THE CULTURAL DIVIDE

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2010 by Ed

It may have taken five months, but I had my first "Holy crap I live in the deep south" moment today.

OK, my second. The first was seeing an advertisement for an Uncle Remus museum. OK, third. There was also that time at Hartsfield Airport when an old white woman got off a shuttle bus and handed her luggage to the first black guy she saw irrespective of the fact that he was a fellow passenger and not a luggage porter.

I digress. The following is my first HCILitDS moment in the classroom. Yes, that should hold.

It turns out that all of the jokes up north about the way the American Civil War is taught in southern schools are…well, not jokes. My students, almost all of whom are from Georgia, South Carolina (First in Secession, Last in Everything Else!tm) or Tennessee, informed me that the Civil War was not caused by slavery. It was caused by economic differences between the North and South. And states' rights. And a principled debate about state sovereignty. And the inherent tension resulting from the cultural differences between North and South.

Fortunately this was in an honors class. Most of the students are able, regardless of ideology, to understand that they had been on the receiving end of a comically awkward attempt at historical revisionism. But not all of them. One student earnestly pressed me, noting that he had been taught that "slavery" is a facile and incomplete answer to a complicated social-political conflict. I noted that this was an outstanding question, and in fact the sharpest students are inevitably those who refuse to accept superficial answers and insist on digging deeper. It warms my heart to see undergraduates exercising critical thinking skills and questioning The Man.

That said, the Civil War was caused by slavery.

Yes, states' rights was an issue. Namely states' right to maintain slavery. Yes, there were contentious economic differences between North and South, such as the fact that the entire Southern economy depended on cotton which in turn depended on slavery. Yes, there were dramatic cultural differences between North and South that made the Union a strained marriage. For example, in the South some people owned other people. That was a pretty big difference.

I rarely find myself arguing against intellectual subtlety, but the way this is taught in southern schools appears to go several steps beyond self-parody. This simply isn't a puzzling historical dilemma. Charles Sumner (who survived the infamous cane-beating on the Senate floor at the hands of South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks in 1856 because of his fierce anti-South rhetoric) said it best 150 years ago:

There are two apparent rudiments to this war. One is Slavery and the other is State Rights. But the latter is only a cover for the former. If Slavery were out of the way there would be no trouble from State Rights. The war, then, is for Slavery, and nothing else. It is an insane attempt to vindicate by arms the lordship which had been already asserted in debate.

Indeed, Chuck. Indeed. I assumed this to be common knowledge and my image of how the War is taught in the South was nothing but partisan Yankee humor. But now I understand quite clearly that the War of Northern Aggression is a peculiar issue down here. Quite fitting, given the Peculiar Institution that precipitated it.

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