Thursday, July 02, 2009

Abolition as a Self-Help Movement

I've been grading for the past two days. As Babu used to say, "I wept for the future of America, then I made pie." The grades didn't make me weep. Some did well, others did not. The usual. Their answers about ending slavery -- which are typical of answers that I have graded over the past several years -- made me weep.

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.

I don't mind them finding inspiration in the lives of historical figures like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman because that is their own business; but I doubt that either Douglass or Tubman would see the problems facing slaves or abolitionists as personal weaknesses or a poor work ethic. They both spoke of systems of power. They spoke of injustice that prevented hard-working, determined, persevering people from being anything more than chattel. They intended to end that injustice by attacking the system, slavery. Examining the hows and whys of that is part of the purpose of studying history.

The students are not stupid or blind for using this narrative. How could they not fit new information into this narrative given that it is the plot of every movie, every "X History" month story, every behind-the-music biography? It is the plot of heroism and the plot of achievement. It is the story to get children to do their homework and practice the piano. It is the story that gets students through a 25-hour day, 8-day week filled with family, work, and classes.

Yet, while adherence to this narrative may get the students through their education, it inhibits the very purpose of their education because it prevents them from critically examining relationships between groups of people. It keeps them from looking too closely at injustice, and from learning about the strategies and tactics used by people who have attacked injustice in the past.

More specifically, I find that the students who cling to this achievement narrative are unable to fully comprehend the material of the class. In understanding success and failure as a simple narrative based upon the character of an individual, they fail to understand the connection between the anti-slavery movement and the end of slavery. Like I wrote above, 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.

When encountering new material, my students fall back upon the stories or outlines that they have learned since first grade rather than reach forward to incorporate that information into an argument that demonstrates understanding. I have to constantly work to turn that around, to combat the 5th grade Black History Month homework assignments and History Channel "documentaries" to get the students to think about the information as something more complicated, not empirically heroic nor ending neatly and happily. That, I suppose, is what makes me a college educator and makes what I do for a living important.

I fear I'm framing this as "them against me," "their failings against my superiority." That's not what I mean, and if my words come across that way, then that is a result of a guilty conscience from my own sins in relying upon popular narratives rather than critical thought. I'm trying to describe what is going on here in order to figure out how to undo it, how to push them out of the rut of the heroic stories because all of this distresses me.

Now, I must go make a lot of pie.


the rebel lettriste said...

Thank you so much for this post!

I struggle with the self-help narrative in my classes all the time.

It is particularly difficult when I teach texts that question the possibility that my students THEMSELVES might be subject to forces of injustice against which the self-help narrative might not work. Try telling a group of students who are in college by the very skin of their teeth that they might not succeed because of institutionalized racism and classism, because their being shunted into remedial ed has meant that they have shut down their own brains to cope. And that they now have to actually LEARN how to think and it is going to be HARD, and that they may fail and have to try again.

It upends their entire Whitney-Houston-song-rationale for being in college in the first place. ("I'm here to better myself!" "I WILL succeed, because I am strong-minded!")

Cliche is the enemy. And cliche just doesn't work when confronting history. When confronting actual reality.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Exactly, and I think that is the disturbing thing about education -- disturbing in the sense that it forces you to question your world and causes you to see things that you have spent your life trying to deny or that you may not like. (I speak from experience here, too.) That isn't what most students signed up for, especially in a world that increasingly sees college as a trade-school for business. They want to go to class, do the work, receive the high grade, and go about their business. The "outcomes" listed in the syllabus don't say "at the end of the semester the student will have shattered their philosophy for success."

Quixotess said...

Every time I show my 18 y/o friend a post like this, he responds with something like the following, but I am not equipped to respond, and he never deigns to share it with the author.

