The Diary of Asser Levy by Daniela Weil

The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York

By Daniela Weil

Reviewed by Hank Bitten, Executive Director NJ Council for the Social Studies

In the teaching of world history or global studies, the concept of continuity and change over time is important for students in understanding the big picture of history. In learning about the American colonies, the migration of populations and the perspectives of ordinary people are important in understanding the diversity of the people living in the New World.

Teachers are able to understand the big picture of the 20th century and the rise of the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Soviet Union, India, China, Israel, and the United States. Some teachers may also understand how the fall of Austria Hungary, Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Germany changed the world.  We teach about the permanent members of the UN Security Council but also recognize the power and influence of the media, investment firms, energy cartels, and technology firms. History is complicated.

The Diary of Asser Levy provides an opportunity to understand the big picture of European history in the context of Brazil, the western Caribbean, the Dutch colonies in America, and the Roman Catholic Church. The book is less than 100 pages and packed with a chronological memory over a period of twelve years. Students can easily read the accounts of a day in the life of Asser Levy, or a week or a month in a matter of a few minutes. The photographs and images are designed to connect students with the historical content and promote inquiry, literacy, and memory.

The book is written from the perspective of a teenager or young adult about age 16-18. He lived in Recife, Brazil in a prosperous Jewish community. In the 17th century, the Dutch were a powerful empire and one in competition with Portugal, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. The entries of the diary take place only six years after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in Europe and marking the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands and the Dutch empire in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Spanish Century of the 16th century was characterized by “God, gold, and glory” was now declining in influence as new states were rising.

The conflict between the Dutch and Portugal is an extension of the Thirty Years War in Europe and a victory for the Protestant beliefs a century after the Protestant Reformation. The ‘new economy” in Europe was based on their global markets. For Portugal and Netherlands, it was the spice trade in East Asia and sugar and sweets in the New World.  Most teachers do not even mention the trade wars of the 17th century and the Diary of Asser Levy provides a point of inquiry for students to ask, “why do the Dutch want Salvador or Recife in Brazil?”

The military operations by the Dutch in Brazil took less than two weeks and 10,000 soldiers. Although the control of Salvador and Recife would be difficult to maintain over time, it changed the way of life for ordinary people who were citizens of the Dutch empire! Conflict is always unsettling because it separates families, postpones dreams, and presents challenges to the spiritual beliefs ordinary people value. This is the point of entry of Daniel Weil into your classroom and her influence on what your students will be thinking.

The Evacuation

“The Dutch have waged war against the crown of Portugal,” Barreto proclaimed, “yet we shall not retaliate.  I will give all foreigners a period of three months to leave Brazil.  You may take back any possessions you can carry. We shall provide additional ships needed to return you to your homeland.” (January 26, 1654, Page 16)

Although this appears a welcome gesture and is better than imprisonment or death, it uprooted the lives of more than 1,600 Jews living a prosperous life after a century of persecution in Europe under the Inquisition. Many Jews were forced to be baptized in Spain and Portugal and as a result many fled to Amsterdam. Under the protection of Dutch laws, the Jews in Recife were allowed to openly practice their religious beliefs and established, Kahal Zur Yisrael, the first synagogue in the New World. Isaac Aboab da Fancseca was the first rabbi in the New World. The Kahal Zur Israel congregation had an elementary and secondary school and supported charities in Recife. Many textbooks call attention to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, which was built more than one hundred years later in 1763.

The Jewish population of Recife had to sell possessions, close their businesses, end the education of their children, and return to Amsterdam, a place they left more than twenty years ago. Middle school students familiar with the voyage of Columbus, Virginia Company, Pilgrims, and the Massachusetts Bay Company might speculate what the voyage back to Amsterdam in February, 1654. Use this situation to simulate the family discussions in the homes of Recife.

What were the sleeping accommodations like?

Was there adequate food on the ship?

Were the ships seaworthy in storms?

Did people experience sickness?

Was there danger from enemies or pirates?

Were families together or separated?

What dangers did young men and women experience?

Stranded in the Caribbean

Asser Levy wrote in his diary on March 20, 1654, “This morning, the Falcon rocked harder than usual.  I fumbled my way up to the deck to see what was going on. An ominous grey sky had replaced the blue, and strong winds howled.  Ripples turned into waves, and waves into giant swells. The captain ordered all passengers to take cover below. Lightning exploded over the ship. The Falcon was being tossed around like a toy boat.” (Page 27)

What choices did passengers who are also refugees have at sea? Did they have any rights as Dutch citizens?  Would their religious beliefs sentence them to prison, would able workers be kidnapped, could they be killed? Would they feel safe in a Spanish or Portuguese port in the Caribbean?

Five days later on March 25th, Asser Levy wrote with an exclamation, “Red flag!” Pirates!  The most likely encounter middle and high school students have with pirates, is the Disney experience of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’  For Asser Levy and the other refugees fleeing Brazil, this was a death sentence, perhaps their greatest fear. They would lose their possessions, men might be kidnapped, women raped, and death or injury to anyone who dared challenge the pirates.

Use the two maps below for students to make a claim about the voyage from Recife, to the place of the storm, the boarding of the ship by pirates, and arriving in Jamaica. [On the first map, Jamaica is just south of the eastern end of Cuba and Recife is not visible. In the second map, Recife is on the most extreme end of the eastern coast of Brazil and Jamaica is south of Cuba.]

On April 1, about one week later, the Falcon, in need of repairs, drifted close to Jamaica. Understanding the geography of the Caribbean, especially the journey of approximately 40 days at sea from Recife to Jamaica should result in many questions and arguments that need evidence. Try to follow the diary and map the intended route of the Falcon with the actual route taking them to Jamaica.

Students studying colonial America are generally familiar with the religious exodus of people with Protestant faiths coming to Virginia, Massachusetts, New Sweden, and Connecticut. They likely understand the settlement of Maryland and the passing of the Toleration Act, 1648. Ask your students if people kept or lost their rights when their ship docked in a Spanish port. How did the Inquisition play out in real time when their ‘passports’ were checked? Asser Levy and the Jewish passengers on the Falcon were now under interrogation and the penalty of imprisonment or death for heresy.

Frustrated in New Amsterdam

This morning, September 5, 1654, “the St. Catherine turned and entered a large bay.  The ship slipped through a narrow passage between two forested hills.  We drifted into calm, sheltered waters, leaving the agitated open ocean behind, In the distance, the top of an island covered in mist slowly became visible. All the passengers came up on deck to witness the sight.” (Page 41)

When studying the past, we do not have all the answers. In fact, asking the right questions is necessary to the historical context when documents and artifacts are not available or never existed. Ask your students to draw a picture of Asser Levy who departed Cuba on August 15 and now, 21 days later, has arrived in New Amsterdam.

Draw a line from the place in the image of Asser Levy to answer the following questions:

What does he see with his eyes?

What is he thinking in his head?

What sounds does he hear with his ears?

What sentences will he write with his hand and pen?

What does he smell with his nose?

What does he feel in his heart?

When he arrives on shore, where will his feet take him?

What are his fears?

Why is he holding a weapon?

What are his hopes?

The traditional opportunities to learn about diversity in the American colonies focus on Roman Catholics in Maryland and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams from Massachusetts Bay, it is 1654, so the Charter of Liberties has not been adopted in Philadelphia, and a safe haven for debtors in Georgia is still 80 years in the future. The evidence in Asser Levy’s diary provides inquiry into the lives of Jews who were Dutch citizens.

There are also clues in this book about self-government in the colonies. Most students learn about the representative government in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, the town meetings in New England, the power of the purse in determining local taxes, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The Diary of Asser Levy provides a unique look into the authority of judges and the colonial court system. It also provides a prompt for discussions about civic engagement to correct what Asser Levy believes to be arbitrary or unfair decisions.

September 9, 1654: “Two days have passed since our trial.  Today, we had to return to court with Mr. Petersen and face La Motthe again.

The captain made his case.  He had not been paid the remaining guilders.  Mr. Pietersen begged for a little more time.

“’The Jews have not paid their legal debt to Captain La Motthe,” Stuyvesant declared. “However, they have sufficient property on the St. Catherine.  I will allow the captain to sell all of the Jews’ belongings at public auction within four days.’” (Page 51)

For high school students, consider comparing the court system in New Amsterdam with the experiences of four enslaved persons in the courts of Virginia around 1650. (Source). The arrival of the 23 Jewish refugees from Brazil corresponds directly with the arrival of 300 enslaved individuals from Brazil in New Amsterdam.  The double arrival presented problems for this colony of 1,000 residents regarding diversity, language barriers, housing, and work. By 1660, New Amsterdam was considered the most significant slave port in North America. (Source) These ‘threads,’ or themes, that are part of the historical tapestry of the colonial experience are available to your students through supplementary texts, The Diary of Asser Levy, and digital resources.

