A Journalist Describes a History Lesson (Part 1)

[Green high school in a Midwestern city]*, a small, crowded building set quite unpretentiously (for an American high school), [is] in a neighborhood once almost entirely Jewish, now almost entirely black….This is not, however, a slum school. No place in America is positively good for a black, but [this Midwestern city] seems to be about the least bad. The parents of many of these students make a lower-middle-class income or better, the atmosphere in Green’s halls is as free as it is in Scarsdale’s, and the attitude toward education seems to have no more than the usual degree of suspicion. Still, these children are black, part of an actively repressed minority group. As seen on a very brief visit, Green would seem to be considerable of an accomplishment. One history class provided evidence that students here are learning more than just social studies: when the teacher made reference to “The Mar-see-yay,” a mutter of “Mar-say-yez” rose from around the borders of the room.

The teacher in this American History class is a hawk-nosed, lean crew-cut young man named [Leon Pierson] … a teacher with a personal devotion to history. He balances American History around the Civil War for teaching purposes, but he does so out of respect, not contempt, for his black students. He begins the class by handing out ‘’a very short reading list—on which there will be no comments.” Then he writes four names on the board:

J.G. Randall

Charles Beard

[Kenneth Stamp]

James Ford Rhodes

“We’ll take these names to represent historians’ views [on the cause of the Civil War].  You’ll remember Beard’s thesis—‘the clash between the Lords of the Lash and the Lords of the Loom.’ There were only 347,000 slave owners in the South, 3,500,000 who didn’t own slaves. Now, how many of you would say slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Let’s divide it three ways here—Beardians, Stampps, and Fanatics [Rhodes believed that pro- and anti-slavery fanatics caused the War]. The class shows five Beardians, thirteen Stampps, and three Fanatics, with nine keeping their hands down.

“I know,” [Pierson] says, “there are some of you who say, “There’s a little bit of each.’ That’s fine. My opinion is that it was slavery. You’ve got to remember, though, that the facts don’t change—historians’ opinions change. You have a glass of water; you can say it’s half full or half empty, it’s up to you.”

A boy contributes, “I’ve read Olmstead, and I think he’s right. It was a clash of  nations. It wasn’t economic , it was social.”

“All right,” [Pierson] says, “Now, I say I could have prevented the Civil War. With Lincoln’s ideas—what was that?”

A girl says, “Compensated emancipation.”

“What does that mean?”

“Buy the slaves from the southerners and set them free.”

“Would it have worked? Would it have prevented the Civil War?

The class groans, “No.”

“Why not?”

A number of ideas are thrown forth—the Northerners didn’t want to spend the money, you couldn’t set a price, the whole system was based on slaves. A girl says, “The Southerners wouldn’t do it because it would make the blacks equal to them.”

“Let’s get back to Beard,” [Pierson] says. “Here. Less than ten percent of the Southerners owned slaves, but they all fought for slavery. How could they persuade the ninety percent to fight? You try it.” He addresses two black girls and one boy seated at his extreme left. “You’re the slave owners. The rest of the class doesn’t own slaves. You persuade them to fight for you.”

One girl, giggling, tries, “Those Yankees, they want to come down and take everything away from you.”

“Oh, no, they don’t,” [Pierson] says. “Just from you. I don’t have anything they want.”

“Our whole economy is based on slaves,” says the boy.

“No, sir,” says a boy in the non-slaveholding section, falling into the spirit of the situation. “My economy isn’t. I got to do my own work.”

The debate rages for a while, [Pierson] grinning over it, objecting where the 90 percent can’t find a reply. “Come on, now, “ he says. “Why will these four million fight for four years? If you can’t come up with this, class, the whole thing is completely unreal, just something in a textbook.”

Finally, in the heat of the argument, one of the black girls in the slaveholding section comes up with, “Remember those slave rebellions? Remember what happened on those plantations? The Yankees will come down here and raise up those [slaves] to be your equals, and there will be no controlling them.” The class roars with laughter at her, and she bends her head.

“Let’s give it a name,” [Pierson] says. He writes on the board,” WHITE SUPREMACY.”

He asks, “Any of you ever hear of U.B. Phillip?”

One boy has read it, and says, “He thinks that’s the whole theme of Southern history.”

The one white boy in the class, a West Virginia redneck, now  makes his contribution: “You can find reasons all you like,” he says. “I think they fought because they were told to fight.”

[Pierson] says, “Maybe. Now when we discuss Reconstuction, we’ll find this same argument of White Supremacy used to justify …what? Anybody know?”

And a black [student] says, ”Segregation.”


*I changed the names of the school and teacher.



 The journalist was Martin Mayer. The year was 1962. I was the teacher and taught this class at Glenville high school in Cleveland (OH).  The full unabridged account of the lesson with actual names appeared in Martin Mayer, Where, When, and Why: Social Studies in American Schools (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 157-160.

The question I want to take up in the next post is: In writing about how I taught history a half-century ago–see earlier post–what do I do with this report of a class I taught when my memory of the lesson conflicts with Martin Mayer’s?


Filed under how teachers teach

10 responses to “A Journalist Describes a History Lesson (Part 1)

  1. Just to say that I am avid reader of your blog for all kinds of reasons, but I find this “history of history education” project especially fascinating. So, I am an eager reader awaiting the next installment! Thank you so much for sharing this project via your blog; I have reshared this latest post at Google+ (as I reshare many of your blog posts there).

  2. Just noting that Laura Gibbs over on Google+ pointed me to this discussion and to your related June post. I teach a survey course at Cal State Monterey Bay and I want my students to consider (however briefly) the concept that history teachers’ views of teaching history are not static. A little meta, but tolerable. Kyle Ward gives a pretty good C-SPAN talk about his book, Not Written in Stone, and I’ve had my students discuss his talk. I think your posts are going to be helpful for them as well. Thanks!

  3. It’s amazing what you can do when you teach to what matters to kids instead of what matters to test makers or professors or school board members. I can’t wait for the next post.

  4. Cal

    Curious–how did the reporter err, at least as far as your memory goes? Was it a minor detail or a complete mischaracterization? Or I guess that’s what you’ll cover next.

    • larrycuban

      I will cover in Part 2 the discrepancies between my recall of that lesson and the reporter’s account. Thanks for taking the time to ask the question, Cal.

  5. Art

    Seems as if you need to look at what evidence you have of what ‘really happened’ – much as a historian would, knowing there will often not be enough clarity to be more than ‘mostly sure.’

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