"I disagree with what they are calling the "abolitionist movement" The movement was mostly white people who felt slavery was religiously wrong. Sure, you had a lot of former slaves involved, but they were kind of ostracized. Like how people wanted Douglas Adams to be less forceful, for lack of a better word. Less "threatening." And arguably, the anti-slavery movement did fail in a very big way. It ended slavery, but it did nothing to end racism or discrimination. Ending slavery was a necessary step, but the way it was ended set back ending racism and discrimination a long ways."

Have ye thoughts?

Brenda said...

Perhaps an underlying problem here is that power relationships are problematic in American culture. Americans aren't comfortable with their nation's imperialism (read Niall Ferguson's work, among others, for confirmation), and any mention of class distinctions raises the cry of, "Class warfare!" We're left with the self-help mentality that feeds off American Calvinistic-Puritan cultural roots. Horatio Alger might be old hat, but that pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps meme is timeless, never mind trivial concerns such as whether or not you actually have boots.

dykewife said...

you worded things just right, actually. students aren't taught to think critically in elementary and high schools (and middle schools if they exist in their area). they're taught to parrot back information that is poured into their heads by their teachers. when a teacher encounters a student who demands to know "why?" and worse yet, "why is this important?" and worst of all, the student who says, "i disagree" and then says why they do so, they're more than happy to hand out detentions and punishments for the student who dares to think independently. boy has had teachers back down from those measures a few times when he pointed out to them that we'll support his right to ask those questions and their obligation to answer them.

it's no small wonder that when students are unable to view the world from any other perspective. it will take years to untangle the mess of pap that has been fed to them.

i'm beginning to think that university should be available only to those who are over 35. at least then they'll have some years of undoing the brainwashing of their youth.

Digger said...

Unfortunately, part of "The American Dream" is that anyone can succeed, if they just work hard enough. The flip-side is, anyone who isn't succeeding (financially, intellectually, etc.) must, therefore, be lazy. Any discussion about the systemics of it (racism, patriarchy, etc.)... that's just conspiracy theorizing!!!111one

I've had similar dysphoric experiences in discussing evolution and natural selection as well as feminism and patriarchy in my classes. I've searched my soul for what I'm doing wrong; so thanks for posting this. At least I'm not alone.

Also? OMG yum, pie. Now I want pie. Have a good July 4!

Clio Bluestocking said...

Quixotess: This could be a whole post, so I'll try to keep it brief. Or, I'll try to keep it brief for me.

Your friend has one interpretation of events. He has right information because the main abolitionist were white-dominated and had issues with race. There are some subtleties missing in the arguement, most of which surround the definition of "abolitionist."

It seems like your friend is talking mostly about the American Abolition Society an conflating it with all abolitionists. Abolitionists came in all shapes and forms (this was part of what I wanted my students to examine in one of my assignments). Anti-slavery was a movement, not a single organization with a single orthodoxy. The main thing that ALL abolitionists could agree upon was that slavery must end. In that respect, the succeeded in a big way (of course, then, you could look into sharecropping and so forth in the Jim Crow years, and re-complicate the "sucess" assertion).

How, when, where, and what would happen after the end of slavery -- well, that all varied from one faction to another. The movement included people who supported colonization and people who wanted the story to end at the 13th amendment (even the great god Lincoln fell into these first two categories at earlier points in his career). It included people who wanted slavery to end, the freedmen to get the vote only. It included people who wanted to end slavery, have universal male suffrage, and racial equality; and it included the very radical, those who wanted to end slavery, enact universal suffrage, and fight all forms of discrimination.

The movement included people who saw slavery as only a moral issue, people who saw it as an economic issue, people who saw it as a labor issue ("Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" was one of the early rallying cries of the nascent Rep. Party), people who saw it as a political issue, and so forth.

In other words, the definition of "success" varies depending on the organization or the person.

The movement also included many black people. Not just the big names like FD, or Remond, or Garnet, or Truth, or Tubman (and your friend might also be interested in a critique of gender in the movement -- that's sort of where my work is headed), but the free blacks in every community. More black people, in fact, subscribed to the "Liberator" than to the "North Star." My old advisor is actually finishing up a book on black abolitionists. They weren't celebrities, but they were the rank-and-file.

