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.