“Worse Than Slavery,” A Bit Too Violent for Georgia Schools

Is the political cartoon presented below, too violent for 8th grade social studies classes? Parents at a local middle school located in Johns Creek, GA certainly think so.

Thomas Nast. “The Union as it was / The Lost Cause, worse than slavery.” Harper’s Weekly, v. 18, no. 930 (24 Oct 1874), p. 878. The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-128619.

Last week, Fox 5 (Atlanta) reported that an 8th grade social studies assignment had stirred up anger across racial lines. Although I am unfamiliar with the specifics of the homework assignment given by River Trail Middle School, I do know that it included the above political cartoon by Thomas Nast. It appears many parents consider the cartoon to be “…a little too graphic.”  I think the issue parents seem to have is the gratuitous amount of violence Nast used in the cartoon. However, I am fairly certain that Nast intended to use violence as a medium for his message. Violence eloquently made Nast’s statement about the lives of African-Americans during Reconstruction. In short, he seemed to think the political atmosphere, brought on by racially charged groups, created an environment “worse than slavery.” Parents in Johns Creek however, would prefer that historical reality be taught in a less violently charged manner.

Many of the parents question the age appropriateness of the cartoon. I’ll admit that I use this same cartoon in my U.S. History class which deals with Reconstruction. However, my class is an 11th grade class made up of mostly sixteen and seventeen year olds, not thirteen and fourteen year olds. Fulton County Schools (FCS) insisted that the cartoon is a part of a state approved curriculum for 8th grade. Since that statement, FCS apologized to parents in the country for not providing ample context or cultural sensitivity when creating the assignment. Although I can understand what a lack of context might lead to in such a situation, I am curious as to what FCS meant by referencing “cultural sensitivity.” Perhaps they were covering all bases in their press release.


  1. Sometimes I despair for K-12 education in history, where (it seems) it’s impossible to deal with the past in any realistic, direct way, for fear of pissing off some or another parent.

  2. The sooner kids learn that the Lost Cause is a lie the better off they will be. I am willing to be that when you dig into the real reasons for the parental complaints you will find parents that believe in the Lost Cause. You will probably find a few more issues like racism are involved as well.

    Some people really want to whitewash the past to cover up the bad things that went on. When they do that they just keep creating the same conditions that led to the problems in the first place.

  3. 8th graders utterly lack compassion and empathy…they’re only interested in getting what they want when they want it, and that usually consists of taunting the clueless, putting one over on teachers and other adults, and catching their first glimpse of dirty pictures.

    They need to see stuff like this, if only to get jerked out of their sneering smugness and attitude that they somehow chose to be 8th graders, are by definition cool and trendy, and therefore know everything, as opposed to old, stupid, and uncool adults.

    On the other hand, they might look at a cartoon like this and merely snicker the modern equivalent of “Oh, snap,” which is translated to “tough beans.”

    • That’s true in a lot of grade levels. My students snicker at things all the time that demonstrate a lack of empathy. Even things as recent as certain 9/11 clips. However, I can’t blame them. All these kids have ever known is violence. We’ve been at war as a country since 2001. They see it on the news, it’s translated into movies and music; what can we really expect as a society?

      • Yes, but I remember it vividly back as a middle-schooler in the mid-1970s, when there was no 9/11, but just as much violence in news, movies, and music.

        As I remind people who wax nostalgic about the “good old days,” back then we had (where I grew up) the Son of Sam, the big blackout, “The Bronx is Burning,” big hair and polyester suits, Saturday Night Fever and Sunday morning social diseases, and Dirty Harry.

        Kids were just as massive jerks then as they are now. They know that the best way to victimize a kid is to provoke him into throwing that magical “first punch,” then beating him senseless in the schoolyard — knowing that the teachers will punish the victim for throwing that “first punch.” They know that if enough of them cheat on tests, nobody can really get punished. They know that they have to absolutely conform to the values and standards set by some singer/actor who dresses like a thug, preaches nihilism, commits misdemeanors and felonies, and in general is mostly the point end of a gigantic marketing operation of the corporation that funds their tour/movie. 40 years ago, it was Donna Summer moaning for 20 minutes about orgasms, 30 years ago it was Madonna, now it’s Rihanna.

        The only difference: they are learning how to court women from downloading hardcore pornography on websites instead of useless advice from parents and buddies.

        I expect that back in ancient Rome, the “popular” kids in the XLVIII Street School probably victimized the kid who would rather read Cicero than go to the gladiator fights, and snickered when the teacher talked about the ethics of Socrates.

          • Everybody over the age of 50 thinks the youth of that time is no good…remember, in our day, we had respect. We obeyed orders. We didn’t even think about sex. We slept with our hands above the blankets, pointed…up. When we danced, we left space for our “guardian angel.” We did our homework perfectly, and starred on all the teams and clubs. In fact, we would have all been baseball/football/basketball stars, except for that trick knee/bad luck/lousy flukes.

            When a teacher came into the classroom, we stood up. When the assistant principal came into the room, we saluted. When we had to fight a war in 1965, we all enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. We saw all the action… and then we got into combat (nudge to the ribs).

            The joke’s on us, though…all kids turn out like their parents.

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