Slavery as an American Educational Institution: Historiographical Inquiries

Article excerpt

Contributions to the history of slavery over the past decade have reconfigured a dilemma long confronting specialists in the field (See, e.g., Ball 1998; Berlin 2003; Dew 1994; Du Bois 1962 [1935]; Fredrickson 2002; Gates 2002; Hahn 2003; Kennedy 2004; Staples 2005). George M. Fredrickson (2004) framed the old issue this way: As victims of bondage, were slaves thoroughly socialized in racial inferiority, or did they nonetheless create their own culture, albeit a largely invisible one to whites? The new construction changes the problem from one of a dichotomy to a continuum or to be precise, several intersecting continuums. Searches for interpretative fields of connections and meanings replace binary assumptions. A methodological inversion with substantive effects, the alteration shifts the burden of proof to an amalgam of written and oral testimony and dialogical interventions. What slavery meant, and perhaps continues to mean, depends on the documentary trail and the queries historians pose along the way. This historiographical essay explores the relevance of the newly complicated interpretive dilemma within the history discipline to historians of education, specifically, and any others seeking clues to the effects of race and racism across the broad reach of United States history (See, e.g., Davis 2005).

The emerging argument clarifies several lines of historical inquiry on slavery. First, there are questions to be answered about southern exceptionalism and the extent to which the traditions, values, and sensibilities of the region were influenced by its "peculiar institution." Second, the implied quarantine of southern experience warrants investigation. Could it have been at once localized and representative of national habits? Third, nuanced assessments of the forms and channels of slavery's effects seem essential. Finally, there is the now contentious matter of agency exerted by slaves. By what criteria and techniques can historians identify and weigh evidence of individual and group initiative? None of these investigations can be propelled by either/or modes of thought.

The new literature not only revises the old dilemma and the research agenda it encouraged, it also extends the conversation to new participants, a development of considerable interest to historians of education and the broader education community (Davis 2005; Irons 2002). As it happens, the latest findings tend to support the intriguing hypothesis that slavery in the United States functioned like an educational institution. The claim sounds familiar. A previous generation of historians also wrote about the educational effects of slavery. The approaches, old and new, rest on similar definitions of education as cultural and social development (Bailyn 1960; Cremin 1965; but note Storr 1961 and 1976). Neither approach restricted the concept to school-based or academic knowledge. The recent work pays more attention to slaves' political defiance and their inventive flights to freedom as indicative of educational attainments; the older work emphasizes socialization to slave status as an educational goal set by whites. In short the approaches are both alike and sharply different. With educational concepts and predispositions in play, nevertheless few education historians have joined the advancing inquiries (Anderson 1988; Angulo 2005; Butchart 1988; Cornelius 1991; Irons 2002). Among the authors of survey texts, the doors through which the vast majority of prospective teachers and other education students enter the world of education history, Wayne Urban and Jennings Wagoner (2004) and John Rury (2005) qualify as recent notable exceptions.

When Urban (1981) offered "a southern exposure" on the history of education almost 25 years ago, he seemed aware that his History of Education Society presidential address could stir up a hornet's nest. On one level, he sought to fashion a corrective lens for "Massachusetts Myopia" and "New York Nearsightedness" (133, 136). …


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