A recent academic conversation centered around the topic of finding ways to better inspire students as they embark upon the path towards a history degree, and the following question was posed by the professor:
“What would you recommend to them to help them get a better understanding of History beyond the basics? More research? More writing?”
Honestly, I am on the verge of burnout when the topic of history comes up. Don’t get me wrong, I love history, and will continue to do so… However, it is often difficult to maintain interest in what seems like the same old lessons getting rehashed over and over again with the only difference being the shock that the results are the same as they were before. For me, I hit the “wall of existential crisis” when I recently came across detailed studies of victims of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Attempting to breach that fabled level of “better understanding” varies greatly from one person to the next, but it closely resembles the pre-thesis undergraduate student’s frustration with everything they learned to that particular point. For me, I stopped for a day and wrote about what was on my mind – one of my regular “coping methods.” By doing so, I remembered what my original motivations were: to interpret stories in a way that shows what we are capable of doing in the face of adversity and horror. To go “beyond the basics” when it comes to history – in my opinion – is for the presentation of HIST 101 to include an exercise where the students would have to show how they would effectively use an event or method from the past in the future. What we are studying now is a collection of haphazard information in order to construct our own interpretations of the past in the form of a thesis. Getting to the fundamental issues of “how” and “why” is just as important as dealing with the “so what” and “ohthatsnice.” Perhaps more emphasis on the human aspect by assigning a research project from the perspective of a non-vital participant would help engage interest…
An example of what I implied follows below. As the assignment required the student to write a defense or advocacy of slavery from a contemporary perspective, I chose to fashion a reply to Reverend Ebenezer Warren’s “Nellie Norton: Or, Southern Slavery and the Bible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments upon which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments.”
The assignment was interesting, personally. I researched Macon, Georgia, and the impact slavery and the Civil War had on the area, as well as the efforts of Southern abolitionists and the resistance they felt in promoting such a momentous change – culturally and economically. In respects to how to create a desire for a “better understanding” of history, assignments like these can be successful.
A Letter to Reverend Warren
February 29, 1864
I have recently paused in my review of your manuscript of “Nellie Norton: Southern Slavery and the Bible” in order to record my thoughts on the eve of your submission of this publication. You had requested that, as a fellow gentleman of the South and honorable member of your congregation at the First Baptist Church of Macon, I give you an honest appraisal of your words.
As the Macon Telegraph so accurately depicted your sermon of the 27th of January this year, your rhetoric in “Nellie Norton” is passionate and eloquent in your view of such a sacred text as the Bible, and I would be a fool to engage in any debate with you concerning book, chapter, and verse when it comes to detail and “spirit.” However, as a plantation owner, my life – and the livelihood of those under my care – is far from what you incorrectly assume from appearances.
I choose my words carefully, as the term “slavery” and those imprisoned as “slaves” goes against every moral fiber of my being. You state in your preface that your book is “a reply to abolition objections” and that slavery “is of God” with the “vindication of the Devine economy,” and I wholeheartedly disagree. The men and women employed by me are some of the finest workers within 50 miles of Macon not because they are slaves, but because I treat them as the children of our God. By night they have been educated in not just the Book, but in the subjects which are taboo for their education in our embroiled Confederacy – arithmetic, reading, biology. During the day, they have managed to out-produce most plantations in our area with our cotton being sought after by mills in Columbus and Phenix City for its quality and density. Picking cotton is very labor-intensive, yet my accountant – a “slave” – has estimated that we are ahead of local production by 25% for this month, and my horticulturalist – yet another “slave” has determined a method of using bugs and herbs to reduce the number of invasive and destructive species in our fields. These men, just like all of those under my employment are “free” to leave and make their way north, but in treating them like people, I have benefitted economically and most importantly, spiritually.
To be honest, Reverend Warren, I ceased reading on the fourth page. Your words, much like your sermon, were full of hate and empty praise of an institution which has not only propelled us against our own countrymen, but is the sole purpose for the progressive ruin of our South and Confederacy. It is a sad destruction for the ideas of the past with no thought for the now inevitable future.
Best of wishes in your endeavors, however. I shall look forward to seeing you – and Mrs. Collins, if the Mayor is still out of town – Sunday.
Warren, Ebenezer W. “Nellie Norton: Or, Southern Slavery and The Bible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments Upon Which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments.”Docsouth.Unc.Edu. 1864. Accessed September 8, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/warren/warren.html.
 Ebenezer W. Warren, “Nellie Norton: Or, Southern Slavery and The Bible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments Upon Which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments,”Docsouth.Unc.Edu, 1864, accessed September 8, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/warren/warren.html, 2.