Last week, I had the pleasure to serve as a chaperone for my 5th grade daughter’s class field trip. At our school, 5th graders study early American history. As a capstone experience, they take a weeklong trip to Virginia where they visit Jamestown, Williamsburg, Monticello, and Yorktown. It is an incredible opportunity for the students to see history and walk in the shoes of the people they’ve been studying.
Now, a week with ten and eleven year olds may not sound like much fun, and there were times when it was challenging. But, overall, the trip was incredible and our students had an amazing experience. I was along on the trip to serve as the official blogger/photographer, so it was my task each evening to spend some time recapping the day’s events so that parents who were back home could participate along with their 5th grader.
I think one of the most meaningful days for me was our trip to Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville. Monticello is a place of great beauty, creativity, ingenuity, and contradiction. The students discussed how a man who penned the words “all men are created equal” could own over one hundred slaves. A man who believed that educated men were capable of self government, yet prevented his own enslaved persons from that same self government. We stood in a slave cabin and gazed at the mansion Jefferson built for himself. The disparity was immense.
Our students saw firsthand that while great men can create beautiful places and craft life changing documents and found incredible systems of government, they are also capable of great blindness, wickedness, and sin. Our guide asked us to ponder the question of whether the issue of slavery negates the goodness of Jefferson’s many other contributions. That is not a question with easy answers.
The students were fascinated with all of Jefferson’s many scientific experiments and our science teacher was certainly grateful to hear our guides remark that science is everywhere. The gardens around Monticello are still being cultivated with descendants of the seeds Jefferson planted or Lewis and Clark brought back from their expedition. The clocks Jefferson designed still toll the correct hour, season, and even day of the week. History is living and our students marveled at the plantation life they experienced today. We saw both the greatness and the baseness of mankind.
I realize that slavery is still an exceedingly controversial topic, but if my 5th grader can wrestle with it, so can we. How we treat our fellow human beings says a lot about who we serve. If I am primarily interested in serving myself, then others are a means to an end. If my needs come first, then others have value only in so far as they can meet my needs or assist in accomplishing my agenda. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he was opposed to slavery, yet he failed to free his own slaves. He realized that he could not maintain his lifestyle without his slaves, and that mattered more to him than his stated ideals. How many times are we just as guilty of saying one thing, but evidencing another by the way we live?
After our trip to Monticello, we were reminded in our evening devotion that there is One who Himself experienced greater heights than Monticello and took on greater baseness than slavery. And we are called to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. We are called to consider others better than ourselves, to be humble, to serve others. Jefferson served his country well. We want to call our students to serve each other well, and in so doing, they, too can change the world. What about you? Who are you serving?