Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Due to insomnia, I'm chiming in late about these posts regarding teaching high school students about justifications for slavery. (I should clarify that the fact that I'm chiming in at all is due to insomnia, not the fact that I'm late. Although maybe that, too: I might be posting more regularly if I weren't so tired during the day.)

I think of myself as someone who studies intellectual history. Some people would dispute this: the people whom I study are not generally considered intellectuals, and "intellectual history" has tended to focus on elite thinkers rather than popular ones. I think some people would call what I do "cultural history," since low-brow folks like my subjects are allowed to have culture but not ideas. But I think that's kind of bullshit, so I'm going to persist in calling myself a (wanna-be, budding) intellectual historian.

As such, I have taught a class on American intellectual history to mostly first-and-second-year undergrads. And I require my students to read defenses of slavery. If you're going to study the history of ideas, I think you're morally obligated to study the evil, disgusting ideas, too. And honestly, I wish more people read justifications of slavery. For one thing, my sense from reading pro-life websites is that pro-lifers make some weird and spurious analogies between abortion-rights and pro-slavery arguments, analogies they can only sustain because most Americans don't actually know anything about pro-slavery ideology. Also, I think it's reasonably instructive to show that really evil things can be justified as being benevolent and necessary for all involved. It gives one pause to realize that people don't always realize or acknowledge when they're being evil.

I have also used the debate format to good effect in intellectual history classes. It's really effective with undergrads: they understand an ideology better when they've been forced to justify it on its own terms. I've had them debate women's suffrage and protective labor legislation, not because I think there are two sides to those issues, but because it's one way to force them to grapple with the way people thought in the past.

I refuse to have students debate the legitimacy of slavery, though. A professor in my department used to stage a debate about slavery, and she warned me against trying it. For one thing, African-American students were understandably not ok with being required to justify the horrific exploitation of their ancestors. For another, non-African-American students were often uncomfortable being asked to voice racist sentiments, and more disturbingly, sometimes they seemed to enjoy being given permission to air those otherwise-forbidden views. Honestly, I don't think I would have been tempted to try it even if I hadn't been warned off. It just seems somehow distasteful.

Having said that, I'm a little weirded out by the implication in the posts to which I linked that students shouldn't learn about pro-slavery ideology. Obviously, there are many problems with the way that Carey Christian School appears to be teaching about pro-slavery thought. There's no excuse for using materials provided by neo-Confederate groups. There's no excuse for trotting out the old canard that many masters treated their slaves kindly. There's a creeping moral relativism in the "both sides of the story" rhetoric, and that's not the right way to think about this issue at all. You don't read pro-slavery rhetoric to get an equally-legitimate take whether it's ok to own people. And to be honest, from a modern perspective, abolitionist rhetoric isn't without problems, too. You read both to understand the past, warts and all.

I'm actually a little bit surprised that conservatives want their kids studying pro-slavery ideology. It strikes me that there are some troubling lessons there for the religious right. For Catholics, there's the highly inconvenient fact that the American Catholic Church pretty much across the board condemned abolition as a more dangerous social evil than slavery. (I'm planning to blog sometime soon on John McGreevy's fascinating Catholicism and American Freedom, which is particularly good on Catholic responses to slavery.) If the Church was wrong on one of the least ambiguous moral issues of the modern era, who's to say they're right on gay rights or abortion? Then there are those Biblical justifications of slavery to which the principal of the Carey Christian School alludes. If the Bible can be used to justify slavery, why shouldn't we look critically at contemporary political uses of Scripture? If you only read abolitionist thought, you could get the idea that religious authorities universally condemned slavery, and nothing could be further from the truth. If you take seriously pro-slavery thought, you also have to take seriously the ways in which religion has been used to oppress as well as liberate. That's a problem for people who argue for absolute deference to religious authority.

And with that, I am going to try to go back to sleep. Wish me luck!

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