Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

James K. Daly

In 1936 Howard Beale asked if American teachers were free. It is a question that still resonates today. The issue is entangled in the complex and ever-changing world of educational policy, political pressures, and cultural tensions. A second question to Beales earlier one could very well ask, should they be? What does it mean for teachers to be free? How do cultural expectations impact on what schools, communities, and larger groups perceive as appropriate for examination in public schools?

Many suggest topics, issues, and claims to truth should not be examined at all. Those who know the truth often feel compelled to teach it. Educational orthodoxy, whether of the political Left or the political Right, can silence opposing views, materials, attention. There is a long history of efforts to suppress perspectives. Legislation in many states has institutionalized restrictions on viewpoints, and textbook publishers have complied. Practitioners supporting the status quo, or the work of activist special interest groups have also contributed to censoring views (Jenkinson, 1979, 1985; O’Neil, 1984; Parker and Weiss 1983; Merry, 2009; Fallace, 2011; Hill, 2020, Nelson, 2021).

The essentiality of critical thinking

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential skill for preparing the young to succeed in the 21st century. The NCSS C3 framework identifies critical thinking as a key element in developing engagement and participation among citizens (NCSS 2013). Nelson et al. (2021) cite critical thinking as among the most important issues in schools.

Scholars have long stressed the need for schools to move away from indoctrination, the antithesis of critical thinking. Social studies is where young people must examine conflicts in beliefs and values (Hunt & Metcalf, 1955). Any belief not carefully examined is by definition a prejudice. Oliver and Shaver (1966) assert that the ability to choose on issues of public importance depends on awareness of alternatives. Schools must not just tolerate but encourage the examination of these alternatives. To accomplish this critical thinking is essential.

Critical thinking in schools allows individuals to scrutinize information and claims to truth. Learners explore what can be demonstrated, proved, and accepted using the best available information. Views are challenged, defended, discarded, or temporarily accepted. Learners recognize that acceptance of truth may well be tentative, pending additional knowledge (Pinker 2018).

Critical thinking skills are essential to examining topics on which society is divided (Nelson, 2021a). They protect against propaganda and conspiracy theories. Without these students are simply told what is correct, and which views are to be accepted. Recent years show the danger of this.  In a world of rapid fire media proclaiming new truths throughout the day, with little or poorly supported evidence, students can be ignorant of their own ignorance. This may be welcomed by any number of special interest groups but is anathema to maintaining democracy. 

Critical thinking takes a great deal of time. It requires considerable financial and other resources, from purchasing tools and materials to providing professional development opportunities. The amount of energy needed to do this in a field not easily measured is a challenge (Nelson et al., 2021).

Critical thinking and critical issues

Can critical thinking be promoted when only one or a narrow range of similar views are explored? Can critical thinking be developed for transfer to authentic settings if current critical issues are not examined? Traditionally many ‘givens’ are found both in the formal and the hidden curriculum. They are drawn from the dominant political and cultural perspectives reflecting the larger community. Scholars have consistently asserted that discussing controversy is essential in a diverse democratic society. Critical thinking needs to be about issues that in themselves are critical, with many and competing views. Critical thinking helps students explore different outlooks, and constructively consider consequences of alternative views. Ettinger (2004) refers to this a “constructive harnessing of conflict”. Conflict can be embraced as offering opportunities for exchanging information, evidence, and making tentative conclusions on actions.

Barton and Levstik (2004) state that the aim of history education, and indeed for social studies, is preparing the young to act. Actions and consequences of historic challenges can be scaffolded to frame current day issues. They cite Newman (1975) and his call for intelligent action, the ability to use knowledge and skills to develop a commitment for addressing social problems. The context in which critical thinking skills evolve is pivotal. Barton and Levstik mention Parker and others in advancing the need for the young to understand and experience participatory democracy. Students need to be taught, and practice critical thinking skills on topics where disagreements are analyzed.  They refer to McCully (2002) suggesting that just working on critical thinking skills may not help in examining current divisive topics. Building critical thinking skills without an exploration of authentic current issues may fall far short of what is needed.

Claims to truth need to be analyzed, with critical thinking skills scaffolded, enhanced, and regularly practiced. These skills support conflict resolution strategies, utilizing active listening and clear communication (Katz, 2020). This reinforces what Lortie (1975) referred to as the apprenticeship of observation. Learners routinely experience situations in which these skills are refined and improved. They grapple with different views and competing sources of evidence. The routine and expected school experience would demonstrate a respectful appreciation of diverse views. The hidden curriculum would be supportive of the intellectual work of considering conflicting opinions. The norm would be examining issues in practiced and familiar patterns, respectful of opinions, while accepting disagreement on conclusions. Democratic principles and foundational documents along with Human Rights concepts need to provide the context in which critical thinking evolves. Examining how well these principles, documents and concepts have demonstrated themselves over time provides framing for analyzing current issues.

The need to address critical thinking skills, and the need to do so when addressing current controversial topics puts the teacher at the center of public scrutiny. It is in the larger public arena that controversy is housed, and from which it enters classrooms.

The preponderance of scholarship supports dealing with controversy. Schools must offer individuals opportunity to escape the limitations of the group into which they were born (Dewey, 1916). Schools should create awareness of the larger society. Few other institutions can guide an analysis of past events, an exploration of current considerations, with a focus on the future. 

In a nation as diverse as ours, and in the current political and cultural climate, controversy enters schools and classrooms. The interactions between teachers, administrators, professional organizations, and the public are fraught with complex and often contradictory expectations. Sustaining a democratic republic in this context requires citizens who can examine topics on which there is disagreement (Lynd, 1939; Selakovich, 1967; Newman and Oliver, 1970; Shermis and Barth, 1979; Berlak, 1977; O’Neil, R.M.,1981); Apple, 1982; Besag and Nelson, 1984; Engle and Ochoa, (1986); Daly, et al., 2001; Underwood, 2017; Nelson 2021a).

Are American teachers free?

Teachers appear to be willing to address controversy but often don’t because of concerns about the consequences (Byford, 2009). Nelson (1992) writes that many report they have academic freedom. However, when questioned about teaching specific issues, a typical response was that they were too controversial to teach. Teacher belief in their ability to address controversy does necessarily translate to their doing do (Daly, 1986; Mitchell, Evans, Daly, & Roach, 1997; Misco and Patterson 2007). Patterson (2010) reveals that while 98% of teachers in one study reported they had academic freedom (of varying degrees), over 93% indicated limits to what can be taught. Some of those restrictions might be called self-censorship. Limitations included barriers raised (or anticipated) from community members, administrators, and students. Girard and Harris (2021) describe that teachers in one study found it easy to add topics and issues to provide a more inclusive view. However, they were unwilling to examine contemporary society and power relationships. The local commuity was cited as a significant influence on what teachers address.  In an Education Week article considerable percentages of teachers disclosed they avoided teaching many topics (Pendharkar, 2021). 

Potential Sources supporting teacher freedom

Decisions made by practitioners have consequences for what is taught and how it is taught. State curriculum standards impact those decisions. An analysis of state standards for History indicated clear and opaque support for teacher decision making and selection in many states (Girard and Harris, 2020). The impact on teacher freedom ranged from rigid specificity to almost limitless choice for teachers. Standards may well support considerable freedom in many states; however, more is needed.

Academic Freedom is a philosophical framework buttressing teacher freedom. There are legal decisions that help uphold it. Philosophical views without more compelling legal support cannot be relied upon. They can and should be used to engage educators and communities in discussions on exploring difficult topics. Language supporting academic freedom needs to be in district policy manuals and guides. Hess (2009) reminds us that controversy is a socially constructed phenomenon. She recognizes that the public has a right to have an influence on what is taught in the schools. Engaged and systematic review of the need for, the limits on, and the student benefits of academic freedom need to be promoted. While the specific topics may change, controversy is a given.  Underwood (2017) recognizes that many who would restrict teacher freedom fear indoctrination. They feel left out of curriculum discussions, unaware of pedagogical strategies, and suspicious of views other than their own. Discussions on the nature and purpose of academic freedom may ease that fear.

Academic freedom

The National Council for the Social Studies advocates teacher freedom. The organization issued Position Statements on Academic Freedom in 1969, revised in 2007 (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010).  The most recent maintains that teachers should be free to create settings that foster democratic processes (Social Education, 2016)). Academic Freedom for teachers is necessary to create citizens aware of contentious issues and positions on them. Students need to examine factual claims, discuss competing perspectives, investigate, and analyze topics of concern. This promotes understanding of the relationship between past and present, providing skills and dispositions for grasping local, national, and global views. Truth is difficult to discover and claims to it need to be thoughtfully considered.

Affirming academic freedom is important, as it informs educators and the larger community of its twin features. Academic freedom is not just a concept addressing the teacher, but one focused on the student (Hofstadter and Metzger (1968). Emerging from early German universities, the right of the student to learn was essential. The student was free to explore ideas and not simply compelled to accept all that teachers, text and school presented.

Reassuring the public that academic freedom does not promote indoctrination is critical when many believe schools are overtly trying to impose views antithetical to them. Compelling acceptance of views can create a spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1977; Journell, 2017). Students presented with one perspective, taught by teachers supporting and promoting that perspective, may feel themselves to be in a minority. That perception can lead to silence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students, and families, know what teachers expect, what outlooks are correct, and often the moral value attached to various views. With academic freedom the constraints of local perspectives are open to be examined in a wider context, but student acceptance or belief in those viewpoints is not required. Those who embrace Academic Freedom recognize it is not a license for teachers to force views on students or to limit the issues examined. The concept is a defense against the imposition of certainty, which seems to be an objective of many along the political continuum.