Then, if you want to broaden the definition of "abolition" to include any and all who opposed slavery in some way, you would have to include all of the slaves and all of the ways they resisted in their daily lives.

So, what it comes down to is that, if your friend is in earnest about understanding this movement, and is already thinking about it as something more complicated than "the good guys were infallible," and wanting to put the black folks at the center of the story, then he has a lot of reading to do.

Given his starting point here (sounds like he's read Zinn), he might be interested in the bio. of Wm Lloyd Garrison, "All on Fire," or "The Great Silent Army of Abolitionists" or the collection of essays in "Prophets of Protest." And, of course, he can read about FD, too!

Clio Bluestocking said...

Jeez,I need to proof-read! Also, that's the American Anti-Slavery Society, not the American Abolition Society. I'm so soft in the brain these days.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Brenda: Right on! Americans have a difficult time accepting that power relationships exist. It's part of our collective mythology. I wonder if part of it also has to do with the fact that, if you recognize power relationships, then you might have to admit that you are either in the less powerful position or that you might be the powerful "bad guy." Nobody wants to be either.

If I could go back in time, I would never stop kicking Horatio Alger's butt. Yet, he was enormously popular because the general public wanted so badly to beleive that he was right, even if they had -- as you say -- no boots.

Dykewife: Good for your support of Boy!

Do you all also have this horrid standardized testing that we have here? It completely kills thought. Just memorize the right answer and deliver it. I think that lies behind some students' incomprehension of plaigairism (god, but I can't spell that word). The go out there into the text or the intertubes, find the right answer, and deliver it, devoid of any thought about it -- even when the question specifically asks for an argument or a position.

So, they plaigarize AND they turn in a weak essay; and many honestly don't understand what they did wrong -- or why what they did was not right -- because this is what they have done all of their lives. In fact, my last two plaigarizers were both fresh out of high school where they earned As in history.

Digger: I thought I was alone, too!

I remember taking an archeology field school and talking with one of the anthropology majors. She said that her goal in getting her degree was to try to see through things, to see how the world worked. That seemed to get to the heart of what all of this education is supposed to do: help us learn how the world works, or at least the theories of how the world works. Yet, that involves the study of systems like patriarchy, racism, class, colonialism, and so forth -- like you said, the "OMG! Conspiracy!"

What's interesting is that, mostly in my campus (as opposed to online) African American History classes, they get racism (and the women get sexism), they are open to examples of it, many have lived examples of it; but they still end with "everything is better now, nothing is wrong." I wonder if they are just telling me that because I am white and in a powerful position over their grade, or if that is honestly what they beleive. The young people, especially, are dismissive of controversial images in the media as "people making too much" of something.

So, perhaps that gets us back to Dykewife's theory about age and college education. I've often wondered that myself since I was just like these students when I was their age and even a little older. It took me to nearly 30 to finally figure out some of the bullshit ideas that I was trying to live by and beleive. Yet, at the same time, I may not have reached that point in any productive way unless I had been through the college education. One of the things I tell myself as a teacher -- that I hope for -- is that, while they may not get it now, in a few years or decades a switch will flip and they will say "Ahhh! That's what she meant!" ()r, "Ahh! No. She was really full of shit!" but they will know WHY.)

Digger said...

This goes back, maybe, to comments in your previous posts, about people being able to simultaneously hold contradictory ideas about reality. Yes, slavery is illegal, but not gone (human trafficking and slavery is alive and well); indentured servitude is likewise not gone (it is written into the US Immigration laws); women have it better than we used to, but still earn 76c to the dollar plus all the other shit we put up with; colonialism is doing just fine; the list is huge, and that's just in the US.

I guess this is where history and archaeology become politically charged. I think there's a resistance to recognize that studying the past -is- political, and has ramifications in the present. At least, I see that in several areas in archaeology. It brings me back to Judith Bennett's book, "History Matters", and her discussions of continuity vs. change and the master narratives.

