by David Safier
John Huppenthal spoke yesterday about his visit to an Ethnic Studies classroom:
"My, firsthand, classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicized and historically inaccurate view of American History being taught."
Huppenthal, of course is a scholar of American history and therefore qualified to decide what is politicized and historically inaccurate.
Or maybe not.
In an August forum for Ed Supe candidates, Huppenthal raised the same point. He said Ethnic Studies students miss an opportunity to learn our common history, like the truth about our Founding Fathers. Then he told this mythological version of the story of Ben Franklin and slavery:
"Ben Franklin . . . was the president of the Abolitionist Society in Pennsylvania, he led the fight against the slave trade, successfully stopping the slave trade. He freed all of his own slaves, and not only freed them but gave them positions of responsibility so that they could grow into leaders."
This is a historically incorrect and highly politicized version of Franklin's relationship to slavery on a few important counts.
- Franklin did not successfully stop the slave trade. As president of the Abolitionist Society, he proposed getting rid of it.
- Franklin did free his slaves, but it was long after he began his fight for abolition.
- Franklin did not give his slaves "positions of responsibility so that they could grown into leaders," so far as I can tell from what I have read. He believed freed slaves should be educated so they could advance in society, but I see no indication that he elevated his own freed slaves to "positions of responsibility."
Franklin, who I am very fond of, was a weak man — like all of us — who allowed the economic advantage of owning slaves to take precedence over his hatred of slavery. That's not a knock of Franklin. It's the truth. And it's the kind of human contradiction which young adults have the right to be aware of and discuss in class. Other reasonable topics of discussion are Washington freeing his slaves in his will, after he died and could no longer personally benefit from their services, and Jefferson having a child with a slave who he kept a slave, nor did he openly acknowledge his parenthood.
Hagiograpy is not history. Huppenthal wants to perpetuate the Great American Mythology while condemning a program that wants to expose it — and maybe tell a few myths of its own.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I'm no more a scholar of American history than Huppenthal, but I believe I have my facts straight. However, if I'm wrong on any counts, feel free to correct me. I would appreciate it.