Is There a Problem With the Way We Teach Slavery?

The Southern Poverty Law Center is out with a study on how schools in the US teach slavery. They tell us:

We surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzed a selection of state content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. We found:

  • High school seniors struggle on even the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans.
  • Teachers who are serious about teaching slavery struggle to provide deep coverage of the subject in the classroom.
  • Popular textbooks fail to comprehensively cover slavery and enslaved peoples.
  • State content standards are timid and fail to set appropriately high expectations. 

The site tells us, “Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.” In a powerful statement, we read, “We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, ‘All men are created equal.’ But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, ‘Me too.’ ”

That love of nostalgia is only part of the problem, according to the report. “But our antipathy for hard history is only partly responsible for this sentimental longing for a fictitious past. It is also propelled by political considerations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white Southerners looking to bolster white supremacy and justify Jim Crow reimagined the Confederacy as a defender of democracy and protector of white womanhood. To perpetuate this falsehood, they littered the country with monuments to the Lost Cause.” The report tells us this has far-reaching consequences, touching us to this day. “Our discomfort with hard history and our fondness for historical fiction also lead us to make bad public policy. We choose to ignore the fact that when slavery ended, white Southerners carried the mindsets of enslavers with them into the post-emancipation period, creating new exploitative labor arrangements such as sharecropping, new disenfranchisement mechanisms including literacy tests and new discriminatory social systems, namely Jim Crow. It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate these legal barriers to equality, but that has not been enough to erase race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education and employment to wealth and well-being. Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity. Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems.”

The report comes up with these data:

High school seniors struggle on even the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans.

  • Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • Two-thirds (68 percent) don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 students (22 percent) can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.

Teachers are serious about teaching slavery, but there’s a lack of deep coverage of the subject in the classroom.

  • Although teachers overwhelmingly (over 90 percent) claim they feel “comfortable” discussing slavery in their classrooms, their responses to open-ended questions reveal profound unease around the topic.
  • Fifty-eight percent of teachers find their textbooks inadequate.

Popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery and enslaved peoples.

  • The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against our rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

States fail to set appropriately high expectations with their content standards. In a word, the standards are timid.

  • Of the 15 sets of state standards we analyzed, none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery; most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.
  • Forty percent of teachers believe their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.

They found these problems:

1. We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s overemphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.

2. We tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved. Our vision of growing ever “more perfect” stands in the way of our need to face the continuing legacy of the past.

3. We teach about the American enslavement of Africans as an exclusively southern institution. While it is true that slavery reached its apex in the South during the years before the Civil War, it is also true that slavery existed in all colonies, and in all states when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and that it continued to be interwoven with the economic fate of the nation long into the 19th century.

4. We rarely connect slavery to the ideology that grew up to sustain and protect it: white supremacy. Slavery required white supremacy to persist. In fact, the American ideology of white supremacy, along with accompanying racist dogma, developed precisely to justify the perpetuation of slavery.

5. We often rely on pedagogy poorly suited to the topic. When we asked teachers to tell us about their favorite lesson when teaching about slavery, dozens proudly reported classroom simulations. Simulation of traumatic experiences is not shown to be effective as a learning strategy and can harm vulnerable children.

6. We rarely make connections to the present. How can students develop a meaningful understanding of the rest of American history if they do not understand the scope and lasting impact of enslavement? Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement do not make sense when so divorced from the arc of American history.

7. We tend to center on the white experience when we teach about slavery. Too often, the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected while educators focus on the broader political and economic impacts of slavery. Politically and socially, we focus on what white people were doing in the time leading up to the Civil War.

To help solve these problems, they make these four recommendations:

Improve Instruction About American Slavery and Fully Integrate It Into U.S. History. With the release of this report, Teaching Tolerance is making available the framework, a text library of primary sources, and other curricular materials, including 10 Key Concepts that provide teachers a guide toward better instruction.

Use Original Historical Documents. Textbook authors and curriculum developers should expand their repertoire of historical documents beyond the usual narratives to do a better job of representing the diverse voices and experiences of enslaved persons. This will help teachers struggling to navigate the vast array of online resources and archives to put usable documents into classrooms with accompanying instructional material.

