Thinking, Learning, and the Civil War

Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 4/4/2023

From Scahaff, Jon D., "There Is No Thinking without Memorizing." Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute. 1 Feb. 2023:

...if at the end of the day we want students to think like historians, at the beginning of the day they must know some history. While history may be more than names and dates, it is at least names and dates. Try thinking like a historian about the American Civil War, for instance, without knowing about the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln–Douglas debates, the various contestants in the 1860 presidential election (especially Abraham Lincoln), Ft. Sumter, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Emancipation Proclamation, battles such as First Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. One could go on, but the point is made. To “think critically” about the American Civil War necessarily entails placing it in the correct half-century (which many students cannot do). Asking students to “question” something they know nothing about will yield success at the same rate as attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.

We spent the weeks before Spring Break learning about the run-up to the Civil War. Now, our class is engaged in the war itself. Those who understand the Civil War will understand that as an allusion to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Why should students care about such things?

The cliché answer is that we learn history for the purpose of learning about mistakes and how not to repeat them. True enough, but the reasons go deeper. In the first two days back from break, we have already addressed the question of "why learn history" in class discussions. In the past few months, computers have proven themselves able to produce extensive credible prose on multitudinous topics. In a world where artificial intelligence challenges human intelligence for speed and credibility, how do we remain human?

The answer most assuredly is not to simply outsource all thinking to machines. Rather, it must be to use our human advantage to synthesize simple facts with the moral and emotional skills that give humans our competitive advantage over processors and memory chips. In class this week, we talked about Frederick Douglass's argument that education was essential for former slaves to make their new-found freedom meaningful; about the slavery of ignorance. Scahaff uses Ray Bradbury's argument in Fahrenheit 451 to underscore what remains a current topic in the popular media: Civilization itself can be lost when people choose to abandon book learning for ephemeral technological pleasure.

Middle school is where many students make choices to either pursue their learning to continue to satisfy their natural curiosity, or to merely go along, to check the boxes to comply with institutional demands to "make progress." Lincoln, during the Civil War, moved from merely seeking to preserve the Union to the moral goal of "a new birth of freedom," as he said at Gettysburg. ChatGPT may analyze the Gettysburg Address for us, but it can never feel the feelings that Lincoln had as he guided the nation to survival, nor can it feel the feelings I hope our students have as they come to recognize Lincoln's struggle and our nation's struggle--and as they use their experience of these feelings to guide their own lives into what will surely be remarkable futures.