Looking at Monticello (over and over again).

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When I was a child, I had the habit of aggravating opticians. My eyesight has always hovered uneasily on the border of needing glasses, which meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting with a plastic frame on the bridge of my nose, having different lenses tested. To everyone’s impatience, as the process continued I often found it hard to perceive which lens was better, how much of a variation was there between sharpness and blurriness? 

I have been reminded of that experience repeatedly during this past week, which I have spent as a member of the Monticello Teacher’s Institute, spending my days working in and around Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation and my evenings in Charlottesville. When I told people where I was going to be spending this week I was met with a few raised eyebrows, because, while Charlottesville is a pretty university town surrounded by historic sites (an environment I am familiar with) it is also the place where, almost a year ago, neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched with swastikas through the streets of the town in a rally to ‘Unite the Right’  and murdered one of the brave students who went out on the streets to protest their presence and injured many others. The neo-Nazis reason for being in this town was historical, in that they wished to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee. 

If History can be a battlefield in Charlottesville, then a case could be made that Monticello is in the thick of the conflict. To the credit of the wonderful staff in Monticello’s Education department, we were not allowed to forget this from the start. On the first evening, before we were allowed the privilege of a private tour of the main house (We were even allowed to take photos!) and the chance to drink wine while sitting on the lawn, the first words we heard were those of Madison Hemings, as he told the story of his mother, Sally Hemings’ life in the new exhibition devoted to her. This exhibit, through a combination of light effects, Madison’s words and a simple figure, managed to not only powerfully evoke her story but illustrate how much it was lost to history, leaving us with no words of her own, nor any possessions that could be definitively attributed to her. The contrast, when we entered to main house, absolutely full of the material evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s curious mind and comfortable standard of living, was stark. This was not all we talked about, when we stood on the terrace later in the evening and swapped stories about our schools and how far we had traveled to get here, but it was part of the conversation from the beginning. 

During the following few days we took three more tours of Monticello, each with a different focus, we spoke to two different experts on the period, visited an archaeological dig on the site and swooned over (in my case at least) the documents held in the University of Virginia’s special collection. There was even an episode where, in the process of enacting a lesson activity on the history of the Declaration of Independence, I, as the only resident Brit, ended up reading the preamble to the Declaration on the lawn of Monticello, much to the amusement of the assembled Americans. With each new perspective introduced, it was as though I could hear the click as a new lens was placed in front of my eyes through which to view the site and those who inhabited it. 

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Unsurprisingly, for a group of teachers, we had a lot of conversations about it, some more formal ones in the classroom that acted as our workspace, other more causal ones over pizza and beer in the University of Virginia dorms. As someone operating at a further remove from the question to the American teachers I found myself deeply impressed with the seriousness with which they tackled the issues involved and how open they were prepared to be when discussing politically fraught history with each other and with their students. While I am aware that the self-selection involved in applying for the fellowship at Monticello means that the teachers I worked with may not be the most representative bunch (though I would argue that there was an awful lot of diversity of experiences and attitudes there) and while I find ill-founded assertions in the press that British teachers routinely abdicate their responsibility to teach subjects like empire and the slave trade thoroughly irritating, I do think we could still stand to learn something from teachers in the US in this respect. 

It was unsurprising that the main difficultly I had when deciding what teaching resource to construct over the course of the week was making a choice about what to focus on. But, as a group, I’m confident that the range of projects that we ended up constructing, from exploring the question of who built Monticello, Jefferson’s differing attitudes to the French and Haitian revolutions to the life of Sally Hemings, was due to the diversity of perspectives we had encountered before we narrowed our focus down. It was also striking how the sense of place affected our planning, my own project on Jefferson and traditions of British radicalism, including his relationship with Thomas Paine, owed a significant part of its inception to the records of Jefferson’s library. (I hope that the resources I made will be of use to anyone teaching the AQA unit on Power and the People and I will be letting everyone know when it is put up on Monticello’s digital classroom.) The crucial factor seemed to be that, whether we chose to address the question of Jefferson as slave-owner and Monticello as plantation directly in our lesson-plans or not, we all benefitted from having thought about it. If you think about it, this shouldn’t really be a surprise because (and forgive me for getting a little high-flown here) if you genuinely love History then you should want to know everything about it, should be prepared to leave no stone unturned, no questions or doubts ignored. After all, does a committed musician shy away from a difficult piece because it hurts her hands when she plays it through the first few times? Do conservationists not commit their lives to endangered species, knowing that their efforts may be in vain? I don’t see why we should expect any less of ourselves, nor why we should not try to instill this ethic into our students. 

To put it in less dramatic terms, one of the many things that I have taken from my week in Monticello, has been a further confirmation of my belief that we should always strive to make the history we teach more complicated rather than less. Because (and here it comes, the inevitable pay-off of the metaphor) with History, it seems to me that it is only when you are looking with double-vision that you can say that your sight is truly clear. 

 

I was able to take part in this fellowship because of the generous funding from the British Association for American Studies and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The experience was made as good as it was due to the brilliant work of the people in the Monticello Education Department. The fellowship is open to any British teachers who teach American History or Politics and there are two sessions in July and August, so it does fit into everyone’s summer holiday. If you are interested in asking any questions about the fellowship I am happy to talk about it at any time. 

http://www.baas.ac.uk/monticello-application-form/