For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting up particularly early in the morning before work—long before the sun peeks over the fairly new subdivision to the east of my house—to watch Ken Burns’ epic documentary series “The Civil War.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Bubbeleh, where ya been? That thing came out more than 20 years ago.”
I know, I know. I’m a late bloomer.
Actually, I’ve watched parts of the series over the years, when PBS would occasionally re-run it. But I recently saw the whole series resting on a shelf at my local library branch and decided to finally watch it in its entirety.
And boy, am I glad I did. More than simply another documentary or historical series, “The Civil War” is nothing short of grand poetry, a sweeping, majestic narrative of our country’s most dire and bloody period, told by a master storyteller. In my mind, the series – which actually took longer to make than the war itself – was a landmark event, a brilliant, accessible and highly articulate means of comprehending where we as Americans have been and where we’re going. It’s about more than battles and skirmishes, generals and strategies. It’s about human beings and events that changed their lives. And it’s not difficult to see running themes and concepts that are analogous to our own bleak times.
Of course, when hearing me blather on about the series to my wife, my kids think it all sounds quite boring and antiquated. Who cares, they say, this is something that happened a long time ago. And I know a lot of adults who would agree with them. After all, slavery’s over, secession failed, we now have an African-American president. It all worked out, let’s move on and have a nosh. The times have changed.
But have they really?
The other day, a small article in the newspaper caught my eye. I almost missed it. It was about an elementary school teacher in the suburban Atlanta area who recently resigned from her job after she and three colleagues were being investigated by education department officials regarding the content of their math homework assignments.
Seems that one of the math problems read, “Each tree has 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”
Yet another problem went, “If Frederick got two beatings each day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
OK, this is how we’re teaching our children math nowadays? Is this “the new math”? This is how carelessly we view the heinous practice of slavery and arguably the darkest chapter in American history? This is how we teach children to view people of other races and groups? What if it had been, “How many Jews does it take to … ?”
Two things I know for sure. One is that the Civil War didn’t really end at Appomattox. The second is that history isn’t something we should ever view cavalierly or simply jettison and not teach in schools because it “took place a long time ago.”