Tag Archives: teaching History

Did American Education Forget Gettysburg?

(This essay was originally published in The Lincoln Forum Bulletin in the fall 2013.)

While the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was commemorated with fanfare within historical circles and at Gettysburg itself, the education world has shown stunningly little interest. Abe Lincoln, our most admired president, would be disappointed and would shudder at the implications for our country.

In probably the greatest land battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. During these three days some 70,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, engaged 90,000 Union forces, led by Major General George Gordon Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only three days. Lee had invaded the North with the hope, militarily, of scoring a decisive victory which, politically, might strengthen the Northern peace movement and force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.

The battle witnessed uncommon valor and good and poor tactical decisions on both sides, culminating in the ill-fated Confederate assault led by Major General George Pickett. Of the 14,000 Southern troops who attacked that July 3, only about one-half returned. While the Union won a resounding victory, the human toll on both sides was very costly: 23,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) and 28,000 Confederate casualties, more than a third of the Confederate force.

Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would fight and win many other battles after Gettysburg; however, their former dominance in tactics and initiative was now matched by experienced Union forces, soon to be led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.

Many Americans who have heard of this battle may not know of its magnitude and significance. Many perhaps make facile assumptions about the inevitability of the North’s victory in the Civil War, similar to the common view of World War II—we all know the conclusion and casually assume the Allied victory was inevitable.

Not so. The Battle of Gettysburg could have gone either way, and with it the Civil War. If Lee had prevailed over Meade, there was no guarantee that the North’s superiority in manpower, finances, and industry along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would win the war. If the Confederacy succeeded in stifling the North sufficiently so that public opinion shifted dramatically, we would have become two separate nations. Lincoln’s greatest nightmare would have come true: that self-government was a chimera.

To be sure, America remembered the battle. This past year Hollywood has given us Spielberg’s Lincoln; although, this was focused on Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery. Also, Copperhead, a movie about the peace movement in the North, opened in late June. The Postal Service has given us some marvelous stamps featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Vicksburg. At Gettysburg itself, thousands of re-enactors gathered the first week in July to relive and commemorate the battle.

Given the magnitude and significance of the battle, it is surprising that major media in the world of primary and secondary education have essentially ignored it. During this past year the weekly newspaper Education Week, self-described as “American Education’s [K-12] Newspaper of Record,” has had no articles on the Battle or even the Civil War, focusing on such things as the implementation of the Common Core standards, assessment of students, and teacher education and evaluation. Likewise, Independent School, the quarterly magazine for independent schools, has also ignored this pivotal battle and our Civil War, focusing on such themes as technology, experiential learning, safety and security in schools, and accomplishing school missions in an era of fiscal restraints. Even the PBS Catalog for June features neither the Battle nor the War. Its cover emphasizes “Constitution USA” and its rear cover features British dramas.

The implications of this neglect are serious. Societies and civilizations require glue to bind and sustain them, and one important source of this binding is significant historical events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the so-called “high water mark of the Confederacy.” It was, along with Vicksburg, the pivotal battle of the Civil War, the war which forged a new identity for our country. It eliminated the Southern way of life based on slavery. We were no longer a “house divided.” Before the war it was common to say “the United States are;” afterward, it became “the United States is.”

With the former prominence of Columbus Day now diminished, and Thanksgiving now overtaken by a commercialism which whisks us from Halloween almost directly to Christmas, the remembrance of such key events becomes even more important.

Secondly, the education world’s neglect of Gettysburg may signal a marked complacency about the health and longevity of our country. One of the great insights Lincoln gives us is his reminder of the contingent nature of our democratic system, a system which needs tending by its people for its survival. In May, 1861, Lincoln stated: “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity … of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.”

With the rise of China and The Rest, America is again faced with maintaining its interests in a changing and challenging world. Lincoln also gives us insight into our greatest challenge: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”


Fred Zilian is an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. For fifteen years he has been an Abraham Lincoln presenter/interpreter. Contact: zilianf@aol.com.


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All Sources Are Not Equal

 In teaching my 9th graders in Western Civilization the process of writing a research paper, I like to quote from the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which hangs on my wall. I refer to my hero, Abraham Lincoln, and tell them that his favorite line and the idea which he stated was the bedrock of all his political beliefs was: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….” In the critical step in the paper-writing process of finding good sources, I proclaim the opposite: All sources are not created equal!