For all the dysphoria I've had in the classroom, I'm happy to hear my students tell me, "This class really made me think."

the rebel lettriste said...

Horatio Alger (and his ethos) is alive and well among 21st c. immigrant communities.

When I lived in Queens, I would go to a local mom and pop bodega (owned by recent Indian immigrants, who told me proudly about their successful 'American' adult children). They sold phone cards, and milk, and ice cream, &c.

They also had a book rack, with cheap paperbacks. And Horatio Alger was prominently displayed that book rack.

Crazy, no?

Breena Ronan said...

I use to be the TA in a class that asked students to write about their ideal landscape. Many of these pieces sounded like something from "MTV Cribs" unfortunately. This attitude is what results in people working at the grocery store voting against higher taxes for the rich because they are convinced that any time now their ship will come in. Arg.

Professor Zero said...

We used to be an open admissions school and I loved it. Sure, people could not read very well, or spell, and they had poor vocabularies and all sorts of problems. But they were creative, smart, and either well informed already or rather sponge like, ready to soak up school ... because they had actually come for that.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Digger: I'm going to have to get that book!

I have to say, for all of my bitching and moaning, most of my students say that they learned a lot. That is, at least, one strike against ignorance!

Rebel Lettriste: I completely beleive that. Actuallly, I'm rather impressed that they had Horatio Alger books themselves on the racks. Makes me wonder about the story that led to that specific choice -- like where they came across the books.

You see, I don't mind that people use this philosophy for their personal lives -- whatever gets you through the night, or to do your homework, or to do whatever is necessary to get something better for yourself; but personal philosophies aren't always the way the wider world works and aren't always the best tool to understand historical events.

Actually, they are best able to make the leap from the "work hard" ethic to really comprehension of systems of power and wealth when we talk about the labor movements of the Gilded Age -- the age in which Alger wrote. Like I said -- they aren't stupid. They see everything aligned against the workers. The leap comes with taking that understanding about that period of time and using it to evaluate current events. They will all say it is better today, so they can't complain, so there aren't any substantial problems overall. Then, of course, that leads to a dissection of that whole "you can't complain about your conditions because it is worsse elsewhere" attitude. Also, it leads to another problem of seeing the past as passed, dead.

Of course, these are blanket statements. There are glimmers here and there that one here or three there are challenging their own preconceptions. I got very frustrated, however, when every single essay comes in with the self-help model of the abolition movement. I wondered what went wrong where. I'm also wondering if some of this may have had to do with the high number of first time students, especially students fresh out of high school -- as in, graduated about a week before this class started -- and a higher number who live out in the suburbs rather than in the city.

Breena: Cribs? Well, to be snarky, that indicates a general lack of imagination. Not that I had much more of an imagination at 18. I suppose they can dream; but, again, that's not a good way to understand how the world works.

Also, I hear myself say that last sentence and I hear my dad's voice, or someone similar, saying, "you need to get out there in the world and SUFFER!" That's not what I mean. I mean an intellectual understanding. Of course, that often comes only with experience, especially if you grew up as privleged and sheltered as I did.

Anyway, yeah, I've noticed that a lot, too, even among people who are at an age where any hope of living like on "Cribs" or "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" is long gone. People identify up the socioeconomic scale, rather than down or sideways.

Prof. Zero: Now that you mention it, I've taught almost exclusively in open admissions schools. I like it, but sometimes wonder at my fitness for it, or for teaching in general. Also, now that you mention it -- and this connects to what I wrote above in response to Rebel Lettriste -- there is a difference between where the particular campus was located, the semester in which the class was held, the socioeconomic status of the students, and the age of the students.

The deadliest combination was summer school at the campus in the wealthy suburb, where most of the students were white, upper middle class, not paying for their education themselves, and who attended one of the two big state universities during the regular year. They were taking classes at the cc because they thought it would be an "easy A." They had no respect for the school, for me, for the students who attended the cc year round, or for education at all.

