A Reflection on the Future of Civil War History

By Ian A. Isherwood ’00

Though this is a blog for our student fellows, as a staff member of the CWI and a teacher at the college, it would be remiss for me not to take an opportunity to post some reflections on one aspect of the Future of Civil War History conference this weekend – namely the engagement of young scholars in the conference and their enthusiasm for history and the future of the field of Civil War Studies.

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We had representatives from different undergraduate schools present at the conference. We had many recent graduates too, some in graduate schools or internships, and some already working in the field of public history. Some of these scholars were speaking on panels. All seemed engaged with the materials presented.

At any conference the discussions in the hallways and receptions is where the pulse of the event is measured. And what did I overhear in the conference corridors? I heard deep discussions of the themes presented during the panels. A lot of this conversation was methodological: students at all levels describing the themes of the panels and discussing these themes in relation to classes they have taken or books that they have read. I also heard quite a bit about application or the utility of history. This took the form of a debate – one central to the conference program itself – about the way complex historical concepts like memory or cultural theories of history, in particular gender, can be demonstrated to the public.

I know that there were some disagreements over these issues and I certainly know that many were wrestling with some of the themes of the conference (and will be into the future). This interaction is fundamental to the vitality of the field. But it gave me great hope for the future of the field (and to the historical discipline generally) to see so many undergraduates (and recent graduates) discussing these matters so poignantly, so passionately, and demonstrating, with inspirational enthusiasm, why it is so important to have these discussions in the first place.

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