The information in The Diary of Asser Levy is a rich resource for student inquiry, especially for teachers who want to involve their students with guided research, interdisciplinary connections, understanding the diversity of the American experience, and evaluating decisions. The illustrations in the book from colonial New York, with specific street addresses, also provides information for teaching how communities have changed over time.  For example, the history behind Pearl Street, Mill Lane, Maiden Lane, William Street, Water Street, and Wall Street are part of the local historical narrative.

Resilience and Restoration

The subtitle of The Diary of Asser Levy is, “First Jewish Citizen of New York.” Brainstorm with your students if it should be changed to, “First Jewish Dutch citizen of New York,” “First Citizen Advocate,” “First Jewish Homeowner in America,” “First Refugee in New York,” “First Jewish Banker,” etc. According to the author, Daniela Weil, Asser Levy was the 38th wealthiest person in America. History comes to life for our students when they make connections with the relevance of today.  The websites in the Works Cited section provide digital resources for further exploration and investigation. Of particular note are www.newmasterdamhistorycenter.org, www.unsung.nyc/#home, and www.archives.nyc/newamsterdam.

It is the resilience and civic engagement of Asser Levy as a young man under age 20 who spoke for justice, pursued equality, advocated for the right to employment, homeownership, freedom of religious expression, and made the colony of New Amsterdam, and after 1664 the colony of New York, a safer and better place. This is not a book or lesson about any one person or group of people. Instead, it is a starting point for a deeper discussion about the ordinary people who are the ‘soul’ of America more than a century before the Declaration of independence and the birth of a United States of America.

In this context, students might reflect on the legacy of Asser Levy and how history and New York remember him, when his memory was first discovered, if communities outside of New York have places named in his honor, and how he will most likely be remembered in the future of this century and specifically on August 22, 2054, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Amsterdam!

Asser Levy Park, Brooklyn, NY (near Coney Island)

Weil, Daniela, The Diary of Asser Levy, Pelican Publishing, New Orleans, 2020.

Decision Activity: Samuel Sutphen, Hunterdon County, NJ, 1778, 1832

Decision Activity: Samuel Sutphin

Hunterdon County, NJ 1778,1832

After a month’s service in the militia, Casper Berger had had enough. He was in his 50s and the physical labor and drudgery were beyond him after a career as a stonemason. Given a break from service, he returned to his home in Readington, desperate for a way out of the remaining months of his obligation. He was more than willing to pay his way out of service and return to his current vocation as a tavern operator.

Berger’s neighbor, Guisbert Bogart, enslaved a man in his late 20s named Samuel. Berger knew that it was legal to provide an able-bodied substitute for militia service, so he inquired with Bogart whether he could purchase Samuel. The two arrived at a payment of $92.10, but Berger knew that Samuel would need to be at least somewhat willing to serve as a substitute. An unwilling enslaved person would be rejected, as the militia wouldn’t have time to deal with forcing someone to work. Berger promised Samuel his freedom at the war’s end in exchange for consenting to the deal.

It would be inappropriate and presumptuous for individuals in the 21st century to try to imagine what it was like to be an enslaved person — let alone second guess their decisions — but Samuel’s options were limited:

  1. Consent to the deal based on the promise of freedom when the war eventually ends.
  2. Reject the deal.

Describe the potential ramifications of each in 2 to 3 sentences.

Reflecting on this decision, Samuel said, “I believed the white man’s word, hoping to be free when the fight was over. I took no paper to show the bargain, but trusted to my master.”

Samuel fought in the Battle of Long Island (August 1776), the Battles of Princeton (January 1777), the Battle of Millstone, where he captured a prisoner of war (January 1777), and the Battle of Monmouth (June 1778), among others. On sentry duty at West Point in New York, he was shot twice in his leg, one wound driving a bullet into his leg, thereby ending his active militia service. At the end of the war he asked his enslaver Casper Berger to grant him his freedom as promised. Berger had three choices:

  1. Grant Samuel his freedom as promised.
  2. Renege on the deal and sell Samuel to a new owner.
  3. Renege on the deal and keep a disgruntled enslaved person in his service.

Describe the potential ramifications of each in 2 to 3 sentences.

Despite support from neighbors and fellow veterans, Samuel’s enslavement would continue for another 20 years as Berger opted to sell him to Peter Sutphen. Eventually, Samuel was allowed to purchase his freedom using money he saved up by selling rabbit, raccoon, and muskrat fur.

An Act of Congress in 1832 provided a pension to enlisted men who had served for at least two years. Although the federal government wanted to do right by veterans, it also required adequate proof that the claims were valid. According to the pension board, “It must, in every case, be clearly shown under what officers the applicant served: the duration of each term of engagement; the particular place or places where the service was performed; that the applicant served with an embodied corps called into serve by competent authority; that he was either in the field or in garrison; and for the time during which the service was performed, he was not employed in any civil pursuit.”

Samuel first applied for a pension in 1832 at age 85, but a lack of specificity in his testimony, perhaps compounded by a failing memory, led to a series of rejections from the pension board. Samuel’s name did not appear on any official roster, though it is unknown what last name he might have been listed under. In 1775 Samuel also only spoke broken English, using primarily Dutch to communicate up to that point. That he would have difficulty remembering specific names is unsurprising as a result, particularly at his advancing age.

In 1834, former Congressman Lewis Condict offered his support. Condict, who was also a doctor, examined Samuel’s scars and testified that they were wholly consistent with the injuries Samuel had described in his previous testimony. Witnesses even testified seeing him at particular battles and many of his neighbors testified as character witnesses.

DECISION ACTIVITY

Imagine you are a member of the pension board. Select one option and explain your answer in 4 to 6 sentences.

  1. Abide by the guidelines provided by the War Department and reject any claim that does not meet the letter of the law.
  2. Appeal to your superiors to approve the pension based on the particular circumstances and weight of the evidence.
  3. Grant the pension and suffer whatever consequences might arise as a result of your bending of the rules.

Samuel’s fifth petition was ultimately denied, but some important individuals became aware of his plight. Both Dr. Condict and New Jersey Governor Peter Vroom took up his case, and the New Jersey General Assembly passed an act providing Samuel a pension of $50 per year until his death in 1841.

Decision Activity: John Hunt, Evesham, NJ, December 1776

Decision Activity: John Hunt

Evesham, December 1776

It is the twelfth month of the year 1776, and I am now thirty-six years of age. I am a farmer and minister living with my wife Esther Warrington and our children in Burlington County. Though three of our children died at an early age, we still have seven with us. I also spend time mending my neighbors’ pumps.

Before my father Robert passed away, he was a first cousin to the minister John Woolman. In 1754, Reverend Woolman warned the Society of Friends that slavery is sinful, and he stated that “the slave trade harms families, prevents enslaved people from knowing God, and violates the Golden Rule.”

During my town’s meetings among Friends (Quakers), we have been discussing what to do about the “negroes”[1] in our community. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, we had a meeting and afterwards I went to visit some neighbors to talk with them about owning enslaved persons.

I was appointed at the Evesham monthly meeting to convince my neighbors that it is wrong to have slaves and they should see to it that the children should be taught in the wisdom of God.

Earlier this year at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, it was mandated that all Quakers manumit their slaves; those who refused to do so would essentially be disowned. Some of the slaveholders in Burlington County were more resistant to this mandate, while others complied.

Recently, I heard that in the middle of the second month, 1776, John Hay and other men armed with clubs went to a “Negro” man’s home near Haddonfield and tried to take away his son, but a violent fight ensued and they failed to do so.

I wonder if my neighbors are this resistant to ending slavery. Even though our new state of New Jersey has refused to end slavery, I do not know if Quakers can continue to allow it.

 How should John Hunt act in response to Friends in his community who still hold slaves?

a. Visit them privately and urge them to manumit the slaves.

b. Visit them again with other Friends to interrogate them about having slaves.

c. Address this issue as a whole community in a monthly town meeting.

d. Leave them alone.

             Is there a ‘best approach’ to change someone else’s mind who has slaves?

a. How do you argue with someone who believes that they are benefitting economically from slave ownership?

b. How do you explain to a friend or neighbor that it is morally wrong by taking away someone’s liberty?

c. With America fighting for freedom and independence from England, should the emancipation of enslaved persons be one of the reasons for the American Revolution?

d. Is the independence of enslaved persons and ending the slave trade related to the Declaration of Independence?


[1] Note that this was the language used by Hunt and others to describe African American people.

Decision Activity: Elizabeth Beatty Fithian, Burlington County, October 1776

Decision Activity: Elizabeth Beatty Fithian

Burlington County, NJ  October 1776

I was born on March 26, 1752 in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania.  I was the fourth child of Charles and Ann Beatty. My father was a highly respected clergyman from Neshaminy. He was also a huge supporter of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). He served as a trustee for the college for several years. Sadly, my father would die prematurely of yellow fever while on a visit to Barbados trying to raise money for the college in 1772.  His death devastated our family. After a long courtship, I would marry Reverend Philip Vickers Fithian on October 27, 1775, eight months before the signing of the Declaration of independence.

