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The Lost Cause is Rising Again

I am very troubled by what I am hearing and seeing in the field of history education. Following the discussions on College Board blogs for AP US History makes me very worried. I am seeing the “Lost Cause” or “Great Alibi” ideology permeate discussions between teachers. This is very troubling and could indicate one or more of several things…

  • Teachers actually believe the “Lost Cause” canard.
  • Teachers do not have a background in history- maybe they just passed a bubble test to teach the subject. Yes this is allowed in some states.
  • Teachers are unaware of the vast and overwhelming scholarship in the field.

These are all three equally problematic. David Blight and Gary Gallagher do a great job in addressing this continuing infiltration of lost cause thinking. Reading “The Cornerstone” speech by Stephens should put the issue to rest but many continue to ignore such evidence. Gallagher once advised to look at what the Southerners were saying in 1860 and then what the same folks were saying twenty years later. There was, and is, a concentrated effort to provide the “Great Alibi.” I teach a course on the American Civil War and Reconstruction. We trace the development of  lost cause thinking and it is a powerful experience. Scholars continue to hammer the primacy of slavery as the cause of the Civil War yet I see many teachers dismissing it with the “states’ rights” or “tariff” issues. Slavery is pushed into the background or seen as one of many causes. This is very troubling indeed.

Gary Gallagher once pointed out that most Americans have been poisoned by the “Lost Cause” bug through big films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” I know teachers who show these films and claim they are credible, valid historical sources.

My fear is that we are continuing the “Lost Cause” myth in our AP classes. It must be refreshing to argue without evidence because people can then say whatever they like.

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