The role of school boards

School Boards approve curricula, resources, and materials. Board meetings often have limited time for public discussion of issues, let alone providing for discussions and examination of curricula content. Entering the term Teacher Academic Freedom on the National School Boards website had no hits. Under one heading on that site Boards were urged to say no to any Federal intrusion of local decision making authority (School Boards Association, 2021). That would seem to provide support for considerable community influence on what is taught, and how it is taught. In the Advocacy Agenda for 2019-2020 (the only one on the website as of 2/16/22), there does not appear to be much about how to work with communities beyond the traditional interactions. No role for the larger public is evident.

Recently local Boards have addressed concerns about what may inappropriately be referred to as Critical Race Theory. A quick google or YouTube search provides evidence that the issue is one generating considerable conflict, and political action at the local and state level. The many YouTube videos, and anecdotal evidence suggest that school board meetings are not the best time or place for discussion. The very structure of public input at Board meetings seems to add frustration and anger to already potentially confrontational topics. Limited time, and the lack of a structure to permit significant and sustained conversation suggests other approaches need to be explored.

A memo from the FBI Director provides evidence that the anecdotal and social media reports of Board confrontations are accurate. The memo cites a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school employees and officials. It indicates that the agency will use FBI agents to discourage, identify and prosecute such threats. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2021).

What is the role of the larger community? Are they to be relegated to sporadic outbursts on social or traditional media, angry statements at school board meetings? How should public views be identified, shared, and considered. Who decides what is controversial, what gets addressed, and how, or if, opposing views are examined, welcome or tolerated?

Should American teachers be free?

American teachers should be free to foster citizens who can critically examine current controversial topics that divide the society. There is a need to protect the right of the student to learn. Teacher freedom brings responsibilities. There is a responsibility to ensure that practitioners and those preparing to practice are knowledgeable about the need for such freedom. There is a responsibility for practitioners to be open to guidance in planning, teaching, and assessing when focused on controversy. Administrators and Boards need to support teachers engaged in this work. They have a responsibility to create environments in which teachers work with colleagues, administrators, and the larger public to build support for addressing controversy. There are too few fora in which such conversation occurs. Those promoting teacher freedom and the right of students to learn beyond indoctrination need to work with school board members and the school community. Together those in schools must actively seek to find opportunities to have difficult conversations about the need for teacher and student freedom.

Preparing teachers for these challenges

Those planning to teach must understand the nature of academic freedom, recognize the need for dealing with controversial issues, and their relationship to citizenship education. Research on teacher preparation in this effort is mixed. Misco and Patterson (2007) report that teacher education candidates understand the concept of academic freedom but believe that it offers only limited protection. Some revealed they would not exercise those freedoms for several reasons, including fear of reprisals. Uncertainty about how to properly deal with controversy led to a deference to community preferences. The majority were aware of constraints on what and how issues could be addressed.

Even after completing a social studies methods course, participants in a study by Nganga et al. (2020) displayed limited awareness and understanding of teaching controversial issues. Most were unwilling or cautious about addressing issues with which they did not feel comfortable, or about which they had little experience. There was acceptance of the need to conform to the views and values dominant in the community (Engebretson, 2018; Hess 2002).

Teacher education programs themselves may not model ways to deal with alternative perspectives. The spiral of silence found in other settings may also be present within these programs (Journell, 2017). Holding conversations and exploring differing perspectives on foundational ideas may not be a priority. There may be ‘single stories’ (Adichie, 2009) in teacher preparation. Divergent views need to be shared and explored.  Doing so would model how to examine differences in the schools in which students will work.

Education programs may be one of many ‘silo’s’ within the university, with their own “silo’s’. Conversation and collaboration between the programs for administrators and other specialists is essential. Counselors, teachers, administrators in training all benefit from examining the nature of controversy, community engagement, and the benefits to teachers and students of academic freedom. There are overlapping interests, and common audiences. This collaboration would help explore ways to engage with the communities in which they already work and those in which they will work.

What needs to be done?

Little in the larger culture provides examples of how people can discuss deeply held and contrary views. The skills of active listening and clear communication need to be practiced examining issues of current importance, even when presented in an historic setting. Students need experience checking the validity of various claims. They need practice within agreed upon ground rules. Time needs to be provided for researching evidence on topics and discussing views. Students require opportunities to analyze issues using various strategies. Students need structure and practice in hearing contrasting views and doing so in respectful ways.

Teachers need to be free to select books, resources, materials, and strategies. This must support the curriculum and be consistent with state standards. Approaches on how to navigate those requirements is needed. Pre-service training and professional development for practitioners needs to be authentic, providing active participation in using various strategies. Routine focus is needed on the rationale for dealing with controversy. Pre-service training needs consistent and collaborative support from professors, clinical field supervisors, cooperating teachers and their administrators. Practitioners need support from colleagues, administrators, and local community members. These groups, committed to democracy, are essential to promoting conversation instead of confrontation on issues of significant disagreement.

References

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

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

by Robert Fenster

Few high school history textbooks have much to say about Black people in the northern colonies and states. While coverage of the evils of slavery has dramatically increased since I was a student in the 1980s, the focus has predominantly been on enslaved people in the south and not enslaved northerners nor free Black people. Slavery is mentioned 14 times in the New Jersey Student Learnings Standards from 2020, but 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] The standard implies 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[2], and the so-called Act to Abolish Slavery in 1846 replaced slavery with apprenticeship for life. The ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t merely free the slaves in states that were in rebellion, but also 16 people who remained enslaved in New Jersey in December of 1865.[3]

            Is it at all surprising that most students graduate high school in New Jersey unaware of the enduring nature of this institution or the experience of Blacks in the north? 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 celebrated as the home of abolition. That sort of teaching is oversimplified and not only does injustice to actual history, but to the lives of thousands of men and women who were enslaved in New Jersey, as well as the lives of free Black people. This essay shares my ongoing pedagogical journey, and provides some suggestions for my fellow educators who wish to improve student understanding of the history of Black people in New Jersey.

Although modern textbooks include the death of biracial Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, overall Black participation in the actual American Revolution is typically relegated to a sidebar or absent altogether. Graham Russell Hodges describes the American Revolution as a Black revolution, “the largest slave revolt before the Civil War.” Hodges indicates there is documentation for at least 18,000 Black individuals who fought for the British, with the possibility of tens of thousands more having served in an effort to throw off the oppressive shackles of the colonial governments.[4]

            At a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Slavery in the Colonial North in 2020 at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York run by Leslie Harris and Jacqueline Simmons, I saw the buildings where enslaved people toiled, and heard from expert tour guides who shared how historians pieced together so much of the history of the manor. It inspired me to focus more on slavery in New Jersey. I went to my county clerk’s office and found birth certificates and manumission records of enslaved people from our town and prepared a lesson plan incorporating these primary sources. My students were taken aback especially to see names familiar to them among the enslavers. In addition to discussing how the descendants of the enslaved people might feel about their history, the students also considered what the descendants of enslavers might think about their family’s past. That lesson in and of itself was impactful, but I was acutely aware it didn’t do enough to explore the lives of enslaved men and women.

            Well-intentioned teachers sometimes make cringe-worthy mistakes. There are lessons I did early in my career (and, truth be told, even more recently) that were tone deaf at best. It seems as if every year there’s another incident where a misguided teacher somewhere in the United States steps knee deep into controversy by running a slavery simulation. The vast majority of teachers know such a lesson has no pedagogical value and runs the risk of inducing trauma. A cursory search for lesson plans online still finds dozens of “walk a mile in their shoes” lessons, where educators think they can responsibly and effectively get students to learn by pretending they understand what an enslaved person went through, usually done through some kind of journaling activity. Although I believe it can be useful to consider what enslaved people might have been feeling, it’s ultimately presumptuous and reductive to suggest students would be able to have that level of empathy and understanding. The temptation to work solely in the affective domain when dealing with slavery and other atrocities should be resisted.

            Many enslaved people were actively prevented from learning how to write, creating a dearth of first-person documents in comparison to white contemporaries who kept journals and wrote letters. There are a number of insightful enslaved person narratives, but when trying to keep to New Jersey history it is a bit challenging. There are a handful of narratives written by white contemporaries, like William Allinson’s Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist. Although Allinson is an abolitionist, he uses his subject as a prop to further his political cause rather than illuminate the individual he is writing about. This focus belies an utter lack of interest in the enslaved person’s internal life and somewhat limits the usefulness of the text.[5] Historians are left to construct meaning out of other resources like fugitive notices, laws, tax registers, censuses, travel logs, registers of free Black people, and manumission records. New Jersey has a fairly robust set of available documents, making the work of historians easier than in several neighboring states.[6]

My evolving goal as a history teacher is three-fold: depict enslaved people as complex individuals who exercised their agency in a variety of ways, examine the ugly reality of slavery in our town, county, and state, and empower students to become historians themselves by examining the wealth of resources available to them on local history.

