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?

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  1. If nothing else (and I disagree, 13 year olds are old enough), get kids to ask the question. Maybe someone will come up with a positive based on faulty thinking, which then opens that up for discussion. Isn’t that what we’re told all this high school/university education is about? Getting kids to open their minds? Teaching them to think?

  2. There was someone with an interest and the ability to keep the slave alive in bad times. Not so for the free man who could starve in bad times. The further you go back in time and hence the nearer to subsistence level poor free men were the more of a benefit to the slave. OTOH of course subsistence was all a slave got in good times, the free man would do better then.

  3. The Guardian newspaper? Must have made a pretty penny over the years, all those whining articles about the “black experience”. Possibly just enough to keep it out of bankruptcy. Is that a positive or a negative? And Diane Abbot’s enough reason to condemn C18th slavery, on her own.

  4. While this doesn’t pertain to the pluses and minuses of slavery, US Grant wrote the following discerning comment:

    There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was
    more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the
    people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and
    prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution
    abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which
    degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class.
    With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have
    extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor
    allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming
    degraded, and those who did were denominated “poor white trash.” The
    system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people
    poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small
    slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the
    slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy
    with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The
    war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood
    and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.

    At the time of the Civil War the population of the southern states was almost 40% black, almost all of them slaves. Grant’s observation begs with intriguing question of if the South had won, or the North simply thrown in the towel, would the CSA today be a majority black nation?

  5. A popular argument claimed removing millions of prime producers from africa explains Africa’s current underdevelopment. That made sense when i heard it first. Then i recall one reason often given for medieval England originally nudging above the global average was the black death and the consequent labour shortage raising labour wages and shaking up land ownership. I don’t know which , but there might be some marks available from teach for at least mentioning that it’s least its possible that a labour shortage can have benefits for labourers. I hasten to add that probably the low level constant warfare to capture stock would probably dwarf any positive effect.

  6. Slavery is the starkest case of government intervening in markets and setting the prices wrong (labor of blacks = $0). Slavery takes Dr. Walter E. Williams’ usual strategy to defend liberty against modern assaults — “Can we all first agree that everyone owns himself?” — and says, “Sorry, no.”

    As we’ve discussed here recently, in that era in which labor was plentiful and poorly paid, the option to pay nothing at all (but provide room and board) was neither a great boon nor the glue behind the Southern economy. It could have adapted to paying for its cotton picking as easily as the US could adapt to having actual immigration controls. Prices of many things would have shifted.

    We did need to go through phases where planes crashed several times a year, few railroad men got through a career without losing digits and limbs, and breathing city air made you sick and the Cuyahoga River was flammable, to get to where we are now. We did not have to go through slavery. Telling African Americans, now fully endowed with rights and cellphones, that they are better (compared to a fake baseline of being in existence but still being stuck in Africa) is telling an elder living comfortably that being raped as a child “all worked out for you.”

    Schoolteachers routinely use schoolchildren as pawns, most frequently by getting them to draw convincing posters in favor of an idea that hasn’t been proven to them and that they don’t have the tools to evaluate. At a government school, weighing the pros and cons of an idea is almost never to exercise their minds and almost always to foist a bad idea on them (mostly: get your folks to vote for a millage increase to fund the schools). Debates about Trump in government grade-schools are guided in exactly one direction.

    This was a privately owned school and it can do what it wants. Its biggest mistake is concluding that its biggest mistake was being insensitive. Blacks got out of chains but it is not clear they will ever escape the notion that they alone have to be spared the rough-and-tumble of real conversation or outrageous thought experiments.

    Exercising one’s mind by deliberately defending an indefensible position is an exercise best delayed until law school, where the subjects have decided their career will be to whore out their notions of right and wrong to spin crooks out of prison.

  7. Tim – The fact you have gone out of your way to qualify your statements about ‘positives’ throughout the article shows that (some) adults are not capable of discussing this in a rationale way.

    I know it’s the SJWs left that are to blame, but until the rest of us stop kowtowing to them, that won’t change.

    We need to just state our opinion in a straightforward way and if they take offence for no reason, ignore them.