Lincoln No Longer Just an Icon in Illinois Schools | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Lincoln No Longer Just an Icon in Illinois Schools

Today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The 16th president has been a favorite subject in Illinois museums and schools for more than a century. But historians and teachers say these days, the portrayal of Lincoln is more complex and honest, and ultimately more useful, especially to students.

A line of kindergartners walks slowly down the hall at Florence Nightingale Elementary School. They're wearing stove pipe hats made of construction paper and beards made out of felt.

ambi: Good morning Mr. President and Ms. Presidents.

Their teacher, Ana Ramos, told them about the log cabin Lincoln was born in, and, very gently, about his death.

STUDENT: He died. He's the president. He's on a penny.

The school's primary librarian, Vera Bunting, recalls when that's about all students were taught about Lincoln.

BUNTING: I remember very well learning the Gettysburg Address, and seeing Lincoln as a faraway figure who was lost in some kind of dusty decades in the past.

But now, educators and curators are working to show Lincoln as a three-dimensional figure, warts and all.

ALTER: After his death, he was really raised up and put on a pedestal in sort of saintlike status.

Peter Alter's a curator at the Chicago History Museum.

ALTER: When you place someone on a pedestal like that, you sort of lose the ability to understand them. That's certainly something we don't want to do.

Over at the Chicago History Museum, people can visit a new exhibit called Lincoln Treasures that emphasizes Lincoln's life as a regular guy. Like the china he rarely used, because he liked simple food.

Alter says Lincoln was a husband and a father. And, though we like to forget it, he was a politician, too.

ALTER: Lincoln's decisions, they came not in this sort of vacuum of sainthood, but they came in this very real milieu of politics and of a very bloody war.

Over at Nightingale school, teacher Brandon Barr is dressed up as Lincoln.

ambi: Hello President Lincoln. I'm good. How are you?

He greets younger kids in the hallway with handshakes, and hellos. But in his 8th grade classroom, his lessons about Lincoln are more complicated.

BARR: Well, obviously he's an icon. But sometimes it's good to question some of the motives behind some of his decisions, especially the Emancipation Proclamation. Was it a political move or was it something that was genuinely heartfelt and sincere, in his wanting to free the slaves?

Barr says examining complexities like that transforms history into more than just a bunch of facts and figures.

One of his students, Edna Sanchez, has taken all of this in. Her view is as pragmatic as Lincoln himself. Sanchez was surprised to learn the Emancipation Proclamation didn't include all the slaves. But she figures it was Lincoln's job to listen to everyone's opinion before making a decision.

SANCHEZ: I still think he's really a big hero.
GREENE: The way that Lincoln is taught in schools today is catching up to the way that academic historians think about Lincoln.

Daniel Greene directs the Newberry Library's Center for American History and Culture.

GREENE: History has become more than the study of great men or a march forward in time through presidencies or through American wars, but historians have become much more interested in the social experiences of real folks.

Greene says the quick perception is that Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. And he says Lincoln was against slavery, but he was no abolitionist.

In fact, he wrote if he could save the Union, half slave and half free, he'd do it.

GREENE: Lincoln is famous for saying sentiments to the effect of just because I don't want a black woman to be my slave, to be a slave, doesn't mean I want her to be my wife. It's insight into Lincoln's beliefs about,the I guess you could say, the inherent inequality of African-Americans.

Greene says such difficult concepts can help students.

GREENE: History never is uncomplicated. And so pushing students to realize that even great figures like Lincoln have sometimes contradictory beliefs or struggle through their own beliefs, I think, can be a useful thing for students as they're trying to find their way in the world.

Part of that, says the History Museum's Peter Alter, is understanding that times change, as they have since Lincoln's era.

ALTER: When you label him as a martyr or as this great emancipator, you lose all of that nuance. I think also, by the same token, when you call him a racist, you also lose that nuance.

The historians say that Abraham Lincoln in all his contradictions has more to teach than the one-dimensional icon of the past.

The Newberry Library and the History Museum examine these complexities in an online exhibit. It's called Lincoln at 200.

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