Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Complexity of Character: Teaching de las Casas to Middle Schoolers

One of the more difficult transitions of teaching history to middle schoolers is to leave behind the relatively simplistic, binary understanding of 'heroes.' In their elementary years, students tended to learn about historical actors as one-dimensional figures in a dichotomy of good and bad. One of the difficulties of doing 'real history' is to recognize that these historical actors are often products of their time and are never wholly good or bad.

I have found that one of the best ways to teach this complexity is with the figure of Bartolome de las Casas. The Spanish missionary came to the Americas in order to convert American Indians into Christians and save their souls. After arriving, however, and witnessing how they dying in droves from overwork, disease, and mistreatment, he wrote the Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies and advocated to the Spanish government to reform these practices.

As a result, many lessons and textbooks would like to place him firmly in the 'hero' category for being ahead of his time and advocating for the end of slavery. His place in history, however, is a bit more complex. In part, his advocacy for the Native American people was largely based in his perception of them as "lambs" and "innocents," a degrading if sympathetic image. He also is widely known to have encouraged the importation of African slaves from Seville to relieve the Amerindians of their labor, though it is likely he had a very different notion of slavery from what it would become in the Americas.*

So how do we explore this complexity of character with middle schoolers?

The Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is a dense read and is written in language that can be cumbersome for many readers. With this in mind, I carefully selected a few excerpts from the text and put them into a worksheet with a right-hand column for glossing notes. In order to think critically about the primary source and reflect on de las Casas himself, I had the students complete a graphic organizer with a partner featuring some critical thinking questions to guide them.

The culminating assignment was a poster featuring the scales of justice and a two-column graphic organizer. Students reflected on the positive aspects of las Casas' legacy, as well as the negative legacy. The also leads students to begin considering what it means for a historical figure to be "of his or her time" and how historiography changes from one generation to the next.

*For further reading on Bartolome de las Casas, his shifting advocacy, and his perceptions of slavery, check out:

Clayton, Lawrence A. (2011). Bartolome de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Zinn, H. (2003). A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present. New York, NY: HarperCollins.