Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hey, Union soldier! What have you done for me lately?

During the first week or so of every school year, I have a few requisite lessons that I always conduct. Aside from the usual briefings on rules, routines, and procedures, I also do a lesson on historical fallacies, such as when people use today's moral standards to judge people from the past; B.C. and A.D., and how to compute the two; basic geography; and sources of history, where we discuss the sources that are used to piece together the historical record.

During my sources of history lesson yesterday, I was reminded of a couple things about my students that sometimes disturbs me. The problem is that I don't know if what disturbs me is something about which I should get bent out of shape, or is it one of those things that young people have always done that I simply don't remember doing when I was their age.

I give the Sources of History lesson as a Power Point slide show on the LCD projector. When I get to newspapers, I show a photo of an issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette from 1748. When I discuss letters, I show a photo of a letter written by a Union soldier who wrote to his brother while hunkered down during the Siege of Vicksburg in June, 1863. When I get to photographs, I show the first photo ever taken (which was in 1826, in case you were interested), and I also show this photo:

You have probably seen it before. It shows Union dead on the field a couple days after the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. I show the photo to discuss the impact that photography has had on the way people at the time viewed current events and later how we view the history of the event.

When the photo came up on the screen, the predominant reaction from my students was laughter. Perhaps it was the gaping mouth of the dead soldier in the foreground, but my students' initial reaction was to find humor in the image; and this happened period after period. Each time, I would admonish my students by informing them that the people in this photo were truly dead, and that they were Union soldiers killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. I would then remind them that they would be studying that battle when we get to the Civil War sometime this Spring. I then admonished my students that these were real people and they should show some respect to the dead.

In one of my classes, a black female student piped up when I spoke of showing respect for the dead, and she asked, "Why should I? What did they ever do for me?"

My immediate answer was to tell her, "Well, giving their lives to help free the slaves, for one thing. Those are Union soldiers. The fact that they won this war caused the slaves to be freed at the end of it."

I must admit, my response shut her up. She could only say, "Oh."

What bothers me most about her question to me is that she didn't feel it necessary to show any respect for the dead American soldiers in the photo unless they had "done something" for her. It's not enough that they were American soldiers who had died in battle.

To recap, two aspects of this interaction with my students bothered me greatly: First, the fact that they laughed at a photo of obviously dead people lying on a field. Were they being immature and didn't know how to react, or have young people today become that detached from reality? Second was the entitlement mentality of the student who piped up about the dead soldiers having had to "do something" for her in order for her to show them any respect. Is this how many students dole out their good will, or was she an outlier?

Just another typical day in a middle school classroom.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I cannot remember or imagine any of my teenage peers or students laughing at the picture of the Civil War soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. To me, this shows a bizarre disconnect with and a lack of empathy for other human beings at a basic level. That reaction is profoundly scary and disturbing.

Anonymous said...

"Generation Me: Why Today's Youth are more Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before" Have not read it but Dr. Jean Twenge sure nailed the title.

M.Nevin

Anonymous said...

I understand completely your frustration, but it is not new. Twenty years ago, while teaching a fifth grade class, I showed a film that included newsreal footage of planes being shot down during World War II. After the students laughed, I stopped the film and reminded them that those were real people dying when the planes crashed, and the pilots would not be getting up again as in the cartoons. Sadly, only a few got it. My students saw people getting killed on TV everyday. In the 1860's your Civil War photo was a total shock to most Americans who had never seen combat. They were familiar with death , but not familiar with death on a battlefield.
As for respect, I knew I was out of date when an administrator told the school staff that we had to earn the respect of the students, and that their being disrespectful towards us should not be an offense or a surprise. I was old school.I was taught that ANY adult or minor should be treated with respect always. Even when you are upset with someone, respect should be given. Respect and punishment are not the same.

Darren said...

Do you think that's Little Round Top in the background?

W.R. Chandler said...

On the left-hand side of the background? I wouldn't be surprised at all. It has been theorized that these men were part of the 1st Minnesota Regiment who basically sacrificed themselves to hold off a Confederate onslaught on the second day that would have split the Union army in two. Of 262 Minnesota men, only about 40 were left alive at the end of the scuffle. Having stood on that field, everything matches up perfectly if you are looking south toward Little Round Top.

Anonymous said...

Kids are just different today, plain and simple, but in so many ways similar to those of yesteryear. Do they respect adults? No. Culture, mass media,scandals, and divorce give them reasons not to. Us adults have blown it. I'm old school as well, but recognize that I come from a different universe than the kids. I grew up trusting adults.

