Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Controversy...It's a Good Thing!

Controversy…our very world is full of it! It only takes a few clicks in the blogosphere to become embroiled in one controvery or another and everyday it seems we are heaping on more and more controversy involving subjects from religion to politics and from education issues to social ones like teen pregnancy or abortion. Historians have their fair share of controversies as well---the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Crusades, the causes and effects of any war---and because there are no definitive black or white answers due to individual analysis and conjecture many issues remain controversial until more evidence is located that cannot be refuted in any way.

Think about it for a minute…you see something in a blog, newspaper, or book that goes against the grain, your ire is up and you want to voice your own opinion in response. Many of you would rely on your own prior knowledge and a large number of you would dig a little deeper to verify some of the things you disagreed with in the original article….just to make sure, you know. In the process your horizons are broadened just a bit with some of your prior knowledge being confirmed and some of it being thoroughly debunked. You, my good friend, have learned something in the process.

I’m not one that really wants to get embroiled in a controversy and at first glance I might balk at the idea of actually planning for one in the classroom! Who needs the hassle, right?

In his book Creative Controversy---Intellectual Challenge in the Classroom, Dr. David Johnson advises conflict has considerable value for educators and students when the controversy is managed constructively [by the teacher]. Controversial questions can actually teach students to deal with all types of controversy; they can help to structure debate in the classroom, and reinforce conflict resolutions skills.

Dr. Johnson advises academic controversy exists when one person’s ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another party, and both parties have to reach an agreement. However, in today’s world where many believe controversial issues have no gray areas but are either white or black we see no concessions or even a hint of an admission that with some issues we simply don’t have enough information to have an exact answer.

Last week’s wordlesss image was a portion of a painting by Arnold Friberg called VaThe Prayer at Valley Forge (1975). An earlier engraving of Washington’s Prayer by Henry Brueckner also exists. Friberg explains in his own words the reasons why he completed the painting and the research he conducted in the process. From the site Friberg states The well known American legend is without documentation. But from Washington's own words there can be no doubt of his deep and humble dependence upon whom he chose to call "that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends."
I decided to use the painting of Washington praying due to the very controversies surrounding it (if you haven’t already this would be a good time to check out the comments made regarding my mystery image here):

*A man, George Washington, is praying. Some believe it is wrong to show public school students an image of someone in prayer. I’ve read where this painting has been banned from public buildings including schools, but I have no specific locations.
*There is a strong religious message as you view the painting that sends the separation of chuch and state crowd into a tizzy.
*Washington in prayer?!? Some believe Washington was Christian while others argue he was a Deist and not a Christian.
*The backstory behind the painting is suspect and many historians argue that it is nothing more than an American myth.

I strongly feel there is nothing illegal or irresponsible by showing students the painting by Mr. Friberg. As many of my commentors suggested this image can be used to teach about Valley Forge, American myths, the evaluation of historical sources, and can even lead to a discussion on the exact wording of the Constititution regarding freedom of religion and as Polski3 stated Jefferson’s own opinion regarding the separation of church and state.

Everyone had really great ideas concerning how to use the painting. Following Dr. David Johnson’s ideas on academic controversy, however, I have in the past shown the painting to students and discussed its background. After carefully pairing students together I have provided them with several bits of information concerning the various controversies surrounding the painting that I mentioned above. The trick with a lesson surrounding academic controversy is to allow the students to explore the information, evidence, and points of view and allow them to arrive at solutions on their own.

Each team receives information based on only one point of view. They must digest the information and understand the point of view so that they can relate the position to their partner. After both sides have been presented the partners trade information and the process begins again resulting in each partner presenting the alternative point of view. Many students state it is very interesting to see how differently their partner can interpret the same information.

Following the second set of presentations the partners work together to analyze both sets of information and they attempt to discover which point of view seems the most plausible. Finally, students synthesize their new knowledge by arriving at a concensus that each student must word on his or her own in writing to turn in. Sometimes the concensus my students have arrived at is simply agreeing to disagree while others disagree greatly with one point of view but certainly understand where it came from.

I have found these types of activities motivate my most reluctant students and also begin to help them understand how to listen to a different point of view that can affect their lives inside and outside of the classroom.