# # #

The study of agency is absolutely essential to shift student understanding from a one-dimensional conception of hapless victims to recognizing the humanity and complexity of individuals. Enslaved people’s agency was exhibited on a daily basis in a wide variety of ways. When students would ask me “Why didn’t they fight back?” I used to foolishly accept their premise and engage in a conversation about weaponry, psychology, and geography. Although those are all worthy of examination in a larger conversation on the subject, the fact is they fought back in innumerable ways. Agency was exhibited through armed revolt, breaking equipment, arson, working slowly or poorly, poisoning, feigning illness, self-harm, self-liberation, negotiation, and the development of an enslaved culture through language, families, community, religion, and music.

Jigsaw lesson plans are best used when the specific content is less important than the larger concepts. Examining the organized rebellions of enslaved people is an excellent opportunity to use this approach to its maximum efficacy. Students can research the Stono Rebellion, the New York Conspiracy of 1741, Gabriel’s Conspiracy, the German Coast Uprising, and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, for example. I have my students identify key figures, provide a description of the events, and then require them to find a way to frame the event as a successful endeavor. Students, of course, recognize the limits to their success, but by going beyond the reductionism of “Were they emancipated as a result of their rebellion?” it provides a key lesson.

Incidents of self-harm present a challenge to educators. We want students to understand the lengths to which enslaved people would go to assert their agency, but want to be careful about triggering existing trauma on the subject of self-harm. I’m still grappling with how much focus to put on the subject, but have used some narratives of enslaved people and newspaper articles to at least touch on the subject, if not dwell on it. The National Humanities Center has a collection of suicide-related items for teachers to consider using in their curriculum.[7] There are also an array of primary and secondary accounts of self-mutilation, such as the report of the “Desperate Negro Woman” in the Staunton Vindicator who “deliberately cut three of her fingers off, taking two licks at them” with an axe.[8] Needless to say, educators should tread lightly in this area, keeping a keen eye out for the reactions of their students.

Small acts of sabotage are more challenging to document as they likely would be chalked up to accidents or the natural wear and tear on equipment when tools would break. I don’t use any primary sources for this, but there are quite a few descriptions in narratives of enslaved people describing particular incidents that occurred prior to their emancipation. More dramatic forms of resistance like arson tend to capture students’ imagination such as the Albany fires of 1793.[9]

We used to speak of “runaway slaves,” but both terms have undergone a transition for similar reasons. As Katy Waldman pointed out, “To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation.”[10] Similarly, Daina Ramey Berry writes about the self-liberated: “[T]heir emancipation reflected a level of agency—a public showing of their personhood—and for them, escape was not a crime.”[11] Students can benefit by examining enslavers’ advertisements about the self-liberated which reveal so much about their assumptions and beliefs about their “property,” and often unintentionally expose the skills and accomplishments of the individuals in question.[12]

Giles Wright wrote that the American Revolution was “the cultural metamorphosis of Africans into African Americans.”[13] However, students rarely consider the creation of a common culture to be a form of resistance without being led to that conclusion.  I’m still working on developing plans to help students see enslaved people as something more than one-dimensional figures. I found the Historic Hudson Valley’s People Not Property interactive website particularly useful in helping students make the connection.[14] Modules on the poetry of Phylis Wheatley, the celebration of Pinkster, and the role of extralegal marriages help students better understand how oppressed people can offer resistance through assertions of their own humanity. It helps students understand that these individuals were not passive victims who allowed their oppressors to defeat them at every turn.

# # #

            When I was given the opportunity to participate in the New Jersey Council For Social Studies grant “Telling our Story: Living in New Jersey in the 1770s” focusing on the lives of lesser known individuals during the American Revolution, I knew from the outset I wanted to research Black people from Somerset County, and ideally, from Hillsborough, the town I teach in. I’d read Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills’ powerful book If These Stones Could Talk. The Revolutionary War service of William Stives gets particular attention along with his decision to settle near Hillsborough after the war.[15] The Sourland Mountain ridge runs 17 miles from Lambertville to the western end of Hillsborough, so my students would recognize various geographic locations from his life story. However, since the authors’ work had gained significant attention, I wasn’t sure my focusing on his life would do much to elevate Stives’ story.

            I spent several afternoons at the Somerset County Library in Bridgewater, poring over their local history holdings. Having never done much in the way of local history research, it took awhile to orient myself as to what was available, but before long I encountered a number of promising leads. The most significant came from the Somerset County Historical Quarterly, an outstanding publication compiling historical essays and primary source documents, which ran from 1912 to 1919. It was all I could do not to get lost reading unrelated articles about Hillsborough and nearby towns. However, the article entitled “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave” in the 1914 edition utterly captivated me.[16] The story of an enslaved man named Samuel who served as a substitute for his enslaver in exchange for the promise of freedom takes several awful, though not surprising twists. Samuel’s two years of service, including fighting at the battles of Long Island, Princeton, Monmouth — and the very local Millstone — ended in two leg wounds and the broken promise of his enslaver. Decades later, in his mid-80s, Samuel sought a pension for his service, but was repeatedly denied his just due because the pensions board claimed he had not proven his service. Ultimately, the New Jersey legislature passed a law specific to Samuel, providing him $50 a year for the remaining few years of his life.

            Chasing down information on Samuel Sutphen (as he came to be called later in his life) was both challenging and invigorating. It’s been decades since I was a college student doing research in the basement of Alexander Library at Rutgers University. I had hoped to revisit the same location for both nostalgic and practical reasons (the holdings at Rutgers are quite impressive), but Hurricane Ida made that an impossibility. Instead I relied mostly on internet-based research and was able to gain enough materials to prepare a structured academic controversy for my students. The activity incorporated materials on the multiracial Marbleheaders, and Black participants Benjamin Whitecuff, Colonel Tye, and Prime. Frankly it is a work in progress in need of development, but my students saw the breadth of Black participation in the war instead of merely seeing the battles through the eyes of the white officers.

            When I mentioned my desire to learn about enslaved people in Hillsborough, I was pointed towards the biography of Silvia Dubois, a formerly enslaved woman who received her freedom after a physical altercation with her enslaver. Dubois self-liberated after the encounter and negotiated her freedom in exchange for promising never to return.[17] Her story is remarkable, but chronologically was outside the purview of the grant. Nonetheless I read a series of items about her story and took notes for a future lesson plan. In the meantime, I encountered an article about her grandfather Harry Compton written by Kenneth E. Marshall. In turn, this led me to Marshall’s book Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth Century New Jersey, in which he focuses on the lives of three enslaved men, including the aforementioned Quamino Buccau. I liked the idea of examining a second Black man from the time period who had not served, but instead experienced changing circumstances during the American Revolution. With many enslavers off serving in the militia or Continental Army, numerous enslaved people used the opportunity to liberate themselves, negotiate better conditions for themselves, or rebel in other ways.

            In examining the experiences of various individuals based on limited and sometimes questionable documentation, it is crucial that students understand that there are limits to what we can definitively know. Many students struggle with history because they struggle with nuance, wanting everything to be crystal clear. For me, the shades of grey are what make history fascinating, and the use of deductive reasoning a great and wonderful challenge. The best conversations in the classroom are the ones where students have honest disagreements about historical interpretations with equally compelling logical arguments to support their positions. What we can do to help them is to identify particular facts and events that serve as anchors. Quamino Buccau, in his teens, was forced to watch executions of enslaved people accused of arson and other crimes.[18] Because Allinson never bothered to ask his subject how he felt about his experiences, we are left to speculate about how such experiences would impact an individual and their subsequent behavior. When he converts to Christianity after hearing what he believed to be the voice of God, a fascinating dichotomy occurs. Some, like Allinson, hold him up to be a model enslaved person, the very proof the abolitionist is seeking to demonstrate the notion that Black people could become responsible citizens imbued by their faith in religion. His subsequent enslaver, however, looked at his religiosity as something inappropriate and suspect. Kenneth Marshall raises fascinating questions about how an enslaved person might show interest in Christianity to curry favor with their enslaver, and how that in and of itself might be an assertion of agency.[19] There’s a lot to unpack here and it may be something that cannot be easily converted into a one- or two-day lesson plan. That being said, a discussion of religion and agency is definitely important in the coverage of slavery.

            Conducting this type of research and lesson planning is simultaneously rewarding and humbling. Even as I create a useful lesson plan that I will share with other educators and likely use for the rest of my career, I reflect on how many years I didn’t adequately address the subject matter in my classes. And I recognize that despite including them in the opening paragraphs of the essay, I have yet to develop resources and lessons on the lives of free Blacks in New Jersey. There is always more work to do, but at least we’re going in the right direction.

# # #

We want our students to be more than passive receptacles of knowledge that we distill. There are myriad critical thinking activities we can provide, but perhaps nothing could surpass doing the actual work of historians. There are thousands of primary and secondary source documents available online, in historical society archives, and in government offices. For example, in West Hartford, Connecticut, students participated in the Witness Stones Project, researching their town’s sordid history in connection to slavery. Beginning with an Advanced Placement US History class and then spreading out to lower grade levels, students dug into historical archives to learn more about the lives of enslaved people, commemorate their lives, and create lasting tributes through the placement of historical markers.[20] Although Covid-19 continues to present obstacles for some research, there’s no reason that our students here in New Jersey can’t start doing similar work to the West Hartford students in an effort to elevate the stories and voices of forgotten people from our local communities.

References


[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. In addition, the work of James J. Gigantino Jr. provides extensive resources on this subject.