Make Textbooks Better. There is considerable work to be done to improve the stories that textbooks tell about the history of American slavery. Texts should do more to convey the realities of slavery throughout the colonies. They should also make intentional connections—good and bad—to the present, by showing both the lasting contributions of African cultures and ideas, as well as the enduring impact of racial oppression on contemporary American life.

Strengthen Curriculum. States, through their standards, supporting frameworks and curriculum requirements, signal to districts, schools and teachers about important material and how to address it. They are failing at conveying the need to teach about the history of slavery. States—and, in local control jurisdictions, districts—should scaffold this learning early and often, refusing to shy away from difficult topics and conversations.

They summarize their findings, based on surveys of teachers and students and reviewing samples of textbooks and state standards, on how our schools teach slavery with this table:

Here’s how the high school students did:

Here are the results of the teacher survey:

Included in the teacher survey was a measurement of their comfort and support received in teaching about slavery:

This table summarizes the results of their textbook sampling:

They provide a framework and resources for teaching about slavery here.

This article highlights the well publicized problems teachers have gotten into in their quest to make the slavery experience more real to their students. “A class of middle-schoolers in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked to cite ‘four reasons why Africans made good slaves.’ Nine third-grade teachers in suburban Atlanta assigned math word problems about slavery and beatings. A high school in the Los Angeles-area reenacted a slave ship—with students’ lying on the dark classroom floor, wrists taped, as staff play the role of slave ship captains. And for a lesson on Colonial America, fifth-graders at a school in northern New Jersey had to create posters advertising slave auctions. School assignments on slavery routinely draw national headlines and scorn. Yet beyond the outraged parents and school-district apologies lies a complex and entrenched set of education challenges.”

The article goes into further detail on the report: “Taken together, the study exposes a number of unsettling facts about slavery education in U.S. classrooms: Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing ‘feel good’ stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation; and slavery is seldom connected to the present, drawing the arc from enslavement to Jim Crow, the civil-rights movement, and the persistence of structural racism.” The article also contains the results of an interview with one of the advisory board members for the Teaching Tolerance project. “LaGarrett King, an assistant professor of social-studies education at the University of Missouri, served on the Teaching Tolerance advisory board that developed a framework for teaching American slavery—basically, the concepts that every graduating high-school senior should know—as part of the report’s recommendations. As a teacher educator, he said the study fills a significant void. Students training to be teachers, especially those being educated to teach in elementary schools, know little about the history of slavery, he stated, noting that ‘much curriculum and teaching around racially and ethnically diverse [people] features a fun—foods and festival—approach to learning.’ By contrast, King said, the framework provides a guide to delve into topics such as slavery and black history with a thorough and academically sound approach, versus teaching slavery in reductive and superficial ways. ‘Can you teach slavery without it being psychologically violent to the children? The answer is no, violence will occur and is expected,’ he said. ‘The key is the recognition of white supremacy and [of] the humanity of black people that helps aid in the complexity of the subject.’ ”

The fact that only 8 percent of high school seniors could correctly identify slavery as the root cause of the Civil War is troubling. In fact, as this column argues, it’s dangerous to our moral compass as well as our policy decisions. “With a president who counts white supremacists among his most loyal supporters in and outside of the White House, we are a nation deeply divided. This is an administration where Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson last year referred to slaves as ‘immigrants,’ and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called historically black colleges and universities ‘pioneers‘ of school choice, ignoring the fact that such institutions were only created because white schools barred entry to black students. The “choice” was to attend a black school, or none at all. Such responses deliberately spin benevolent fictions around the searing realities of slavery and persistent American racism. That means there’s little motivation to correct the deficiencies in an American educational system where 58 percent of teachers are dissatisfied with their textbooks, and 39 percent say their state offers little support for teaching about slavery.” The column’s author says, “Those who don’t understand the causes of the Civil War can overlook why statues honoring treasonous men must be removed. Those who refuse to acknowledge the wounds of slavery cannot comprehend why it is still necessary to proclaim that black lives matter in a society where blackness is criminalized. The real lost cause is owning an accurate accounting of the original sin that pollutes this nation’s soul.”

Important to me is the report does not bash hard-working teachers who are trying to bring their subject alive to their students, even if in some cases those teachers may have made some less than stellar choices in how to do that. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t completely think through what they were doing. They need to have support. They need materials, including primary sources, and they need their states to step up and provide better standards. Even with that, they will still face resistance from many students, as the report demonstrates.

What is your impression regarding how well US schools teach slavery?


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