The recent controversy concerning the display of the Confederate flag presents an excellent opportunity for teachers to employ constructivist learning techniques for students to understand the flag’s original intent. Also, this can provide a good lesson in the value of examining original historical documents rather than relying on interpretations of those documents. When I took American history in high school, back in the early 80’s, these documents were not readily available for inspection. The internet now allows students to access these documents with little difficulty.
Four states, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, wrote formal declarations as to the cause of succeeding from the Union. Students can access these documents here. The students can read the documents as a homework assignment in preparation for a discussion segment follow-up in class.
Themes the teacher can present in the discussion are these:
What was the major cause for Southern states to leave the Union?
Did the assigned documents list any secondary causes?
Did the documents conflict with the student’s pre-existing notions as to why the South succeeded from the Union?
Explain what the word seminal means. Ask your students if the lesson helped them to understand why it is important to review and cite seminal sources, rather than solely rely on secondary sources, for academic work.
Students should be asked, how does this flag differ from the one normally associated as the Confederate flag? Why does this flag only have 7 stars? What is the significance of the date, April 14, 1861, and what happened at Fort Sumter that caused this event? Why did Confederate battle flags evolve to look differently than the one that flew over Fort Sumter?
Finally, the class can discuss how the flag is displayed today. Does it match the original intent of the flag? Discuss the difference between a hate group displaying the flag and a historical exhibit of the flag. Ask your students if they think the individuals who display the flag as a personal statement have inspected the historical documents as the class just did. If those individuals did read those documents, would it alter their perspective on displaying the Confederate flag?
Going into this exercise, students may have been taught versions of what caused the Civil War that conflict with the historical record. And they may have learned these alternative versions from the people they trust the most in their lives – family and friends. If that is the case, it will often take some time for a student to resolve this internal conflict. In fact, it could be after the student has completed the course before this conflict is resolved. A teacher should be prepared for that.
And that might be the most difficult academic lesson to learn in life, always do your due diligence, no matter how much you trust a person.