[4] Hodges, Graham Russell. Interview with the author. Bob’s Just Asking podcast, January 27, 2022.

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

[6] Hodges Interview.

[7]National Humanities Center, “Suicide among Slaves: A “Very Last Resort,” accessed February 5, 2022, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/emancipation/text2/suicide.pdf.

[8]PBS, Slavery and the Making of America, “Responses to Enslavement,” accessed February 5, 2022,  https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/responses/docs8.html

[9]New York State Education Department, “The Conflagration of 1793,” accessed February 5, 2022, https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov//albany/doc/fire1793.html

[10] Katy Waldman, “Slave or Enslaved Person? It’s not just an academic debate for historians of American slavery,” Slate, May 19, 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/historians-debate-whether-to-use-the-term-slave-or-enslaved-person.html.

[11] Daina Ramey Berry, “The Truth About Black Freedom,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/what-freedom-really-meant-juneteenth/619239.

[12]Arlene Balkansaky, “Runaway! Fugitive Slave Ads in Newspapers,” Library of Congress, accessed February 5, 2022,  https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

[13] Giles Wright, “Moving Toward Breaking the Chains: Black New Jerseyans and the American Revolution,” in New Jersey in the American Revolution, ed. Barbara J. Mitnick (New Brunswick, NJ, Rivergate Books, 2005), 113.

[14]Historic Hudson Valley, “People Not Property: Stories of Slavery int he Colonial North,” accessed February 6, 2022, https://peoplenotproperty.hudsonvalley.org.

[15] Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell VAlley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, (Lambertville, NJ, Wild River Books, 2018).

[16] Abraham Van Doren, “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave,” Somerset County Historical Society, Volume III (1914), accessed February 6, 2022, http://hdl.handle.net/10929/46268.

[17] Greg Gillette, “The View From Hillsborough: Silvia Dubois,” My Central Jersey, February 4, 2016, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/view-from-hillsborough/2017/02/07/silvia-dubois/97586960.

[18] William Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, accessed February 6, 2022, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allinson/allinson.html, 4-5.

[19] Marshall, 100.

[20] Witness Stones Project: Students Find and Share an Untold History of the Enslaved People of West Hartford, accessed February 6, 2022, https://we-ha.com/witness-stones-project-students-find-and-share-an-untold-history-of-the-enslaved-people-of-west-hartford.

Boosting Reading Skills Through Social Studies at the Elementary Level

Boosting Reading Skills through Social Studies at the Elementary Level

Karissa Neely

Want to improve students’ reading scores? Incorporate more social studies into their instruction.

“The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study shows that social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement. In contrast, extra time spent on English Language Arts (ELA) instruction has no significant relationship with reading improvement,” Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek explain in their 2021 Social Education journal article, “How Social Studies Improves Elementary Literacy.”

According to the study, social studies has the power to boost literacy and student language acquisition. Because of its focus on people and the world around us, social studies gives students context for their ELA learning. As students use background knowledge to decipher informational text, they build real-world vocabulary and gain stronger reading comprehension skills.

In many elementary schools, where teachers have very limited social studies instruction time, they can use informational text from social studies during their language arts block.

“Integration of ELA strategies into social studies gives students an opportunity to use and refine ELA skills while using relevant content,” says Kelly Jeffery, ELA curriculum director at Studies Weekly.

Beyond reading, social studies instruction can also be more deeply blended with ELA, and support reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Here are four tips for further integrating social studies and ELA:

1. Use Interactive Notebooks

“[I]nteractive notebooks are simple spiral-bound notebooks into which students glue or tape my handouts,” says Christina Gil in a 2016 article for Edutopia. “It’s just a simple, functional way for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.”

Jeffery adds that interactive notebooks are a way for both the teacher to see what students are learning and thinking. Students use them to take notes, explore ideas, ask questions, reflect and respond. They then become a sourcebook for students as they review for assessments.

“They pair very well with Studies Weekly because it is a perfect way to consume our publications,” Jeffery explains.

2. Create a Presentation

Students need different types of opportunities to share their understanding and presentations are perfect for this.

Brochures, posters, Google Slides, Nearpods, etc. are all interactive avenues for students to work individually or collaborate together to demonstrate knowledge. Similarly, students can create video journals to storyboard events and their responses. The goal is not a perfect analysis of the event or the historical figure they are studying, but a reflection on it.

Additionally, students can create readers’ theaters or short plays based on historic events, and perform them for the class. Others might opt to write a poem about a historic figure or create a children’s book explaining about an even


Three examples of easy ways students can show learning (from top left): file folders used to summarize information, popsicle puppets to share information from a historical figure’s point of view, and trioramas used for summarizing, fact/opinion, analyzing a primary source, or as a mini-report.

3. Create a Supported Response

Using informational texts, students can create a reasoned persuasive argument sharing their opinion on an event or person.

One form of supported response is a small paragraph following the TEES Template as explained by Jeannette Balantic and Erica Fregosi in their 2012 article, “Strengthening Student Thinking and Writing about World History,” for Social Studies and the Young Learner.

The TEES Template helps students strengthen their thinking, reasoning, and responses to open-ended assessments. With this exercise students go beyond learning historical facts — instead they use these facts to form arguments and support.

4. Hold Collaborative Groups

After reading an article, students may analyze the information and reflect on it within their interactive notebook.

With their notebooks and/or articles in front of them, teachers can guide students in opening up a dialogue about what they read with a small group or the entire class. Students should consider all voices and sides to an issue or event, and use additional sources, if needed, to deepen their understanding.

As they share their opinions and factual evidence, students should also be instructed to actively listen to the other side. The goal of this exercise is not to win but to try to find a compromise between both positions.

These four tips are only just few options to help teachers blend social studies and ELA in the elementary classroom. Even more, in addition to integrating with ELA, social studies is also the gateway to deeper learning in all subjects. For example, as students learn geography, they learn spatial math concepts. Or as they learn about historical developments in technology, they develop background knowledge for science. Even within the study of social studies, students learn how to make connections between a specific topic and its effect on people, events, and society. They begin to understand how geography affects a region’s economics, history affects governments, and governments affect society.

Teaching social studies with an integrated learning approach strengthens students’ ability to reason and think critically, gain a deeper understanding of the content, and transfer information to solve new problems. This knowledge can prepare them for the future as they become the world’s government, business, and family leaders.

References:

Balantic, J., & Fregosi, E. (2012, November). Strengthening student thinking and writing about world history. Social Studies and the Young Learner, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-studies-and-young-learner/25/2/strengthening-student-thinking-and-writing-about-world

Gil, C. (2016, August 30). Interactive notebooks: No special hardware required. Edutopia. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/interactive-notebooks-no-special-hardware-christina-lovdal-gil

Tyner, A., & Kabourek, S. (2021, January). How social studies improves elementary literacy. Social Education, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-education/85/1/how-social-studies-improves-elementary-literacy

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

by Anthony  Higueruela

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack”.[1]  These words open the Powell Memorandum’s “Attack on American free enterprise System”, written by Lewis Powell and sent to the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1971.  Lewis Powell would become one of four justices Richard Nixon appointed to the United States Supreme Court that would gradually dismantle the more liberal leaning Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s.[2]  For Powell the sources of the assault on American business were wide and varied.  “They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.[3]  Powell is thorough in his inquiry into the many forces at work throughout the United States hell-bent on upending the capitalist order.  He states that: “Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of despair.  These young men despise the American political and economic system… their minds seem to be wholly closed.  They live, not by rational discussion but by mindless slogans.  A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: almost half of the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries”.[4]  The Powell Memorandum would prove to be a rallying cry for big business and global corporations to assert their rightful place in the sphere of American economic and political life.  Powell argues in almost Orwellian tones that the battle for corporate dominance must be waged on multiple fronts: that textbooks in universities should be kept under surveillance, television networks closely monitored and scholarly articles propagated on the positive benefits of a capitalistic system.[5]  He urged corporations to take a page out of the playbooks of labor and realize that political power is essential for corporate growth and must be meticulously cultivated.[6]  The Powell Memorandum is essential because it provides a framework for business interests to utilize and manipulate the existing framework of the United States legal system to gain rights that would become akin to corporate personhood.  One can think of Powell’s letter to the Chamber of Commerce as both a rallying cry and a blueprint for corporate America in order to gain greater hegemony in the United States.  The purpose of this paper is to argue that through corporations’ utilization of the legal system to gain personhood and the rights that accompany it, the political and economic welfare of the American citizen has been jeopardized. 

The first battles in the war for corporate supremacy would be waged on the legal front.  Corporations used the court system to gain access to rights historically reserved for United States citizens.  With the continual accruement of First Amendment speech rights, corporate America argued that monetary contributions by business is protected free speech guaranteed by the constitution.  This came to have disastrous consequences for the future of America’s political and democratic systems.  As corporations grew more powerful they were able to use the wealth and resources at their disposal to buy political influence and favorable legislation.

