Anachronistic Narratives and Students’ Attempts To Understand Abolitionism

Anachronistic Narratives and Students’ Attempts To Understand Abolitionism July 13, 2009

Via Open Left comes these remarks (worth reading in full) from Clio Bluestocking on the appallingly shallow and badly framed ways that her students are conceiving of the abolitionist movement:

For example, in the past few years, I have read essays that refer to the conditions of slavery as a “lifestyle.” I have read essays framing the strengths and weaknesses of the different methods of anti-slavery societies as the successes or failures of the members’ determination, perseverance, and work ethic. I have read essays that say the failure of the abolitionists — and they do seem to think that the abolitionist movement failed — was the result of a failure to “work with” the white people, presumably the slaveholders. I’ve read essays that described pro-slavery arguments as “politically incorrect.” I’ve read essays that say the mission of the abolition movement was to inspire the slaves to have better lives. I have read reports on emancipation as the slaves’ reward for hard work.

In my more fatigued moments, I have to restrain myself from outright snark. In my more inquisitive moments, I wonder how they could have come up with these ideas. Why are they describing slavery and abolition this way? The book doesn’t describe either in these terms, so where are they getting this language? Then, I became painfully aware that my students, as part of the public at large, have been indoctrinated into a culture of “achievement” and “self-help” to the point that that they do not have the language to describe relationships of power or the fight for justice. I’m seeing the students attempt to evaluate abolitionist tactics — the ways that a handful of people attempted to eradicate a system of human property — using a wholly inadequate narrative.

In this narrative, if you work hard enough, if you believe enough in yourself, if you persevere, then you will succeed and have a better life. From students’ introductory assignments — the ones that I have them complete at the beginning of online classes to get an idea of who these faceless names are — this is the narrative that gets them through their lives. Many use the very same terms about their desire to make good grades in school in order to have a better life as they do to describe the slaves’ desire to be free or the abolitionists‘ desire to end the institution of slavery. They attempt to describe the failures of the abolitionist movement as the personal failures of individuals and using the same buzzwords that we hear in the sound-bite attacks of politicians who aren’t getting their way.

they think that the anti-slavery movement failed, despite the obvious fact that slavery is over and despite their arguments that everyone in the northern states supported abolition. They don’t connect the dots because the dots don’t align the way that they expect.

As a result, they end up writing incomprehensible essays in answer to such questions as “who freed the slaves?” or “what ended slavery?” or “why did slavery last so long?” There was slavery, which was bad; an antislavery movement, which failed despite being a popular movement involving a majority of people in the northern states; a Civil War, which the north won; and emancipation, which Lincoln made happen. They have a difficult time connecting these events or the events of previous chapters and units; and therefore, they have a difficult time thinking critically, writing a persuasive argument, or simply understanding the material beyond flashcard memorization.

Browse Our Archives