By Jennifer Vannette
Over dinner one night, my son, who is in fourth grade, informed me that he had learned all about the Underground Railroad. I encouraged him to talk to me about what he knew, and his knowledge of the system of escape from slavery was quite good. Just when I thought I might be impressed with his education thus far, he stumbled when I asked him what life was like for a slave. Why did some try to run away? He told me all about what crops were grown on plantations. That was all he knew about a slave’s life.
The unfortunate reality of the American educational system is that we tend to avoid difficult topics. Talking to students about the horrors of forced labor and being sold away from your family is hard, and so it’s glossed over. When that happens, we are left with an unclear understanding of why slaves ran away and why something like the Underground Railroad existed. It allows space for racists to claim that people of African descent just didn’t want to work or someone with as much wealth and access to education as Kanye West to suggest that slavery was “a choice.”
Soon after that conversation, I was deeply curious to look at his social studies textbook when it came home so he could study for a test. The book, Michigan: Adventures in Time and Place, published by McGraw-Hill in 2001* had a feature section about how the Fugitive Slave Act affected a Michigan town that was home to an escaped slave family. In a narrative style, the book described how a man discovered the African-American family’s status and sought to turn them over to the authorities. The town rallied behind the family and eventually helped them to flee into Canada.
The book calls the section “Two Different Viewpoints” and layouts of the argument like a debate. On one side of the page the headline reads: Michiganians Should Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law; and on the other side the headline reads: Michiganians Should Not Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law. Details of the Fugitive Slave Act are given, and also part of speech by the mayor in which he argues that slavery is immoral.
While none of the provided questions are particularly good at helping students better understand the dilemma faced by Michiganders, even more problematic is the last of the follow-up questions: “Which side do you think made the stronger argument? Why?” Slavery is and was objectively wrong. One cannot craft an argument that makes slavery okay, so to set this up as a debate between different viewpoints for contemporary students is disturbing. I commend the commitment by McGraw-Hill to teach the difference between opinions and facts, but I cannot fathom why they would scaffold a child to take up the argument that following the Fugitive Slave Act was the right choice.
Obviously, Americans rationalized and justified the inhumane enslavement of another group of people, but just because they found ways to convince themselves their position had merit does not mean that school children in the 21st century should be contemplating the question in the same manner. There is no argument here. The Fugitive Slave Act expanded slavery beyond the boundaries of slave states and forced people who did not agree with the “peculiar institution” to uphold the rights of slaveowners even within the borders of free states – a point the book does not clearly make.
Elementary school students are also taught about law and order. So, to present to them the choice between following a law and breaking a law without fully presenting the context of slavery and the reality that the Fugitive Slave Act essentially expanded slavery to free states against the wishes of those citizens, sets the students up to potentially think the moral choice was to follow the law. It should never, under any circumstances, be suggested to students that any law upholding slavery was moral or just.
These fourth graders have not learned that the United States has had to overturn unjust laws in our history. The process doesn’t seem very dynamic when one scans their reading materials. No wonder most Americans have a poor understanding of the systemic injustices of our nation, which have existed since the beginning and still do today.
I can have these conversations with my son, and I can help him to confront the darker part of our history so that he can have a fuller understanding of how he got to where we are today. But what of the other students? Attempts at neutral language only serve to confuse the issues and leave students uncertain about our history.
*That this book is so incredibly out-of-date, having been published before 9/11, is another problem for another blog post. I will mention, though, that our district does not have funding issues, and still they don’t purchase new materials.
Jennifer Vannette once served as editor of [Re]collection before graduating from Central Michigan University with a PhD in History in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @jenvannette.