As a suburban Philadelphia resident, I think it’s terrible that the Pennridge School District has been seized by a Hillsdale College christofascist who has convinced the school board to teach the 1776 curriculum. But reading Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby’s coverage of the controversy, I’m almost persuaded that the 1776 curriculum is an improvement.
The problem is that the supposedly objectionable material cited in their article isn’t objectionable. Here’s their first example:
For example, the Hillsdale curriculum repeatedly suggests that America’s Founding Fathers had deep reservations about slavery. The ninth grade Pennridge curriculum will require a Hillsdale lesson that encourages students to “[c]onsider also that even among the southern founders who supported slavery or held slaves, several leading founders expressed regret and fear of divine retribution for slavery in America, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.”
As evidence against this, Legum and Crosby note that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, that Madison didn’t free his slaves in his will and that Washington only provided for his slaves to be freed after the death of this wife. Anyone learning about the history of American slavery should know those facts, but they in no way refute that “several leading founders expressed regret and fear of divine retribution for slavery in America, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.”
If the purpose of education is to understand, then there’s good reason for students to study the particular economic circumstances and prevailing cultural attitudes that led Jefferson, Madison and Washington to each treat their slaves in slightly different ways. Jefferson was deeply indebted at the time of his death, for example, and Madison’s wife eventually sold their slaves to satisfy debts. Washington’s decision to delay the freeing of his slaves is explained in great detail in his last will and testament. I see no reason why students shouldn’t read that will as part of a basic curriculum, as it speaks for itself and is a highly significant historical document. Facts are not excuses, but neither are they objectionable. You cannot understand American history better by ignoring some in favor of others.
The next example provided by Legum and Crosby is possibly worse:
For fifth grade, the new curriculum includes a Hillsdale lesson on the Civil War that argues that many Southerners believed the Civil War was about “states’ rights” rather than “preserv[ing] the institution of slavery.” The required Hillsdale lesson states that “[t]he majority of Southerners were not slaveholders and while fighting for their states would preserve slavery, many common Southerners fought for the argument of states’ rights rather than to preserve the institution of slavery.”
Every word of that appears to be true. It’s almost bizarre to choose this hill to die on. There is ample evidence in the ordinances of succession that the decision to secede from the Union was made by Southern planters entirely to preserve the institution of slavery, but that in no way means that “common Southerners” who held no slaves were similarly motivated. And it doesn’t even mean that every southern planter agreed with the decision. Robert E. Lee famously told a friend “If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”
To my mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making clear that the decision to secede was controversial among a minority of the slave-holding elite, and that many southerners fought first and foremost to protect the sovereignty of their home state. This only becomes problematic when the argument is taken too far to suggest the Civil War was not about slavery in every respect, because there was no other cause and fighting for the rebellion was not only treason but (motivation notwithstanding) a violent effort to preserve a brutal system of human bondage.
There’s a similar problem with Legum and Crosby’s third example:
A required Hillsdale lesson for Pennridge School District third graders covers the “history of slavery in world history.” The lesson encourages teachers to downplay the prevalence of slavery in America, instead emphasizing slavery in other parts of the world. “Overall, of the nearly 11 million Africans who survived being brought to the Western Hemisphere, around 3 percent, or about 350,000, were brought to the North American continent, with the rest of all Africans taken to other colonies in the Caribbean and South America,” the lesson states.
The statistics cited here seem consistent with the findings of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which is a decades-long “collaborative research effort by scholars drawing upon data in libraries and archives around the Atlantic world.” According to Harry Louis Gates Jr., their finding is that between 1525 and 1866, approximately “12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.” Of the 10.7 million who survived, an estimated 388,000 were shipped directly to North America.
So, if the statistics are accurate, what’s the problem? Are American children better informed about slavery by not being taught that 97 percent of African slaves went to South and Central America, or the Caribbean? The truth is, a failure to teach these statistics results in a grossly incomplete understanding of the slave trade and the history and development of the Americas. And if the motivation for not teaching the statistics is that it might be seen as exculpatory, that basically makes Hillsdale College’s case for them, since their argument is that history is being taught selectively to make the white settlers of this country look uniquely bad.
Not mentioned in Legum and Crosby’s piece, but also relevant to this conversation is the matter of who sold the slaves into slavery? The answer is simple yet complicated. Europeans did little actual kidnapping in Africa. They bought slaves from African traders in exchange for guns and other valued goods. There is no scholarly disagreement about this, but if your interest is assigning relative culpability then things are not so clear. The introduction of guns created an arms race in Africa, and there was only one supplier. This created a perverse necessity for Africans to engage in the slave trade, but it’s also true that slavery was a norm in Africa at the time, as it was in other parts of the world. The Hillsdale curriculum seeks to use these facts to deflect blame from American slaveowners.
Without question, the motive of the Hillsdale curriculum is to downplay the horrors of American slavery. My problem is not with pointing this out. I think their movement to take over local school boards should be monitored and fought rigorously because they absolutely are not interested in a balanced treatment. But the examples cited in this article do not demonstrate this. Collectively, the examples amount to special pleading that any context that might be misused to minimize slavery should be sanitized. It comes off as precisely the kind of thing they are warning about.
Where I have a real problem is when these christofascists try to say African slaves benefitted because they learned useful skills.
Florida’s public schools will now teach students that some Black people benefited from slavery because it taught them useful skills, part of new African American history standards approved Wednesday that were blasted by a state teachers’ union as a “step backward.”
The Florida State Board of Education’s new standards includes controversial language about how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” according to a 216-page document about the state’s 2023 standards in social studies, posted by the Florida Department of Education.
Its efforts like this one in Florida that give away the game. They aren’t interested in the truth but are instead looking for any way to assuage their guilt by association with the past. So, for example, in Florida you can’t teach about a massacre of black citizens or the century of terroristic violence under Jim Crow without also finding some example of a black mob committing violence against whites. The scales of these two examples are so tilted that balance is not called for in the teaching.
But if the left wants to win this argument with Moms for Liberty and Hillsdale College and the rest of the education fascists, they need to make far better arguments. Far better.