25 March 2010

This is a mess I probably shouldn't step into, but I can't help it.

Michael Moynihan excerpted a report from Yahoo news about the largely risible changes that the Texas BOE wants made to the state-wide curriculum guidelines. Most of their demands are pure foolishness, but this line in the Yahoo article stuck out for me:
Meanwhile, the recommendations include an entry listing Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as a role model for effective leadership, and a statement from Confederate President Jefferson Davis accompanying a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
Right off the bat let me say I have no idea how these bullet points relate to the Board's desired coverage of the Confederacy or the Civil War more widely. I only have that isolated sentence from the Yahoo summary.

I feel compelled to post about this not because I really care one way or the other whether Texas students learn about Thomas Jonathan Jackson, but because I think it raises interesting questions about whether people's personal lives are relevant when judging their professional accomplishments, and whether we judge someone's mastery of a craft based on the goals they pursued with it.

Let me address the BOE's latter recommendation first. I don't see any prima facie weirdness about wanting statements from both leaders of perhaps the most important event in American history. Maybe this is part of a larger push to legitimize the CSA and equivocate between Lincoln and Davis, but knowing only what I know, I don't see what's wrong with wanting side-by-side coverage of the two of them. Wouldn't it be interesting and educational to have side-by-side statements from Reagan and Gorbachev, or Churchill and Hitler?

Okay, regarding Jackson being an effective leader... he was. Undoubtably. When it came to motivating his men and leading them effectively in battle, he may have been the best leader in the Civil War. He used those skills in furtherance of terrible ends, but he was definitely effective. His Shenandoah Valley campaign was masterful and his flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville was audacity itself.  His men were arguably the most motivated and disciplined of the war, as shown by their stand at First Manassas and their fearsome reputation as "foot cavalry."

Yes, Jackson fought for "the bad guys," but he did so because he considered himself a Virginian first and an American second. Now I happen to think fighting a war just because you were born within certain lines on a map -- be they borders of a state or a national -- rather than because you think the cause is just is a silly thing to do, but I'm in the minority in thinking that now, and would have been even more so then.

Yes, Jackson owned slaves. As far as I can tell he was about the most beneficent slave owner as existed in America, but still, evil institution to be involved in, no doubt about it.  He was guilty of a huge, theistically-derived is-ought error, assuming slavery must be acceptable or God wouldn't have sanctioned it's existence.  On the other hand, several of his slaves specifically requested he purchase them because he was known to be a

Jackson personally participated in an evil institution, and even fought to preserve it, but I don't think that changes his efficacy as a leader.  If being wrapped up in slavery is enough to disqualify you as an effective leader we'd need to wipe Julius Caeser, Muhammad, Temujin, and George Washington from the books as well.

PS Some parting words of Jackson's:

To move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure all the fruits of victory, is the secret of successful war.

You have to admit that's fine advice for more than just warfare, whatever you think of the man and the cause he fought for.

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