SALMAN KHAN TRIES HIS HAND AT AMERICAN HISTORY

That's right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

That’s right, another big thumbs down for the Khan Academy.

As a glutton for punishment, I sat down to watch a brief Khan Academy video about the end of the Civil War. It is six minutes long and entitled “Appomattox Court House and Lincoln’s Assassination.” The video exemplifies many of the major problems with Khan Academy videos that have been echoed by teachers in other fields.

To be fair, Khan and his team seem to be more knowledgeable of, and focused on, math and science. From what I understand, history is one of the more undeveloped parts of the Khan Academy repertoire. Therefore, I will be criticizing Khan in one of his most vulnerable areas.

As a history teacher, I would certainly not encourage my students to use this video as a primer or a refresher on the end of the Civil War. The one thing that jumped out at me about it was how it seemed like a spoken textbook. It is probably not a stretch to think that Khan, who narrates the video, read a few paragraphs from a textbook about the end of the Civil War and summarized it in spoken word. I threw out the textbook years ago for some of the very same deficiencies found in this video.

Appomattox Court House, as you may remember from high school, was the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This is mentioned in the video. The only problem is, Khan assumes that the watcher knows who these men are. He has pictures of them and writes their names next to each of the pictures. What side they represented or what their roles were he never says. Perhaps his previous videos on the war go into a little more depth about these men. It still doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have taken an extra 30 seconds to clarify who they were in this video, especially if he meant it to be something of a primer or review.

One of the major weaknesses of the piece is how he characterizes the events of April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. He says that even though Lee surrendered, it wasn’t the “official” end of the war. There were other Confederate armies in other parts of the country that fought on beyond this date. Khan correctly points out that this was due to the slow communication technology of the era. However, it was pretty clear to anyone alive back then that the surrender of Lee meant the surrender of the south. Lee led the main Confederate Army whose role it was to protect the Confederate capital of Richmond by that point in the war. His capitulation to Grant was rightly seen as the end, as “official” an end as anyone was going to get.

It is a shame how mechanical, how stale, how dry the whole surrender was presented. He basically says that Lee (whoever that guy was) surrendered to Grant (whoever that guy was) in the city of Appomattox Court House. To his credit, he explains that Appomattox Court House was an actual town and not a building. What he did not explain was that towns back then with “Court House” in their names usually signified that they were the seat of county government. A minor detail but one he could have taken 10 seconds to explain so things could make just a little more sense.

What’s missing from his Appomattox story? First, the fact that Lee’s men were starving and deserting by that point. Grant had been burning down large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley, a major food source for Lee’s army. Desertions in the Confederate Army were a relative rarity, since Johnny Reb tended to be a motivated soldier with a fervent belief in the cause. There is no explanation of why Lee felt the need to surrender. Second, he doesn’t describe the respect both men had for each other. This is more than just a minor detail. Grant had one eye on the future. He knew he needed to treat Lee with mercy since, once again, they would be countrymen. The last thing Grant wanted to do was treat Lee’s army like a conquered people and engender more animus between North and South that might sabotage any effort to Reconstruct the Union. Indeed, the term “Appomattox Peace” has come to characterize any charitable treatment of a defeated army. Khan mentions none of this. Less importantly, there were the stylistic differences between the two men. Lee, the southern gentlemen in his finely pressed and cleaned uniform, laying his sword at the feet of the dirty and disheveled Grant, the man who was once kicked out of the army for drunkenness. If one did not know any better, it would look like Lee was the victor. Also, in one of the most memorable scenes of the war, the victorious Union soldiers raised their guns in salute of the Confederate boys who were laying down their arms. It was a show of respect between newly reunited countrymen and proof that, contrary to what Khan states, this was in fact the end of the war. These details that Khan left out are the stuff of history. These are the things that make history come alive for students. The lack of these details turns the telling of history into a rote series of events with no wider significance. Khan’s video is just as bad as a textbook in this way.

Probably the biggest deficiency in the video is his retelling of the Lincoln assassination. He claims that the war was not over the day Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, despite the fact that Lee had surrendered 5 days before. If Khan bothered to do serious research, he might have learned that the sheer fact that Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater was proof that the war was pretty much over in his mind. For the previous 4 years, Lincoln had spent all of his waking hours at the War Department or the Oval Office keeping meticulous track of the goings-on at the battlefield. He had neglected himself in the process and certainly had no time for frivolities like plays. Because of his dedication to saving the Union, he and Mary Todd had drifted apart. Going to Ford’s Theater shows that Lincoln believed he finally had some breathing room. It was also a way to spend an evening with the wife he had neglected for 4 years.