The first defining court case appeared in 1976, a few years after the establishment of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).  FECA’s primary goal was to establish new standards for fundraising and influence in the political spheres, much of which grew out of the reforms post-Watergate scandal.[7]  This act mandated public disclosure of contributions, made campaign contributions over a certain amount of money illegal and set caps on the amounts for campaign spending.[8]  The most ardent opponents of FECA were anxious that the law could be used as a tool by established politicians in order to maintain their own stranglehold on power.[9]  Their main concern lie in the fact that if the government could enact punitive measures on political communication, then entrenched politicians could utilize spending limits on insurgent political operatives in order to hold onto their own power.[10]  This law would eventually be challenged in the United States Supreme Court with the case of Buckley v. Valeo.  On January 2, 1975 a suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by New York Senator James L. Buckley and Eugene McCarthy.[11]  The plaintiffs in this case argued that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act were unconstitutional.[12]  The Supreme Court upheld the majority of the law, however it struck down the spending limits on grounds of the First Amendment.[13]  The Supreme Court reached the conclusion that legislatively passed limits on spending were unconstitutional due to the fact that they infringed on the First Amendment and were not adequately related to solving the issue of corruption.[14]  Buckley would serve as a starting point for the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on money and political affairs.[15]  The influence of money and monetary contributions to politicians had far reaching consequences to the U.S. political system.  Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money makes note that “the more important money became to the politicians, the more important the donors become to them”.[16]  This new setup, although beneficial to corporate America, was problematic to the health of American democracy and the right of the average citizen to have fair representation.  With the growth of corporate donors and their extensive resources which allow them to donate large sums of money to political campaigns, one must ask the question—what does this do to the balance of influence between people and corporations?  This answer is simple: it dramatically shifts it in favor of corporations.

The culmination of over three decades worth of litigation would result in Citizens United v. FEC (2010).  This seminal case proved to be the crowning victory for corporate America’s right to donate unfettered amounts of money based on their first amendment rights to freedom of speech.  Just as Bellotti opened up a loophole for corporations to donate money in ballot measures, Citizens United threatened to do the same for corporate money in campaign elections.[17]  The case that would forever alter the landscape of campaign finance law began when a conservative nonprofit corporation sought to air a ninety minute movie about Hillary Clinton on DirecTV.[18]  Citizens United also wished to air thirty second advertisements for their movie regarding Hillary Clinton on cable television.[19]  The Federal Election Committee (FEC) sought to block both the movie and the television ads on the basis that they violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002), which did not allow corporate funded campaign ads within thirty day of a presidential primary contest.[20]  Citizens United challenged the decision handed down by FEC on the basis that it was a documentary and not offered on broadcast television, therefore BCRA was not applicable.[21]  The government, however, argued that it was a ninety minute advertisement designed to damage Clinton in the primaries and its distribution did indeed count as broadcast.[22]  Ted Olsen, one of the leading lawyers for Citizens United argued that the law had no justification since there was no quid pro quo when corporations donate money to campaigns.[23]  His argument rested on the fact that Congress’s power to limit corruption in elections rested on their power to punish and deter clearly explicit bribes, anything else could not truly be counted as corruption.[24]  Olson went so far as to tell the court that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was essentially a ban on the free speech of corporations, and that the government had distinctly prohibited speech.[25] 

Proponents of Citizens United often attempt to downplay the damage it did to democracy.  In the Wall Street Journal, Bradley Smith argues that the ruling allowed corporations to make independent expenditures in campaigns and elections.[26]  He also argues that Citizens United opened the door to new political challengers and is quick to dismiss any critics as simply being put off that their preferred candidates did not win.[27]  What Smith fails to recognize is that the ruling from Citizens United puts corporations and wealthy individuals at a disproportionate advantage when compared to the ordinary citizen.  Citizens United essentially gave big business and special interests a pass to legally bribe politicians for legislation favorable to their interests.  This in turn diminishes the political rights of the American citizenry.  

Citizens United is unique in the sense that corporations are described as associations that have taken on corporate form.[28]  Historian Adam Winkler noted, “if the first amendment has any force, Kennedy read aloud from his opinion, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens or associations of citizens for simply engaging in political speech” (Winkler 364).  What is significant in this fact is that by defining corporations as associations of citizens, it allows them to subsume the rights of other people, in other words the corporations own members.[29] 

One must then examine the implications of allowing corporations to assume rights of multiple individuals.  If a corporation, as an association of individuals, can assume their collective rights then what recourse is left to individuals within the corporation to seek redress from grievances perpetrated by the corporation?  If all rights belonging to individuals within a corporate framework are taken by the corporate entity then workers and employees are left powerless against corporate abuse and excess.  The adoption of corporate personhood and corporate legal speech rights to utilize money in campaigns robbed the average citizen of their rights to a free and fair democracy.  According to Zephyr Teachout, “while corruption has narrowed to quid pro quo, free speech has expanded to encompass all money spent on communication”.[30]  Large corporations, due to their wealth and resources, are at an unnatural advantage when compared to the average citizen in terms of spending money on campaigns and referendums.  This undermines democracy as it creates rule by a few large corporate entities as opposed to rule by the people.  It also allows corporations to buy greater access to political candidates in order to secure favorable legislation towards their own interests.  Taken a step further, Teachout argues, “because of Citizens United it is not illegal for a corporation to spend millions of dollars to punish a congressperson who voted against their interests”.[31]  This only further increases the power of corporations at the expense of the American citizens due to the fact that corporations are able to use their money and lobbying power to ensure favorable outcomes for themselves in regards to legislation.


[1] Lewis Powell, greenpeace.org, 1.

[2] Adam Winkler, We the Corporations (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018)

[3] Lewis Powell, greenpeace.org, 3.

[4] Powell, 3.

[5] Winkler, 286-87

[6] Winkler, 287.

[7]Teachout, 206.

[8] Teachout, 206-07

[9] Teachout, 207

[10] Teachout, 207.

[11] Fec.gov, 1.

[12] Fec.gov, 1.

[13] Teachout, 207.

[14] Teachout, 207.

[15] Teachout, 207.

[16] Teachout, 209.

[17] Winkler,

[18] Teachout, 229-230

[19] Teachout, 230

[20] Teachout, 230

[21] Teachout,  230

[22] Teachout, 230

[23] Teachout, 231

[24] Teachout, 231

[25] Winkler, 361

[26] Bradley Smith, “The Incumbent’s Bane: Citizens United and the 2010 Election”, Wall Street Journal, 2.

[27] Smith, 2.

[28] Winkler, 364

[29] Winkler, 364

[30] Teachout, 241.

[31] Teachout, 112.

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

Parts of this essay appear in At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for our Children’s Future (Peter Lang, 2022). https://www.peterlang.com/document/1166664

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

by Doug Selwyn

            A group of approximately 30 teachers, administrators, over the family members, health officials and others in our town of Greenfield, Massachusetts met summer of 2020 attempting to plan for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. COVID-19 was raging and we had to make choices about whether to have in-person schooling, a hybrid model that had children in schools some of the week and learning remotely the rest of the week, or to conduct school entirely remotely, at least to start.

            Several things became evident as we considered our options. First, there might be no institution as inextricably bound to the community than are schools. Any decision we made would reverberate through the community, with consequences for families, for businesses, for those needing childcare, for virtually every aspect of town life. It also meant that what was happening in the community would have significant consequences for what was happening in the schools. Second, it was clear that what we already knew, that there was (and is) significant inequality across our community, was even more prevalent and more consequential than we had realized. Third, our schools were already severely underfunded and under-resourced before Covid. The arrival of Covid made things even worse, stretching resources beyond the breaking point, which made realistic planning all but impossible because there was no way to really do what needed to be done. Fourth, there would be no time to offer adequate professional development or preparation time for faculty and staff. And fifth, the federal and state governments were prioritizing political and economic interests over educational or health-related concerns.

And what was most clear was that the best-case scenario was to be able to get back to near “normal,” to the education we had before the arrival of the pandemic. We were in crisis mode and getting ready for the school year was all that mattered.

I had written a book two years before focused on the question, what would our schools look like if our primary focus was on the health and wellbeing of our children. What I found was that if that really was our primary concern we would have to address the underlying issues in our society such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, a lack of health care for mothers during pregnancy and for newborns and their families through their first months and years of life, and the various stresses and traumas our children were experiencing from racism, from living in a toxic environment, from a lack of access to health care, and from other social, or economic factors if we wanted our children to both be healthy and able to come to school ready to learn. We could not simply say to schools fix yourselves while doing nothing about the underlying issues in our communities and country.

No one on our committee had time or energy to think about these larger issues as we pondered how to open schools. They simply wanted to get back to as close to “normal” as possible. While I recognized the enormous pressure the committee was under to get schools open one way or another, having as a goal returning to a school system that was failing so many of our children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, was not good enough, so I decided to research the question what do our children need to learn and know and how can we help them to learn it so that they are going to be as prepared as possible to move into their future, which is, by definition, unpredictable. While we recognize that one of the responsibilities of the adults in our society is to educate our young, there is not always agreement about what that education should consist of, who should receive it, who should offer it, who should pay for it, and how it should be assessed. These questions led me to invite the thoughts of educators and activists on what education our children needed and how we might help them to achieve it. I cast as wide a net as I could in gathering points of view, experience, perspectives, and understandings, and we looked at several aspects of the question including understanding the role of schools within the larger society, learning from our experiences with COVID, looking at the content we offer, considering who should be teaching and how they should be educated, how we might assess, and what other models of education might we consider, beyond public schooling. I pulled the essays and interviews together into a book, At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future (2022), and want to briefly share what I learned, starting with a brief look at my own story.