Following Philip’s death from exposure while serving as a military chaplain in New York, I would go on to marry Philip’s second cousin Joel Fithian. Joel and I would have nine children together. 

The death of my husband Philip on October 8, 1776, at the age of 29, affected me deeply. My husband and I were huge supporters of the revolutionary cause.  He lived his life with a belief in duty and service as well as a strong religious devotion and commitment. Philip’s death made me question my support for America’s fight for independence.  My faith had already been tested by the premature death of my father in 1772. Going forward, I had to find a way to carry on in order to live a life devoted to God and country!

What should Elizabeth do, in the middle of the Revolutionary War, following the tragic death of her husband Philip?

  Select one option and explain your answer in 4 to 6 sentences.

  • Remarry in order to have a family of her own.
  • Move in with her brother Dr. John Beatty in Princeton, New Jersey.
  • Move to another area of New Jersey to begin a new life.
  • Continue to live in her husband’s home in Greenwich, New Jersey.
  • Other.

Interview Elizabeth shortly after the death of her husband in 1776. Select one question below and write or record what might have been her response.

  • Would you put your personal welfare and interests before those of your country?
  • Are your religious convictions more important than your family?
  • As a widow, would you risk your life in support of the revolutionary cause?

Below is one of the last letters Philip Fithian wrote to his wife Elizabeth prior to his death.  He wrote this letter 19 days before he died.  Read and analyze the letter and answer the following guided questions:

1. Write a one sentence summary of this letter.

2. What was happening at the time this letter was written?

3. What did you find out from this letter that you might not learn anywhere else?

Camp Near Kings-Bridge, Sept. 19: 1776.

My dear Betsey.

Amidst all the Distress & Ruins of this dreadful War I am yet alive & yours. Our Enemies pursue us close on from Place to place. But we drubbed them well last Monday since which they have laid quiet. Your Brothers John, Reading & Arckee are well, I saw them since the Battle. We expect to have a general Engagement soon, & are not dispirited in the least by our late Losses. I hope to see my dear Betsey by the tenth of December & not before— But wonder much that  I do not hear from her; as it is now more than a Month since she wrote me a Word that I have received:—And since that time I have wrote with this seven long Epistles, a full sheet in each— One Aug.19—One 21st—26th— Sept: 1st 3d 9th & now the 19th.

I pray God daily that you may be preserved & in Health. My Duty to Mr. Green & Family. Last Sund. & Monday were two terrible Days; But on Monday our brave Heroes made them give Way. The English Army, Tories & All, is not supposed to be less than 30,000 strong. But our Army wishes to attack them. Peace, & God’s Blessing be with my Betsey, my dear Wife, forever may you be happy.

Philip V. Fithian.

Mrs. Betsey Fithian

Deerfield, West Jersey

Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

by Arlene Gardner

Executive Director, New Jersey Center for Civic Education

What is the purpose of education? The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge. Looking beyond this facile response, most people will agree that the true purpose of education is to produce citizens. One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government.  John Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.

Democratic self-government requires constant discussions and decisions about controversial issues. There is an intrinsic and crucial connection between the discussion of controversial political issues and the health of democracy. If we want our students to become informed, engaged citizens, we need to teach them how to “do” democracy by practicing the skills of discussing controversial issues in the classroom and learning how to respectfully disagree.

Research has demonstrated that controversy during classroom discussion also promotes cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. Controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. In addition to its value in promoting skills for democracy, discussing current controversial public issues:

  • Is authentic and relevant
  • Enhances students’ sense of political efficacy
  • Improves critical thinking skills
  • Increases students’ comfort with conflict that exists in the world outside of the classroom
  • Develops political tolerance
  • Motivates students
  • Results in students gaining greater content knowledge.

(Diana Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (2009); Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (2017); “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” (2011); Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd).

Yet, teachers may consciously (or unconsciously) avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions and/or for fear that parents will complain or that the school administration will admonish or punish them for “being controversial.” These concerns are certainly not groundless. How well are teachers protected from negative repercussions if they address controversial issues in their classrooms? How extensive are teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech? How can heated disagreements among students be contained in the classroom?

Two different legal issues exist regarding free speech rights of teachers: The First Amendment directly protects a teacher’s personal right to speak about public issues outside of the classroom and “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s right and responsibility to teach controversial issues in the classroom.  However, both have certain limitations.

First Amendment Protection of Public Speech by Teachers

Although the First Amendment free speech protection is written in absolute terms (“Congress shall make no law…”), the courts have carved out several exceptions (for national security, libel and slander, pornography, imminent threats, etc.).  The courts have also carved out a limited “government employee” exception based on the rationale that a government employee is paid a salary to work and contribute to an agency’s effective operation and, therefore, the government employer must have the power to prevent or restrain the employee from doing or saying things that detract from the agency’s effective operation.  Thus, the government has been given greater latitude to engage in actions that impose restrictions on a person’s right to speak when the person is a governmental employee, which includes teachers who work in public schools.

Some of the earliest threats to the free speech rights of public school teachers were the loyalty oaths that many states imposed on government employees during the ‘‘red scare’’ and early ‘‘cold war’’ years of American history. In Adler v. Board of Education (1952), the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision rejected First Amendment claims and upheld a New York statute designed to enforce existing civil service regulations to prevent members of subversive groups, particularly of the Communist Party, from teaching in public schools. The Supreme Court effectively overturned this ruling in the 1960s and declared several loyalty oath schemes to be unconstitutional because they had chilling effects on individuals which violated their First Amendment rights (Baggett v. Bullitt (1964); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction (1961); and Keyishian v. Board of Education (1967)).

Much of the reasoning regarding the “government employee” exception to the First Amendment outlined in Adler was abandoned altogether in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pickering v. Board of Education. Teacher Marvin Pickering had written a letter complaining about a recently defeated school budget proposal to increase school taxes. The school board felt that the letter was “detrimental to the efficient operation and administration of the schools” and decided to terminate Pickering, who sued claiming his letter was protected speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Pickering’s dismissal violated his First Amendment right to free speech because public employees are entitled to the same measure of constitutional protection as enjoyed by their civilian counterparts when speaking as “citizens” and not as “employees.”

In Mt. Healthy City School District v. Doyle (1977), non-tenured teacher Fred Doyle conveyed the substance of an internal memorandum regarding a proposed staff dress code to a local radio station, which released it. When the board of education refused to rehire him, Doyle claimed that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. The court developed a “balancing test” that required the teacher to demonstrate that the speech act was a ‘‘substantial’’ or ‘‘motivating factor’’ in the administration’s decision and gave the school board the opportunity to demonstrate, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that the teacher’s speech act was not the ‘‘but for’’ cause of the negative consequences imposed on the teacher by the school board. Finally, the court would “balance” the free speech interests of the teacher and the administrative interests of the school district to determine which carried more weight.  Based on this test, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the teacher’s call to the radio station was protected by the First Amendment, that the call played a substantial part in the board’s decision not to rehire Doyle, and that this action was a violation of Doyle’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In a 5/4 decision in Connick v. Meyers (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that speech by public employees is generally only protected when they are addressing matters of public concern, not personal issues. Sheila Meyers was an Assistant District Attorney who had been transferred.  She strongly opposed her transfer and prepared a questionnaire asking for her co-workers views on the transfer policy, office morale and confidence in supervisors.  She was terminated for insubordination. Meyers alleged her termination violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The district court agreed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed because Meyer’s speech only dealt with personal not public issues.  “When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee’s behavior.” Although the case involved an Assistant District Attorney, it is applicable to all public employees: teachers must demonstrate that their speech is of public concern.

This was confirmed in Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District (1989) where the school district did not rehire non-tenured teacher Timothy Kirkland because of poor performance and substandard teaching evaluations. Kirkland filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Northside, claiming that he was not rehired in violation of his First Amendment rights after he gave his students a reading list that was different from Northside’s list. Northside argued that Kirkland had no right to substitute his list without permission or consent and he had failed to obtain either. The district court ruled in favor of Kirkland and Northside appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed Kirkland’s complaint, holding that Kirkland’s “speech” did not infringe on any matter of public concern and was in fact “private speech.” If the nature of the speech is purely private, such as a dispute over one employee’s job performance, judicial inquiry then comes to an end, and the question of whether the employee’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision not to rehire him need not even be reached. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert, leaving this decision in place.

Academic Freedom

Although primarily used in the context of university faculty rights, “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s ability to determine the content and method of addressing controversial issues in the classroom.  This is more limited at the K-12 level because the courts have long held the view that the administration of K-12 public schools resides with state and local authorities. Primary and secondary education is, for the most part, funded by local sources of revenue, and it has traditionally been a government service that residents of the community have structured to fit their needs. Therefore, a teacher’s “Academic Freedom” is limited to his or her content and method of teaching within the policies and curriculum established by the state and local school board. By finding no First Amendment violation, the court in Kirkland implicitly held that he had no right to substitute his own book list for the one approved by the district without permission or consent, which he failed to obtain. 

