There is a fascinating discussion going on over at H-CivWar about the current state of stand alone history courses on the Civil War. So far, the respondents indicated that the institutions they have attended and/or work for all have distinct courses on the conflict, including some offering graduate seminars on it. The discussion seemed to be influenced by both the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, as well as the current trends in historical education and scholarship. That said, I will say that the field of Civil War history is still quite vibrant and while non-military topics have grown in prominence and attention over the years, this is not a bad thing, as there was more to the conflict than just the armies and their battles and movements that do need attention and awareness to more fully understand the profound transformative effect of the Civil War on the United States.
However, the discussion did speak to me, especially in light of the recent Society for Military History white paper on the role of military history in the academy and the discussion among prominent Civil War historians over the state of military history in the larger field that was sparked by two prominent articles in the two flagship journals Civil War History and the Journal of the Civil War Era, which was quite enlightening. It is good to see that several institutions still retain separate classes on the Civil War. I will say that I think eventually such classes will become fewer, mainly because of the increased amount of history that will warrant inclusion in our curriculum. One poster to the discussion considered the idea of placing the war within the framework of the long nineteenth century, which struck me as an interesting way of examining the war.
The nineteenth century in a broad sense was a transformative period for the nation, as we became an industrial nation, while expanding our control and influence across the continent. To be sure the Civil War factored prominently in these developments and would be a major component to a broader course on nineteenth century America. The war is an important component of most survey American history courses, so it is still going to have a position of importance in our history.
Is there a possibility that stand alone courses on the Civil War will eventually fade away? Sure, as what History departments offer fifty or one hundred years from now may be quite different than now. That said, there are still many (yours truly among them) who are passionate about the history of the war and will continue to work in the field in some capacity and are still young enough to continue the interest for years to come. Further, the war still resonates today and we will eventually commemorate the bicentennial of the war. Also, students still seem interested in taking courses on the conflict, at least in my experiences.
We can never predict the future of the field and its place in history education, but it will be interesting to see where trends in scholarship and pedagogy take us and how that influences the nature of courses on the war and how popular they will be. Our nation continues to change and the increasing length of time from the conflict will cause it to fade from memory in some ways, but still hold interest and importance. Consider how educators will grapple with the ongoing centennial of World War I, or, when it comes, World War II and how those events will influence the place of the Civil War within higher education.
The war will continue to interest me and I hope that fifty years from now, there will still be students taking courses on the war in college. Only time will tell.