I was mis educated about much of U.S. history by Walt Disney and other programs on television. I “learned” from Disney and other media that U.S. history really began with the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued as (white) European Americans moved across North America fulfilling their Manifest Destiny to civilize and settle the essentially empty continent. I watched Disney’s take on Davy Crockett to learn about what that meant; fighting hostile, savage Indians who stood in the way of that Manifest Destiny, and later, fighting hostile, evil Mexicans who surrounded and murdered heroic Americans at the Alamo. Disney never mentioned the genocide and forced resettlements that were at the heart of Manifest Destiny, or the land grab that was the so-called Mexican War, or its link to perpetuating and maintaining slavery. It was nationalistic myth making that was echoed by virtually everything else that appeared on television, our prime window on the world outside of our neighborhoods.

Disney and other media also (mis) educated me about race relations, gender roles and values, which seemed to center on strong, silent, gun toting men who traveled alone or sometimes with a clownish sidekick, and pretty, vulnerable and relatively helpless women. And, of course, all the good guys (and women) were white.

Despite the fact that I went through a well-regarded K-12 school system, I did not encounter any real pushback to the Disney version of history until I was in college, and that pushback mostly came from “teachers” and situations outside of the classroom. I spent my summers living across the street from the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota, NY (population 62), within a small Mohawk community, and got to know Ray Fadden, the man who built and ran the museum., “Uncle” Ray and my other neighbors helped me to learn a much more accurate picture of the genocide and forced removal that were the hallmarks of Manifest Destiny, and I learned more about the complex and layered governing and social systems at the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy that challenged virtually everything I’d been taught at school, or by Disney.

This experience awakened me to the need to question, to challenge, and to not automatically accept what I was being told in school, in my neighborhood (which was an essentially middle class, white, quietly racist community of young families), and from media of all sorts, including the news.

When I finally decided on becoming a teacher, more than a decade after graduating from college I thought back on my relentless mis education and realized I had to formulate my own goals, my own purpose as an educator. I came up with a short list of goals and aspirations for my work as a teacher, which I continued to add to with experience. They included:

The children are more important than any of the subjects.

  • Every child should feel welcomed and valued.
  • All children in class should have the opportunity to explore what is most important to them, at least some of the time.
  • I should avoid using textbooks as much as possible as they are both deadly boring and inaccurate or incomplete.
  • It is crucial to bring in more points of view and voices than what are featured in textbooks or in mandated curriculum.
  • I must be a learner, to model what I hope the students will take from their time with me.
  • I will bring as much joy and excitement to learning as possible.
  • I want to help students to learn to critically question what they are encountering, including me.
  • I must do everything I can to tell them the truth, and to help to learn to find the truth for themselves.

I can’t say that I have always been successful in meeting those goals, but they are always the compass points I try to steer by. My research and conversations while editing At the Center of All Possibilities have moved me to update my list. I would now add:

  • Having an increased awareness of the cultures, histories, and contexts of the students.
  • Learning much more about the impact that inequality, white supremacy, racism, and capitalism play in determining, or strongly influencing the lives we lead
  • Becoming a more active and engaged advocate for social justice outside of the classroom. Helping students understand the crippling impact of slavery and racism on our society, that continues to this day
  • Supporting students learning to listen and communicate clearly with their peers, and to work with them as allies and cooperators rather than as competitors.
  • Developing alternative ways of organizing education that pattern after the freedom school model, with a focus is on a smaller, more personal educational experience focused on the needs and interests of the students.
  • Assessing the quality of our work together, in my classroom and in my school by the quality of our lives inside and outside of school. How are we feeling about ourselves and each other, how are we behaving with each other, how much are we engaging in learning that is of interest, and how are putting what we learn to use in service to what we care about, in school and out. If there is no evidence that school is moving them towards becoming engaged, caring, and joyful humans then we are failing them and need to change what we are doing.

I would also add to my list the importance of reaching out to the community to help me to learn about the students, to learn about content I don’t know, to help me identify resources and to help me think through how best to make the educational experience as effective and meaningful and joyful as possible. Many of us enter classrooms thinking we must do it all ourselves and are reluctant to “blow our cover” by admitting we don’t know how to deal with particular content or a particular student or situation. That is evidence of a flaw in how we are trained rather than educated in our K-12 and university systems. I learned so much by asking them to be a part of this project. I hope that readers will keep this learning in mind as you think about how to transform education in your school or district, that you will be well served by inviting others to think and plan and act with you. We are in this together and are wiser and more powerful when we join together.

I want to close with a few words from Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee. He was in dialog with Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and said this: “If I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first…. and that means people everywhere, not just your family or your own countrymen or your own color. And wanting for them what you want for yourself. And then next is respect for people’s abilities to learn and to act and to shape their own lives. You have to have confidence that people can do that… The third thing grows out of caring for people and having respect for people’s ability to do things, and that is that you value their experiences. You can’t say that you respect people and not respect their experiences.” (Bell, Gaventa, & Peters, 1990, p 177-178)

There is so much that we can do if we trust, respect, and value the people we work with, beginning with our students and their families. When we trust, respect, and value people enough to listen to them when they share who they are, what they care about, and what their goals and dreams are, we have already taken a significant step towards the transformation of their educational experience, and ours.

References

Bell, B, Gaventa, J, & Peters, J. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Selwyn, D. (2022). At the center of all possibilities: Transforming education for our children’s future. Peter Lang.

The Freedom to Teach by the National Council for the Social Studies

This statement is from March 2022 and can be found at https://www.socialstudies.org/current-events-response/freedom-teach

Poster-Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1950s

School districts, the most active battlefield in the American culture wars today, are facing an unprecedented number of calls to remove books from schools and libraries, false claims about “obscenity” invading classrooms, the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change, challenges to the need for making sense of and critiquing our world in the mathematics classrooms, and legislation redlining teaching about racism in American history. These actions are putting excessive and undue pressure on teachers, who are caught in the crossfire of larger political conflict, motivated by cultural shifts and stoked for political gain.

Teachers are being maligned as “harming” children and are subjected to constant scrutiny (and even direct surveillance) by many parents, school administrators, and activist groups. Some are afraid to offer their students award-winning books that may violate vaguely stated laws about teaching the history of racism or that may be misleadingly labeled as pornographic. As a result, teachers’ very ability to do their job is under threat.

In their zeal, activists of the current culture wars unfortunately treat teachers as if they are enemies. The truth is that teachers are uniquely important leaders who, in educating current and new generations of students, bear responsibility for this country’s future. They are trained professionals with one of the hardest and most demanding jobs, a job that requires deep commitment, but brings little financial reward.  

Teachers need our support; they need our trust; they need to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgment. And that freedom includes the freedom to decide what materials best suit their students in meeting the demands of the curriculum, the freedom to discuss disturbing parts of American history if and when they judge students are ready for it, and the freedom to determine how to help young people navigate the psychological and social challenges of growing up. In short, teachers need the freedom to prepare students to become future members of a democratic society who can engage in making responsible and informed contributions and decisions about our world.

The stakes are too high. We cannot let good teachers leave the field because they no longer have the freedom to do their job. We cannot let the education of our children and young adults become collateral damage in partisan political machination.

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: Quamino, New Brunswick, NJ, Somerset County, 1789

Decision Activity: Quamino

Somerset County, NJ 1789

Quamino was born near New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1762. Young Quamino had a complete family unit when he was living in Somerset County. Despite describing Quamino as “compliant,” his contemporary biographer William Allinson described a horrific episode where young Quamino was forced to watch a fellow enslaved person burned at the stake as punishment for alleged crimes. At no point in the memoir or in any other documentation is Quamino described as rebellious or uncooperative. Much of this is attributed to his religious conversion and subsequent piety. Allinson essentially uses Quamino as the model version of a benign, non-threatening Black man as a means of condemning the institution of slavery, consistent with Allinson’s abolitionist views. Allinson’s book is described as a memoir, including numerous quotations directly from Quamino, but neglects to offer a physical description of the man, the names of his siblings, or many of his inner emotions and rationale for his behavior.

At age nine, Quamino was essentially rented out to an enslaver in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was separated from his family and upon the commencement of the Revolutionary War was unable to have any communication with his “master” (and thereby his family). From roughly age 9 to 18, he remained in New York, but in 1780 was unexpectedly returned to his original enslaver and reunited with his family. Allinson wrote, “Overcome with this too sudden announcement, he burst into a violent and uncontrollable fit of crying, and for hours cried aloud as though he had been beaten — unable to answer questions, or to stay his emotions at the kindest efforts to pacify him.”[2]

How do you think each of the following may have contributed to his uncontrollable response to the news?

  1. Shock that his situation would ever improve.
  2. Joy at the prospect of being reunited with his family.
  3. Separation from his family caused emotional deprivation.
  4. The experience of enslavement is a form of mental and physical torture.

Consider the implications of each of the items in a response of two or three sentences.

Back in Somerset County, Quamino had a religious experience, claiming that God had spoken to him, thus beginning his period of devout faith in the Methodist religion. His enslaver looked suspiciously upon enslaved people’s faith, believing it could interfere with maintaining a degree of ignorance and thus make them less “serviceable” as workers. He even suspected Quamino’s position was a pose, designed to gain a level of respect from others in the community. Consequently, he would criticize and may have beaten Quamino for participating in religious services, but Quamino accepted the consequences and maintained his personal beliefs.