Our hot-button issues in history, science, religion, politics, education, and our social and cultural lives aren’t going away anytime soon. What concerns me is it doesn’t seem that any of the sides to an issue are willing to concede even an inch of ground to move on. Unfortunately some controversies are not white or black. They are very gray, and allowing students an opportunity to mix points of view in order to see the gray is a very powerful thing to do---not necessarily to teach tolerance or to teach compromise at all costs, but to teach students what it is to have an intelligent informed dialogue regarding controversial subjects and to understand with some issues we might never have a meeting of the minds.

Tomorrow I will post a list of various online sources that can be used to formulate materials for students to view when Friburg’s painting is used in an academic controversy lesson.

UPDATE: My source list is now published here

17 comments:

loonyhiker said...

This sounds like a wonderful lesson. I hope your students enjoy it too!

June said...

Amen! Can say that :-) We need more conversation with people who don't see things exactly the way we do. We do seem to have forgotten the "grays" ...more and more the world's looking black and white and we're suffering for it. I'm so glad to know there are people...teachers...like you who are carrying on the conversation!

Mrs Mecomber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs Mecomber said...

If you really want some controversy, (and an educatin) go to a homeschooler's website where he talks all about Wahington and religion, etc.

The Foundation Forum
www.thefoundationforum.blogspot.com
by Hercules Mulligan. I've found it to be stunning.

kontan said...

Agree 100%. I'm slowly slipping into a teaching funk. Thought provoking lessons just seem out of the grasp of my predominantly lower level students!

EHT said...

Loonyhiker and June...thanks for stopping by.

June, I'll head over and take a look when I get a minute.

Kontan, I know what you mean. This type of activity has to be well prepared with all of the learners in mind and they cannot do it the first time without lots of guidance. I generally try to do something like this early in the year where we complete the process together whole group with me thinking out loud in order to show them what I'm looking for.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Amazing. All you have to do is show a picture of the Father of our Country kneeling in prayer in a public school building, or to students, and everybody goes ballistic. I am not saying that this controversy should not be addressed here, or that this controversy is not worth discussing -- in fact, I am glad that this is being discussed here! Thanks for the post!

But of all the pictures for the secularizers to pick on. There are other pictures, which everyone knows depict fictitious things, but they don't say that the school should not show them. Pictures of prayer do not make Congress establish a religion (see 1st Amendment), and they don't convert people in classroom.

And btw, the claims that Washington knelt in prayer at Valley Forge is not mythological. Not only did Washington, in his own letters, appeal to Providence to aid the American cause, and say that he who did not acknowledge the "conspicuous hand of Providence" in all that had happened was "worse than an infidel." The story of Isaac Pott's "conversion" from Toryism to Patriotism is itself proof of the event which he (and numerous others) testified: Washington kneeling in prayer.

No, Washington did not write this in his diary. But the secular revisionists who claim that Washington's Valley Forge prayer is a joke are much more willing to accept less credible tales as being true (for example, the fib that Alexander Hamilton mocked the idea of prayer at the Constitutional Convention, when according to Madison's notes, Hamilton basically said it was too bad that the Convention had not made the decision to pray earlier, and when, years later, Hamilton proposed a day of fasting and prayer himself).

The book George Washington: The Christian, by William Johnson, makes sense of this whole "Washington prayer"-incident controversy, by reprinting the letters of those who had the testimony of Washington's prayer. No, Mason Weems did not make it up. Other people made the same claims.

I've written some posts here.

Thanks for the post. I hope my comment was not too overwhelming.

EHT said...

Hercules.....love the name btw. I stopped by your site last night at Mrs.Mecombers urging and was impressed. ...Can't wait to get a few minutes to spare to really delve in.

No, your comment was not overwhelming but very welcomed and I hope you stop by in the future.

Personally I believe Washington did make prayer a habit in his life and facing what he did during the entire Revolutionary period I don't see how he got through it without a prayer outlet. Of course, I never provide my personal opinion until after my students have analyzed the various documents I provide them and are through with the exercise and usually I don't provide an opinion unless I'm asked.

Thanks for bringing up the points you did regarding Pott's conversion and the quotes from Washington himself regarding Providence. ....just more resources someone could use if they wanted to reproduce this activity in their own classroom.

