Americans are woefully ignorant about the history of the United States, especially when it comes to slavery. That’s why I disagree with the recent controversy over Massachusetts seventh-graders who were put through a slavery simulation during a class field trip.
American history can be nasty, scary and shameful, but the sooner the kids learn it, the more likely they are to grow into educated adults who can actually appreciate the America we have today.
Sandra and James Baker, the parents of a 12-year-old girl who attended this particular field trip, are pretty angry about it. Last fall, their daughter was part of a four-day field trip to Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Massachusetts, where students were introduced to nature and American history, and got an intense immersion lesson in the lives of slaves.
While parents had signed permission slips for the trip, they were not informed that their seventh-graders would be learning about slavery by re-living some slave experiences. Kids (of all races) sat in a cramped makeshift slave ship to simulate the Middle Passage; they were made to pick cotton; camp instructors played the role of slave owners who told them if they tried to escape, they’d be hunted by dogs or put in more chains.
When the Bakers, who are African-American, heard about this from their daughter, they approached the school principal and eventually filed a complaint with the school system, transferred their daughter to a different school and brought the issue to the attention of the Human Rights Commission.
While I understand the controversy surrounding this simulation, I couldn’t disagree more. There should be more programs like this for school-aged kids — it’s crucial for the well-being of our country.
As a college professor of political science, I can tell you that American public schools do a lousy job of teaching American history. I’m not talking about the “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” history — I’m talking about the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment and, yes, slavery: The ugly, embarrassing parts of U.S. history that get overlooked because the Roaring Twenties and the moon landing are more fun and don’t make anyone uncomfortable.
When we gloss over and sanitize history, we lose the empathy and context that helps us do the following:
1.) Understand how hard it really is/was to make changes in America, and
2.) Appreciate how far Americans have come and how far we still have to go.
If you wonder whether we do a good job of teaching slavery in America, consider that there are still lots of regular people and politicians who think, “Slavery wasn’t so bad — at least they got food and shelter!”
The moment kids start learning about history, they should be introduced to the heaviest topics so that they can build upon that knowledge as their education progresses. In German public schools, the Holocaust is taught around age 12-13 (sixth grade in the U.S.), and it is standard for classes to take field trips to former concentration camps and speak with survivors. Far from traumatizing kids, this education policy has resulted in Germany being one of the most tolerant nations in Europe.
Yes, students could just watch a movie about slavery (the mini-series “Roots” is the old standard), but they learn more when they have to directly engage the subject matter. An hour of picking cotton and sitting in a dark room is more likely to get kids to understand and empathize with their friends of all colors than watching a ‘70s TV drama.
Would it have been better if the parents had been given all the details about the field trip? Of course. Is it important that a slavery simulation have a very thorough debriefing to make sure kids get the right message and process what happened? Most definitely. But neither of these things diminishes the desperate need we have in America for real engagement with our history, warts and all.
Many Americans view the Nature’s Classroom slavery simulation with shock and disbelief. All too many of us think that dwelling on the past isn’t necessary and believe our schools do a good job of teaching slavery.
I strongly encourage anybody who thinks that way to watch a few episodes of “Ask a Slave” (a YouTube comedy series where an actress and former Mount Vernon slave impersonator answers ridiculous and occasionally downright offensive questions from visitors) or, better yet, spend an afternoon at a historic re-enactment site. A few hours of listening to folks asking whether slaves had unions or how much they got paid should make it clear that some rough simulated history in seventh grade would do wonders for most Americans.
This article originally appeared on HLNtv.com.