As there is only one source for this information, we have no idea of how sincere Quamino’s religious conversion was, but either way, one could argue that maintaining his faith was an exercise of autonomy and personal agency.

Two Options to Consider:

A. Quamino was wholly genuine in his religious conversion, and was willing to deal with any obstacles in his path to exercise his faith.

B. Quamino was less than 100% genuine in his conversion, but believed that some degree of deception would provide him some degree of social standing.

Describe in two to three sentences how each of the options would mean that Quamino was exercising personal agency.

In 1788, he married Sarah, an enslaved woman who lived nearby. She was soon sold and moved five miles away, allowing them to see one another as infrequently as once a week. When Quamino’s enslaver died around 1789, he was passed onto one of the enslaver’s sons. Several years later, he was beaten by his enslaver. Quamino told him he refused to work for him further, a tactic that some other enslaved people had used to demand being sold to a new owner. In some locations, the relationship between enslaver and enslaved was perceived as a sort of social contract with obligations flowing in both directions. “Unjustified” abuse might be grounds for “slave quitting” depending on local customs. Although enslaved people might be aware of instances of slave quitting via word of mouth, nothing was in the law, thus employing this tactic was enormously risky for Quamino.

Consider the possible outcomes of this risky decision.

Three Possible Outcomes to Consider:

A. His enslaver could have rejected the claim and then worsened his treatment of Quamino.

B. His enslaver could agree to sell him to a new enslaver whose treatment of Quamino could be the same (or worse).

C. His enslaver could agree to sell him to a new enslaver whose treatment of Quamino would be an improvement.

Which of the following seems the most likely outcome?

If you think the outcome would have been A or B, would Quamino have regretted his decision of refusing to work?

Why was it difficult for Black Americans to enjoy the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence?

Quamino was sold to a new enslaver, who did not seem to have used physical violence against those he enslaved. Quamino even arranged for his new enslaver to purchase Sarah, allowing the couple to live together as husband and wife.  In 1806, Quamino was manumitted through an elaborate process that included having to testify before a committee to demonstrate that his freedom would not be a burden upon the state of New Jersey. Sarah died in 1842 and Quamino lived to around 1850 (age 88). They had at least two sons together, although it appears at least one of them was sold as an infant.


[1] Frontispiece of William Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist

[2] Allinson, page 6.

Decision Activity: James Parker – Perth Amboy, NJ Middlesex County, 1777

Decision Activity: James Parker

Perth Amboy, Middlesex County, NJ – 1777

My name is James Parker and the year is 1777. I am sitting in my living room in my large home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the state capitol of New Jersey.  I own large areas of land in eastern New Jersey in Middlesex and Hunterdon counties.   My family has served the colony of New Jersey for the British government for many generations, having opportunities and wealth that could not have been obtained in Britain. I have worked directly as a councilor under the Royal Governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, and my brother-in-law, Cortlandt Skinner, served as Royal Attorney General for New Jersey before joining the Loyalist forces in 1776.

The political climate is tense in New Jersey, it is changing with the loud majority supporting the Patriot cause.  I oppose the actions of people using intimidating tactics to coerce people to agree with the more radical Patriot factions.   You may agree that the taxes are burdensome, but as a former merchant, property owner, landlord, lawyer and having also served as the Mayor of Perth Amboy, you have a solid perspective of the complexity of trying to manage multiple ventures and properties with the associated financial responsibilities.  You are trying not to be bold with your political feelings, but are well known in your associations.

The new patriot led state government, having set up a Council of Safety to protect the people who disagreed with the British government, is asking you to swear an Oath of Abjuration, swearing allegiance to the patriotic government. You still feel that all of the benefits you have were due to Britain opening up settlement in the colonies.   Do you take this oath to protect yourself from being fined or even jailed, or do you stand by your principles?

Debate with yourself (or another person) by examining both choices and considering the positive and negative impacts of each.  Write a short paragraph regarding your choice, explaining your rationale as well as the potential consequences. Consider explaining what would happen if you made the opposite choice. Think about the following:

A. How might your family react?

B. How might your neighbors and town of Perth Amboy react?

C. What might be the physical consequences?

d. What might be the moral consequences?

James Parker refused the oath and was sent to jail in Morristown, New Jersey. In 1778, he was paroled in exchange for a patriot held in New York.  Possibly fearing for his family’s safety, he chose to move his family to Union Township in Hunterdon County, where he owned a large amount of property and a home. However, he still needed to conduct his business as a proprietor and maintain his family’s historical residence by traveling frequently to Perth Amboy, one of the two capital cities of New Jersey at the time. 

To financially conduct business during colonial times different denominations of money were used.  There was a definite lack of hard cash.  The saying “cold, hard cash” back then meant coins, because they were metal and the only legal tender.  You may have had to deal with coins as James Parker did. He mentions using Continental dollars, “Johannes”, which were Portuguese gold coins, English pounds, shillings, Guineas, New York currency, New Jersey money. The weights were measured and a considered a reliable method of measuring the purity of a coin.  A moidore, an English version of a Portuguese term for a gold coin, was equivalent to 27 shillings.

One of the problems with using the paper Continental currency was counterfeiting. James Parker notes in his farm journal on January 19, 1779 that he was paying for a piece of property from Abraham Bonnell and felt it important enough to mention that he could not confirm if the bills he used were counterfeited. He also noted that Bonnell said that he did not believe so and said he didn’t believe any of it was counterfeited, as he had been careful to examine, though he had heard that a mark of a printer was not necessarily proof of authenticity.  Parker also notes that he “Paid for a bushel of wheat in hard money”.  Write a short paragraph describing how you would keep track of the different currencies.  

What difficulties would you have as a landowner during this time with handling currency? Consider the following:

A. The different denominations and origins of the currencies at the time

B. Values of Continental money and ease of counterfeiting

It is December of 1778. You will be expected to help quarter General Burgoyne’s troops as they pass through your town on their way to Virginia. It could take a week or more for them to bring all of the divisions of soldiers through. 

How would this affect your business, how you feel and what will you do? Write a few sentences describing how your farm operations would be affected and how you feel about hosting the soldiers on your property and feeding and housing the British officers.

You have heard of a Loyalist family by the last name of Vought, who were suffering due to their allegiance to the crown. The father, John Vought, was particularly well known because of his participation in a violent uprising against the local Patriots in 1776. After being fined heavily, John joined the British army later that year. In the summer of 1778, the Council of Safety confiscated all of their property in Clinton, Hunterdon County and auctioned it off about three miles from your home.

Write a few sentences about how you feel about this woman being left without any belongings while her husband was serving in the British Army?  Would you do anything to help or would you be afraid that your help might bring reprisals from your neighbors?  Would your good standing in the community counter any harmful reactions?

James Parker was asked to contribute to a relief fund by Dr. Isaac Smith, who was collecting various items and livestock for Mrs. Vought.

How difficult and important is it to choose a path of humanitarian support following your religious and moral beliefs, even when they are in conflict with popular sentiment?

Decision Activity: Philip Freneau – Matawan, NJ, Monmouth County, 1778

Decision Activity: Philip Freneau

Matawan, NJ. Monmouth County – 1778

Parents throughout history want what is best for their children, sometimes they try to pressure their children into decisions that may be against what the child wants to do.  An example of this was Philip Freneau, whose family moved from New York in 1762 to what is now known as Matawan, Monmouth County, New Jersey.  He attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, beginning in 1768 and majored in theology at the urging of his parents.  While attending, Philip became acquainted and made friends with people who would be very influential in the impending conflict with England.  Some of the notable people included the president of the college, Reverend John Witherspoon who was delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Freneau’s roommate was James Madison, future father of the Constitution and President of the United States.  His good friend, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, was a teacher, newspaper editor, chaplain in the Continental Army, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, and influential in Thomas Jefferson’s campaign for President.  Aaron Burr and “Lighthorse” Henry Lee also attended Princeton University while Philip was there.

Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge became notorious for writing poetry which included the mistreatment of the colonies by Britain. This debate was intensified by two campus organizations, the American Whig Society and the Clio-Sophic Society, which the Whigs referred to as the “Tories”. Philip enjoyed writing and composing poetry, yet was influenced by the stories from his father, who was a merchant in the wine trade sailing from the colonies to Madeira off the coast of northwest Africa, to the Caribbean and back to the colonies.

Making a decision about a future career can be difficult.  If you had the choice to pursue a steady and sustainable career in the ministry or education, or chasing the romantic, adventurous stories of your father, which would you choose and why?

Freneau chose to begin his career as a teacher in New York, perhaps a career more in line with his parent’s expectations but lasting only thirteen days. “Those who employed me were some of the gentlemen from New York; some of them are bullies, some merchants, others scoundrels.  They sent me eight children, the eldest of whom was ten years old.  Some could read, others spell, and a few stammer over a chapter of the Bible – these were my pupils and over these I was to preside” (Griswold)

He realized that he was unsuited for teaching school and yet failed to return the money he received as a retainer for employment.  After spending time at his mother’s farm, called Mount Pleasant, in Matawan, New Jersey, he realized that he was also not particularly fond of the farming life and accepted an invitation from his friend, Henry Brackenridge to come to Maryland as a teacher in his school. He taught there for three years before heading home to Mount Pleasant and then moving to New York to pursue his love of writing and publishing poetry. 

How do you think he felt with his lack of success?

