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  • Writer's pictureMichael DeNobile

Interesting Cases & Ideas in Education History by Michael DeNobile

A look at Margaret Douglass, the Iroquois Confederation, War in textbooks after the Vietnam War, and the role of Choice in Kierkegaard.

1. Anti-Literacy Laws and the Margaret Douglass case

During the Colonial and Early Republic eras, there were few, if any, limitations on teaching slaves or freedmen. Teaching literacy was common among religious communities, like the Quakers and the Sunday school movement, and often to Blacks and Whites in separate classes. Things changed after the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion "for fear that literate Blacks might embolden slaves to rebel" (Smith, 2020, p. 120). Virginia passed anti-literacy laws in 1849 prohibiting whites to instruct reading and writing to blacks, or "he shall be confined in jail not exceeding six months, and fined not exceeding one hundred dollars" (p. 120).

Although written, it was widely known that churches continued to educate slaves and freedmen, but there is no historical evidence that the law was ever prosecuted, except for the case of Margaret Douglass (Smith, 2020). The irony in the Douglass case is that because she thought the anti-literacy law only applied to slaves and not freedmen, she immediately closed her school when law enforcement came to shut down the school eleven months after it was established in order to comply with the law (Smith, 2020). During the show trial, Douglass represented herself, but it was clear that she was teaching freedmen as a mutually beneficial relationship, not out of a sense of social justice to educate freedmen for their own benefit (Smith, 2020). Therefore, the only known prosecution of the 1849 anti-literacy law had little to do with stomping out a revolution of social activists starting up black schools but of a proud Southern woman who merely opened a school for her and her daughter to make money. For Douglass, it seemed more about socioeconomic status than of race in terms of her motivation to teach, for in her memoir she said after moving to Philadelphia that she was happy that there in Pennsylvania, there was "no crime to teach a poor child, of any color, to read the Word of God" (Smith, 2020, p. 122).

2. The Iroquois Confederation's Response to Scholarship Offers to the College of William & Mary

In the speech recorded by Benjamin Franklin of the official response of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederation regarding the offer of scholarships to the College of William and Mary, the overall idea was "thanks, but no thanks." The speech starts off by saying that while the Iroquois feel that the offer is with good intention, but that the colonialists must understand that education only makes sense within the context of its intention to support the goals of one's nation. "[D]ifferent Nations have different Conceptions of things;" noted the Iroquois, "and . . . our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours" (Smith, 2020, p. 139).

They went on to note their dissatisfaction with the colleges in the Northern Provinces: "Several of our Young People . . . were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing" (Smith, 2020, p. 139-140). The purpose of education for the Iroquois is survival in the wilderness, and therefore traditional literacy and sciences holds no value to their everyday existence. This is very similar to something that Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson in A Study in Scarlett: when Watson is surprised that Holmes does not know whether or not the solar system is heliocentric or ethnocentric, Holmes replies by saying of what use would it be for him to fill his head with facts that will not help fulfill his purpose of solving mysteries? (Doyle, 2020). For the Iroquois, what good is the sciences of the colonists if such disciplines will not help them survive in the wild?

Finally, in almost tongue-in-cheek mockery, the Iroquois finish their response by offering "the Gentlemen of Virginia" to send "a dozen of their Sons" to the Six Nations, where they "will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all [they] know, and make Men of them" (Smith, 2020, p. 140). To be a man, for the Iroquois, is to be fit to be "Hunters, Warriors, and Counsellors"; therefore, since the young Iroquois attended the colonialist colleges and came back unfit to be men, the Iroquois, in their gratitude for the offer of scholarships while still denying it, offered to make the young men of Virginia fit to be men within the context of the Six Nations. Ironically, if the Gentlemen of Virginia were to have taken up the offer of the Iroquois, it would seem that only if the young men of Virginia saw the value of being Hunters, Warriors and Counsellors in colonial society would that offer be successful. In the end, "The spokesmen for the Iroquois Confederacy had clearly differentiated between the two distinct philosophies of education" (Smith, 2020, p. 140)--that is, education only fulfills the purpose set forth by the society at large as to what the outcomes of said education must fulfill.

3. The Vietnam War and Discussing War in Textbooks

Nationalism wanes and waxes throughout history, especially during and immediately after wars that are by and large supported by the citizenry. According to a 2004 Gallup poll (Newport, 2004), 9 out of 10 Americans saw WWII as a just war fifty years later. One could extrapolate that feelings were equal or higher during World War II itself, which may account for the "uncritical nationalism" (Smith, 2020, p. 159) demanded in textbooks and curriculum of the time, so much so that the US Office of Censorship from 1941 to 1945 encouraged "self-censor[ship]" of "textbooks that would undermine the war effort" (p. 159). and even local municipalities like St. Cloud, Minnesota that even "banned material that 'advocate[d] un-American or subversive activities'" (p. 159).

Due to the Cold War with the USSR immediately after the war, the seeming need for continued nationalism in textbooks and curriculum continued, where WWII coverage "focused almost exclusively on the causes, events, and political results of battles with hardly any mention of opposition to the war" (Smith, 2020, p. 159). To avoid war glorification, however, focus shifted toward soldier experiences and war atrocities, especially after the Vietnam War and the 1960s antiwar movement (p. 159). This shift could be explained by the support of the Vietnam War: Gallup polls showed that while 64% of Americans supported the war in 1965, by 1969, 52% of Americans did not support entering the war while only 39% did support it, and by September 1970, 55% of Americans supporting bringing all troops home by 1971 (NYT Opinion, 1988). To eliminate "unquestioned patriotism," textbooks continued to highlight "the harsh realities of all previous wars" (Smith, 2020, p. 159). Nonetheless, curriculum theorists continue to criticize that textbooks continue to "include few open criticisms" of US actions in WWII and that Americans are still portrayed as "victims" instead as "perpetrators" (p. 159).

4. The Role of Choice in Kierkegaardian Existentialism

For Søren Kierkegaard, choice was the supreme act of being human, especially when that choice led to a leap of faith in following God; he called this being authentically human (Smith, 2020). In his time, birth as a Danish citizen automatically made you a Christian; for Kierkegaard, this lack of responsibility in choosing to be Christian led many to believe they were Christian without living out the faith authentically (Smith, 2020). He emphasized the need for "individuals [to] enter into relationship with God by choosing to convert and to live as a disciple of Christ, though it may be at a great personal cost" (Smith, 2020, p. 180).

Despair and doubt therefore become usual, positive aspects in the learning process (Smith, 2020). "The leap of faith," noted Smith (2020), " is a movement by choice from despair to authentic self" (p. 180). This is reflected in Kierkegaard's writings, where he used pseudonym narrators (who may or may not have represented his personal beliefs) that were led through a journey of despair and doubt toward a leap of faith by choice (Smith, 2020), allowing the reader to also come to their own conclusions and choices.

His notion of objective and subjective knowledge also revolves around choice. Objective knowledge deals with facts that we must accept at a certain level of approximation (i.e. scientific facts, Smith, 2020). For example, Kierkegaard used the example of the star to demonstrate this: we can learn about the scientific, objective nature of stars, their origins, etc. Only when the student sees the star, experiences it, and subjectively understands (by choice) that the student and the star are changing, only then can true learning begin.


Doyle, A. C. (2020). A study in scarlet. East India Publishing Company.

New York Times Opinion. (1988). Polls tell us no more than where we are; Vietnam War opinion. New York Times. (Links to an external site.)

Newport, F. (2004). Almost all Americans consider World War II a “just” war. Gallup. (Links to an external site.)

Smith, S. J. (2020). Windows into the history and philosophy of education. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

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