Teaching the Complexity of Slavery

By Kotzin, Daniel P. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Complexity of Slavery


Kotzin, Daniel P., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


The history of slavery in the antebellum South is a challenging topic to teach on a variety of levels. It is a complex subject with a rich historiography that informs issues of race in contemporary America. Students walking into the American history survey, however, tend to have simplistic understandings of American slavery, understandings that they do not shed easily. Instructors of the U.S. history survey, meanwhile, attentive to "coverage" issues, struggle to adequately address the complexity of slavery in a few class sessions. (1)

Historians have discussed the views students have about slavery for some time. In the 1990s Ellen Swartz and Peter Kolchin complained about how slavery was presented in American history textbooks. Textbooks, they found, neither revealed that slavery is a complicated subject constantly being reinterpreted nor addressed important "underlying issues" of slavery. More recently, Russell Olwell stressed that students too often understand slavery in very basic terms, as a "unified, static, unchanging institution." Similarly, Tracey Weis found that students tend to have crude "Gone With the Wind" views of slavery. Ira Berlin maintains that "stereotypes ... fixed the history of slavery." These stereotypes prevent students from gaining a thorough understanding of slavery because they see slavery only in terms of narratives about the Civil War and lack a sense of "historical agency." (2) What all these scholars have shown is that students tend to conceptualize slavery in narrow one-dimensional terms instead of understanding that slavery has a history that cannot be reduced to simplistic characteristics. (3)

In my experience, American slavery is a subject in which students' preconceived assumptions severely limit their understanding of slavery. Students view slave-owners as evil, and they view slaves as passive victims. And they want to view them in these dualistic terms. For many students, the story of slavery is a moral story, not a historical one, in which there are "good guys" and "bad guys." The moral indictment students have about the institution of slavery, while valuable in the development of their ethical awareness, places them in a struggle with an instructor who wants them to view this subject in historical terms. That is not to say, however, that historians avoid making moral judgments. Of course, historians share the repulsion students have about slavery, but historians attempt to dig deeper to understand how slavery operated.

Many historians see history as a powerful tool in the development of moral values. Jorn Rusen, for example, argues that a critical historical consciousness, by encouraging a critique of past moral values, can make a positive contribution to students' own moral values. To have the ability to offer an effective critique, though, students must have a firm understanding of the historical context in which those values existed. Roger I. Simon also believes history can shape students' values but in a different way. When teaching about past suffering, he recommends that teachers focus on creating a response in students that "impels" them to think reflectively about their own ethics and how they live in relation to others, to rethink their own identity and view of the world. (4)

The development of moral values through historical understanding, as discussed by Rosen and Simon, looks very different from the basic dualistic moral view of slavery students have in hand as their image of slavery in the antebellum South. Students often believe they "know" slavery because they understand slavery was wrong. Masters were evil people. What else is there to learn? They see little value in understanding slavery in any elaborate historical terms. Such a position can lead them to resist some key notions contemporary historians of American slavery use as their premise: that slavery varied greatly over place and time, that slavery was a complex social system, and that the history of slavery in America is debated by historians. …

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