Entirely vile institution, however peculiar

It probably isn’t a good idea to set 13 year olds a piece of school work which asks them to list the positive aspects of slavery. They’re probably a little young to understand that the system itself was vile, horrendous and no number of positive aspects can justify it. Even though there were positive aspects. We however are adults and we can understand that important distinction – although who is either old enough or educated enough to appreciate it seems to get ever later in life as the modern education system takes hold.

The original story:

A charter school in Texas has apologized after eighth-grade students were asked to list the “positive” and “negative” aspects of slavery for an American history class.

“To be clear, there is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity,” Aaron Kindel, superintendent of Great Hearts Texas, said in a Facebook statement Thursday. “We sincerely apologize for the insensitive nature of this offense.”

Entirely agreed, there’s no debate to be had, it’s a vile even if particular institution. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t, or weren’t positive aspects:

The charter school where the assignment came from, Great Hearts, has since responded in a statement on Facebook saying that it would conduct an audit of the textbook the assignment at its Monte Vista North campus came from and decide whether or not to use the textbook in the future.

That’ll probably be a no then. Can’t say I disagree with the idea here, that this isn’t appropriate for the age group:

A charter school network has apologized for an assignment asking students to list the positive and negative aspects of slavery, calling the worksheet a “clear mistake.”

But I wouldn’t say that I agree with all of this:

For we do have an interesting question here. Were there positive aspects?

Again, no, this does not mean that slavery can or should be justified – no number of positives outweigh the vileness of the idea itself. And yet…..

One obvious such positive is that the descendants of those enslaved are vastly better off today than those descendants of the not enslaved (or, often as not, the descendants of those who sold them into slavery) back in West Africa. You don’t have to put much, if any, weight upon that but a purely utilitarian listing would have that as a positive. And yes, I do know about American racism, the inequality of outcomes across races and all that. And someone at the very bottom of the American pile is still vastly better off in material terms than the average West African today.

We could also note the argument by Jefferson Davis. No, I don’t agree with the man nor his views, just to make that clear. But this is something to be considered. The expansion of that slave population in the US was very much larger than any population expansion in West Africa at the same sort of time. Indeed, the West Indian populations fell at the same time as the US one was rising- rising through natural reproduction, not continued import that is.

There’s also this from Brad Delong:

Ask a historian, or a political scientist, or a politician the question,
“Who benefited from North American slavery?” and the answer
you will probably get is, “The slaveholders, of course.” The
slaveholders got to work their slaves hard, pay them little, sell
what they made for healthy prices, and get rich.
We economists have a different view. Consider North American
slaves growing cotton in the nineteenth century. Those
slaveholders who owned slaves when it became clear that Cotton
would be King—that the British industrial revolution was
producing an extraordinary demand for this stuff and that Eli
Whitney’s cotton gin meant that it could be produced
cheaply—profited immensely as the prices of the slaves they
owned rose. But slaveholders who bought their slaves later on and
entered the cotton-growing business probably profited little if any
more than they would have had they invested their money in
transatlantic commerce or New England factories or Midwestern
land speculation: with the supply of slaves fixed, the excess profits
produced—I won’t say earned—by driving your slaves hard were
already incorporated in the prices you paid for slaves.
And there is another group who benefited mightily from North
American slavery: consumers of machine-made cotton textiles,
from peasants in Belgium able for the first time to buy a rug to
London carters to Midwestern pioneers who found basic clothing
the only cheap part of equipping a covered wagon.

No, cotton knickers for the European working classes do not justify slavery. But we can indeed list them as a positive aspect of the system even as we reject it entirely.

All of which leads to what I think is the vastly more interesting question. We’re adults, we are indeed capable of having this argument, discussing this question. College students are, by definition, adults these days. We can see that Professor Delong at least touches upon this discussion at Berkeley. OK, which other campuses do we think would be able to host a discussion of this subject along these adult lines? Be able to separate out “there were some positive aspects, what were they?” from the adamantine condemnation of the system itself which we all rightly and justly agree with? That is, be able to understand that even as we absolutely condemn we also want to consider all aspects?

Answers will tell us much about perceptions of the state of American academe, no?