Teaching the Civil War to schoolchildren, 150 years later

Historians in the News

...Jeremy A. Stern, a historian who reviewed state academic standards this year for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said differences in the timing and scope of Civil War education across the United States are dramatic. Often, he said, the war is not taught systematically until middle school.

For elementary teachers, a central challenge is to explain why the war happened. Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a historian who has written about the Civil War and the South, said that he was working one day on an essay on nuances related to that question when his 11-year-old daughter walked into his study with a textbook and asked, “Daddy, what caused the Civil War?”

“I paused a moment,” recalled Ayers, “calculated the costs and benefits of trying to explain historic complexity to a young person, and said, ‘Slavery, honey.’ ”

As Ayers elaborated in an e-mail: “That’s the bedrock of everything else that happened, even though white people at the time, especially in the North, might not have felt it so directly. They would have said they fought to maintain the federal government and the Union. But Americans would not have been arguing about that in the first place without the challenges slavery presented.”

The bottom line for young students, agreed William Davis, a Virginia Tech historian: “Slavery led to secession, and secession led to the war. But even that so oversimplifies it.”

South Carolina, where the war started, asks third-graders to “summarize the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War”; explain the reasons for the state’s secession, “including the abolitionist movement, states’ rights and the desire to defend South Carolina’s way of life”; and outline the course of the war and the state’s role in it....

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