History as Therapeutic Diversion

History as Therapeutic Diversion

Check out an experience of mine and discover whether you too find it delightfully therapeutic. Sit in for an hour on a Civil War history class with Dr. David Blight of Yale University. It’s free. All twenty-seven lectures of a course Blight taught on The Civil War and Reconstruction in 2008 are available on the Internet through YouTube.

This is all you need do. Open your browser—Safari, Firefox, Explorer, Chrome, or another—and then open the YouTube application on your computer, tablet, or cellphone. If you don’t find YouTube on your browser, Google or Bing the word YouTube to locate and open the site. Then click on the little magnifying glass search symbol and type in “YaleCourses: The Civil War and Reconstruction with David Blight.” That will get you there. Click on the picture of Blight, watch lecture one, and if you like it as much as I do watch the other 26 lectures at your leisure. Or, just click right here now! See whether the course informs, educates, delights, and consoles you. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t. In fact, I’ll be surprised if the course isn’t one of the more educational experiences of your life.

Context

Specific concerns and interests brought me to Dr. Blight’s classroom and may account somewhat for the therapeutic feeling I get listening to his lectures. I’ve been a critic of the “Conservative Movement” and detest what’s become of that movement under the vitriolic leadership of Donald Trump. I similarly distrust the red-state/blue-state polarity that has brought the nation to gridlock and stalemate in Congress during the Obama presidency. Our period in U.S. history seems similar in some ways to the period leading up to The Civil War. Moreover, that war seems still to be lingering today at a lower temperature. So I started reading up on the Civil War again, returning particularly to Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. This led to a reading of Adam Goodheart’s excellent book, 1861. That resulted in two blog entries examining Lincoln’s Independence Day message to Congress on July 4, 1861, the first entitled Lincoln’s American People and the second Lincoln: Pretense to States Rights.

That’s my story. You will bring your own context to the invited experience. I’ll bet Bright’s class attracts you too and brings sustenance and consolation to you during these frustrating and curious times. The course has provided me with a fresh perspective on the country, and a bit of distance from the election. Keep in mind that the vortex of events that resulted in war between the states in 1861 contains the elements that have morphed into the poisonous political environment we experience today.

Be sure to bring a notepad to your computer screen along with the popcorn and beer. Enjoy!

Notes

David Blight is a professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. Previously, Blight was a professor of History at Amherst College, where he taught for 13 years. He has won major historical awards, including the Bancroft Prize and the Frederick Douglass Prize. Blight is one of the world’s finest civil war historians.

It is obvious right away that Dr. Blight is an extraordinary teacher working within the most difficult teaching format of them all, a lecture course to hundreds of students using four or five teaching assistants (I’ve done that too, and failed miserably). He knows his subject, loves it deeply, respects students, invariably leaves them with questions, possibilities, decisions to make, and tentative answers, employs a story-telling or narrative methodology, speaks slowly and clearly, gives sources and examples, reads poems, sings when needed, manages time well, and is comfortable, humble, humorous, understated, and delightfully self-deprecating. I’ve never met him, yet I feel I know him. You will too. One senses also that the course works for any student regardless of background or political persuasion.

Yale is one of many universities that make free college courses like this one available online. Google “Open Yale Courses” and see what else Yale offers. I have viewed free courses before, including Professor Levin’s amazing Introduction to Physics at MIT. I couldn’t understand the formulas after awhile, but what a great course. You might want to Google “free college courses on line” and see what attracts you. I find such courses more entertaining and informative than regular television, and they come with a pause button; they can therefore be self-paced.

It’s too bad the illustrations Dr. Blight uses can’t be shown to us for copyright reasons, but it is entertaining to watch him fuss with them, as he invariably does each class. He provides the viewer with excellent reference sources. That’s where the notepad comes in. Of course, you could just use the one on the computer; you can pause the video whenever you choose. By the way, the educational technology used in the class is primitive to nonexistent, and even the lectern looks uncomfortable. It’s only the lecturer, the storytelling, and the content that are special and invaluable.

The therapeutic feeling that comes over me while experiencing Dr. Blight’s lectures is ephemeral and hard to pin down. It may be the characters; we know these people; they remind us of ourselves and people we know. We’ve been to the places where the war was fought. The conflicts and arguments sound familiar; we hear them today. But who knows? Maybe I’m mesmerizing myself. I’ll be interested whether the same or any feeling comes over you. It’s like being back in college again with an extraordinarily good professor.

I decided  during the course to reacquaint myself with Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in 1860 that brought him fame in New York, following his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in Illinois, the “west,” and brought him later that year to the presidency. I was delighted to discover that a reenactment of the Cooper Union speech is available on Youtube, with Sam Waterston, of Law and Order fame, doing the reenactment. I recommend that experience for inclusion in your course of studies.

What’s the equivalent of “bon appétit” for a viewing experience? Well, never mind. Best wishes for a productive learning experience.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

October 13, 2016

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