Slavery Debate in History Class - Parents Need to Lay Off

I was in a college history class (Professor Renda) where I learned that one take on America is that we were always and are still afraid of being slaves. I thought he was kind of full of it at the time, but I can totally see it now. People don’t want their gun rights or free speech rights trampled, worrying that an anti-gun or anti-free speech president will make them slaves. It's all about rights, left or right, and we want them.

So, slavery, whether real or imagined, scares all of us. It’s not just about African Americans for a couple hundred years, but it’s about all of us from before we got here right up until today. As a middle or high school teacher, you might want to have a debate about slavery, and you might believe it’s a simple debate, but you’d be wrong.

Parents are going to worry. Slavery is not defensible. Slavery is wrong. I can’t have my child defending half the people in our country who fought for that sin. It’s racist to talk about it. Whatever. Parents will have concerns if you want to present an assignment that has them debating slavery, even if we coldly did JUST THAT in Washington about 150 years ago. As a student, I would have relished the opportunity to prove slavery was justified, not because I believed in it, but because I believed in my abilities. For example, I was once in a debate about capitalism versus socialism, and my opponent had not done the work (and claimed he could not argue for something wrong), so I argued socialism FOR the other kid, just to show I could. Debating is an important skill, and it’s not just for politicians and liars. If you’re going to work for any business that has even the least bit controversy (ie, every large corporation), you should learn how to defend decisions you would not make. Believe me when I say that I could take apart any company on the Fortune 500 and make them look like evildoers, just as I could do the same with any religion, any political party, any profession, and so on. It’s not about name-calling or actual ethics/morals; it’s about winning the debate.

OK, so let’s say, as a social studies teacher, you’re a little sensitive about assigning a debate about the merits of slavery itself. There’s no real danger in assigning something about the Civil Rights of people and the use of force, is there? Even if slavery is just a side note to the rights of individuals, the debate is about whether or not we can use force to disagree. That’s perfectly legitimate, right? Well, I would not be so sure. Some parents, if they have a skewed Christian World View, will say that it’s against their beliefs. On the other side, others might still think it’s racist--these are the people that think everything is racist, by the way, as in if a teacher mentions race relations without denouncing every person who does not agree with their views. Not everything is racist, people, just as not everything is in the hands of our God-appointed political leaders. We have our own minds, votes, and power. 

If we step back further and admit it’s hard to debate slavery and that it’s hard to debate methods to protect civil rights, then we’re starting to get into the murky territory of it being hard to debate anything. Maybe that’s what parents want, or say they want, but the fact is that we debate real topics daily, and students are ill-prepared to participate if they’ve avoided all controversy their entire education.

So let’s just say we bring it all the way back to, “Are we all equal?” A very broad topic. Sure, a good student could do something with it. But it’s those kids whose parents are narrow-minded and who are destined to be the same who might have just as much trouble here. YES is the answer, of course, but there’s a debate even in that. Heaven forbid, you question the sanctity of the Constitution (not written for all of us). Or of our government.

So then what debate works? Maybe it’s levels, as in, “To what degree should we allow all people to have freedom?” Kids will focus on immigrants and criminals, but they won’t get to the heart of what really divides our country, or the flaws of any government. And you can’t have them debate whether or not we’re all scared to death of becoming slaves, since no one ever admits to this fear.

So it leaves us with something akin to “Should we be good to everyone else?” Yes, you can debate this, and good students, once again, will figure out a way to say no effectively. Once again, however, parents could protest, saying that there is no option here. Debate is about options, though, and so is government. And our country. It’s not about just going along with what most people are saying; it’s about getting most people to say what you believe to be true. You can’t get that without debate. No change really happens without it. It’s really an essential part of history, not just our own government.

I cannot recommend you try a slavery or civil rights debate with you classes, since it’s caused way too much fuss for my wife. And that’s really sad. Maybe it’s where we are as a country, or maybe that’s where our parents are as a generation. But it’s the kind of thing that will lead to future generations not knowing how to argue or, really, what to argue for. And that makes us slaves.