In an early case, following the end of World War I, Nebraska had passed a law prohibiting teaching grade school children any language other than English and Robert Meyer was punished for teaching German at a private Lutheran school. The court held that the Nebraska law was an unnecessarily restrictive way to ensure English language learning and was an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment due process clause (the 14th Amendment had not yet applied the First Amendment to the states until Gitlow v.  New York in 1925) that exceeded the power of the state (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures-Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett (1943)(holding unconstitutional a requirement that all children in public schools salute the flag).

The Supreme Court has more than once instructed that “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools” (Shelton v. Tucker (1960)). In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)(a reprise of the famous 1927 “Scopes Trial”), the Arkansas legislature had passed a law prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution. Sue Epperson, a public school teacher, sued, claiming that the law violated her First Amendment right to free speech as well as the Establishment Clause. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared the state law unconstitutional. The Court found that “the State’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.” Seven members of the court based their decision on the Establishment Clause, whereas two concurred in the result based on the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment (because it was unconstitutionally vague) or the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court, however, has not clearly defined the scope of academic freedom protections under the First Amendment, and commentators disagree about the scope of those protections. (See, e.g., William W. Van Alstyne, “The Specific Theory of Academic Freedom and the General Issue of Civil Liberty,” in The Concept of Academic Freedom 59, 61-63 (Edmund L. Pincoffs ed., 1972); J. Peter Byrne, “Academic Freedom: A ‘Special Concern of the First Amendment’,” 99 Yale L.J. 251 (1989); and Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Perspective (New Brunswick, 1998).  

Whatever the legal scope, it is clear that the First Amendment protection of individual academic freedom is not absolute. For example, in Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education (1998), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a teacher could be reprimanded (in this case transferred) because she sponsored the performance of a play that school authorities subsequently deemed inappropriate for her students and inconsistent with the curriculum developed by the local school authorities. This judicial deference toward K through 12 institutions often can be seen in cases involving teachers who assert that their First Amendment rights were violated when school administrators imposed punishments on them for engaging—while they taught their classes—in some form of expressive activity that the administrators disapproved.

The content

While cases about academic freedom, such as Epperson, involved state laws that limited or prohibited certain content being taught (in this case prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution); New Jersey has taken a very broad approach to classroom content.  Since 1996, New Jersey has established state standards (currently called “Student Learning Standards”) that set a framework for each content area.  Unlike many other states, New Jersey does not establish a state curriculum but rather leaves this to local school boards. Subject to applicable provisions of state law and standards set by the State Department of Education, district school boards have control of public elementary and secondary schools.  How much protection do New Jersey teachers have when they address controversial topics?  Most First Amendment education cases in New Jersey involve students’ rights rather than teachers’ rights (e.g., school dress, vulgar language, threats, religious speech, equal access, See http://www.njpsa.org/documents/pdf/lawprimer_FirstAmendment.pdf). However, several recent cases from the Third Circuit (which includes New Jersey) provide some parameters.

In Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania (3rd Cir. 1998), a tenured professor in media studies sued the administration for violating his right to free speech by restricting his choice of classroom materials in an educational media course. Instead of using the approval syllabus, Edwards emphasized the issues of “bias, censorship, religion and humanism.” Students complained that he was promoting religious ideas in the class. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Third Circuit’s summary judgement against Edwards, holding that a university professor does not have a First Amendment right to choose classroom materials and subjects in contravention of the University’s dictates.

A very recent decision regarding a New Jersey teacher confirms the fact that the First Amendment does not provide absolute protection for teachers in public schools to decide the content of their lessons if it is not within the curriculum set by the school district.  In Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020) a non-tenured public high school teacher at Woodbridge High School was teaching Holocaust denial to his students and was posting links to articles on the school’s website saying things such as, “The Jews are like a cancer” and expressing conspiracy theories accusing the United States of planning a 9/11-style attack. When the Board of Education fired Ali, he sued claiming that his employment was terminated on the basis of his race and religion, and that defendants had violated his rights to free speech and academic freedom, among other claims. The District Court rejected all of Ali’s claims, awarding summary judgment to the school board, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

These are extreme cases where a teacher is addressing issues that are NOT within the curriculum set by the university or within the state social studies standards and the local school district’s curriculum.  When teachers are teaching a controversial topic that is included in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies and their school district’s social studies curriculum, the existing case law seems to support the fact that they would be protected  by the Fourteenth Amendment, unless they are violating school policies that require teaching in a neutral, balanced manner that does not seek to indoctrinate students.

For example, what if a teacher wants to assign a research paper about the Stonewall Riots or the Lavender Project?   Since the history of LGBT rights is in the state standards and supposed to be included in local school district social studies curriculum, the Stonewell Riots and Lavender Project would be part of this history. This is not a situation like Ali where the materials were beyond the scope of the local curriculum (as well as being taught in an indoctrinating manner—see below). If the teacher fears that the topics will be controversial with the community, he or she should make the school administration aware of what he or she is planning to do.  Since here, what the teacher plans to teach is within the state standards and the local school district curriculum, the school administration should support the teacher.  If parents object, the real issue is one of policy (Should LGBT history be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher. Therefore, the parents’ argument should be with the state and local boards of education.

What if a teacher wants to show scenes of an R-rated movie in the classroom (i.e. Revolutionary War scenes from The Patriot or D-Day from Saving Private Ryan?) Obviously, the American Revolution and Would War II are part of the state standards for U.S. History and in every local school district’s curriculum.  The movie scenes would need to relate to the district curriculum and the teacher should get prior administrative and parental approval if some movie scenes are going to be very graphic.

How should a teacher prepare lessons on Nazi Germany during the 1930s? Nazi Germany is also part of the state history standards and every school district’s curriculum. It should be taught in a way so that students can understand how the Nazis came to power and the prejudices they carried.  Some of the World War II footage and movies may be shocking but our students will not be able to become informed, engaged citizens if we hide the past from them.  

An ounce of prevention beforehand will help.  Before starting, teachers should be clear about the goal of their lesson: The classroom activities should encourage critical thinking. You are not trying to convince students of any particular point of view. Preview any materials, especially visual media which may be very powerful or provocative. Be aware of the biases of the sources of information that will be used by students.

Teaching Tolerance suggests in Civil Discourse in the Classroom that “Teachers can effectively use current and controversial events instruction to address a wide variety of standards and even mandated content. To do so, however, teachers must work carefully and incrementally to integrate this new approach in their classrooms.”  The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers guidance for how instructors (offered for college instructors but applicable for K-12) can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics. See Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd). The 1940 “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” of the American Association of University Professors, suggests that teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matters that are unrelated to the subject discussed.

Before engaging students in an activity or discussion involving a controversial subject, tell your supervisor and/or principal what you are planning on teaching and, if necessary, reference the district policy on teaching controversial issues, explain the lesson’s connection with the district social studies curriculum and explain the goal and value of what you plan to do.  Then, consider the demographics of your community. If you anticipate that the topic of your lesson will be controversial with the community, send a note and/or talk with your students’ parents and/or the Parent Teacher Organization.

In an informative piece titled “Do You Have the Right to be an Advocate?,” published by EdWeek.org, Julie Underwood, a professor of law and educational leadership and policy analysis at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains that the “district or the state can regulate employee speech during school hours or at school-sponsored activities to protect their own interests in instruction and political neutrality.” Despite the ambiguity in the laws protecting a teacher’s freedom of speech, Underwood concludes: “If it relates to the in class instruction and is age appropriate there is a good rationale for having a political discussion”.

Teaching in a Neutral or Balanced Manner

If the teacher has created a supportive, respectful classroom climate and built tolerance for opposing views, it will be easier to consider controversial topics. For example, considering historical controversies might be good background as practice for looking at current controversies. Establish a process and rules of adequate evidence or support so that the discussion is based on facts rather than simply opinions. To help maintain classroom order even when students are having heated disagreements, set clear rules for discussions or use activities that require students to use active listening skills when considering controversial issues, such as:

  • Continuum/Take a Stand
  • Civil Conversations
  • C3 Inquiries
  • Guided discussions
  • Socratic Smackdown
  • Moot courts—structured format for considering constitutional issues
  • Philosophical Chairs discussion
  • Legislative hearings—structured format for considering solutions to problems

Carefully consider how students are grouped if they are to work cooperatively.  Provide closure (which may be acknowledging the difficulty of the issue).

School boards work primarily through policies which set guidelines for principals, teachers, parents and students, as well as the district curriculum. To avoid a problem afterwards, the teacher should make sure that the controversial topic is within the state standards and the curriculum adopted by their local school board. Then the teacher should consult the school district’s policy regarding the teaching of controversial issues. Most school districts have a policy (usually #2240) that supports and encourages the teaching of controversial issues and sets guidelines for teaching controversial issues, including a process for dealing with challenges.  Although the language may differ, policies dealing with controversial issues generally focus on the need for the classroom lesson to be balanced, unprejudiced, fair, objective, and not aimed at indoctrinating students to a particular point of view.

