The Choices Program: Probing the "Peculiar Institution" of Slavery

The Watson Institute is certainly aflutter with activity this summer, what with hosting the BIARI conferences and initiating the Global Conversation. Another week-long event, the Teaching American History Summer Institute of the Choices Program, began this past Monday following an influx of high school teachers from the Riverside Unified School District in California.

In an effort to bridge the gap between scholarly research and public understanding of foreign relations, the Center for Foreign Policy Development (the predecessor of the Watson Institute) created the Choices Program in 1988. This ongoing initiative grew out of a collaborative enterprise between the Center and the Public Agenda Foundation to gain insight into public opinion regarding the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Following the success of this project (termed “Public Summit ‘88” in the media), Brown implemented the Choices Program for the enhancement of curricula and the professional development of teachers in secondary education.

Attendees of the 2010 installment of the Choices Program convened this past Monday to address issues of slavery from both a historical and pedagogical perspective. Lasting the duration of this week, the session consists of a number of scholarly talks, training workshops, and explorations of Rhode Island historical landmarks. While I intended to cover several of these events, numerous day trips on the itinerary have rendered this group elusive. I did, however, manage to attend a lecture on Monday morning presented by James Campbell, a former Brown faculty member and current professor of United States history at Stanford University. An authority on the “peculiar institution” of North American slavery, Campbell will be delivering a handful of talks on both historical topics and teaching methods throughout the week.

Campbell began his first lecture with a historical contextualization of slavery as a core element of early human civilization. Sources from ancient Sumer, he noted, make reference to slaves as beings with “downcast eyes,” while laws regarding the sale and treatment of slaves are present in Hammurabi’s Code. References to slavery are also ubiquitous in Greco-Roman literature. Campbell estimated nearly 1/3 of the Athenian population was at one point enslaved: this number nearly mirrors the proportion of freed persons to slaves in the American South. This data, Campbell maintained, casts slavery as a basic feature of human society. High school students should therefore approach slavery not as a cultural anomaly, but as an imbedded feature of social and economic systems on a global level.

A number of methodological difficulties arise when one attempts to isolate and define the identity of a slave. Is the master-slave dialectic, for instance, mainly supported by racial taxonomies and physical difference? Campbell cautioned his audience against approaching slavery as an inherently racialized system. Certainly owners established slave communities as cultural “others” through “acts of brutalization and beastilization.” Physical markers, like branding and tattooing, further commodified the slave as property and ousted the slave from the social sphere of mainstream society. Yet race did not always play a role in enslavement: slavery was often synonymous with captivity, usually involving prisoners of war. The early colonial presence in North America continued to respect a code of “legitimate capture” and in one instance indicted a company of slavers for “the horrendous crime of man stealing.”

In addressing slavery from a sociological perspective, Campbell emphasized the position of slaves as liminal figures. Society, he posited, is based on “a system of mutual recognitions” whereby one must have some social standing to exist in a community. Slaves, however, were determined to be “socially dead” in colonial America. This notion of social exclusion jars with our understanding of democratic society: we may imagine slaves as second class citizens, but struggle to comprehend their complete exclusion from the dominant social order. Yet Campbell interpreted this disconnect as a key component of proper historical study. Teachers must “defamiliarize” historical topics for their students to avoid simplified analogies and teleological misreading. “Our capacity to imagine ourselves back into the past,” he cautioned, “is something we need to do with great care.”

While the Choices group is currently engaged in a day-long tour of Newport and Bristol, they will return to campus tomorrow for further workshop activities and scholarly presentations. Campbell will lecture on the connection of slavery to the Industrial Revolution, while the teachers will devise museum exhibits and lesson plans for a presentation on Friday. By Zak Leonard' 10