Friday, December 10, 2004

Southern Slavery, "As It Was"

Ojimi pointed me to this, from Killing Goliath:
Happy Darkies Singing in the Fields
Dec 10, 2004
Smack dab in the middle of NC's Research Triangle, the showplace of the New South, Cary Christian School is teaching 9th grade history out of "Southern Slavery, As It Was," which includes the following completely unbiased historical truths:
"Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care."
"Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence."
"There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."
Just by coincidence, one of the text's authors is on the Board of Directors of the League of the South. Props to Atrios. — RC

The N&O article that Killing Goliath references also notes
Principal Larry Stephenson said the school is only exposing students to different ideas, such as how the South justified slavery. He said the booklet is used because it is hard to find writings that are both sympathetic to the South and explore what the Bible says about slavery.
"You can have two different sides, a Northern perspective and a Southern perspective," he said.

And later,
"As a classical Christian school, we think it's important for our students to be able to think and not be slanted to a particular position," Stephenson said. "We want them to think for themselves."
Until two years ago, Stephenson said, middle school students also had read excerpts from "Southern Slavery." He said the booklet was a counterpoint to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which he said portrayed all Southern whites as treating their slaves badly.
Once the Civil War was no longer taught in middle school, Stephenson said, Cary Christian stopped using the booklet in those grades.
But the 43-page booklet is still read in its entirety by ninth-graders when they study the Civil War. Stephenson said the booklet can help students formulate arguments when taking the pro-Southern side in debates.
"A student may be assigned an opinion they may not agree with, so they will understand both sides," Stephenson said.
Angela Kennedy, whose daughters have attended Cary Christian since 1996, said all the booklet does is help students learn about both sides so that they have a basis to form their own opinions. She pointed out that the students also read Abraham Lincoln's speeches.
"They really do get both sides of the story," Kennedy said. "In public schools, all they get is one side of the story. That's not education. That's indoctrination."

I agree that it is important to teach students to think for themselves, to think and analyze critically, to consider various perspectives. I agree with the value of presenting historical interpretations of the same event or period that come to very different conclusions. I agree that textbooks can be as guilty as any other text of presenting a one-sided view or of toeing a party line.

But couldn't someone working on the curriculum for the Cary Christian School look a little harder, to find a historical text that offers a more complex view of slavery--one that does not seek to rectify the biases of existing historical renditions or responses by offering their polar opposite?

(There are some ripe quotations from the book here.)

This is part of the reason that I like to teach Toni Morrison's Beloved. A part of the story addresses the changes that happened on one slave plantation when the ownership shifted from a kindly man to a sicko. The contrasts between the two periods in the affected slaves lives points to the complexity of southern slavery, the premise that it was not a wholly oppressive venture. (But let us not forget that we are talking about the ownership of human beings here.) The early version of Morrison's Sweet Home--before the sicko comes to town--represents a respectful and humane relationship between owner and owned. But once Schoolteacher and his boys take the place over, things change, and the characters' memories of that time are horrid. Each time I reread the book I wonder whether I should put my students through that, knowing that each rereading makes me lie awake in bed, reimagining horrors that after a while I manage to push out of my mind.

I am not suggesting that teaching Beloved to ninth graders makes sense. But if the school is interested in offering differing viewpoints rather than indoctrinating its students, then shouldn't it question whether, in the context of Christian education, students can fully argue with a text that draws its justifications from the Bible?

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the Cary Christian School does not require adherence to religious tenets, even though the school requires that at least one parent of an accepted child be a regular church attendee.

But while we are at it, can I note that Mike Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center also criticized the book "for plagiarizing a previous work. The booklet has received criticism from a number of historians." One of the authors, Paster Douglas Wilson, "declined to comment and referred questions to his assistant, Mike Lawyer. Lawyer said the booklet has been pulled from publication because of faulty footnotes and citation errors."

Faulty footnotes and citation errors. I have not reviewed this book, but if that phrase is code for plagiarism, then I suppose I have Mr. Wilson to thank also for modeling academic dishonesty for my students.

As if his book did not create enough problems already.

No comments: