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Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 1850-1861

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Edited By Michael E. Karpyn

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, killing nearly 700,000 Americans and costing the country untold millions of dollars. The events of this tragic war are so steeped in the collective memory of the United States and so taken for granted that it is sometimes difficult to take a step back and consider why such a tragic war occurred. To consider the series of events that led to this war are difficult and painful for students and teachers in American history classrooms. Classroom teachers must possess the appropriate pedagogical and historical resources to provide their students with an appropriate and meaningful examination of this challenging time period. Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 18501861 will attempt to provide these resources and teaching strategies to allow for the thoughtful inquiry, evaluation and assessment of this critical, complex and painful time period in American history.

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10. The Civil War and the Inquiry Design Model (S.G. Grant, Kathy Swan / John Lee)

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S.G. Grant, Kathy Swan and John Lee

Among the many topics students learn in U.S. history classrooms, perhaps none is as interesting as the Civil War. The human tragedy of slavery, the drama of brother fighting brother, the intriguing characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line—all combine to promote an engaging narrative.

Narrative history is important. But narrative is neither the only kind of history (White, 1994), nor is it the only means by which history can be taught (Bain, 2005; VanSledright & Brophy, 1992). In fact, narrative’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The power of narrative history comes through as a story well told. A story can be useful, but it is only a single story. History gains intellectual power when told from multiple points of view. History teachers who narrate a compelling story may keep their students’ attention. In the end, however, they may only enable their students to mimic the story rather than think their ways into and around it.

With the typical heavy focus on content, state standards tend to reinforce a narrative view of history. Yet even more problematic than pushing a narrative view of history and teaching as telling is the fact that few standards documents even acknowledge the possibility of alternative narratives. Standards writers may offer a nod to multiple perspectives in introductory pages. That nod fades, however, as teachers read standards that seem to promote only a single vision of...

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