So, this is to say, compared to that, the stumbling blocks of the "work hard and you will succeed" ethic don't bother me so much. After all, it does include the "work hard" part, and most of them do.

Clio Bluestocking said...

I think the place where I get really frustrated is that place where the "hard work" moves from an activity to thought. I think most people in America understand "hard work" as an activity -- something that you physically do, a set of tasks that you complete on time. In school, most of the substantial hard work -- the work that really produces improvement in results -- comes from thought. Thought can involve activity, such as writing and writing and writing to figure out what you think, or reading and reading and reading to find more ideas. For the most part, however, thought is this odd, nebulous activity that most people don't really understand as "work."

Moreover, the reading and writing that can contribute to the work of active thought are not something that most people do readily or willingly. They look at you as if you are crazy when you suggest that they have to practice. For instance, I had one student ask me how they could improve their writing. I told them, "just write. Write about your life, write about what you did all day, write your essays over and over. Writing is something that you have to practice." They told me that they didn't have the time for that -- which I fully understood -- so was there something else that they could do? I ended up sending her to the writing center.

Underneath it all, here is what I'm really pissed at: that the two necessary requirements for improving at learning are completely unavailable to most of my cc students. Time and money. Money, in fact, would buy time, and time would allow them to do the activites that would lead to more critical or better thinking. It would give them the time to revise the papers to address the questions that I ask in comments. It would give them the time to read the book rather than find the answers in the book. It would give them time to write. Not that everyone would necessarily use that time, but it might mean that, when I say "here's what you need to do to suceed in the class," they wouldn't say "but I don't have the time for that." It might mean that, when I say, "visit the writing center," or "the library," or "the computer lab," they wouldn't say "it isn't open in the hours when I can go there."

This lack of time and money is not their fault, either. They have to survive. This lack of time and money also means that they can't organize to improve their own conditions.

What does our illustrious state legislature do to address this problem? They pass a bill asking college professors to assign cheaper books.

And, of course, the lack of money and time coupled with the the "work hard" ethic means that students don't have the will to organize on their own behalf.

Clio Bluestocking said...

One more thing, I wonder also if more economic security would lead to a greater likelihood of examining ideas that challenge the "work hard" ideology, or if more economic security would retrench that ideology.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Now I'm also wondering if I'm not understanding that this beleif system is as deep as, say, a religious beleif, and that it will be the way that they think about everything and that changing that beleif system would be just as impossible as religious conversion. Is asking them to keep that system at home and use another in class is ridiculous? Am I actually trying to feign respect for something that I don't respect?

Digger said...

I think the idea of the American Dream; the work-hard-and-succeed and failures are people who just don't work hard is absolutely ingrained. Keeping the system and acknowledging that there are others are very different things. If some students take away from that a questioning about their own society and culture, and how it works, and their role in it, all the better. We can lift the rug, give them a peek behind the curtains and insist that they pay attention to the guy behind them, but when it comes down to it, you can't make them drink (to collide and collapse a few metaphors).

Ultimately, students come to school for lots of their own reasons. I suspect "learning" and "thinking" are not high up on the list of reasons; they come "to get a degree". We all know these aren't the same, but our students probably don't see that yet.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am not sure how I found this blog. But I appreciate the reference to the Great Silent Army I am an African American Homeschooling (Mennonite)professionally educated kids are kindergarten and 2nd grade, we are striving to concentrate on the abolitionist movement as opposed to the "powers" that were during the 350 years of slavery. But, that being said, I am also guilty of viewing the movement as a failure--a pacifist failure. God forgive me, but 350 years of torture,death, destruction, etc is too long in my shallow instant gratification American mind. I am not sure what my point is, but I appreciate the discussion. p.s. I will be sending my kids to college "for a degree" they can think and learn on their own time.


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