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Ashbrook Faculty Lead High School Seminars on Primary Documents

Ashbrook’s teacher programs help secondary school social studies teachers present America’s past from the perspective of those who lived it. In online and residence courses, teachers learn how to use primary documents to better understand the voices of the past. Teachers may also invite Ashbrook faculty directly into their classrooms via “webinars”—live discussions with Ashland University professors conducted through an interactive web technology.

Ray Tyler and Michael Schwarz

Ray Tyler and Michael Schwarz

Many teachers studying in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program use these webinars to engage their high school studies with the great ideas that shape our history. Last spring, Ray Tyler of York Preparatory School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, found a webinar so beneficial that he scheduled a second session.

The first time, Professor Michael Schwarz led a discussion of documents on South Carolina’s secession from the Union before the Civil War. Students in Tyler’s AP US History class read the “Cornerstone Speech” of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. The document was eye opening, Tyler said. “In South Carolina, we still have a lot of people who will deny that slavery played any role in the Civil War. Stephens’ speech shows that those who seceded did so because they saw the institution of slavery as under threat.”

Schwarz spoke of a student who zeroed in on “Stephens’ claim that the Confederacy was the first government in the world founded on ‘the great . . . moral truth’ that all men are not created equal. She had about as visceral a reaction to that as I have ever seen. I got the sense that for most, if not all of the students, this statement was a shocking revelation of what the Confederacy stood for. The cruelty of slavery—that’s something they already get. But to read an argument basing Confederate independence on a distorted version of the Declaration—that was really powerful.”

Tyler told Schwarz that his students “were stunned by the Cornerstone Speech. Reading it has inspired them to look further into primary sources.”  He asked for another session, this time on a document related to the Spanish-American War. Schwarz recommended Senator Albert Beveridge’s “In Support of an American Empire,” a speech made after the American victory left the U.S. in control of the Philippine islands.

“Going into the first webinar, my students were nervous. They didn’t know what to expect. But the second time was way more relaxed,” Tyler said. Schwarz agreed. “That first time they were hesitant to give their interpretations. But by the second time, they spoke with confidence about what they saw in the documents. Beveridge advocated direct American control of the Philippines, and his argument was not all that dissimilar from the argument advanced by Stephens to support the Confederacy. Right away, students made the connection between the two documents.” Tyler added that his students even joked a bit with Professor Schwarz, who explained: “A male student had found out that I am a Jeffersonian; being a Hamiltonian, this student challenged me to a duel!”

Above all, Tyler said, the webinars gave the students “self-confidence. When they noticed that ‘Professor Schwarz highlighted the same sentence that I underlined!’ they realized that that they were capable of wrestling with primary documents.’”

Schwarz says experiences like these give him hope. “Today’s students have great potential. We just need to let secondary school teachers know what we have to offer: an approach that helps to get students passionate about the study of American history and civics.”

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