Regarding Parson Weems....I believe my high faluting historian friends as well as others would be much more willing to believe his accounts if the cherry tree incident had not been proven to be false.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello EHT. Thanks for your thoughts. I am glad I came and visited your blog! I love studying history, and it looks like I have my work cut out for me. I will bookmark this blog and link back to it on mine.

Yes, I think it is a good idea to allow students analyze the material (the links you provided in your most recent post are great) regarding this controversy.

I am sure that those more learned people who commented on your blog respecting Parson Weems would be open to believe his accounts if he was more reliable. This cherry tree incident was unconfirmed, so we don't know if it is accurate or not. Therefore, this incident is likely to throw a shadow of doubt over the accuracy over the whole of his work, unless we find more reliable evidence that backs him up on any claim he made. As to the Washington prayer incident, he is confirmed in this.

Thanks again for this post. It gave me a warm introduction to your blog.

Jonathan said...

The historical record clearly shows that I. Potts wasn't anywhere near Valley Forge when the incident supposedly occured.

Washington did pray throughout his entire life -- so too did Jefferson and Franklin. This doesn't make GW any more of a Christian than BF or TJ were.

However, those really did witness Washington praying testified that he did not do so while kneeling.

Washington's systematic refusal to take communion in his church strongly points to his disbelief in what the act represents Christ's Atonement which would make him a theological unitarian just like Jefferson and Franklin were.

Hercules Mulligan said...

"However, those really did witness Washington praying testified that he did not do so while kneeling."

I am not aware of any sources that either confirm or disprove this assertion, except for an account that one man identified Washington as "Sir, he is the man on his knees." I forgot where that comes from. When I can get a freer moment, I will try to trace the source. Whether Washington knelt or stood in prayer would not be a deciding factor in determining his piety (i.e., as distinguished from his religiosity).

Washington did not SYSTEMATICALLY refuse to take communion. He took communion in other churches, and several people confirm that he did this. In one instance, he took communion with a Presbyterian minister (Washington and all his military staff attended this service) named Jones (or Johnes). The accounts of numerous individuals are reprinted in William Johnson's book, which I linked to in one of my above comments. There is another testimony from Mrs. Alexander Hamilton (from my reading, a very reliable source, even in her old age -- she astonished her listeners with her keen mind and sharp memory), and even charged her grandson that if anyone told him that Washington never took communion, to tell them that she knelt beside him during a communion service at Trinity Church, NYC.

A comment from one of the experts and curators at Washington's own church shed light on the matter. Her words may be heard on an interview for the film "In God We Trust," which does not overlook the shortcomings of those in our history. I think it was rather "fair-and-balanced," and, as in the instance of Hamilton, erred on the side of portraying him as less Christian than he actually was (they didn't delve into his Christian faith as much as they did the others). Anyway, she said that it was not uncommon for American members of Anglican churches during the post-Revolution era not to take communion. Washington was indeed an Anglican. She explained that in the Anglican church, one could only be eligible to take communion (a sign of the membership of the church and of that denomination) if he was confirmed, and he could only be confirmed if he had gone to England, the "capital" of Anglicanism, and been approved by the hierarchy. Washington, leader of the rebels, had never gone to England in his earlier life, and never did later. He would have most likely been refused to be confirmed for political reasons rather than religious ones, because he led the American patriots against the English King, the head of the Anglican Church.

She further explained in a church which Washington himself helped to design, there were three plaques bearing the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and the Ten Commandments. These were on the wall for the members of the church to recite together at the end of the regular service. She pointed out that she knew of NO account were Washington refused to recite these (and remember, the Apostle's Creed is the statement of the Christian's belief in the deity of Christ, of His atonement and resurrection, the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, etc). Knowing the character and integrity of Washington, I seriously doubt that he would have said "I believe __" without believing it was true. I seriously doubt that he would lie.

So even though prayer itself does not PROVE that anyone is Christian, faithful devotions, and the evidence above, strongly indicates it.

Jonathan said...

That sounds like it was Mary Thompson who also, I believe, has a book coming out on GW's faith.

