Still Fighting the Civil War

A couple of days ago, Smithsonian published an article by Keri Leigh Merritt criticizing the Ken Burns Civil War documentary Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary  It’s a worthwhile read, here’s the thesis:

The documentary had an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.

Along with her criticism of the principal focus on the military aspects of the war and minimization of the slavery that caused it, she went after Shelby Foote, whose 45 minutes in the series (as opposed to historian Barbara Field’s 8 1/2 minutes) had him pontificating in “an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey” though he had no training as a historian. Her piece was not well received by the “Civil War Enthusiast” crowd.

The real gem of the story of Merritt’s piece and its reaction on Twitter was a post by Trae Wisecarver, a PhD student at Texas A&M University.  It’s a priceless 2 1/2 minutes.  Students should know that all historians are not all hermits hidden away in dusty archives, some are passionate warriors for the truth.  On another note, what did you think of Trae when you first saw him and heard his voice?

Fake News Friday Lesson Idea

Below is an idea for a brief four or five-minute lesson on fake news that teachers can consider using in their classes this Friday, right before the weekend when we “spring” our clocks one hour forward for Daylight Savings Time.

Somehow float the story that the president is issuing an executive order dictating that agencies of the United States government are no longer going to observe Daylight Savings Time and will not be moving their clocks forward this weekend.  Tell students that he just tweeted that he sees daylight savings as just another government regulation burdening American business – part of a liberal European agenda to tell people what time it is.  Speculate that you don’t know what the cell phone networks like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will do because it is their networks that send the time to people’s cell phones.  Google and Microsoft will have to decide to either listen to the president and update their systems or not.

You can back the story up by dropping in a few authentic references to show that you know what you are talking about.  Mention that White House lawyers have been ordered by the President to draft an Executive Order that mandates that agencies controlled by the President will no longer observe the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which amended the Uniform Time Act of 1966).  This will change the office hours of the every federal government office in the country, including the Immigration & Naturalization Service and Veterans Affairs, etc.

You can tell them that fundamentalist groups are hailing this as a return to “God’s Time”.  (This has a shade of authenticity as well – God knows more about time than [the government] does.)

What about TV networks?  What about college and professional sports?  Will the entire NCAA Final Four tournament have to change their schedule?  And what’s going to happen to flights on Sunday when the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t move their clocks forward?

This story should sell itself, it has just enough fact and believability to take advantage of students’ slight knowledge (ie. the President tweets and is making lots of waves with summary judgments and announcements), ignorance (they don’t really follow current events), and naivete (they will believe anything their teacher tells them).  A little creativity in how you start the discussion and a dash of embellishment should get them going.

If the ruse launches well, the students should they start talking about it, throwing around their own insta-judgments, asking questions and making comments.  Let it stew for a bit, answer a few of their questions, speculate yourself, spice up the stew of their conversation to rile their interest.

Then tell them that they’ve just been played.

Explain how you have taken advantage of their slight knowledge, ignorance, and naivete to sell them a story that you just made up.  You’ve shown them how easy it is to do.  In the process, you’ve helped show them why our public discourse seems to be drowning in news stories, headlines, tweets, posts and updates that are a tangled mess of truth, half-truth and complete falsehood.

Tell students that asking questions, checking for sources, and thinking will help them untangle that mess.

If you are interested, TimeandDate offers a quick timeline summary of Daylight savings time. Shouldn’t take more than a minute or two to scroll it., it’s a super-quick read.  Snopes does this as well.

Time magazine offers a two-minute video. of the history of DST.