Aging former president John Quincy Adams steps to the podium. He is troubled. It is 1845, and a man named Frederick Douglass has just released an autobiography.
Several in the room attack the memoir. Its elegant style, clarity and powerful arguments could not have been written by Douglass, a former slave, they insist. The conversation is thick with presumption, racist attitudes and, thankfully, insightful affirmations of Douglass and his work.
Adams has resisted slavery for some time and even defended the Amistad captives before the U.S. Supreme Court. How long? How long will it take for all Americans to be free? Douglass is there, too, enduring the arrogant insults of those who hold his intellect in contempt. It is a tense meeting, and there is a lot to sort out.
This tense meeting is not really a gathering in 1845, but a dramatic portrayal undertaken by Adrian College’s first-year students in 2015. Adrian College is a United Methodist-related school.
“The Frederick Douglass Game,” uses the teaching method termed “Reacting to the Past.” The drama was written by historians Mark Higbee, a professor at Eastern Michigan University; James Stewart, a professor emeritus at Macalester College; and Deborah Field, a professor at Adrian College. The “game” is designed to confront college students with our nation’s history around race, gender, class, and other issues.
Some unsavory characters take part in this debate, figures from history who did not believe in equality.
“The game is definitely challenging when it comes to remembering that these aren’t really our own opinions and that we really aren’t getting upset or angry at each other. These opinions are from people in history, and we are trying to portray them accurately,” said Ashley Bruce, a first-year student who played John Quincy Adams.
The students note that the person who would become Adrian College’s first president is also in the room. Asa Mahan is a fierce advocate for love and justice, and he intends to speak his mind.
The “Frederick Douglass Game” is just one component of a first-year experience course taught by Adrian College faculty. Many colleges and universities have such first-year experience courses that help students transition from high school to college life.
Adrian College does that, too. The course is called “Core,” and much of the curriculum covers the practices of close reading, writing, speaking and research.
But Adrian, started by anti-slavery advocates in 1859, has a twist.
Most of the college’s founders were veteran abolitionists and activists on the Underground Railroad. They came from places like Syracuse, New York, and Oberlin, Ohio. President Mahan was widely published in philosophy and ethics. He was known for his writing on Christian perfection or holiness.
The Adrian College program draws upon this unique heritage when helping students learn today. Part of the curriculum includes reading David Batstone’s book, “Not for Sale,” an exposé of human trafficking — otherwise known as modern-day slavery. Then, of course, there is the Douglass game.
Melissa Stewart, Adrian College professor of religion, said: “The first-year experience courses give students a chance to find their voice. Adrian College is uniquely poised, given its abolitionist history, to help students connect their young passions, school pride and academic studies so that they can envision themselves as future citizens concerned for greater justice.”
Recently, the National Association of Schools and Colleges of The United Methodist Church challenged member institutions to develop programs on behalf of social justice and human dignity. Core is one way we at Adrian are already doing that. Our students learn to step back in time and grapple with difficult issues. They learn to speak up for the intrinsic worth of people. They learn that as many as 27 million people are enslaved today. They consider the similarities and the differences between slavery old and new, and they develop creative and courageous ways to fight injustice.
The core program began one year ago with a pilot course. This year half of the first year class is involved (260 students). Next fall the entire entering class will participate.
History harbors both good and bad. The past is not automatically worse than the present, nor is it a time of pristine example. But it is immensely instructive.
We were abolitionists more than 150 years ago, and we remain abolitionists today. Moreover, this is not simply some initiative on the margins of campus culture, shoved in around the edges of academic life. This is at the center of our pedagogy. Being who we are is hard work, and we take that very seriously.
Momany is the chaplain and a professor of philosophy and religion at Adrian College. He is the author of many articles and the 2011 book, “Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness” (Abingdon).
News media contact: Vicki Brown at [email protected] or 615-742-5400.