Clearly, the type of indoctrination attempted by the teachers in the Edwards or Ali cases is beyond protected speech.  In addition to avoiding indoctrination, teachers should avoid telling a joke in the classroom that might imply a negative characterization of an ethnic group, religion or gender.  A “joke” that might be a put down of any ethnic group, religion or gender told in the classroom to students is never a good idea. It is not even a good idea for a teacher to post such a “joke” on Facebook because such speech might be considered as not addressing a matter of public concern and would not be protected by the First Amendment. However, using an historical photo, engraving or picture that included a negative image of an ethnic, racial or religious group might be okay in the context of examining what was seen as humor in the past and understanding the prejudice that existed during a particular time period. For example, when teaching about the Holocaust, a teacher might carefully use Nazi cartoons to demonstrate the high level of prejudice at the time. Another example might be using images of blackface or corporate ad campaigns to show racial attitudes when teaching about Jim Crow. The teacher does not need many examples to make the point. Know your audience. Choose carefully and be aware that certain advertising images from the Jim Crow era may offend some students in the class. The purpose of using controversial issues is important. At the core of deciding what a teacher should or should not say or do in the classroom is good judgment.

Should a teacher share his or her viewpoint on a controversial issue with the students?

Whether a teacher should share his or her opinion or viewpoint on a controversial issue will depend on the age of the students, if the opinion was requested by the students, and the comfort-level of the teacher.  A teacher’s opinion may have too much influence on younger students and should probably be avoided. What if a middle or high school student specifically asks for your opinion? Such “natural disclosures” in response to a direct question by a student should be accompanied by a disclaimer, such as “This is my view because…” or “Other people may have different views”.  If you prefer not to disclose your view, explicitly state that and explain why. Remember, the goal is to help students develop their own well-informed positions. Be mindful of your position as the “classroom expert” and the potential impact on the students. If you decide to disclose your own view, do it carefully and only after the students have expressed their views. Unrequested disclosures may be seen as preachy, or may stop the discussion. (See Hess, Controversy in the Classroom)

So, for example, should a teacher take a position on climate change?  In terms of content, climate change is in the state standards and should be in the local school curriculum. If parents disapprove of this topic, this disagreement is really with the curriculum set by the school board, not with the teacher.  However, the teaching strategy is important. Rather than taking a position, which may be seen as indoctrination or may simply stop the classroom inquiry, the better approach might be to have the students examine the issue and let the facts speak for themselves.  Let students use the facts that exist to construct their own arguments about whether or not climate change is the result of mankind’s use of fossil fuels in industry and transportation.  If the topic is presented in a balanced, neutral, non-indoctrinating manner, the teacher should not be subject to discipline. Objections by parents should be referred to the school administration because it is a matter of policy (Should climate change be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher.

How should teachers address questions from students regarding Black Lives Matter and racial inequality? The ACLU in the state of Washington prepared a short online article, “Free Speech Rights of Teachers in Washington State” (NJ’s ACLU only has a publication about students’ rights) with a related hypothetical:  The teacher is instructed not to discuss personal opinions on political matters with students.  In a classroom discussion on racial issues in America, the teacher tells the class that he/she has recently participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.  Revealing this is the same as giving an opinion and may not be protected speech. Teachers can be disciplined for departing from the curriculum adopted by the school district and this would be a departure.

Can a teacher state that New Jersey is a segregated state when it comes to communities? Is the teacher stating this as a personal opinion or as a fact related to a topic of learning? There is no reason to simply state that NJ is segregated unless it is in the context of helping students understand and appreciate the history of segregation in NJ consistent with state standards and district curriculum. (For example, see “Land Use in NJ” and “School Desegregation and School Finance in NJ” for history, context and facts at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html).

Is a teacher permitted to take a stand on the issue of removing public monuments? Assuming that this is part of a current events lesson, it would be better if the teacher remained neutral and let the students’ voice differing views. If the students all have one position, perhaps the teacher can take a position as “devil’s advocate,” but it should be made clear that this is what the teacher is doing.

Can a teacher assign blame to protests to specific groups or left or right extremist groups? Assigning blame is the same as a teacher giving his or her personal opinion. The better approach would be to have students look at the actions of specific groups and determine their appropriateness.

Can a teacher assign blame to Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett regarding a Supreme Court decision that is 5-4 and against the teacher’s preference (i.e. Affordable Care Act, marriage, etc.).  Assuming that this is part of a classroom lesson about the Supreme Court, the teacher should refrain from “assigning blame” because this is expressing his or her opinion, but should instead let the students consider the reasoning and impact of the decisions.

Is a teacher permitted to criticize or defend the government’s policies or actions on immigration? Outside the classroom, a teacher has a first amendment right to express his or her views on public issues. As part of a classroom lesson about immigration, rather than criticizing or defending the government’s policies or actions on immigration, the better approach would be to present or let students research the history of immigration policy and its impact and let the students discuss and draw their own conclusions (For example, see “Immigration Policy and its impact on NJ” at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html).

Can a teacher show a video clip from a specific news station (Fox, CNN) or assign students to watch a specific news program as an assignment?  As long as the purpose is not indoctrination to any particular point of view and the assignments are balanced. If the teacher wants students to see and compare various media views on the same topic, that would be a valuable classroom activity. (For example, see “Educating for Informed, Engaged Citizens” virtual workshop, for background on helping students understand bias in news, at the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies website at http://www.njcss.org/;  also see Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at https://www.choices.edu/teaching-with-the-news/;   and Constitutional Rights Foundation Fake News at https://www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/challenge/Understanding-Fake-News1.pdf and https://www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/challenge/Tackling-Fake-News.pdf).

Conclusions

A teacher has a personal right under the First Amendment to share his view on public policy issues in public but NOT in the classroom.  A teacher sharing his opinion or viewpoint in the classroom may be seen as indoctrination. So, for example, teachers should avoid sharing personal views on one’s sexual preference, regarding a particular candidate, President Trump’s taxes, a decision by a Grand Jury, prosecutor, FBI on racial issues, etc. Your school district may even have an explicit policy that teachers should not discuss personal views on political matters in the classroom, in which case, this policy should be followed.  Everything a teacher says or does in the classroom should be considered based on the possible impact on the students.

This does not mean that teachers should avoid having students examine and discuss controversial topics. Encouraging the development of civic skills and attitudes among young people has been an important goal of education since the start of the country.  Schools are communities in which young people learn to interact, argue, and work together with others, an important foundation for future citizenship.  Since the purpose of social education is to prepare students for participation in a pluralist democracy, social studies classes NEED to address controversial issues.  Teachers have the right and the responsibility to help their students understand controversial topics and to develop critical thinking skills.  However, the controversial topics should relate to the broad scope of subjects included in the NJ Student Learning Standards and the local school district curriculum.  And controversial subjects should be addressed in a neutral or balanced manner, without any effort to indoctrinate students, but rather to help them develop the knowledge and skills they will need as workers, parents and citizens in a democratic society.

Background Materials

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952)

Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960)

Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961)

Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360(1964)

Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)

Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)

Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977)

Connick v. Meyers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983)

Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District, 890 F.2d 694 (5th Cir. 1989), cert. denied (1990)

Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 910 F.2d 1172 (3d Cir.1990)

Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education, 136 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 1998)

Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania, 156 F.3d 488 (3rd Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1143 (1999)

Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District, 957 F.3d 174 (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020)

Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Erlbaum, 2004)

Diana E. Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (New York:  Teacher’s College Press, 2017).

William W. Van Alstyne, “Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in the Supreme Court of the United States: An Unhurried Historical Review,” 53 Law and Contemp. Probs. 79 (1990)

ACLU-Washington at https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/free-speech-rights-public-school-teachers-washington-state

American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom of Professors and Institutions,” (2002) at https://www.aaup.org/issues/academic-freedom/professors-and-institutions

Center for Research on Instruction and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd

Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at https://www.choices.edu/teaching-with-the-news/

Constitutional Rights Foundation at https://www.crf-usa.org/

EdSurge at https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-01-17-why-we-need-controversy-in-our-classrooms

Facing History at https://www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources

Find Law at https://www.findlaw.com/education/teachers-rights/teachers-different-freedoms-and-rights-article.html

Forbes at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicabohrer/2020/09/14/teaching-children-about-freedom-of-speech/#25cb6ff07101

John Goodlad, “Fulfilling the Public Purpose of Schooling: Educating the Young in Support of Democracy May Be Leadership’s Highest Calling,” School Administrator, v61 n5 p14 May 2004.

