Thursday, January 22, 2015

New Perspectives on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Underground Railroad

I have written about edX courses before, but now I have a renewed appreciation for the massive open online course (MOOC) movement now that I am fully immersed in a new course. For the past few weeks, I have been following (and loving) renowned historian Eric Foner's second module of the three-part series of courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

You can imagine my delight when just a few days ago, Eric Foner was a guest on NPR's Fresh Air and that he was discussing a topic somewhat outside the scope of the course, the Underground Railroad. His new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad mostly revolves around a few newly discovered sources from abolitionist and railroad operative Sydney Howard Gay.

His comments on the Underground Railroad were not only interesting, but they speak to the very tenets of "doing history" that historians relish, but few people truly understand. Many view the work of historians as either a stodgy pursuit of acquiring knowledge from dusty books, or, as a reflection of our digital- and science-driven times, as a pursuit of truth in a sea of misinformation. It certainly can be these things, but it is also a larger discourse of how history is shaped and narratives created and how the predominate narrative of an era defines the era itself.

In discussing the Underground Railroad we learn that the shifting understanding of what it was and its size and scope is similarly reflective of the times and scholars who study and create these narratives. How this story is told can be hugely symbolic of modern views on race politics and empowerment. The fact that so many narratives of the Railroad come from post-war memoirs and oral accounts is also telling about the nature of the story that persists.

While I certainly would like to report the most current research and discourse to my students when we cover topics such as this, I also hope to use overarching concepts like this to tackle more critical questions with my students. I want them to understand that history is not a set of definitive events, but instead a living creation that evolves along with the culture that consumes that history. Foner's new account of the Underground Railroad is just one piece of this conversation, and a good one at that.


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