I just experienced one of those great, spontaneous teaching moments in class where a student asks a fantastic question that allows you to naturally move to a deeper level of critical analysis. For the past few days, in my intro to American religion, we’ve been talking about the religious dimension to the slavery debate and the Civil War. My driving objective has been to help students see the logic that structured positions on each side. Today a student asked: So if this was a matter of different religious beliefs, why did people in the South embrace pro-slavery interpretations of Christianity and people in the North embrace anti-slavery ones? Why weren’t the pro- and anti-slavery folks distributed more evenly across the country?
My response, of course, was to talk about the socioeconomic situation–the base, as Marxists would say: the fact that the Southern plantation system was built on slave labor whereas in the North the Industrial Revolution was underway, and there were plenty of immigrants to provide a non-slave workforce to sustain that economy. I loved how the cultural theory rose spontaneously out of the discussion as a solution to a student-identified problem. Had I instead given the class some Marx to read and formally lectured on base and superstructure, I’m sure I would have had a harder time helping them grasp the concept and its relevance.
Looking back, I’m already sensing an irony in the situation, though: I have a hunch that the discussion served to ease student anxiety about the logical coherence of the pro-slavery argument. Students can now dismiss the biblically based arguments for slavery as Southern slaveowners just rationalizing a system to which they were “really” committed for crass economic reasons. If that’s what’s going on in some of the students’ minds, then they’re latching onto a Marxist notion of the epiphenomenal nature of the superstructure in order to preserve the authority of the Bible. That’s . . . an interesting move. I’m not inclined to intervene–this is their issue to grapple with–but it’s intriguing to observe.