Khan then introduces John Wilkes Booth. He correctly points out that Booth was an actor sympathetic to the south who had conspired with some buddies to pretty much decapitate the federal government. On the evening Lincoln was killed, there were plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. What he did not mention, and what he probably does not even know, is that Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. The kidnapping plot was the result of one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War.

Booth had a brother in the Confederate Army who was being held as a prisoner of war in Elmira prison in upstate New York. The reason why his brother and so many soldiers of both sides were languishing in POW camps had to do with Lincoln’s changing views on the status of black people. It was customary in warfare at the time to swap POWs. You release my men, I release yours. However, the south had refused to release black prisoners they had captured from the Union Army. The Confederates considered these men contraband, or captured property, and intended to use them as slaves. Lincoln refused to agree to any POW exchanges unless the south released blacks and whites equally. The south did not budge on this, neither did Lincoln, and POWs on both sides stacked up as the war went on. Lincoln took much heat for this decision from northerners who had relatives in the south’s POW camps. At the Georgia prison in Andersonville, northern POWs were suffering from malnutrition and neglect. Many people blamed Lincoln for consigning these men to horrible fates just so he could “coddle the black man”. It was one of Lincoln’s most controversial, if not courageous, decisions as president.

Therefore, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln so he could exchange him for Confederate POWs, including his brother. However, as the war got progressively hopeless for the south, Booth and his cabal went for a full-fledged assassination conspiracy to throw the north into disarray. Perhaps this was the thing that could turn the war around for the south. Khan doesn’t mention this. He turns one of the most fascinating stories in American history into a dry, semi-factual rundown.

Booth was one of the nation’s most famous actors who had played Ford Theater many times in his life. He had pretty much unlimited access to come and go as he pleased. After all, who would tell Tom Cruise today that he could not walk into a movie theater when he felt like it? The name of the play that Lincoln was scheduled to see was Our American Cousin, a comedy with which Booth was very familiar. His plan was to pull the trigger at a point in the play where the crowd would be laughing, a line where one of the characters calls another character a “sockdologizing old mantrap”. Khan correctly mentions that Lincoln’s security detail, stationed at the feet of the steps to his balcony, had disappeared. No president had ever been assassinated before, so the lax presidential security during the 1860s was understandable. Booth made his way up the stairs, waited for the line and pulled the trigger to his derringer. Mary Todd screamed. Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln originally invited General Grant), wrestled with Booth, only to be stabbed in the arm. Booth jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle when his boot got caught on the American flag draped over the presidential balcony. He yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus. The South is Avenged!” before hobbling off the stage and making his way outside to his horse, where he immediately pistol whipped the poor peanut vendor who was good enough to be holding it for him. Booth was on the run for two weeks before being shot up in a blaze of glory out in the Maryland woods. Khan doesn’t mention any of these details, details that bring life to the story. He does mention that people thought it might have been part of the play, which accounted for why nobody rushed to tackle Booth. Lincoln was brought to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Khan sort of glosses over the rest of the story. He says the other conspirators were not as successful in killing their targets as was Booth. What he does not mention was that the guy slated to kill Johnson got drunk and chickened out instead. He does mention that Seward got stabbed in the face but never explains why. Seward had been in a carriage accident and was bedridden in a body cast. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, knocked on Seward’s door telling the butler the doctor sent him to drop off some medicine that he needed to show Seward how to administer. The butler let him. Powell then walked up the stairs where he encountered Seward’s son, who was suspicious of the stranger. He was going to tell Powell to take a hike when Seward’s daughter popped her head out of the bedroom saying “Papa will see you now.” This gave away the room in which Seward was staying. He struggled past Seward’s son, ran into the room, jumped on top of Seward in the bed and began stabbing at him. Seward’s cast deflected most of the blows. Powell could only stab Seward in the face, which was the only uncovered part of Seward’s body. Powell was then subdued.

The only real story Khan tells is the one of the man whose house was used as the spot for Lee’s surrender. This man had lived near Bull Run Creek and the first battle of the war was fought on his property. In order to avoid future battles, he moved further into Virginia to Appomattox, where the last battle would also be fought on his property. It is a nice story but it is found in every single history textbook as one of those cute little side columns they put in order to make an otherwise stale retelling of history somewhat interesting. Khan does the same exact thing in this video, which leads me to think he actually did just read out of a textbook.

