When you teach about slavery in the United States or in world history, do you discuss modern slavery or human trafficking? When discussing human rights issues, does this topic come up and what do your students say about it?
Each year the museum hosts a National Youth Summit for high school students, in which we use documentary film clips and panel discussions to engage students in conversations about, for example, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, or the Dust Bowl and contemporary environmental concerns on October 17 this year (see my new announcement about this on the group's main page). We are now considering holding a National Youth Summit in which we discuss abolition in the US in the 19th century then discuss modern slavery and efforts to eradicate it. Our thinking is to have some conversation comparing and contrasting the institution of slavery in the US before the Civil War and modern slavery both in the US and worldwide with historians and activists, then to hear from people who are working today to abolish it. A teacher I discussed this idea with said the following:
“Our students’ understanding of slavery is confined to African slavery and The Americas. Students are, often, surprised when I explain that slavery is an institution that has existed for millennia—wars were fought, and the losers, if not killed, were enslaved. They are more surprised when I tell them that slavery still exists today. When I explain that there are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history, students think I am lying—this often leads to a great discussion about where and why people are enslaved today. This is a high interest topic for students (and teachers).”
Do you agree? Would you be interested in having your students participate in a webcast on this subject? Is this a topic you discuss with students, and if so, how do they respond? We’d love your feedback as we consider this program!
National Museum of American History
I appreciate your calling my attention to the issue of whether or not we should teach about modern slavery. I live in Columbia, SC, and my children have gone to fully integrated public schools. They became aware of modern slavery through Quaker Meeting, but it was rarely touched upon in school.
As a parent I want my children to be told the truth about American History and current events. Sugar-coating history strikes me as closer to propaganda than education.
At an independent school I introduced my American history students (grades 4-6) to the "Free the Slaves" website. They were fascinated and concerned. Though their parents and my "superiors" were less than thrilled, I felt that it was the right thing to do.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. Is this the website you used? For the program we are developing, we are also talking with the Polaris Project, which has a wealth of resources, including materials on human trafficking by state, and Slavery Footprint, which has a really eye-opening interactive on slavery today. The interactive asks the question "How many slaves work for you?" with their total based on the foods you eat, the amount/kind of jewelry you have, etc. It's really powerful.
Yes, that is the website. One of the founders of "Free the Slaves" Kevin Bales and I met at a conference and he told me stories about modern slavery that astonished me. Honestly, I was in denial at first, but at his talk he presented first hand evidence. Thanks for telling me about the Polaris Project and Slavery Footprint. Have you had any complaints from parents who think you should not be sharing this info?
We haven't yet used these materials with students; we are developing a webcast on the topic for next February. In preparation for that program, we met with a few local teachers to discuss what issues they felt they could and could not cover in their districts, and it really varied according to their particular contexts. They all felt that they could discuss modern slavery but how much or what aspects differed by district. Specifically, we understood that we had a responsibility to acknowledge sex trafficking, but we are going to focus on other aspects of human trafficking for our discussion. We've also talked with people working on this issue who have been asked to give presentations to, for example, middle school groups and have found that certain teachers feel they can bring their classes, and others feel their students are not ready. I think the consensus seems to be that it is important to be clear with parents about what you are and are not addressing and the reasoning behind it, but we've also been focusing on discussing this with middle and high school students, not elementary level. I hope that helps. We're learning as we go, as it sounds like you are, so I hope you'll share what you learn and we will, too.
Why did you limit your question to “modern slavery?” As you point out in the text that accompanies your question, “slavery is an institution that has existed for millennia.” Slaves built the great pyramids of Egypt, and have been a major source of labor in all “civilizations,” ancient and modern (though it stretches the meaning of ‘civilized’ when the term is used to describe people who keep slaves and force them to provide labor or sexual services). Some archaeologists estimate that the number of slaves exceeded the number of free men and women in Rome and other ancient civilizations.
That's a good question, Lee. I suppose I made an assumption that teachers already talk about slavery in other moments in time in history classes, and my question was also specifically related to a program that we were working on here related to the issue of human trafficking today. But, the spirit of my question was really a broader one, about how teachers address forms of forced labor over time with students. Perhaps you could tell us how you have addressed this topic with students, if you have, or share recommendations for teachers on this issue?