The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

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