say a little something about why the study of history matters.

Now, unlike my esteemed blogfellow Historiann , I'm not a historian, nor do I play one on tv, although I get a little dramatic in class sometimes about historical events. I'm what movie stars or the Mafia would call a "civilian" as far as history is concerned--an interested civilian, one whose idea of a good book is something by Drew Gilpin Faust or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, but a civilian nonetheless.

When I was in elementary school and we learned about the Civil War, we learned that it was fought over slavery. Slavery was wrong, and the North wanted to put an end to it, and the South wanted to keep their slaves, and they fired on the North at Fort Sumter, and the war was on. We had learned about Harriet Tubman (but not Frederick Douglass), and we admired her work on the Underground Railroad. There were, in fact, some Underground Railroad houses in the area, although I didn't know that at the time.

When I got to high school, though, I was told that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. No, that was a simplistic, babyish way of looking at the causes. "States' rights" was the issue, plain and simple: a conflict between the federal government and the states over governance. This may have been the same year we learned about "triangular trade" rather than "the slave trade." At any rate, I remember this vividly because it made no sense to me to be told that slavery was just a side issue, basically an economic spat in which the North wanted to deprive the South of its labor force. People were being bought and sold, yet "states' rights" was the issue? That seemed just plain wrong, even to a daydreaming teenager like myself, but history was presented as Holy Writ back then.

Here's why the study of history matters: because otherwise history gets taught as Holy Writ in one immutable narrative strain with no acknowledgment that it is just one of a number of strains and not necessarily the best one. What I realized some years ago is that my history teacher, high school edition, must have been caught up by the revisionist Southern historians and that that was the narrative he was teaching us. We did not know that there were other strands that told a more truthful story, or that historians were always working on finding more information and telling a more truthful story. But that's what studying history teaches you--that the story is always evolving--and that's why I'm glad there are historians.


Nicole said...

I think I must have had the exact same K-12 textbooks.

Then I read Atack and Passell in college, but I don't remember what their bottom line was... probably a little of column A and a little of column B.

Jonathan said...

I've had this argument with history buffs who know a little history but not quite enough. It's funny how the naive view turns out to be right after all. States rights turns out to be the right of states to permit slavery.

Historiann said...

Sorry that I didn't comment on this post earlier this week, Undine. I too was exposed to the "it's not about slavery" argument in high school, but I think that was my teacher's (unusually ambitious) effort to teach us about the fact that history is about arguments and interpretation rather than just "facts."

Even so: he *could* have chosen a different historiographical controversy for us to explore.

undine said...

Nicole, I hadn't seen that book but looked it up after you mentioned it. I wish I could remember what books we used.

Jonathan--yes. The naive view is the right one in spirit!

Historiann, I think that's what our teacher was trying to do--to get us to think about the CW as an abstract political issue instead of just an emotional one. I didn't think too much about it until I saw the recent attempts to use abstraction to whitewash the causes. As Jonathan says, the issue was "the right of states to permit slavery," slice it and dice it as they might.