Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lincoln, Kennedy and the Field of History

This week, the nation commemorated the anniversary of two important and monumental events in American History - the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.  These two events - and the national discussion this week - illustrate how history impacts each of us and is relevant to us today.  I am writing this post from the National Council of the Social Studies Annual Conference in St. Louis. These two commemorations have been the subject of several sessions this week and certainly a hot topic among historians and history educators.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address redefined the meaning of the Civil War.  Lincoln gave this speech months after the epic battle and even though it had been months, there were still bodies left to be collected on the battlefield.  A celebrated speaker of the day spoke for two hours, Lincoln followed him with a speech of only two and a half minutes.  His brief yet eloquent remarks defined the Civil War as a "test" to see whether this nation, built as a constitutional republic of "the people," would survive.  As Joy Hakim, author of Freedom: A History of US, remarked in her presentation yesterday, Lincoln's short speech illustrated how the presidency had transformed him and how he became the great moral leader of the nation, even if he did not recognize it.  As I have mentioned in class and written here before, Lincoln's greatest strengths in guiding the nation through the trauma of this war rests in his incredible vision to see the conflict through, his ability to unite or at least manage his political rivals for the common cause of union and his astounding ability to phrase powerful messages in so few of words.  Lincoln was passionate at saving the nation and preserving the entire union, as well as achieving a peace that finally put slavery to rest yet ensured the future harmony of the republic.  Of course, Lincoln's vision evolved as the office transformed him and he transformed the office.  The Gettysburg Address illustrates this transformation and demonstrates Lincoln's deep, reflective intelligence shaped by the traumatic events of the war and the sadness in his personal life.  In this regard, Lincoln and Kennedy share some similarities towards the end of their lives.

The Kennedy Assassination a century later also demonstrates an important turning point in American history.  The decade of the sixties represents another upheaval in our nation's history where Americans were challenged by the fears of the Cold War, the pursuit of equality in the civil rights movement, a dramatic change in American culture and the trauma of the Vietnam War.  The Kennedy Assassination leaves us with many questions.  Was Oswald the lone assassin or part of a wider conspiracy?  How would the 1960s have been different if Kennedy had lived?  What is the true legacy of the Kennedy presidency?  These and other questions have been the subject of several sessions here in St. Louis and of course, in the national media this week.  In addition to the presentations here and the television coverage, several historical organizations and news sites have been posting a minute-by-minute account of the Kennedy assassination on Twitter using the hashtag #JFK50.  Even though I was born in 1980 and not alive for the event, I have been able to re-live those days through social media.

Both of these events demonstrate how history also evokes controversy.  The Gettysburg anniversary may have passed with a national discussion focused solely on Lincoln and the Civil War.  However, President Obama not attending the event in Gettysburg and then, dropping the phrase "under God" from his re-reading of the speech in a video message set off a political firestorm where the focus shifted away from the event of 150 years ago to a discussion of more recent politics.  

Yesterday, I attended a session with film director Oliver Stone (JFK, Born on the Fourth of July) and Dr. Peter Kuznick, authors of The Untold History of the United States.  When the session began with a remark on how terrible our nation had become under George W. Bush, I knew immediately where this one was headed.  At the end of the session, Oliver Stone recommended that education and the nation would be better if we could get "those damn Republicans" out of office.  Will that evoke controversy? Yes, but it brings up an important lesson.  Learning history is exhilarating.  What do we really know about the past?  Who writes history?  Why are the events of the past so relevant to us today?  Where do we stand on the controversial event and/or controversial interpretations of history?  The other lesson is to always recognize that everyone has a bias.  Tread carefully.

In yesterday's presentation, we heard Oliver Stone's perspective on the Kennedy assassination as a major conspiracy.  In fact, government involvement - maybe even Lyndon Johnson himself - was implied, or at least Stone raised the question.  Today, I listened to David Keck who has spent years researching the event who disagrees with many of the key points of Stone's speech and the JFK film.  What does this tell us?  This is what makes learning history so compelling. 

To understand history is not to learn a chain of events or a particular interpretation of history.  When we simply study stories of history in a classroom, we only learn one interpretation - the interpretation of the one choosing the stories.  My challenge as a history teacher is to teach the skills of historical inquiry, to teach students to think like historians and sometimes not like historians - to question what we know.  These anniversaries and related controversies illustrate the need for good historical inquiry, grounded on factual evidence.  Students, help me to be this teacher - ask questions, challenge what we learn.

Post note: Tonight, I will be listening to Harold Holzer and "The Making of Steven Speilberg's Lincoln."  Tomorrow, we plan to attend Mass at the Old Cathedral, visit museums and then make the journey home.  I will post pictures of St. Louis later in the week.

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