 For many years I would simply try to explain the differences in quality among sources they might see in writing their papers. This approach yielded me only mixed results. While browsing in a book store one day, I stumbled across a young adult book on ancient Greece: You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Greek Athlete, by Michael Ford. It is written in a very light, humorous style at about the 5th grade level and on each page it has text, large colorful illustrations, and caricatures of ancient Greeks—including Pericles.

 I then went to my book shelf to find two other books on ancient Greece that were of higher quality. The next book I used in class was William Harlan Hale’s Ancient Greece, published by iBooks in 2001. I handed this book to a student and asked her to look through it quickly: a table of contents, no information on the author, a few black & white illustrations and photos, no citations, no index, no bibliography.

 Finally, I handed a third book to another student: David Stockton’s The Classical Athenian Democracy, Oxford University Press, 1990. Stockton’s academic credentials were described on the jacket: college professor at Oxford.  It contained a table of contents, citations (footnotes), a bibliography, and an index.

I saw eyes light up. By giving them actual examples of sources with different scholarly levels, I was much more successful in getting them to understand.

The skill of writing a research paper—the correct way—is not a skill solely for history class, for high school, or even for college, but rather for life. No matter what occupation students eventually choose, they will be much better equipped if they know how to write a research paper the correct way. Being able to uncover and evaluate sources, and to select the best ones is an important step in that process.

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Cultivating Creativity with Role Plays

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein, the epitome of a physical scientist, has always fascinated me: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” By integrating individual role plays into courses such as History and English, a teacher can challenge students to use their imagination and creativity, light up their right brains, and also have some fun.

          Over the past decade many writers have emphasized the increasing importance of imagination and creativity for the future. In his seminal work A Whole New Mind, Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink argues that to prepare for the “Conceptual Age” we must “master aptitudes that are high concept and high touch (61).”  He identifies six of the aptitudes or “senses,” all of which have seats in our right brain. Creativity relates to most of these, but especially three: Design, Play, and Meaning. Of the first he states: “Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is … beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.” (65) Also, the much acclaimed Ken Robinson has written two books stressing the importance of creativity: Out of Our Minds, Learning to Be Creative (Capstone Publishing, 2001) and The Element (Viking Adult, 2009).[1]

          To pursue the objective of cultivating creativity, I fashioned a Creative Role Play Requirement for students in my course on Ancient/Medieval History. For many years I employed role-playing as a teaching format; however, I used only the group, not individual, role-playing. For example an entire class acted out the debate between the American revolutionaries and the British in the early 1770’s, the British Civil War of the 17th century, or the beginnings of the French Revolution.

          I had never asked an individual student to role-play an individual historical character alone. With this requirement I did. I prepared a list of 25 ancient Greek characters, specific ones like Pericles and Plato, but also others like a soldier at Thermopylae and an Athenian speaking in the assembly. Gender was irrelevant; however, I did include characters like the wife of Socrates and the wife of Alexander to increase the number of female options. The student had to speak for two to four minutes before the entire class and had the following options: 1. Pretend you are the person and speak in the first person. 2. Pretend you are the person’s friend (or enemy) and tell the class about the person. 3. Write a poem or story about the person and read it to the class. I stressed that this was not a research exercise, although outside research was certainly welcomed. The heart of it was the student’s ability to take the ample information in the textbook about the person and apply a healthy dose of imagination. My evaluation criteria included: creativity, expression, content, and use of allotted time.

          I was pleased with the results. The students seemed to enjoy these exercises and learned much. As the oracle at Delphi, Claire did a great job in placing herself in a trance and spouting off nonsense leading to her advice for the future. Matt played a fully bold and arrogant Alexander the Great, and Mike distinguished himself as the tough and laconic Spartan. As the wife of Socrates, Kathryn revealed her distress over her ever-wandering husband:

One day, two days, three days,

Oh, how I lose track,

These days are so long,

I wish he could come home,

Just once before

I lose him for good.

 Chris in his poignant poem about a soldier at Thermopylae ended with:

We died for king and country

We died to save our seed

But we shall live immortal

On the glory of our deed.

           Finally there was Kathryn Y, who did an outstanding job in portraying Pallas Athena. Three years later I was very proud to see her playing the Featherduster in our school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. A few days after the production, I congratulated her on the performance. She smiled coyly and startled me by saying, “Well, you know, Dr. Zilian, it all started with your role play exercise freshman year. That’s what sparked my interest in acting.” For a teacher, this was praise that money could not buy.

[1] See also Bruce D. Taylor, Not for Art’s Sake Only, Arts Education and 21st Century Skills, Education Week, February 2, 2011; David Burns, “Creativity: The Path to Economic Recovery,” Education Week, May 13, 2009.

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