US History, great day to be here. The kids are about to conduct a debate about slavery, adopting the thinking of the pro and anti slavery sides in the mid-nineteenth century. Two students will moderate. Kids were provided, in a textbook, in a hand-out, and online, documents from the period, pro and anti slavery, and had to study them to prepare the debate. 10 minutes provided at class start to review and prepare for the debate; the teacher bounces back and forth to the two groups prodding and stimulating their thinking. The teacher checked in with me at class-start, and explained the plan; she told me that today I’d be seeing a “class generated by the students themselves.” Great!
First question from the moderator: Cites the Dec. of Ind., and its provision of inalienable rights, and asks why they don’t apply to Africans? The pro-slavery group makes it reply: they are not people, they are not landowners, it is not to apply. Anti responds with passion– they are people, they are brothers and parents and children, they have feelings, they are entitled. Pro group– a society is about parameters and civilization and society that the Africans didn’t have in Africa. Anti– but they did have that in Africa, more so than the London poor. Anti– they are humans.
This is so great. Second question from moderator asks about a document from a pro-slavery slave, Job, and how do you respond? Anti group steps right up– how can this be understood as representative of all slaves? Most slaves are living in terror, so they will say what they need to survive? The pro group steps right in– these slaves say they are happy, and what is better than happiness? Anti– “uh, freedom?” Further– proslavery takes on the topic of work-ethic– with a powerful logic that the slaves are unhappy for being beaten, but they are being beaten for being lazy or defiant; if they were not slaves, they would be lazy and unproductive to society, so it isn’t great that we have slavery whereby they are more productive. Anti– their defiance is due to their condition of slavery. Next– sophisticated economic analysis of the need for slavery– that tobacco/sugar plantations cannot compete globally with other slave economies if they have to pay wages, and so if they have to begin paying wages, they will go out of business, and then the unemployed slaves will become desperate marauders. Debate– what about using indentured servants instead? Answer– England’s economy is improving, hence fewer indentured servants available. Proslavery– don’t you enjoy the comforts provided? No slaves, and you are going to have to go work in the fields yourself!
Next question: Ethically, morally, what justifies your treatment of slaves? Pro: God provided us this, and we are Christians so god provides for christians. Another pro: we have no other choice– we couldn’t survive otherwise, and so we have to do this. Anti argument: But Africans are converting to Christianity too– so how does that change the equation? Pro: Well maybe the Africans owe us a favor for our converting them and saving their souls. We have helped them to eternal salvation– they can give us their temporal lives, and then in heaven they will have their payoff. This way everybody is happy.
Anti– if you are enslaving them because they can’t take care of themselves, why don’t you teach them to be independent? Pro– There are too many slaves, we couldn’t do it all.
Teacher processes “takeaways.” What did you get out of this? Student– I got better understanding of the economic value of slaves. Another: issue of slaves and Christianity, and that they were forced to covert to Christianity. Another: I was surprised to see how easy it is to argue for slavery– that if you are English, and have a sense of superiority, then you can make that argument. Another: you better understand the two sides of it now, and how do you undermine European superiority when they are so certain of that.
Nice homework assignment– a graphic organizer to accompany the reading assignment and provide guiding questions.