As for a similarity, all kids are not ready for photos or images of death. They can just press the reset button. How many of them have grown up on a farm or found a dead anything? Again, us adults have allowed death to become entertainment on screen. To help them mature I think we need to teach briefly the details of death (bloating, rotting, fall in awkward positions, etc.) and prep them for what they are going to see.

I find we just need to pre-teach more and demonstrate that there are adults who are trustworthy.

Hube said...

I had a colleague who once showed "Schindler's List" and kids laughed. OTOH, I once showed an actual bullfight from Spain, and the kids were horrified.

Go figure.

Freedom Fighter said...

They laughed? They actually laughed?

If that reaction is typical, truly these children are unworthy of their ancestors.

I happen to own a book of the Brady photographs, including this one. My own kids did not react that way.

-Rob Miller-

Chris said...

Goog blog Melissa. Not that I'm in a position to be an apologist for your students, but allow me to offer this.
I've observed that laughter is a common response to stressors for which one is ill-equipped to form an immediate response that would be appropriate.
I've seen it in myself, after reflection, and I attribute it to others I've witnessed.
Just my thoughts; worth what I charge for them.
Chris Reich; Rochester, New York
chrisreich@rocketmail.com
twittername: chrisreich

blackbelt_jones said...

Sounds to me like you got through to at least one kid, when you answered her what "has he done for me" question pretty definitively. You did your job, you were there with the right answer, and that's the real story here.

W.R. Chandler said...

It appears I have been linked. Thank you everyone for stopping in. Hube, thank you for the nomination, and Bookworm, I very much appreciate your kind endorsement.

See you all in the trenches.

W.R. Chandler

Anonymous said...

Kids have no sense of history, and the world revolves around them. We have raised a generation of super-narcissists. The Woodstock generation was getting there, but their kids have fallen off the cliff; they know nothing but act as if they know everything. But when you talk to them, there is no sense that they really know anything of history, don't understand politics outside of the pablum they get on TV or through usually-not-smarter-than-the-kids leftist teachers; the kids are concerned with Facebook.

Was it always the same or different?

I would suspect it was quite different. There were kids who managed to be in the ranks of the soldiers on both sides in the Civil War, who fought and died. Same for the Revolutionary War that gave us our nation.

No one seems to care.

Kids were forced to grow up quickly, not that many years ago. Maybe they will again, when things fall apart, as I fully expect. Studies have shown, the kids of now (and yes, these are broad generalizations, and I know kids that do not fit these) do very poorly, in fact, with any stress or setback. There is no fortitude and they cannot accept that someone won't take care of them, or that even someone would criticize them. I haven't read Dr. Jean Twenge's work, but I would imagine..correct if wrong...that is what is discussed in that work.

Sad. Entitlement is a bad thing, whether it's via food stamps (I'm not talking about for those who have lost everything throuh no fault of their own; it happens. But I see the ones on the 4th generation of indolent and indulged kids, often having their own kids while still in their early teens...and the fathers...impregnating more than one girl, who cares? Sad.

That kind of entitlement destroys cutlures. So does the mental entitlement children of today have about their own precious psyches.

It's not only the welfare crowd, either. We see it in tony suburban high schools, where the kids have outlandish expectations.

Again, many, maybe most, seem ok, but there are far too many who watch the TV, get insane dreams from it, on how things SHOULD be in their fairy tale world...and when it doesn't happen, watch out! Sad.

We've taken our kids to Antietam and Gettysburg, and Shiloh...it was not easy for them to comprehend, but as they grew older, it helped them to understand the conflict, to have seen the battlefields and how they appeared. We've also studied and seen the few Revolutionary War battlefields...but it's worth reading one of the good accounts of the battle of Concord and Lexington, as it was a "9/11" of it's day, in a way.

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Anonymous said...

That's sad, yet true. I am currently in middle school, we are learning about the holocaust, and all of my peers laugh about how cruelly the nazis treated their captives, and even make jokes about them. I remember my teacher showing us a video about nazi death camps, which made me cry because it showed children being lead into "the showers," or gas chambers, but my peers laughed at a picture of a girl holding her mothers hand as she finished her rations and called her a lard etc, but the next slide, showing a pit of suffocated bodies shut them up. It has always made me sad how disrespectful to the dead other kids are.

Anonymous said...

I am learning about the civil war at my school. My teacher told our class about a gruesome battle, and how many people had died in it, which I found disturbing and very sad. He said that there was so much blood, that it seeped up out of the ground when people walked, and then walked out to help another teacher with the copying machine, and the other kids had the nerve to joke about soliders drowning in blood. This generation of parents is raising sociopaths.