This explanation does not make sense considering after the Anglican Church became the Protestant Episcopal Church around 1780 they had Bishops ready to confirm Church members and, according to William & Mary's David L. Holmes in "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" many of the pious relatives of America's Anglican/Episcopal Founders did indeed seek confirmation while Jefferson, Madison, and Washington did not. The explanation that GW didn't commune because the head of the Anglican Church was also the head of the British state (another one of Thompson's rationales) also doesn't make sense after the Anglican Church became the Protestant Episcopal Church. The major complaints against GW's refusal to commune came from Dr. Abercrombie, his minister in Philadelphia after the transformation to Episcopalianism.

And communion anyway represents communing with CHRIST not fellow Church members.

Holmes also rightly dismisses the accounts of GW communing in other churches as second and third hand heresay or otherwise isolated incidents recounted years later. Bishop White, Dr. Abercrombie and Nelly Custis were the ones who observed his behavior over and over again and they testified that he didn't commune.

These were on the wall for the members of the church to recite together at the end of the regular service. She pointed out that she knew of NO account were Washington refused to recite these (and remember, the Apostle's Creed is the statement of the Christian's belief in the deity of Christ, of His atonement and resurrection, the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, etc). Knowing the character and integrity of Washington, I seriously doubt that he would have said "I believe __" without believing it was true. I seriously doubt that he would lie.

This completely misses the social dynamic that lots of FFs nominally belonged to churches in whose doctrines they didn't believe and saw "religion" as more of a social duty. Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall for instance managed to worship, like Washington, in the Anglican/Episcopal context while not believing in their doctrines or causing a ruckess. Who knows what they mumbled when everyone was reciting those creeds or if they just, in a respectful way, kept their mouths shut.

Again they managed to pull this off not cause a scene, though, until they got up and turned their backs on the Lord's Supper.

I've investigated the creeds GW (and TJ) took when becoming vestrymen and GW took when becoming a Godfather and explicitly command church members to commune. By refusing to do so, GW violated those creeds to which he swore in a perfunctory way.

Anyway it was the Deists and Unitarians in the Churches who got up and walked out on communion and they did so because they didn't believe in what the act represented: Christ's Atonement. In the absence of GW personally telling us (which he didn't), this is the most common sense explanation. And indeed, I'd argue that the "Christian-Deists" (as Holmes terms them) or "Unitarians" or "theistic rationalists" were ones who were more likely to be in churches worshipping as a social duty. Whereas the strict Deists like Paine and Allen avoided Church altogether. And folks like Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall understood themselves to be "Christians" in some broader understanding of the term, believed in prayer, believed at least *some* of the Bible was divinely inspired (in other words none of this evidence contradicting GW's supposed belief in Paine style strict Deism proves he was an orthodox Christian. The middle ground position in which Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson believed was a more typical creed among the notable Founders than was strict Deism).

Here is Marshall's daughter on this very issue:

The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church.

Jonathan said...

Also if GW weren't eligle for communion you have to wonder why Dr. Abercrombie and Bishop White apparently were unaware of this dynamic. They EXPECTED him to commune and White termed his refusal an "error" and Abercrombie stated it made him not a "real Christian."

Jonathan said...

Mea culpa, this is the post I meant to link where I examined the Articles of the Anglican Church to which GW swore when taking those oaths which supposedly prove he was an orthodox Christian. Bottom line: He violated those very oaths by systematically refusing to commune in his Church.

EHT said...

Wow, I take a few days to do Mommy things and the comments here really take off. Hmmmmm....I this this proves my assertion that sometimes "students" have to be trusted and left alone to analyze and discuss while I'm merely a fly on the wall.

Hercules...Jonathan thank you so much for continuing the conversation and bringing up more resource items. Many of my students simply become overwhelmed with the twists and turns of evidence in a controversy exercise like this as do I sometimes.

Feel free to continue the discussion as long as you want. :)

The Tour Marm said...

The idea that one had to travel to England to be confirmed is ridiculous.

The minute Anglican bishops arrived, it was possible.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello everyone. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to respond, but my shcedule is very hectic, and I had not a moment to write my (lengthy) response.

Instead of posting it here, however, I decided to post it on my blog here.

It is rather long, but I wanted to make sure I covered everything satisfactorily. I hope it answers any questions.