Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The War of 1812

I was in my forties before I understood what the hell the War of 1812 was about. Sort of. Sure, we learned the basics in school-Old Ironsides, the burning of Washington, blockades, etc. It didn't really mean anything, but it was the space that took up a few pages in the textbook between the Louisiana Purchase, and the Civil War. Now that I'm teaching it, I can understand the appeal of simply presenting it as a sort of trade dispute on the high seas.

In truth, there isn't a really concise answer to what the War of 1812 was about. That's OK-I don't really do concise anyway. I took a deep breath, backtracked to the Napoleonic wars, and faced the fact I can't really do an adequate job with 1812 if I don't do 1804. Crap. I really thought I was done with that (not that the child is-oh no, little Danny wants to know how many sails were flying on each ship in each particular battle, how many guns were fired by how many men, and casualty counts. If there's such a thing as a "Napoleonic Wars nerd" (which sadly, I think there is, and I don't mean SCA people) he'd be pleased to wear the label).

When I was in school, it would have been unthinkable to discuss the war as a vehicle of opportunism for the U.S. to get their hands on Canada (and Florida). I don't think I ever heard about that until university. I knew of Calhoun, but nothing about him. That seems like a rather grand omission, but again-a complicated, time consuming aspect to teach.

What I'm realising (though honestly, I understood this, rather I tried to ignore it, and forge ahead) is that it is very nearly pointless to teach US history as a stand-alone subject. I don't think this tendency to teach US history in such a way is some sort of isolationism. I think it is a bit of laziness with complicated material, and a need to cover as much material as possible to score well on standardised tests. In defense of teachers-they only get so many hours a semester to cover an ungodly amount of stuff. Since I have the opportunity to spend time making certain Danny understands the material I'm presenting, without being distracted by other students, it seems right to cover the material in depth so that it does not merely become the space in the textbook between the Louisiana Purchase, and the Civil War.

I still don't think Danny believes the bit about impressment. Oh sure, he's got his brain around conscription by one's own country-but the idea that you could be seized, and forced into the opposing army is really profoundly upsetting to him. I think it really conflicts with a five year old's sense of a fair fight.

So-anyone have some material they'd like to recommend for this unit? I need to get my hands on a good biography of Madison, but I'm also interested in materials published outside the U.S. You know, to see how the war is viewed in other places, by disinterested parties.

And just because I know you're wondering...there will be no USS Constitution cake being baked. I lived in Boston too many years listening to that damn cannon being fired each and every morning to care. I did explain to Danny that the Constitution is still fully commissioned to which he replied, "Why? Are they going to send it to Afghanistan?"
"Why", indeed.

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