Jonathan Gould, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, and David B. Smith, eds“Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, Philadelphia: Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2011

Amanda Litvinov, “Forgotten Purpose: Civic Education in Public Schools, NEA Today, Mar 16, 2017 at https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/forgotten-purpose-civics-education-public-schools#:~:text=Research%20into%20this%20long%2Dneglected,it%20holds%20for%20student%20achievement.

New Jersey Center for Civic Education (New Jersey lessons) at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html

New Jersey Law Journal at https://www.law.com/njlawjournal/2020/06/28/as-woodbridge-teachers-case-shows-facts-do-matter/?slreturn=20200929134110

New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association at http://www.njpsa.org/documents/pdf/lawprimer_FirstAmendment.pdf

Phi Delta Kappa, “Do you have the right to be an Advocate?, at https://kappanonline.org/underwood-school-districts-control-teachers-classroom-speech/

Poorvu Center, Yale University at https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics

Teaching Tolerance at https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/civil-discourse-in-the-classroom/chapter-4-teaching-controversy

Texas Association of School Boards at https://www.tasb.org/services/legal-services/tasb-school-law-esource/personnel/documents/employee_free_speech_rights.aspx

The First Amendment Encyclopedia at https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/973/rights-of-teachers

U.S. Civil Liberties at https://uscivilliberties.org/themes/4571-teacher-speech-in-public-schools.html

Prepared by Arlene Gardner, Executive Director, New Jersey Center for Civic Education, Rutgers-The State University, Piscataway, NJ (2020)

An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in New Jersey as Part of Local History

Few high school history textbooks have much to say about slavery in the northern colonies and states. While coverage of the evils of slavery has dramatically increased in recent years, the focus has always been on enslaved people in the south. Although slavery is mentioned 14 times in the NJSLS 2020 standards, the only connection to slavery in New Jersey is 6.1.8.History CC.4.a: “Explain the growing resistance to slavery and New Jersey’s role in the Underground Railroad,”[1] implying that New Jersey was a hotbed of abolitionism instead of the dark reality: the gradual abolition law in 1804 maintained slavery for life for those born before its passage, and the so-called Act to Abolish Slavery in 1846 replaced slavery with apprenticeship for life[2]. The ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t merely free the enslaved in states that were in rebellion, but 16 enslaved people in New Jersey.[3]

An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in New Jersey as Part of Local History

Robert Fenster

            Is it at all surprising that most students graduate high school in New Jersey unaware of the enduring nature of this institution in their home state? Although it might be argued that malignant forces are behind a whitewashing of New Jersey history, it seems more likely that a collective reductionism is at work here. There are only so many days to “cover” the curriculum, so some simplification is necessary. It’s easier for students to understand the binary depiction of the southern enslaver states being evil, while the north is the home of abolition. However, that sort of teaching is oversimplified and not only does injustice to actual history, but to the lives of thousands of people who were enslaved in New Jersey.

            In the summer of 2020, I was fortunate to participate in Slavery in the Colonial North, a National Endowment for the Humanities institute held at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York under the guidance of Leslie Harris and Jacqueline Simmons. There I was inspired to dig deeper into New Jersey history. I went to the Somerset County clerk’s office and examined  birth certificates and manumission records of enslaved people from Hillsborough, the town I teach in. Some of the names of the enslavers were recognizable to my students because their descendants are still in town or particular roads are named for them. Although that lesson was in and of itself was impactful, it didn’t do enough to explore the lives of enslaved men and women.

Before I began to focus on agency, I would often be asked by students, “Why didn’t they fight back?” I would turn the question back to the class and ask them to consider possible answers. Typically students would suggest a fear of consequences, a lack of options in a world of systemic oppression, or white access to authority and weaponry. Although these are all somewhat valid in particular circumstances, and the conversation worthwhile, a better immediate response would have been, “They did, and in many ways.” No U.S. history class should lack a focus on the myriad ways that enslaved people resisted: open rebellion, self-liberation, sabotage, poisoning, self-harm,, defiance of rules governing marriage, religion, and literacy, and the development of a unique culture to name just a few. During the American Revolution, thousands of enslaved people self-liberated and joined the British military in the hopes of bringing down the institution of slavery for themselves and others. A smaller number served as substitutes in the Continental Army or state militias with the hope of gaining their freedom through their service.

            One of the biggest stumbling blocks to adequately examining the lives of the enslaved is a lack of primary sources. Many enslaved people did not know how to write or were actively prevented from learning. As a consequence, most of the sources from the relevant time periods are secondary sources, which require historians to draw inferences after filtering for the potential biases of the original authors. In some cases, the bias is overt and easy to spot; for example, the writing of any white supremacist. On the other hand, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, is written by William Allinson, an abolitionist. Although the book provides some basic biographical information, its focus belies the author’s utter lack of interest in the enslaved person’s internal life, reducing him to a prop.[4] Allinson and other similar contemporary writers may have had good intentions, but they tend to infantilize their subjects, providing their own form of racist depiction to the mix.


[1]New Jersey Student Learning Standards – Social Studies, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf.

[2]An Act For the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (1804), accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.0990100b/?sp=1.Selected New Jersey Laws related to slavery and Free People of Color, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.montclair.edu/anthropology/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2021/06/Slavery-in-New-Jersey-Literature-Review-Appendix-B-Slave-Codes_Remediated.pdf.

[3] Julia Martin, “Slavery’s legacy is written all over North Jersey, if you know where to look,” NorthJersey.com, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/essex/montclair/2021/02/28/american-dream-paramus-nj-part-north-jersey-slavery-legacy/4212248001/.

[4]Kenneth E. Marshall, Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 18

The Real Historians of New Jersey: How to Connect with the Past in 170 Miles

The Real Historians of New Jersey: How to Connect with the Past in 170 Miles

Susan Soprano

How often do you get the opportunity to “practice what you preach?” After a decade of teaching social studies, writing social studies curriculum, and leading professional development, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed the importance of thinking like a historian. After years of working so hard in my career, I was looking forward to spending the first part of the 2021-2022 school year bonding with my new son on maternity leave. As I dreamed of spending my days in pajamas, drinking coffee that has gone cold, an email comes in from Hank Bitten at the NJ Council for Social Studies. The email contained an application for a grant project to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. The project would focus specifically on the work and decisions of lesser-known NJ citizens during the war. As I took another sip of my cold coffee, I thought, “Yeah! I can make some time for this!” I realized that after so many years of promoting research, citing sources, making history come to life, etc., I’ve had less time than I’d care to admit actually doing it. I saw this grant project as an opportunity to bring my knowledge of early American history to life.

My work on this project began in November 2021 at the Dey Mansion in Totowa, NJ. The mansion served as Washington’s headquarters during the Revolution in 1780. Over 600 pieces of correspondence from Washington are a part of the artifacts in the mansion’s collection. Me and other members of the grant project worked with educational director Jessica Bush for a day of learning and engaging with history at the Dey Mansion. Bush spoke candidly about slavery at the Dey Mansion and about how the institution of slavery was prevalent in New Jersey during the war. History books do not often discuss this. My interest was piqued here and I planned on focusing on slavery for my part of the project. As a teacher in Passaic County, I planned to focus on slavery and early abolition here.

            The next day, the grant team met at the Monmouth County Historical Association (MCHA) in Freehold, NJ. We worked with Reference Librarian and Archivist, Dana Howell. She led us upstairs to a table filled with documents, many of which could take hours, even days to read. I cautiously walked up to the table and scooped up some primary sources thinking, “Well, I’ll start here.” The very first document I picked up was a manumission paper written by this man named Samuel Allinson. He’s not a Passaic County man, but somehow, I was led right to the topic I planned to focus on. Right here, I was hooked on Allinson. I began to look for more documents containing his name, and I dove into the internet to learn more. I left the Monmouth County Historical Association pleased with the work I had done.

            Over the next several weeks, I put together an activity and documentary on Samuel Allinson that could be utilized by New Jersey middle school students, and their families alike. Through this project, I am helping NJ residents understand the significance of the lesser known Samuel Allinson. He was a Burlington County native (fun fact: never been there!) who was a Quaker, lawyer, and abolitionist. He helped provide education to free blacks living in his county, and he was a supporter of the Loyalist cause during the Revolution. He was able to manumit over 30 slaves. There is evidence of his correspondence with George Washington, William Livingston, and Patrick Henry. His correspondence speaks to his beliefs that liberty for all included the enslaved, thus leading him to question the ideals of liberty that the Patriots were fighting vehemently for. In many ways, we are still discussing the very questions that Allinson had about freedom in his time.

 I had an opportunity to review excerpts from The Ragged Road to Abolition by Jim Gigantino. I was thankful enough to speak with Jim virtually in mid-January to review some final details about Allinson’s work, and about the early abolitionist cause of Quakers like him. He describes Allinson as being “savvy” and “astute”, knowing that he was fighting for an unpopular cause. He stood out in Burlington County and among the Quaker community.

