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Stanford course helps educators develop tools to teach students about the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S. and in the world

Slavery memorial in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Slavery memorial in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

In recent months, people across the United States protesting against racial injustice have advocated for the removal of statues, monuments, and street signs honoring former slave traders, Confederate leaders, and other historical figures. While Americans are confronting a traumatic chapter in human history that was written hundreds of years ago, practices akin to slavery continue to persist today in the form of human trafficking and forced labor in countries around the globe.

How can educators teach students about the institution of slavery as it relates to both U.S. and world history? This was the focus of a recent professional learning course, Slavery in Historical and Contemporary Contexts, designed for teachers from middle schools, high schools, and community colleges. Led by Stanford Global Studies and the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) in the Graduate School of Education, the two-day virtual course offered participants the opportunity to examine the challenges of defining slavery, and its social, moral, and political reconceptualization over time.

Speakers traced histories of slavery in a global context, from the transatlantic slave trade leading up to contemporary human trafficking. “The shift to an online format due to COVID-19 enabled us to look beyond the Bay Area, and we were able to bring in experts as far as the University of Nottingham and Harvard University,” said Steve Hoeschele, program coordinator for the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, who designed the course together with Nicole Lusiani Elliott, assistant director of CSET.

Following each lecture, teachers participated in pedagogy sessions, where they talked about ways to bring what they learned into the classroom to facilitate meaningful discussions around slavery.

“We were very mindful of making sure the U.S. was a part of the global look at enslavement as well as the consequences of enslavement that remain unremedied today. This came through not only in some of the speakers’ talks but also in the pedagogy,” said Elliott.

Teaching a difficult history

Indeed, as the United States reckons with the enduring legacy of slavery—an institution that shaped the country’s creation and eventually led to civil war—educators are wrestling with how to teach students about this critical topic with both honesty and sensitivity.

“Our job is to support students’ evolution as critical thinkers who base their assertions in evidence so they can engage in civil discourse; this is all the more important in the context of this particular topic in this particular time,” said Elliott. “Shying away from potential controversy does nothing but create a vacuum for our students to fill with whatever information they find in whatever form they find it, and the stakes are too high for that right now.”

During the course, teachers explored how to honor the opinions of all students in the classroom while also establishing that some issues are not up for debate. “Slavery was wrong, that is not debatable. The nuances under that large umbrella, however, are very rich opportunities for discussion given the right structure and support. The question is how to facilitate that discussion skillfully, leaving room for the nuance, the feelings, and the controversy while also protecting some fundamental truths,” she added.

In one of the sessions led by Vielka Hoy, a professional development associate at CSET, educators discussed reframing the teaching of U.S. history by placing Black voices and experiences at the center of the narrative. Teachers also explored ways to educate students about issues facing America today, such as cultural appropriation and systemic racism, as well as the complex relationship between slavery, capitalism, and white supremacy. In another session, they learned how to infuse oral histories into their classrooms to empower students to participate in the preservation of history.

A global phenomenon

The course also underscored the global nature of the slave trade, which involved many countries outside of the United States and which continues to exist today. Teachers learned about how slavery has connected societies and continents through trade networks and cultural exchange, not only in the colonial era but throughout world history. 

Adam Hochschild, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, talked about the involvement of various European powers in the transatlantic slave trade and the birth of the anti-slavery movement in Britain in the 1700s. He also highlighted how slaves resisted oppression, sharing that there were hundreds of documented revolts. Following his talk, teachers discussed the ways in which slaves exercised individual agency—through rebellions, escapes, day-to-day acts of defiance, and holding onto African cultural traditions—and the importance of acknowledging this when teaching students about slavery.

The teachers also learned that, while the British navy stopped the transatlantic slave trade hundreds of years ago, modern-day slavery continues to impact millions of people, both in the U.S. and around the globe.

“The key difference between historical and contemporary slavery is, of course, that it is no longer legal. The price of slaves has also dropped precipitously as the world population exploded over the past century, so slaveholders can turn a tremendous profit,” explained Hoeschele. “As such, slaveholders’ chief cost is no longer paying for and maintaining the slaves themselves, but rather the cost of serving jailtime. This has transformed enslavement into a short-term venture, whereby perpetrators maximize their profits from the victims as quickly as possible.”

Contemporary forms of slavery include forced labor, human trafficking, debt bondage, and contract slavery. And many global companies have forms of slavery embedded in their supply chains, pointed out Siddhartha Kara, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Kara estimates that there are somewhere between 30 to 40 million slaves in the world today who are generating between $124 and $150 billion per year for their exploiters.

“As much as things have changed, they have also stayed the same,” Kara emphasized. “People today can be easily moved within a country or across a border. However it happens, it is cheap and quick—that is the difference between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ slavery.”

At the conclusion of the course, the teachers learned about community-based strategies to engage students in combatting human trafficking, such as training them to spot warning signs of abuse and exploitation. They also learned several myths about trafficking, such as the notion that it does not exist within the United States. “People often hear about this subject through a global lens, and it’s often a shocking thing to hear that it’s happening right here,” said Betty Ann Hagenau, a Stanford alum and the founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, who led the discussion.

Teachers enrolled in the course are eager to incorporate the information they learned into their lesson plans to create opportunities for students to grapple with historical issues that are timely and relevant to their communities. One of the teachers remarked, “The presenters were the best yet—all went over either content, methodology, or both that would be useful for immediate application in the classroom.”


This course is one of several professional learning opportunities for teachers offered through CSET and Stanford Global Studies. One upcoming course on History of the Americas: Latin America and the Cold War will be offered virtually from July 27-30.