John A. Tures: Do students still learn it?

November 22, 2013 

"Seven score and ten years ago" announced the speaker from National Public Radio, reminding us that it was the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, read by President Abraham Lincoln.

Many people across the country perhaps remember covering the Gettysburg Address in school, perhaps in seventh grade. Some claim they had to memorize Lincoln's speech. But how is this covered in the South? Do Southern students have to undergo this rite of middle school passage, like the rest of the country? Or do they shun the speech in favor of a day of mourning for Dixie's "Lost Cause?"

To find this out, I polled colleagues and friends, as well as college students and members of a local civic organization on this subject today. And I got a lot more than I bargained for with the answers.

Of the 52 respondents from this West Georgia town, 49 claimed that the Gettysburg Address was covered in their class, though about a dozen said that it was "barely mentioned." Of those surveyed, slightly less than half had to memorize it

"If we misbehaved in class, we had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and say it in front of the class," remarked one respondent, showing that not all who had to memorize it did so in a way that put Lincoln's speech in a positive light.

"Back when I was in school, I hated Lincoln because of stories told to me by my paternal grandfather and grandmother who lived in Atlanta," replied another local. "Setting the slaves free put my great-grandparents into economic hard times. My grandfather saved all of their Confederate money because he believed 'The South will rise again!'"

But Southerners weren't the only ones who often skipped memorizing the Gettysburg Address. Of the non-Southerners, fewer than half said they had to memorize it. Some, like a California resident and an individual from a Western state, didn't even cover the Civil War. One grew up a few miles from Gettysburg, but did not have to memorize Lincoln's speech.

Many of the younger respondents said they had to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Those who lived in a larger Southern city like Atlanta had a similar experience. And maybe the old hatreds from the Civil War are slowly fading. "My daughter had to memorize it in high school," wrote one respondent who did not have to do so. "Maybe it is more of a sign of the times."

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu. Art by Erin Duquette.

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