Monthly Archives: January 2012

Research isn’t his strong suit

Richard Rapaport shows us why hard-hitting journalists make the big bucks:

At the start of the Revolution, South Carolina informed the Continental Congress that it would refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence unless slavery was recognized. South Carolina even demanded the right to disregard an embargo on trade with Great Britain agreed to by the 12 other colonies. It was an exemption that allowed South Carolina to maintain its lucrative rice trade and remain among the richest colonies throughout the Revolution, which it largely sat out, happily occupied by the British army.

Um, South Carolina didn’t exactly sit that one out, dude.  The Palmetto State possibly played host to more Rev War engagements than any of the thirteen.  By one estimate, almost one-fifth of all combat deaths in the entire war took place in South Carolina during the last two years of fighting.  “Happily occupied” is a most inappropriate description of a state riven by bloody partisan warfare for much of 1780 and 1781.

Granted, this has little bearing on his larger point, which is that South Carolina has been and continues to be a state which is off its collective rocker.  Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that this reputation for extremism has been overstated.  The evidence Rapaport presents—a restriction of the right of manumission in the colonial period, rampant secessionism in the mid-1800′s, and so on—doesn’t really indicate a greater degree of lunacy than that found in any other state’s history.  I’m not sure how a social scientist would account for centuries of sustained kookery on such a scale.  Some heretofore unidentified Lamarckian process—an inheritance of acquired political characteristics? Something in the water?

Oh, well.  Not being a South Carolinian myself, I suppose I don’t have much at stake in the matter.  I do travel to the Palmetto State on a fairly regular basis, and wouldn’t at all mind taking up residence there, so that probably explains why the article irked me.  That, and one other thing: Rapaport’s byline describes him as a “Bay Area writer.”  Surely San Franciscans above all people should hesitate before diagnosing an entire population with psychosis?  People who live in glass houses, etc.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, History and Memory

A few miscellaneous Rev War items

First off, happy Cowpens anniversary.  Here’s a report on this year’s festivities.

While we’re on the subject of the war in the Carolinas, the marker for Pyle’s Defeat (or “Pyle’s Hacking Match,” as it’s more colorfully known) apparently needs some major revision.

During last night’s Republican debate, Newt Gingrich invoked Old Hickory’s backcountry boyhood: “We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”  That sums up Jackson’s attitude pretty accurately, I think, although throwing in the anecdote seems a little gratuitous.

Finally, Richard Ketchum, author of a number of popular books on the War for Independence, passed away last week.

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Farragut marker may get a new spot

We may be arriving at a satisfactory solution to the Case of the Disappearing Admiral Farragut Monument.  The folks in Knox County are working on an agreement that will hopefully make it possible for the marker to be set up somewhere near Farragut’s birthplace.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Unveiling the Hunley

If you’ve been waiting for a good excuse to visit Charleston, now you can get a clear and unobstructed look at the Hunley in all its nautical glory.

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The occupation of Vicksburg

Didn’t this city suffer enough?

Last year’s frightening flooding of the Mississippi River didn’t do any direct damage to the site of one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War. It did bring in some undesirable new neighbors.

Park officials say a pack of wild hogs seeking higher ground moved in and are rooting up the landscape at Vicksburg National Military Park, an 1,800-acre park where thousands of Union and Confederate troops fought and died in 1863.

They fear the hogs could undermine some of the park’s 1,370 monuments, its national cemetery and trenches and earthworks on the bluffs above the river. The hogs could also startle or injure more than 1 million annual visitors.

“It looks like the world’s biggest Rototiller has gone through some areas,” park Superintendent Mike Madell said. “People think we plowed some of the areas they’ve been in.”

Maybe they’re just trying to throw up earthworks:

“It’s an all-out war on them,” he [Jim Walker of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks] said. “But hunting will never get rid of them. They can breed three times a year and a sow can have eight to 10 pigs each time. You do the math.”

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue…as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Getting oriented

It’s our first week back to class at LMU, which means it’s once again time to deliver my little beginning-of-the-semester spiel at the first class meeting.  I’ve developed a tradition of opening my survey classes with a somewhat crude metaphor.

Imagine that a complete college-level education in history is a big shopping mall, with a variety of stores that cater to different needs and tastes—Ancient Rome, the history of Nazi Germany, the American West, the history of women or warfare, and so on.  Students who decide to major in history, to devote their college careers to the study of the human past, get to go into these stores and spend some time browsing, trying on the merchandise and perhaps finding a few items that suit them.

A gen-ed survey course, like the ones I’m teaching this semester, is different.  In a first-year world history class, we usually don’t spend enough time on any one subject for students to get much of a feel on it.  Students thus don’t get to do much of what historians actually do, which is developing interpretations to answer questions about the past.  A survey course is all about getting oriented to the general contours of human history as a whole, just as the word “survey” in another sense denotes scoping out the general contours of a physical landscape.

If the upper-level elective courses are like stores in a mall, then a world history survey class is more like a mall directory sign, which tells you where the stores are located and what you can find in them.

This distinction is significant to me as a teacher, because it reminds me that I will inevitably have to make sacrifices in content due to the nature of a survey course.  But I explain it to my students because I don’t want them to confuse the experience of taking a survey course with the experience of doing history.

It’s a tragic irony that the very classes in which we’re able to engage non-history majors are the very same classes in which students don’t get as many opportunities to see what makes history so captivating.  In survey courses, there’s so much material to be covered that you can’t delve deeply into the kinds of problems and issues that occupy the attention of historians and advanced-level history students.  The students who really get to have fun with history are the ones who take the upper-level electives, and yet students who sign up for those classes have often done so because they already know how much fun they can have doing it.

I do my best in my survey classes to try to give students a taste of the discipline of history, even though most of our time will necessarily be spent doing the less appealing work of laying a foundation of basic historical knowledge.  But I realize that many of them won’t be inclined take a history class beyond the gen-ed requirements, and thus won’t discover that history is more than mastering general concepts and facts.  That’s why I spend a few minutes on the first day explaining my shopping mall metaphor.  The orientation that we do in survey courses is necessary and I try to make it compelling, but if possible, I want students to use my introductory class to find a few stores that intrigue them, so that when it’s time to take some electives they might consider going in for a closer look at the merchandise.

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Filed under Teaching History

Keep the doors open

I’m of the opinion that history departments need to be more open to the possibility that students may want to pursue career paths outside academia, so I’m pleased to see that this was one of the subjects of discussion at the AHA.

Professors need to avoid discouraging budding public historians, of course, but they should do more than that—they should be actively encouraging them.  They should familiarize themselves with the career paths open to non-academic historians and equip themselves to guide interested students along those paths.  To assume that all roads originating in higher historical education should end in a tenure-track teaching position is, I submit, irresponsible.  Jobs for history majors are scarce enough without mentors closing possible doors before their students can consider walking through them.

If academic historians are looking for ways to bridge the chasm between the ivory tower and the public, they should remember that  their classrooms are full of potential public historians.

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Filed under Teaching History