The conference is over now and people are digesting what happened, pondering what was said, thinking about what they learned, and inevitably most will come to the question Brooks Simpson asked early on. “What’s next?” Where do we go from here?
As large as the conference was, I think it only scratched the surface, and this is not meant as a criticism because it seems to me that it was designed to only scratch the surface. I believe its purpose was to begin the dialogue, not to be the solution to the question of where does Civil War History go after the Sesquicentennial. There were too many groups, panels, and activities to allow one person to attend them all. Perhaps one person could have sampled all the working groups, but it wouldn’t be possible to do that if one were participating in the field experiences. Speaking selfishly, I would have liked to have seen the conference stretched out as long as it took for me to witness every panel discussion. But that could never happen because it’s impossible to bring that distinguished and busy group of people together long enough to do it. The economics of time availability argue against it.
And in the panel sessions, each panel member usually had five minutes to make their contribution, then the moderator would ask some questions which the panel members answered, and then the audience had the last few minutes to ask questions. Again, the economics of time constraints could not be overcome because there was always more to do. Not a criticism of the conference, but merely an acknowledgement of the reality. All in all, the conference, in my opinion, while not perfect (and what is, after all?), was a success.
So where do we go from here?
I’d like to see some more focus on specifics, allowing more time for an involved conversation. To that end, there needs to be a mission statement–an objective. What are we trying to accomplish? Do we want to create a stronger partnership between academics and others? Do we want to change foci of interpretations? Do we want to change the way the Civil War Era (which in my opinion must include Reconstruction) is taught? Do we want to attack the economic environment in which we’re going to find ourselves? We need to understand what we want to do, then we need to focus on that main objective, or those two or three main objectives. This conference had a little bit of everything, and I think that was the right approach. Now it’s time to narrow our focus and devote ourselves to the main objectives, and once we’ve gotten that in a form we like we can focus on the next tier of objectives. I think a lot like an engineer, so my thought processes inevitably lead me down the problem-solving/fix-it path.
But this would allow us more time to have those conversations and to hash out our differences and understand where each other is coming from, in my opinion, far better than the few minutes given to each person to speak. We’ve made a good start, now it’s time to follow up.
These are only my initial thoughts following the conference. As my thinking clarifies over time I may change my mind about some things, I may have more to say about other things, and I may have some ideas about how to achieve some things. Stay tuned.
What do you think? Where do you think Civil War History is going? Where should it go? What future would you like to see?
I want to send out a huge “Thank You!” to Pete Carmichael and the entire staff of the Civil War Institute who worked so hard on this conference. I really appreciate your efforts, and I hope you don’t think of my comments as in any way criticizing what you’ve done. There will always be differing perspectives on how things should be done, and I think the conference was a big positive. It also was a chance for my daughter Karen to mingle with some of the folks whose books she read and to put faces to the names she knew only from book title pages. I think she got inspired and hopefully will be doing some research and writing as an outcome. Of course, parents always have huge dreams for their kids, and the only thing that really matters is what the progeny choose to do with their own lives.