Before I finalized my project, I took another trip back to MCHA where I again met with Dana. I went there wondering if there was any more information available on Allinson’s work as an abolitionist. At first, Dana thought she wouldn’t have much on a Burlington County resident, but within no time, she located the Freedom Papers-a collection of 37 manumission documents all finalized by Samuel Allinson! This gave me the evidence I needed to show the abolitionist work he was doing in the late 1700s. An added bonus of working with Dana was getting an opportunity to view the Beneath the Floorboard exhibit at Marlpit Hall, a property that is maintained by the MCHA. Artifacts here show how slavery is a part of Monmouth County’s history, and tells the story of seven slaves who lived in this home. For more information on this exhibit, see ​​https://www.monmouthhistory.org/beneath-the-floorboards

Beneath the Floorboards: History of Enslaved Persons in Marlpit Hall
Opportunity to Learn the story of enslaved individuals living in Marlpit Hall in Monmouth County

Ultimately, the team working on this grant project will introduce you to lesser known “heroes” of the Revolution who lived all over the state. This is such important work for educators to take part in. From my experience in this project, I have two main points to reflect on:

1. Don’t miss any opportunity to learn more! The experiences that I had doing research were hands-on and challenging. Aside from the work I’ve created, I’m left with unanswered questions about abolition and lives of the enslaved in NJ that have been hidden for far too long. I can’t help but wonder what could have happened in our country if only abolition was fought for more feverishly at the Constitutional Convention. Knowing about the work of Samuel Allinson will enrich my teaching of the American Revolution and early abolition in the United States. These new insights will allow students to engage with primary texts that support the work of Quakers right here in their own state.

2. Make connections! Because I decided to work on this project, I am now connected with historians all around NJ, and in Arkansas (Jim Gigantino). Hopefully these relationships will grow, and it’s worth will be reflected in my teaching. In the near future, I hope to plan and lead professional development that will allow my colleagues to become teacher-scholars, similar to the experience I had on this project. It is my hope that this type of “hands-on” learning will ignite passion, and will remind educators why they do what they do.

And who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a drive to Allinson’s old haunts (with cold coffee in hand, obviously).

Reflections on the 1770’s: Diaries of New Jersey Quakers

Reflections on the 1770’s: Diaries of New Jersey Quakers

Robert Ciarletta

It is thrilling to go back in time and encounter writing from a few hundred years ago. I love uncovering the stories, experiences, and feelings embedded there. For those of us who love language, we can also use these texts to observe how the language we use changes just as human life evolves. For my research, I read the diaries of two New Jersey Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). The writers are John Hunt, a farmer who regularly partook in meetings with other friends in Evesham, now part of Moorestown; the other is Margaret Hill Morris, a nurse practitioner and widow who had four children and lived in Burlington. When reading these diaries, I had to adjust to the different spellings, sounds, diction, and structure, since it is so different from how we write today. To fully appreciate these diaries, you must also recognize that the Quakers wrote in a sort of language of faith. Faith encompassed their lives so much so that it became a central theme in their diaries, arguably just as much as the American Revolution itself. No matter what subject these people wrote about, they constantly alluded to passages from the Bible and looked up to God as a way to make sense of their world.

As you dive in, the language reveals that New Jerseyans used to have a lot of daily items and objects that are so unfamiliar to a reader today. Many of us buy our food pre-packaged at the grocery store, or we order items through online marketplaces like Amazon. Though all of this is convenient, we tend to know little about the processes that go into creating our necessities. On the other hand, early Americans like Hunt must have been quite skilled since they produced numerous things for themselves. For instance, he wrote about tools like a sider press (another way to write cider), a cheespress, silk reel, and others. It is beneficial to expose students to texts like this because it adds a level of dignity to another way of living, and may spark students’ interest in old tools and artifacts.

It is also fun to pick up on the patterns that differentiate someone else’s English from our own. One common quirk is that Hunt used the letter ‘d’ as an inflectional suffix to signal the past tense of verbs, whereas we use ‘e’d. For instance, prayed, composed, and stayed were written as prayd, composd, and stayd in Hunt’s diary. What great, local proof to our students that our language is dynamic! His diary also proves that the names of our places have changed in history; he spelled Moorestown as Mourstown.

These diaries also show that sometimes life can seem ordinary until the moment when it suddenly is not so, anymore. After the French and Indian war, the Friends promoted pacifism with new vigor[1], intending to be a light to the world. But peace did not last, and they felt helpless when the war reached a point of no return. It was impossible to feel safe; their beliefs could only remove them from the war so much. And if you choose to help neither side, does that create zero enemies for you? Or does it possibly create two? There is danger in a decision to declare yourself neutral, and Hunt and Morris had to navigate the war this way.

The Quakers were appalled at the effects of the war on their communities and lives. When John Hunt entered the Evesham meeting house on January 1, 1777, he found soldiers lying in filth, comparing them to animals in a stable. He also writes about the tense situations a year later in 1778, when people around him are dying from a smallpox epidemic, and British soldiers are plundering neighboring homes. It was dismal –the townspeople dying around him, and always on edge anticipating the soldiers coming. He kept these entries brief, not wanting to give the bad all of his focus. The next day he would be back to normal again, and write about farming or attending a meeting.

Hunt’s diary reveals his industry too. A single task occupied him for days on end. For example, he wrote 2-4 mowing to signify that mowing dominated the second through fourth days of the month. And he not only labored physically but also in thought. William Penn said that Quakers should write at least one line in a journal daily[2], and this inspired Hunt. I would get bored writing the same things every day, but Hunt wrote continually to keep track of his days and gain wisdom from a holistic view of his life. He wrote for the sake of writing, and I find that beautiful.

And, you can find duality in Margaret Morris’ diary if you choose to read it. At first, she was overwhelmed by the war, but writing her diary helped her to think clearly and grasp this reality. As you read her diary, you see her use words like ‘terrible and horrid’ to describe the war, and she seems scared. She also writes about seeing soldiers march past her town on their way to meet death, and this suggests an emotional, fearful side of Morris. And then as I read further, she had a similar moment to John Hunt that caught my interest. On January 3, 1777, Morris sneaks into a house next door at night and finds soldiers sprawled on the floor, “like animals”. Yes, one part of her pitied these men. But this was also the moment when I knew Morris was not the kind of woman to just sit home scared during a war, but she also wanted to make sense of things for herself. A light bulb went off in her mind that the soldiers were deserters since she realized that they shouldn’t have been around. Morris does not shy away from what she sees but keeps it to herself in her diary, a form of secret knowledge. 

By the end of the war, Morris gained boldness and found herself. While her neighbors were able to leave for the countryside, she had to stay with her family. She survived cannon fire, evaded a hunt for Tories, and hid one of them in her home. Moreover, she followed her own convictions and gave generously to American troops, despite the mandate in 1776 that Quakers who gave to either side (non-civilians) would be disowned[3]. In chronicling extensive information daily about the war in her diary, she found a sense of confidence and purpose. Later, Morris opened her own medical and apothecary practice in Burlington, in 1779[4]. Morris was well-equipped to provide for her family and protect them. 

So, when people read your diary centuries later, are you still an ordinary person? And what if you provide insight about a time so critical to our nation’s story, like the American Revolution? Hunt and Morris’ slice of the human experience represents something greater, even if the impact of their writing seemed insignificant to themselves at the time. Their diaries tell us about the whole New Jersey revolution experience. And when one’s experiences are immortalized like this, you do in fact become a bit more than ordinary.


[1] Kashatus, William C. “Quakers’ painful choice during the american revolution.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jul. 5, 2015.

[2] “John Hunt Papers.” TriCollege Libraries, https://archives.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/resources/5240johu.

[3] Mekeel, Arthur J. “The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution.” Quaker History, 65(1), pp. 3-18. Friends Historical Association.

[4] Brandt, Susan. “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution.”  Early American Studies, 13(4), pp. 774-807. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

by Alan Taylor

Review by James J. Carpenter

            In any discussion of early America and public education, Thomas Jefferson inevitably plays a central role. For many, he “remains one of democratic education’s founding fathers” (Neem, 2013, p. 3). Jefferson’s Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge called for a three-tiered system of public schooling that would, according to Wagoner (2004), “elevate the mass of people to the moral status necessary to insure good government and public safety and happiness” (p. 34). Jefferson’s vision for Virginia schools would fall victim to the political realities of that state, save for the eventual establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819. Indeed, the university is one of three accomplishments Jefferson had engraved on his tomb, along with being the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

            Like most of Jefferson’s life, there is a considerable volume of literature on his educational views and his plans for improving education in his beloved Virginia (e.g. Addis, 2003; Conant, 1962; Gilreath, 1999; Heslep, 1969; and Wills, 2002). I was curious, therefore, to read Alan Taylor’s latest work entitled Thomas Jefferson’s Education. Was this a description of Jefferson’s personal educational odyssey or was this another discourse on his educational philosophy and plans for public schooling in Virginia?  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was both and more. Taylor successfully weaves Jefferson’s fight to advance public education in Virginia with stories of a wide variety of individuals who supported or resisted his goals. Furthermore, he situates these often bitter political struggles in the context of a stratified Virginia society built on a foundation of enslaved labor.    