Freneau continued to publish poems for little or no profit, using this medium to express his feelings on the political climate which was difficult due to the occupation of British forces in New York.  His writing expressed his hope for reconciliation with Britain, but also the idea of liberty. Poetry at this time was read as entertainment and at times used to verbally and satirically discredit and attack public figures.  Poems were published in newspapers, broadsides, and books. Earning a living from publishing was difficult due to the expenses of printing and binding books.

An excerpt from Freneau’s poem:

TO THE AMERICANS On the Rumoured Approach of the Hessian Forces, Waldeckers, & c. (Published 1775)

If Britain conquers, help us, heaven, to fly:

Lend us your wings, ye ravens of the sky;—

If Britain conquers—we exist no more;

These lands will redden with their children’s gore,

Who, turned to slaves, their fruitless toils will moan,

Toils in these fields that once they called their own!

To arms! to arms! and let the murdering sword

Decide who best deserves the hangman’s cord:

Nor think the hills of Canada too bleak

When desperate Freedom is the prize you seek;

For that, the call of honour bids you go

O’er frozen lakes and mountains wrapt in snow:

No toils should daunt the nervous and the bold,

They scorn all heat or wave-congealing cold.

Haste!—to your tents in iron fetters bring

These slaves, that serve a tyrant and a king;

So just, so virtuous is your cause, I say,

Hell must prevail if Britain gains the day.

How does this poem try to influence the reader’s opinion? What examples of influential vocabulary is he using?  How would you write a poem about the Boston Massacre that would influence your audience to follow your perspective of the incident if you were a Boston resident?

For male citizens in the eighteenth century, militia duty was often required; if you were at sea for business, you would be exempt.  Freneau used his family’s connections to go to sea and gained valuable career experience by staying in Santa Cruz, now known as St. Croix.  He observed the effects of plantation slavery, having previously only been exposed to the few house and field slaves owned by his family.  He was thoroughly disgusted by the treatment Caribbean slaves received and wrote poetry reflecting his feelings.  He then traveled on ships to islands and in Bermuda he fell in love with a local woman, who unfortunately became ill and died.  He returned home in 1778 and joined the New Jersey militia, serving as a lookout by patrolling and scouting the shore area for British ships. 

Philip took every opportunity to sail ships, serving as a privateer, sailing between Philadelphia and the West Indies.  He participated in successfully capturing the British Ship Brittanie on December 30, 1779. At the end of his militia duty he continued his privateering activities as a civilian on the ship Aurora,  while trading tobacco in the Caribbean.  His ship was attacked by the British Ship Iris and all of his belongings were confiscated and he was held captive on a British prison ship in New York Harbor.  He was held in miserable and filthy conditions for three weeks before becoming ill and taken to a hospital ship where conditions were not much better.

Imagine being locked in a cell on a rotting and filthy ship, not knowing when and if you would be included in a prisoner exchange?  How would you pass the time?  Would you give up and sink into misery, why or why not?  How would you find ways to try to occupy your mind to keep your spirits up in hopes for release? 

Freneau later wrote a poem about his experiences called The British Prison Ship.

THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,

These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,

Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,

And injur’d ghosts, yet unaveng’d, complain;

This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you

Conspire to murder whom you can’t subdue. —

No masts or sails these crowded ships adorn,

Dismal to view, neglected and forlorn;

Here, mighty ills oppress’d the imprison’d throng,

Dull were our slumbers, and our nights were long——

From morn to eve along the decks we lay

Scorch’d into fevers by the solar ray;

No friendly awning cast a welcome shade,

Once was it promis’d, and was never made;

No favours could these sons of death bestow,

‘Twas endless vengeance, and unceasing woe:

Immortal hatred does their breasts engage,

And this lost empire swells their souls with rage.

He was released after six weeks and needed to decide how he should pursue a career. Philip moved to Philadelphia and became a writer for the Freeman’s Journal, an anti-British publication.  At the time, it was a frequent practice for writers to take pseudonyms in order to avoid persecution over political statements.  Words were used as political pressure and were often combined with entertainment using satire.  Freneau’s writings would often be targeted as well as a target for more conservative publications such as The Pennsylvania Packet and The Pennsylvania Gazette and his brutal criticism and biting satire made so many enemies that he was pressured to resign as editor.

After the Revolutionary War was over, he went back to sea in 1784, but was shipwrecked in a storm off the coast of Jamaica. He survived and made it to land and returned to Philadelphia.  He tried his hand at publishing yet again, but could not earn enough money to survive, so he went back to sea on a ship owned by his brother in Charleston, South Carolina.  He continued writing and publishing poetry. 

How would you feel about your writing if you had a group of critics and opponents just waiting for an opportunity to argue with your work? What should Freneau do?

The shipping business struggled and Philip returned to his mother’s farm. He continued writing and publishing. While in Matawan, he married Eleanor and acquired more land to add to his family holdings.

To augment the income from the farm and support his growing family, he became an editor of a New York paper The Daily Advertiser. With the relocation of the nation’s capital to Philadelphia, New York was no longer a profitable market for newspapers and he moved back to New Jersey and started his own newspaper, The Monmouth Gazette. The newspaper followed his anti-federalist views, agreeing with the principles of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Through James Madison, Freneau was offered the position of clerk for foreign languages in the new capital city. He.  He was also offered a position with The National Gazette, through his connection with Thomas Jefferson.

Were these appointments ethical?  Why or why not?

Philip took the opportunity afforded by his editorial position with the National Gazette to antagonize the Federalists in the Executive Branch, especially targeting Alexander Hamilton and comparing Washington’s presidency to a monarchy. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1793, Washington states:

 “The publications in Freneau’s and Beach’s Papers are outrages on common decency; and they progress in that style, in proportion as their pieces are treated with contempt, & passed by in silence by those, at whom they are aimed.” (Washington, n.d.)

The National Gazette continued in publication through the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, but the exodus from the city of Philadelphia eventually led to a decline in subscriptions and the end of the paper.  Freneau resigned as editor as well as Clerk of Translation, as he was highly unqualified, knowing only English and French.  He spent a majority of his money paying other people to translate for him and returned to Matawan with little income. 

How would you feel if it seemed that the careers you tried for success kept failing? What would you do next?

Philip began his own local paper, The Monmouth Almanac, which communicated important local events such as the schedule of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Quaker Church meeting places and times, and the weather. He also published poetry and sold subscriptions with moderate success. For more income he began to publish The New Jersey Chronicle which promoted his Republican agenda. Unfortunately, this publication failed.

Persevering, Freneau found a partner in Alexander Menut in 1797, to co-print a newspaper in New York called The Time Piece and Literary Companion. This paper, like Freneau’s previous, attempted to influence the citizenry of New York toward his Republican ideals.  He criticized the XYZ affair in 1797, which resulted in many canceled subscriptions and financial losses.

While in New York, Freneau was enlisted by Deborah Sampson Gannett to petition Congress for a pension.  Mrs. Gannett had enlisted as a soldier in the Revolutionary War by disguising herself as a man from May of 1782 to being honorably discharged in October of 1783. She had been wounded in battle and claimed disability due to her injury.  Freneau used his knowledge of her situation to write an ode that channeled his displeasure with the Federalists. As a result, Deborah Gannett did not receive her pension for many years, eventually receiving it in 1805.

Career and financial misfortune followed. He returned to his land with a loan and a financial gift from his brother in order to stay out of debtor’s prison.  He needed money to pay dowries for the weddings of his daughters and for running the farm. He sold property to raise money.  In October 1818, a fire burned the Freneau home to the ground, including many unpublished poems.  He and his wife settled in a new house under construction on the property.  In his family Bible it states:

“The old house at Mount Pleasnt accidentally took fire on Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock October 18th – 1818 precisely one year after my mother’s decease. It was consumed to the ground with a large part of property therein. The following day we began to remove into the New House, which was partial finished. The Old House was built in 1752 by my father – 42 feet in length and 24 in breadth.” (Ryer, n.d.)

In his elder days Philip Freneau was seen roaming the roads to Freehold and the local hills wearing worn clothing and was well known for frequenting the local taverns, libraries and country store. The lack of money forced his family to sell off more property and the Freneau’s poverty led them to move to an abandoned house belonging to Eleanor’s brother.  Philip had a reputation for excessive drinking which may have led to his final demise. On December 18, 1832 he had been at the local country store, meeting with friends and died of exposure when walking home alone; he was found the following day.  Philip Freneau is buried in the locust grove in Matawan near his mother.

References:

Freneau, Philip. n.d. “To James Madison from Philip Freneau, 22 November 1772.” Founders Online. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0016 .

LEWIS, FRED. n.d. “The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Poems of Philip Freneau (Volume I).” Project Gutenberg. Accessed February 23, 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38475/38475-h/38475-h.htm

“Press Attacks · George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” n.d. Mount Vernon. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/press-attacks/

Ryer, James B. n.d. “History of Freneau’s house in Matawan.” Philip Freneau’s home Philip Freneau house in Matawan. Accessed March 4, 2022. http://philipfreneau.com/history.html

“To George Washington from Anonymous, March 1792.” n.d. Founders Online. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0108

Washington, George. n.d. “From George Washington to Henry Lee, 21 July 1793.” Founders Online. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-13-02-0176

Young, Alfred F. 2005. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. N.p.: Vintage Books.