These are the things that Khan left out. One can argue that mentioning these things would have made the video longer and less accessible. I argue the video is inaccessible as it is now. Not only is it a sterile retelling of incomplete facts that he fails to connect to each other, it is boring as all bloody hell. It is the type of “teaching” a novice does when they are one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook. It is the type of “teaching” to be expected from someone with no knowledge of the subject.

Why not get an historian to tell the story? Why not do more research to make the story alive? Barring these things, why do the video at all? It teaches very little and in the most boring imaginable way. If you wanted to turn someone off to history or have a student write off history as nothing more than disconnected and useless facts or dates, this is the video I would use.

I know Khan fans will chime in with their defenses. You can save your apologies. Neither me nor any other real history teacher needs any help from Khan and his band of non-educators. I never asked for his videos or tools and I see absolutely no value in them. On top of it, I see it as insulting that Khan believes it is sufficient to read a few paragraphs out of a textbook, gather some pictures and draw some dates and names on a screen and pass it off as a history lesson.

You want history? Read a book. You want to teach history? Know your subject. Anything else is merely shortchanging the people you claim to want to help.

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12 responses to “SALMAN KHAN TRIES HIS HAND AT AMERICAN HISTORY

  1. Very interesting post. I would love to sit in your classes. I have also checked out some of the social studies related videos on the Khan Academy website and was very disappointed. After reading your post, watch him offer you a job.

  2. I knew some of these things, like the kidnapping and the group assassination plot, but I did not know the story on Seward. Always nice to learn something. Consider yourself assailed.

  3. Assailed – I too would love sitting in on some of your classes. To be honest though, how many other teachers of American History would have either the time or the knowledge to relate even half of what you eloquently teach in this post? I’d say a small minority in each borough of the city. Unfortunately to me, it’s the luck of the draw here. One may be so lucky to have a teacher such as you who will enrich and add the extra all be it critical and true details of the specific area of study or they will have a just as hard working a teacher who may not be as well schooled in the area as you but gives his/her students what the curriculum calls for. Again, I’d consider my children fortunate if they indeed had the likes of your kind as their teacher.

    • Thank you very much Steve, for I consider that the highest compliment. You’re right in that there might be a good portion of history teachers who are not well versed in many historical details. I have many blind spots myself that I continuously try to overcome. I would say that whether your child has a history nerd like me as their teacher, or someone who assiduously and genuinely slogs through the curriculum as best they can, they would be better served than having Salman Khan. One of the comments under the video said something like “this is better than sitting in history class” and I thought, really? This video was like sitting through a history textbook, a poorly done textbook at that.

  4. I read in Outside Magazine of all places that the MD who treated Booth’s fracture was named Mudd. He was arrested and charged as an accessory then sent to the Tortuga I think it was called, a pre-Gitmo island prison near Key West. He ends up abandoned when an epidemic comes through the place and manages to survive. Frees himself essentially and gives birth to the phrase “your name is Mudd in this town.” My footnote to the masterful stories you’ve laid out above. I think people who love history are in analog mode and will take whatever is needed to get the story straight. Khan et all are pure digital looking for the shortest distance between two points. It shows too. There’s nothing like love for a subject to make its telling richer and more rewarding. I feel smarter all ready and it’s only 10:00 am. Another home run, Thanks.

    • Hey Sean, thank you very much. You are right about the Mudd thing. If I remember correctly, they weren’t too sure if they wanted to charge Mudd at first because he tried to pass himself off as a simple doctor who was just helping a guy with a broken leg. Upon further investigation, they discovered he was down with the whole Booth program,

  5. A nice conspectus of a complex and compelling episode in U.S. history. Since your typescript, if rendered in a videoplay or teleplay or script would yield ten or fewer minutes of screen time, I wonder why Khan had to dessicate this material.

    • I think it is because Khan doesn’t know any of the stuff in detail and never bothered to research it. It’s an insult to the teaching profession. More importantly, it is a disservice to the people he is trying to “help”.

      • Well, I found myself wondering if, indeed, he was just reading from a textbook, and if so, if the publisher was one of his underwriters. Moreover, I have found myself wondering over the longer term that the corporate textbook industry has an interest in keeping students both bored and stupid–i.e. docile.

  6. I think they do. And now with the Common Core, textbook publishers will be scrambling to make things “aligned” to the new curriculum. It is a many-headed hydra where the goal is to make as much as they can for themselves. Surely, an informed citizenry is anathema to that goal.

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