Indeed, Taylor’s description of a complicated social milieu often seems to be the real subject of his book. At first, as a reader, I was distracted by the many anecdotes and stories Taylor offers as illustrations for the contesting forces that impacted Jefferson’s goal of free public education for white males. It is only when the reader sits back and focuses on the entire mosaic rather than on the individual tesserae that Taylor’s story becomes clear. He rather quickly addresses the failure of Virginia’s legislature to approve Jefferson’s plans for publicly funded elementary and secondary schools and focuses on Jefferson’s goal for a public university that would rival Harvard and Yale.

            Taylor places this struggle to create the University of Virginia in the context of powerful cultural forces within the state – and by extension throughout the South – and thereby creates a fascinating subtext for his book. The primary forces at work were the increasingly rigid attitudes regarding slavery and the strict adherence to the gentry’s belief in their privileged status including their preference for drinking, gambling, and dueling in defense of their honor. Taylor masterfully posits these societal flaws against Jefferson’s wishes to create a university which would train leaders who would reform Virginia. Jefferson envisioned this next generation of leaders would further republicanism by adopting “a more democratic state constitution for white men,” by embracing his goals for public education for all white children, and by emancipating but deporting slaves (p. 307). Jefferson’s hopes for the future evolved during a period where regional bitterness was hardening at an alarming rate, an extreme bitterness Joanne Freeman (2018) has described as a violent “cultural federalism” (p. 50). Southern politicians increasingly saw the Union as endangered by northern political and economic interests which would put the South at a distinct disadvantage. Southern fathers did not want their sons attending northern institutions of higher learning for fear they would be corrupted by antislavery ideas and dangerous democratic ideas of equality. Instead, southern “gentlemen attended college to hone social skills and cultivate social networks” (p. 82). Additionally, “fathers wanted sons to develop a robust sense of honor,” including choosing dueling over accepting insults (p. 83). And, as Taylor describes, their sons whole-heartedly bought into their privileged status; to the extent that they believed themselves exempt from obeying rules and policies implemented by those they believed to be of inferior status including their professors. Indeed, according to Taylor, this strategy at times worked all too well. Most of Virginia’s young gentlemen “became petty tyrants” to the state’s enslaved population (p. 83).

            It was in this social and cultural milieu that Jefferson and others in Virginia’s founding generation tried to re-establish that state’s prestige. As other states, especially in the North, gained in population and in political influence, these aging leaders identified education as the means to restore Virginia to what they believed to be her rightful status. The College of William and Mary was in decline since the state capitol had moved from Williamsburg to Richmond and Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to build a new university, one that would embody his philosophical beliefs and be free from any religious connections. Taylor describes Jefferson’s reliance on his chief lieutenant in the state legislature, Joseph C. Cabell, and his efforts to thwart other attempts to construct a university in locations other than Charlottesville. Many personalities are presented in this account; some famous like James Madison, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe and others less so, such as the Scottish teacher James Ogilvie, the mercurial John Randolph, and Jefferson’s rival for controlling the fledgling university, John Hartwell Cocke.

In detailing how he secured his beloved university, Taylor sheds light on Jefferson’s complex personality. For example, in constructing the university Jefferson dismissed the idea of sharing state education allocations with two other campuses he ridiculed as “’local interests’” while remaining oblivious to the parochial nature of his own plans (p. 198). Believing “that only architectural grandeur could attract many students” (p. 211), Jefferson’s construction costs exceeded both the state appropriations and private monies raised through subscriptions leaving the university with no money for scholarships for deserving students. As a result, only sons of the wealthiest Virginia families could afford to attend causing the university to “suffer from their homogeneity and sense of entitlement” (p. 214).

            Known for his pleasing manners and hospitable nature, Jefferson could also be sharp and intransient on issues he deemed important. His insistence that the university be free from religious influence and that there be no professor of divinity alienated many Virginia Christians, especially Evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, leading to contentious struggles with the university’s Board of Visitors and state political leaders. Though he expressed a faith in the free expression of ideas, Taylor describes how Jefferson “assumed that the free pursuit of truth always led to his conclusions.” His university would be a bastion of republican orthodoxy free from “Federalist “’heresies.’” For example, Jefferson selected political readings that “favored states’ rights over national consolidation” as texts for the professor of law to use (p. 238, emphasis added to first quote). Republicanism was the litmus test in hiring for Jefferson. Therefore “no Federalist need apply to become professor of law at the University of Virginia,” regardless of his qualifications (p. 239). Far from promoting a democratic education, Jefferson often endorsed a more authoritarian approach in managing the day to day issues at his university.

            Today the University of Virginia is one of the most respected public universities in the United States. It is fondly referred to as Mr. Jefferson’s university. The picture Taylor paints of the early days of the university is at odds with what it has become. Plagued by low enrollments and financial problems, it initially housed a student population more dedicated to drinking, gambling, and carousing than to studying. Students accustomed to privilege and power frequently fought, rioted, mistreated slaves, and disrespected faculty, with one student actually fatally shooting a professor. Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, things began to change, albeit slowly. By the mid-1840s, the university could afford to grant scholarships to deserving but less affluent students. Increasing enrollments led to greater numbers of Christian students who would have been unacceptable to Jefferson. Faculty hires became less political and rule changes on campus led to less violent and more sober student behavior. By the eve of the Civil War, the University of Virginia was becoming a major academic institution though not as envisioned by its famous founder.

            The evolution Taylor describes contains many ironies. For example, while largely ignoring the need to educate women beyond what was required to be a good wife (though he did promote learning for his own daughters and granddaughters), it was Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters who became “teachers of a new generation of women” and who managed to save their family financially after the Civil War (p. 315). And Taylor masterfully describes the problematic relationship between Jefferson’s primary objectives for students who attended the University of Virginia. One goal was to produce republican leaders who would protect the rights of states against what he perceived as an increasingly threatening union controlled by northern politicians. His second objective was that these more enlightened leaders would reform Virginia, especially by first ending slavery and then deporting the formerly enslaved out of the United States, thereby ridding the country of its original sin. Jefferson failed to see these two goals as being contradictory. As Taylor demonstrates, the next generation did defend states’ rights in ways Jefferson could not have imagined. And rather than seeing slavery as a sin to be abolished, Virginia leaders promoted slavery as a positive institution which protected an inferior race. Ultimately, the university students did not “uproot slavery as Jefferson had hoped,” but instead “defended it and served the Confederacy in the Civil War” (p. 307). In delineating this progression to the potential dissolution of the union Jefferson had helped create, Taylor not only has made a valuable contribution to the literature on Thomas Jefferson’s impact on education but also to that of the history of education in the United States and to that of sectional development in ante-bellum America.    

References

Addis, C. (2003). Jefferson’s Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Conant, J. B. (1962), Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Freeman, J. B. (2018). The field of blood: Violence in Congress and the road to civil war. New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gilreath, J. (Ed.). (1999). Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Washington, D. C.: The Library of Congress.

Heslep, R. D. (1969). Thomas Jefferson & Education. New York, NY: Random House.

Neem, J. (2013). Is Jefferson a founding father of democratic education? A response to “Jefferson and the ideology of democratic schooling.” Democracy and Education, 21 (2), Article 8. Available at https://www.democracyandeducationjournal.org/home/vol21/iss2/8.

Wagoner, J. L., Jr. (2004). Jefferson and education. (Monticello monograph series). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Wills, G. (2002). Mr. Jefferson’s University. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Sense of Origins: A Study of New York’s Young Italian Americans

Sense of Origins: A Study of New York’s Young Italian Americans

by Rosemary Serra, translated by Scott R. Kapuscinski

In Sense of Origins, Rosemary Serra explores the lives of a significant group of self-identified young Italian Americans residing in New York City and its surrounding areas. The book presents and examines the results of a survey she conducted of their values, family relationships, prejudices and stereotypes, affiliations, attitudes and behaviors, and future perspectives of Italian American culture. The core of the study focuses on self-identification with Italian cultural heritage and analyzes it according to five aspects—physical, personality, cultural, psychological, and emotional/affective. The data provides insights into today’s young Italian Americans and the ways their perception of reality in everyday interactions is affected by their heritage, while shedding light on the value and symbolic references that come with an Italian heritage. Through her rendering of relevant facets that emerge from the study, Serra constructs interpretative models useful for outlining the physiognomy and characterization of second, third, fourth, and fifth generations of Italian Americans. In the current climate, questions of ethnicity and migrant identity around the world make Sense of Origins useful not only to the Italian American community but also to the descendants of the innumerable present-day migrants who find themselves living in countries different from those of their ancestors. The book will resonate in future explorations of ethnic identity in the United States. Rosemary Serra is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Trieste, Italy. Scott R. Kapuscinski teaches English at Queens College, City University of New York.