Brief Historical Ponderances
By Dwip June 12, 2009, 1:36 am Comments (2) RSS Feed for this post

So, recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs at the Atlantic and who is somebody you maybe ought to read, picked up James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on the history of the Civil War, and was talking about it. And in reaction to him I’ve got a whole bunch of random thoughts percolating about, so I’m just going to throw a few of them out to the rest of you:

1. Pretty much all of what Coates is saying on the subject is at the least interesting, but this one was really interesting, and I quote: “I’m coming to finally, at long last, admire Abraham Lincoln. I am almost ashamed to admit this. It feels cliche and silly. But its true. That sound you hear is the burning of the lost of my black lefty credentials. The end is nigh.”

I think it says something or atother about me and my own historical upbringing that I was sort of taken aback at that one, because from my perspective it seems pretty clearly that what you do is admire Lincoln. There’s some debate about the other figures of the period I suppose, Lee and Grant and them, but Lincoln, no. But I suppose that if you had the upbringing that Coates had, and it was an interesting one from his book, Lincoln may not be so hot. I find that interesting, though for myself, Frederick Douglass:

“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. …the judgment of the present hour is, that taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

2. As to McPherson, I’ve little yet to say about him as I’ve just started reading myself, somehow having not read it previously. Good thus far, but what was interesting to me was that he starts out in the 1840s, which made no sense to me for a moment, being used as I am to treatments of the subject beginning either in the 1850s or much much earlier, but on thinking makes a fair bit of sense on the idea that A, we don’t really talk much about the Mexican War or the 40s in general, and B, this small bit where McPherson takes 10 or 12 of the people who would become leaders during the Civil War, and talks about the relations of future Union men with future Confederates, all of them at the time serving in the US Army. Interesting stuff.

3. Back to Coates, he and several of his commenters sum up that epic Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, which you all know was one of the foundations of my childhood so to speak, and dismiss it out of hand as having a “Southern slant.”

I find this somewhat odd. If you were only listening to Shelby Foote, then fine, take that with you (though Foote, a Southerner, thought the film had a Northern bias, so). On the other hand, a film that notes the foundations of the Confederacy upon slavery, notes in literally graphic detail a few of the horrors, and has as one of the central figures of the piece Frederick Douglass seems to me to have its heart in the right place. It also gives the Southerners their voices, and describes the glory of the thing for many of the white people, but I think that’s fair. They’re part of the history of the thing too.

4. Something else Coates did was link to a Yale lecture course by David Blight on the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is a good series and I’m enjoying it immensely, which is strange because by the end of my history undergrad, I was completely done with lectures, believe you me, and in any case I just finished my final courses for graduate school, so shouldn’t I be burnt out or something? Strangely enough, every time I finish a degree, I seem to get straight back to the business of reading a lot of history books, which strikes me as somewhat ass backwards but works anyway.

But I digress. I’m four lectures in, and we’re still talking about mindsets and ideologies and myths, which brings to mind something I’m pretty sure I formulated all by myself and believe in deeply in any event, which is that if you really want to understand anything but especially people, and if you want a really good basis for any sort of subject, you ought to study history. Reason being, I can’t think of any other subject that’s such a useful springboard for all sorts of other topics. Taking the Civil War, thus far in Blight we’ve had some sociology and psychology, we’re starting to pick up technology (understanding the Industrial Revolution is key to understanding the war), economics (same, constrasted with the enormous business of slaves and King Cotton), biology/medicine (some of the first stabs at effective field medicine here), engineering (new weapons and other inventions), politics (duh), and everything else under the sun.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that historical education in this country is a travesty, but let us not go there. I’m ten years out of high school as of this week anyway. All of that is, shall we say, ancient history.


Books, History and Politics Comments (2) RSS Feed for this post
Comments on Brief Historical Ponderances
avatar Comment by Whir #1
June 12, 2009 at 6:46 am

I think the problem with history education lies somewhere in the general idea that about five people on the entire planet actually care about it. I mean, should we all care? Probably. Are we going to even if we know that? No.

Disinterested teachers teaching disinterested students can probably get us to where we are today. At least that’s my take on it.

I for one deplored history lessons. I find a lot of it interesting, but being forced to remember dates and names and such is just not my idea of a good time.

And one should also take into account that most of the current population in k-12 is just plain old dumb. That’s the generation that’s going to ruin this world, for sure.

avatar Comment by Samson #2
June 14, 2009 at 6:00 am

Are you sure that generation hasn’t already ruined this world? Not so much because they’re dumb and in school now, but because they’ve destroyed any hope of recovering the once useful education system we had before them.