Rethinking the value of the slavery assignment


The climate of current political discourse is often described as polarizing. Many of us tune in to our preferred source of news and listen to talk shows that rehash our favorite arguments. Especially amidst the chaos of what has been 2020, these divides have reared their ugly heads. 

Whether the issue revolved around the pandemic, the environment, racial justice or the election, lines were quickly drawn and conclusions hastily reached. Perhaps the virtual nature of discussion amplified this phenomenon. Regardless, it takes a mere scroll through Facebook to be met with voices on either side of the aisle unflinchingly defending their key beliefs. 

A discussion reminiscent of this trend has appeared on our campus. Last week, The University News reported on a petition circulating among students at the University of Dallas condemning a history assignment that asks students to recount historical arguments in favor of slavery, in some sense ascribing justifications to its practice. I remember hearing about a similar assignment in my own freshman year.

On its face, and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, this assignment certainly feels out of place. It seems easy to discount as racially motivated and antithetical to the values of our university. 

However, I argue that such an assignment is not in contradiction with what the Core curriculum seeks to develop and is pedagogically useful in the same way. 

First, it is important to note that this is a sensitive issue for our nation and many members of our community. In no way am I trying to discount the equal dignity of every human being or the tragedy of actions that disregard this value. 

Yet we must not limit ourselves to a surface-level discussion of issues of racial justice. For if we truly wish to combat corrosive ideology, we must be ready “to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).  

The Core aims to develop a free thinker dedicated to a life of truth and justice. So we spend four years studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, right? While that could be a laudable undertaking, classical education rightly recognizes the transcendental nature of truth, beauty and goodness, to be found in texts as diverse as Dante’s “Paradiso” and Aristophanes’ “Frogs.” 

For example, why read Nietzsche if he claims, “God is dead,”  and if  his irrefutable system of radical skepticism so shakes our bones? The answer lies precisely in this: we must first intimately understand what Nietzsche is after in order to make sense of our certainty and preconceived belief. The repulsive nature of the world he constructs more fully confirms and clarifies my own ideas. 

But I hardly claim to have conquered the skeptics. The cohesive nature of the ideas of a thinker like Nietzsche challenge my views and show the difficulty of truth.

Good and evil are not black and white. Human reason is characterized by the gray area. A realistic level of intellectual humility requires that we admit how far we often are from arriving at the truth of things. The truth is subtle. 

An assignment asking us to understand and replicate the justifications used in the antebellum south to defend slavery ought to rattle us. The introduction of such a paper presupposes formed consciences that reject slavery’s perversion. So why ought it exist if we know it is full of fallacy? 

The same quality of intellectual humility mentioned above must give us pause. Ultimately, the assignment is aimed at showing the real conflict between truth and supposed truth. We all assume we would have been active abolitionists. Yet, to claim that half of our country was composed of evil human beings is far too simple; evil is a master of masquerade. 

Christ tells us, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

To unmask evil and promote justice, we must be as wise as those who do evil. Particularly, we must be closely acquainted with their methods and rhetoric. We must practice articulating our ideas and those that conflict with them. 

If we lose this ability, we will be screaming into our own polarized echo chamber. Assignments like the one in question teach us to examine the subtleties of the opposing side, not to encourage conversion but to build our intellectual ammunition. 

UD promotes radical ideas that clash with  those of the world. The Core curriculum’s ability to develop students who can analyze multifaceted, complicated issues is rare. Let’s keep supporting the professors who rigorously challenge us to do so. 

Truth can only be promoted through discourse. The only way to keep discourse alive is through direct engagement with the wolves. Following in the footsteps of our Shepherd, let’s resolve to unflinchingly pursue wisdom and gentleness.



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